Unpacking the Dystopia in Gender: A Personal Essay in a Patriarchal Society

By Siddhi Joshi

When I make an attempt to trace the very first years of my existence, I see a blurry silhouette of my favourite flowers blooming into a loo-lorn, harsh Dilli summer. I can smell an air of non-belongingness, the kind that comes from living in a rented space: the sharp lines of keeping your first sharpie markers away from the cream of the walls and the borders of not roaming away two rooms and one kitchen too far. I imagine smiles and giggles. I reminisce about the clanking sound made by my father and me as we loudly banged on utensils to demand food – only two decibels louder than the afternoon lunch bell marking recess in schools. A picture of my mom giddily serving us tori bhindi and the like. I proceed to make an ‘ew’ face to honour the dislikes that I’ve been loyal to over the course of the years. 

In her book, Seeing Like A Feminist, Nivedita Menon shares an interesting analogy. She compares the hours spent on the application of nude makeup in order to make one’s face look like it has not been touched at all to the maintenance of a social order. The social order requires one to commit to a lifetime of faithfulness, solidarity and dutiful adherence to such an extent that its complexities, inequalities, ridges and nuances seem natural. Putting on a feminist lens is all about questioning and analysing the mundane, obvious and prescribed. It is about not accepting the social order as natural, a gift of god, a way of life, or a holy anthill of religious rituals. Over the years, I’ve heard innocent proddings about the pink and blue of clothing sections and the line of distinction between different kinds of toys.  I had a light bulb moment, the beginning of systemic questioning – why was my mother, for years on end, serving the food and eating after all of us were done eating? Why was my mom proud about putting her family before herself? These questions were perhaps a result of envisioning myself as a human growing into my mother’s shadows, duties and expectations alike. 

Who plants the mold of patriarchy in the midst of a family whose members love one another, and are tied together with promises of companionship, care and marriage?  Are there inherent inequalities present in the very foundation of a household? The damp, humid and wet conditions for the growth of this ‘mold’ are the result of the several generations before us laying down the ‘nude makeup’ of patriarchy without realising that they were breathing air into a sturdy beast – a beast consuming the potion of immorality.

Karl Marx’s comrade and fellow thinker, Friedrich Engels, wrote in his famous work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that early human societies were egalitarian, in that there existed a simple and functional division of labour – ‘a simple outgrowth of nature’. The women formed the centre of these communistic households and controlled them. This changed when human communities began settling in a single place for a long period of time. Once they discovered agriculture, they no longer had to worry about gathering food on a daily basis, and began producing surplus. The acceleration of production eventually changed the very nature of these communities, and fights among groups over resources became common, leading to the first great division of society into masters (winners) and slaves (losers). 

With the accumulation of wealth, the relationship between men and women underwent a change. As wealth was a direct result of production (a male-dominated activity) the domestic sphere began losing its significance – women became domestic slaves. Private property didn’t just include land, animals and slaves but also women, resulting in “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”. Women began losing their exalted status in society and children began identifying descent and inheritance through the father, giving birth to the rule of the father or the patriarchy. 

While this theorization is too simplistic, it suggests the division of labour between men and women is natural and doesn’t account for culture- and region-specific nuances (there existed cultures wherein women actively participated in hunting, gathering or production activities). It underlines the enslavement of women over the years and attempts to give an account of the origin of a patriarchal society. 

My life can be divided into two unequal parts – the years before having to share everything that belonged to me, and the years of battles against a manipulative devil who loves art. I wish I was being overly dramatic, but yes, I refer to my little sister. What’s peculiar about the period before she was about to emerge from my mother’s womb is my very extensive preoccupation with wanting to have a brother. Praying to various gods to grant my otherwise unfulfilled raksha bandhan wishes and being told by my relatives to ask my parents to bring me a bhai, thereby ‘completing’ our family and giving it a coat of perfection. 

A boy and a girl make an ideal, fulfilled family in modern India – the family that tokenistically eschews the pettiness of discrimination against the girl child, giving her a decent education, pretty dresses and braids. Their girls are ready to be held up for comparison against the high-end metrics of “Sharmaji’s Children”. They’re not backward. They don’t thrive by stomping on the existence of others. Unless, of course, it includes bargaining with a local candle-maker, or the children marrying outside the upper-class nexus, thereby bringing ‘shame’ to the family. 

The sight of the small, potato-like teddy, full of life with big goofy eyes, eyeing every corner of the dimly-lit hospital room, was enough to prevent my mind from meandering to the slight disappointment of not getting a brother. I was full of awe and on Cloud Nine with joy. My maternal grandmother and everyone else expressed utmost delight at the birth of a daughter in the family. 

The womb of resistance

Birthed this dagger of change

“Oh no, a daughter!” the world exclaimed. 

