Before academic self-promotion, networking and CV building were made de rigueur by western academia for its followers in other parts of the globe, there may have been an era in Indian academic circles where knowledge was not strictly hierarchised as it is now, with technology and science – in this order – on top of a disciplinary ladder, organised in terms of market value.
In this scheme, the humanities and social science disciplines become stragglers, patronised by the privileged scientists and technologists as domains destined for the less competent and intelligent. This is still largely the case, notwithstanding the emergence, in recent years, of liberal arts as an academic USP.
One of the most glaring outcomes of sidelining liberal arts disciplines is the entrenchment of patriarchal values. Technological institutions naturally tend to gravitate towards this state, aided by a severely skewed gender ratio on their campuses.
An India Today article states that “the pathetic gender ratio of the IITs shows where women stand in education in India”, while an insightful piece in Edexlive.Com of The New Indian Express from 2019 reveals that “less than two out of 10 IIT-Madras students are girls”, adding that female students felt “left out” in a “male-dominated culture”.
The Story of an Hour
The ubiquitous prevalence of patriarchy makes it invisible, often making it transparent and impossible to detect. Liberal arts disciplines become useful here by being able to frame misogynistic attitudes.
Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ functioned as one such eye-opener for us in an engineering undergraduate class in the early 2000s. The students were all technologists in the making, and male students greatly outnumbered female students in the class.
Published in 1894, the story recounts the shock of the protagonist, Mrs Mallard, when she learns that her beloved husband had not died in a train accident as she had been informed, but had survived it. The double-shock (the first being the news of his death) proves to be fatal, and she collapses from a heart attack. The story is narrated in a matter-of-fact manner; the tone gives nothing away, and the reader is left to infer the ‘theme’.
In the paragraphs before the conclusion, the narrator describes the protagonist as envisaging a life of her own without her husband, looking forward to being her own person, and not fulfilling a wife’s role. This is not explained away through extramarital relationships or even marital discord but is represented as a woman’s desire for freedom from social confinements and from the demands governing relationships. The ironic thrust of the concluding sentence leaves no room for ambiguity in understanding the story.
When the story was ready for interpretation from the class, a large number of students – mostly male – reacted by unequivocally, even belligerently, asserting that the moral of this story was the ‘punishment’ of the ‘guilty’ wife, by death, for daring to fantasise about a life of her own without her husband.
The irony of the ending, that Mrs Mallard should have died when she was looking forward to living life on her own for many years, had completely escaped them, and they were fiercely unwilling to concede the possibility of any interpretation that differed from theirs.
The hugely outnumbered female students in this undergraduate class did not concur with their male classmates’ reading of the story but were unwilling to say so in public, preferring instead to share their views privately with the instructor. This is an illustration of what The New Indian Express article points out, that female students tend to “adapt” to male-dominated environments.
What then happens to the freedom of expression of a minority group in a hostile environment? It will likely be influenced by their need to survive, and patriarchal bargains thus come into effect.
One way of explaining the insidious prevalence of patriarchy in workplaces, in spite of it being much publicised and denounced, is through the idea of a patriarchal bargain. The term was explained by Turkish author and researcher Deniz Kandiyoti in ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’ [Gender and Society, September 1988] as the strategising by women within “a set of concrete constraints”.
A well-documented phenomenon, this is one of the ways in which women become integral contributors to patriarchy. Co-opting a woman through a post or some similar symbol of power can be an institution’s token gesture towards political correctness, rather than a move prompted by feelings of empathy or justice. The woman, in turn, confers authority and legitimacy to the patriarchal environment.
Mutual consent in furthering patriarchy effectively hides misogynistic intent. This can make it difficult – even impossible – for the casual observer to recognise patriarchal workings, for it is naively assumed that since a woman has been included in the structure, it cannot be hostile to the cause of women.
Patriarchal bargains best serve the interests of workplaces that promote themselves as gender-friendly by being effective smokescreens. The patriarchal weapon of coercion is efficiently replaced by the female workforce’s consent, and this works for both parties, even if it goes against the ideals of gender equality, mutual respect and equality.
The culpability of women would arguably be greater in workplaces where women are driven more by ambition and competitiveness than by the need for survival. From the point of view of the women, the bargain may help them address career concerns, which could be jeopardised if they were to challenge patriarchy. If women are typically required to invest more time in caregiving for family, it may be more practical for them to ignore rather than confront misogyny and prejudice.
How a Fictional Narrative Was Enough to Rattle Men
Liberal arts not only foster critical thinking but also allow for multiple points of view to prevail, encouraging an imagining of “what-if” situations of the sort envisioned in Kate Chopin’s story. Our example of this classroom behaviour functions as an ironic paradox for another reason: while the technologists’ usual position is to trivialise fiction as irrelevant and literary knowledge as “optional” – adapting Nussbaum’s term – a two-page fictional narrative was still enough to unsettle their equilibrium and cause them to revolt against its premise.
But this was not a revolt laced with logical arguments or made in a democratic, open-minded fashion, willing to consider differences. Sadly, it was a protest against a mere imagining of a situation that contradicted their deeply held opinions on the acceptable behaviour of women in social structures.
Rather than a debated choice of one opinion over another, what reared its head in this majority-driven reading was intolerance.
Any oppressive structure comes under fire from a liberal arts-trained thinking, and patriarchy is no exception. An article published last month by Saikat Majumdar asks, rhetorically, whether the honeymoon period of liberal arts in Asia is over. It is indeed the death-knell for the institution of education – which is not merely skills development – if liberal arts were to be left behind in the race for technological progress.
(Sudha Shastri is Professor of English Literature in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. D Parthsarathy a Professor of Sociology, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)