As a one-time supporter of feminism, these days my feelings are rather mixed. One finds that it’s the more extreme voices of feminism which dominate. The issue tends to often get overstated. There can be a mix between politics and ‘feminism’. At times, it also seems like two powerful sets of men settling their own scores and using “women’s rights” as the smokescreen.
Against this background, it was interesting to come across a book which highlights the role of fathers – as much as mothers – in society, in families and in life. This is an important point which we need to remind ourselves of now.
Till the 1960s, the role of a father in the household went largely unquestioned. There was no question of democracy in a household. Full stop. Everyone accepted that. The father was a figure to be respected, to be obeyed. As the old saying went, children were supposed to be seen, not heard. There was no question of discussing or debating with the father-figure of the household. The mother was an individual who was loved and she was the fountainhead of affection to the family. In Goa, where the role of women has been somewhat different from the rest of India, at some times, the mother was the stricter patient. But, even then, the father was respected.
You could say this was more than a bit excessive. Authoritarian parenting might come with its own pitfalls. So does the lack of debate. But then, in the space of two generations or less, things have changed rather drastically. Men too are obviously finding it tough to cope.
In today’s world, the role of the father has got devalued. He is often seen as a stranger with little or no role to play in the family. Sometimes, the father is seen as little more than a human ATM to take care of our material needs, but without the consequent authority or guidance role that he used to play in the past.
A young priest, Clifford Castelino, recently completed his Ph D in psychology and his thesis focused on the impact of fathers on self-esteem on Goan high school students. He went ahead and published his book, titled ‘As Dear As Mother’, which shares his findings on his study.
Beyond the academic aspect of this work, what Castelino does is to place the issue squarely on the agenda. He calls the father ‘the forgotten contributor’ in the family. Sometimes, dads are seen as just the “second adults” in the family. In places like Goa, the situation gets more acute because of factors like out-migration. Women get used to taking on the main responsibilities, so why should they cede it when their menfolk return? Some families migrate whole, but there are still many families where only the fathers go out to work and earn a living. This is true of even migration within the State itself.
In Castelino’s view “the rapid social change in the 1970s” has changed the traditional concept of the father. This happened because of changes in the economic, social or domestic setting; the feminist movement; and other changes in approaches.
Earlier, the father was seen as the “authority figure, emotionally uninvolved person in the life of the child, the one who was to maintain lineage, [responsible for] providing for protection and working towards the well-being of the child”. Now, the current models include stepfathers, divorced fathers, custodial single fathers, new fathers, active fathers, good fathers, and absent fathers.
Of course, all changes are not necessarily negative. But the change that has happened over time would be visible to anyone from our generation.
For some reason, men find it ‘unmanly’ to talk about the problems they face. They are taught not to complain, or not to go public with their situation. Resultantly, they will seek a ‘solution’ often by drowning their sorrows in drink or having an affair on the side.
In the West, where the situation has reached an acute level, one can find responses like the ‘men’s rights movement’, or MGTOW (men go their own way, Google for it) campaigns. This results in further bitterness between the genders, and few solutions.
In Goa, statistics and reality show that the situation of women is somewhat different from that of women elsewhere in South Asia. Of course, the feminists are known to argue that women still have a long way to go merely to claim equality, and they are not fully wrong.
But, when some Pakistani women reached Goa for a seminar some time back, they were surprised, for instance, by the number of women riding on two-wheelers on streets in the State. Of course, these are only the external signs of the situation; and external signs can be misleading too.
If women in Goa are faring somewhat better, it’s not primarily because the Goan menfolk are more liberal or prone to equality. Undeniably, factors like out-migration and education for women have changed gender equations, sometimes for the better.
At the release of Castelino’s book the other day, it was interesting to see different perspectives come up on this issue. A lady-doctor of a Hindu background, working in a traditional Catholic village, explained the changing situation as she saw it. Another speaker, from a Muslim faith tradition, offered one perspective on the role of the father in Islam (and in his own life) in the family.
Castelino is one of the few diocesan priests who has completed his doctorate. At one stage, in the predominantly Catholic village in Goa, the priest was about the most educated figure. Not any more. Today, as education has grown outside the seminaries and in the secular world, the situation has changed there too. It might be helpful if more men of religion could look to undertaking higher education so that their learning helps their mission.
These are complex issues, which have no quick solutions. Just to begin talking on them is the first step forward.