In a wretched valley of half-bloom

Against a crescent moon-lit night,

Beneath a graveyard of a hundred widowed torn longings,

Her unfamiliar (unwelcomed) babbles

Strung together, 

A fragmented song of hope, an embodiment of flickering light. 

Crawling in a courtyard of sulken weeds – 

Winters of sharp love

Mountains of griefs – 

Toiling against the wheel of time,

She built ladders with bare hands into the faraway lands of tomorrows,

As the town engulfed into destruction, the yesterdays she weaved. 

Protected by the prayers of women who came before her (and got crushed),

She unflurs like a tender echo of courage

Slipping into another dawn,

Uprooting curses of generations

A war against shadows and shackles,

She marches vigorously

Against the bruises and blood.

To carve a bright sun 

The motherland will remember her name –

She’s luminous and unrestrained. 

Traversing life with my new-found sister allowed me to realise the powers of love sooner than I’d have anticipated. One of the first battles revolved around addressing her magnificent dusk colour, giving tough competition to the elegantly sculpted Krishna idols. Standing up against the casual comments and the homemade facepacks of turmeric, milk and besan gave a dimension of anger and resistance to love. Over the years, I had grown comfortable with everything the world had to offer to me as a young woman. In a household with two sisters, it’s hard to accuse any parent of patriarchal behaviour, and there is limited scope for comparison with boys of the same age. I would like to believe that despite the cushions of safety, grooming, scoldings of elegance and ways to maintain the upkeep of hair, dresses and constant chaperones for assistance, my sister and I bloomed in an equal environment only overshadowed by the hierarchies imposed by age. We shared conversations and laughter and I softly tried to warn her about the world beyond the worldwalls. Rebuking her for not enjoying studying while letting her know that, not very many years ago, people like us were not allowed to access this puzzle piece in the jigsaw of freedom. After all, through social science textbooks, I understood that my country was extremely advanced and ‘great’ in comparison to its counterparts because it extends universal adult franchise to women – the bare minimum. “Don’t take this for granted, Mahi,” I gave her a stern stare while I had my fair share of inhibitions about the mindless mugging up of facts and formulae. 

Juliet Mitchell outlines the four levels of control: production, reproduction, sexuality and socialisation. The sphere of socialisation refers to the various ways in which the family raises and prepares its children to fit in with the demands of the world – performing their defined sets of social functions, working in a close nexus with the religious customs, cultural affairs and norms of community life. 

It was through my school that I understood that teachers needed (strong) boys (not girls) to move around the furniture during fests and exhibitions. It was through the playground that Mahi realised that boys and girls are supposed to be different – the football boys, full of commitment to win against their rivals, did not let girls join their respective teams. Who would want the burden of girls on their march towards victory? My friends and I have been policed through and through for the lengths of our skirts (a reflection of our parental values), our cycling shorts (a marker of our sharamand haya), and our cherry lip balms (a petty seducer of boys). Unfortunately, us women share this common piece of reliability against all the markers that otherwise differentiate the Delhi Public Schools, the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the convents. 

The women of history have either been reduced to the margins of textbooks, their ideas glossed over by their male counterparts, their bodies enclosed within the curses of palace walls, or enraptured against the pitch black of erasure. Connecting the dots from my own life, in retrospect, I realise that I stand on the shoulders of women who came before me – in the absence of their voices, I’d have been reduced to nothingness. 

An Athena is waiting to flutter from her legs, an Aphrodite is blooming in her heart, she’s Ares at the split of day and night. She is running away hoping to stumble across her own self, the one she was before she dived into everything she was supposed to be. I am –

The brisk wind, unfurling an azure satin ribbon

With sapphire raindrops,

Inhaling the golden beams,

Dangling on a makeshift clothesline,

Suspended over the minuscule.

The orbs sketched on the flaps of a hopper,

Its moving stems against

The rusty crevices of muddy potted plants,

Welcoming the pesky monsoon air.

The lint sprouting

From the bed of a floral kimono,

Making earthly constellations.

A lightning startling the comforted. 


1. Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York : International Publishers, 1942.

2. Menon, N. (2012). Seeing Like A Feminist.

3. Mitchell, Juliet.  (1971).  Woman’s Estate.  Harmondsworth : Penguin

Author Bio:

Siddhi Joshi is a poet and artist based in Uttrakhand, India. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Sociology from Miranda House, Delhi University. Warm like the colour yellow, in her company you will find yourself amid warm laughter and witty remarks. To her, mysterious old libraries and hastily scribbled poetry in a coffee-stained journal is the only utopia worth seeking. Siddhi is a blend of strong opinions and lyrical thoughts – a dichromatic soul that searches for answers in the prevailing paradigm and finds meaning in the minuscule.

Instagram: siddhii.joshii
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/siddhijoshiindia/

In Defence of Sad Endings

By Lucía Pereira

It is a widely shared experience to see a book described as ‘devastating’ and think, “I need to read this immediately”. As moths are drawn to light, humans are drawn to sorrow. But why? And what, if any, are the moral implications of this?

Tragic stories, especially those that develop a reputation for being tearjerkers, are often taken as a challenge. But there is a responsibility to be borne when stories that tackle heavy themes reach an audience that is, perhaps, not their target.

Where are the limits when trauma and literature congregate? Contemporary works like A Little Life, My Dark Vanessa or The Kite Runner are not what you would call uplifting reads, and, oftentimes, this aspect has been criticised. But sad endings are not exclusive to contemporary literature. Depictions of graphic death, addiction, sexual assault and wars are rampant in English classics. 

What does this say about the reader?

There is a cyclical discourse in online spaces about the validity of such stories, but a now-deleted tweet caught my attention and essentially inspired this essay. The person who tweeted took issue with the consumption of ‘tragic’ media, and directly called into question the morality of those who can enjoy such sad books. This is not new; several authors who write fiction weaving in elements from their own trauma get told that their depictions are disgusting, unrealistic or that they should not exist at all. To this, I counter: does such silencing fix the problems, or does it create taboos around them? Readers who have encountered novels depicting trauma that is the same as, or similar to, their own, and have found some sort of solace in the stories might internalise such comments and let the comfort they once felt turn into shame. 

Now, delving into a book with certain expectations and then being slapped by an unconventional twist – like a gruesome death in a romance that seemed to be all fluff and sunshine – is a rightful cause for uproar. But, as stated before, most of us either look specifically for books with darker themes, or start reading a work with the knowledge that it made everyone and their mother cry. This is usually made clear on the cover, in the blurb or online (where we pass trigger warning lists like they’re notes in class). So, it is, I believe, unfair to call authors cruel or readers ‘sickos’ for seeking such media – the kind that does not appeal to everyone but that everyone seems to be drawn to. It is like wanting to ban horror because it is just mean to make people read about murders! (This, of course, is an exaggeration, but it gets the point across). Human beings are morbidly curious; the fact that books on terminal illnesses and the tragedies of war are bestsellers attests to this.

Much like in horror, humans take pleasure in tragedies – a twist that leaves those last pages with the ink running. But why? Aristotle, who wrote about this centuries ago, said something along these lines: the value we attribute to tragedies is tied to the pleasure we derive from them, and both of these are contingent on mimesis and catharsis. 

Mimesis is a basic principle in the creation of art, understood as a representation of nature. ‘Art imitates life’ and so on. This is key when dealing with themes of trauma or grief, because it brings to light a painful aspect of life that most people have suffered through. Even in ancient times, people bonded over pain. Perhaps they had never watched a king get stabbed, but they understood a mother’s agonising cry. Pain is a universal language.

Catharsis, said Aristotle, is the purgation and/or purification of emotions through art. Literature that takes us on a journey where a character processes their trauma (without even arriving at a “healed” place) seeps into us, holds up a mirror and says, “this struck a chord; think about why”. It is also a way to deal with your experiences from a safe, distant space, with the reassurance that you can put the book down at any time. The emotional release that catharsis brings, be it through real tears or any other manifestation of the emotion, can be therapeutic for the reader. Even in the absence of a happy ending. Maybe, by the end of the book, the character doesn’t magically walk again. Maybe grandma really is gone. Maybe the depression is here to stay. 

Yes, this is pessimistic. But there is a peculiar pocket of comfort in knowing this. It does not say, at the first sign of trouble, lie there to die! What it does say is: it’s okay to not be okay, to stack mistakes upon mistakes like they’re Jenga blocks. It is an uncomfortable truth for us to reckon with, especially if we are used to stories that end with a bow and a clear resolution. But the muddiness in these stories is drenched with realism and holds heaps of value, especially for those who can relate – those who do not often see their wounds represented.

Art has always been used as a medium for processing conflicting emotions that we perhaps tend to suppress in our daily lives. (Like ostensibly sobbing while watching Dumbo, but because you’re actually mourning your own relationship with your mother). And the on-page illustrations of these devastating stories make us feel understood. We are not a forlorn figure gazing into the horizon, feeling loss for the first time in history. People have been here before; there are footprints on this ground, fingerprints on this page. To understand this does not erase the pain that has been suffered; but it does, perhaps, help us in bearing it.  

We need these stories for the cathartic journey they take us on, and the message they leave us with: that it is okay to be hurt, or to simply not know what lies ahead.

Author’s bio:

Lucía Pereira (Montevideo, Uruguay) studies English Literature and Culture in Spain, where she moved when she was five. There, her poems have been published in literary journals such as Página Salmón. She reads and writes because she craves to merge with another.