By Akanksha Dhyani Feb. 08, 2019
Time and again, girls are shamed by the aunty patrol only to then have them conveniently package the whole thing as “maternal concern” – “Beta, I’m like your mother.” But the truth is, these women are neither our mothers, nor are they genuinely concerned. Then why does the length of my skirt or the sound of my laugh bother them?
Two weeks ago, my Twitter timeline was flooded with outrage yet again, this time over a news story about actress-turned-BJP politician Moushumi Chatterjee criticising an anchor for wearing pants at an event. Yes, pants. My calendar insisted we were in 2019; this headline, not so much. While watching Chatterjee harangue a girl about her choice of clothes was expectedly infuriating, what followed was even worse: the expert aunty version of a pseudo-apology accompanied by the familiar eye-roll-worthy explanation of “main aapko maa ki tarah bol rahi hoon”.
Time and again, girls are shamed by the aunty patrol only to then have them conveniently package the whole thing as “maternal concern”.
Make no mistake, this Moushumi Chatterjee incident wasn’t just another politician’s embarrassingly sexist rant, or the newest edition of BJP’s sanskari propaganda. It was much more. It was the traumatic, adolescent rite of passage young Indian girls are subjected to – an aunty tirade.
In her illustrated book “Trust No Aunty”, dubbed as a “survival guide for young women”, Pakistan-born Canadian artist Maria Qamar talks about the phenomenon of “aunty interference” that has “hindered our social growth and embarrassed us in front of our friends and cool cousins”. This refers to the long, humiliating lectures by older women – relatives, neighbours, random strangers – that are always aimed at adolescent girls who “defy traditions” by behaving “inappropriately” – smoking drinking, going out with boys, apparently even laughing loudly or wearing pants. These lectures almost always require a public setting to maximise mortification.
And like every woman I know, I too had to face my fair share of aunty music. I was 11 years old, on a trip with extended family, when I was shamed by a maasi for… wait for it… carrying a little handbag.
In her words, “Young girls shouldn’t be carrying around these things pretending to be older than their age and all. Who do you have to impress? Purses are something that only older women are allowed to carry. And what do you have to hide in your bag anyway, haan?” I still don’t know who delivered the Handbag Diktat but this went on for a while.
“As an Indian woman, I have the right to teach youngsters what they should wear, where, and when.”
After driving me to tears in front of some 30-odd relatives she consoled me. “Beta, don’t mind. I’m like your mother.” This was confusing, because the handbag was actually a gift from my real mother. But I must admit that despite the bruised self-esteem, as a 11-year-old, the conviction in that grown-up aunt’s voice made me accept this as a suitable consolation.
My maasi is no different from Moushumi Chatterjee or any other neighbour/relative – self-assured in her belief that telling someone what is morally right is her predetermined role in society. That these tirades are what prepare a girl for her role in society – to become a missionary of patriarchy and spread the word about these feminine expectations to the next generation.
At some point during Chatterjee’s monologue, she chided the anchor by reminding her of the “duty” that women have of upholding their traditions (by the means of ghagra choli, apparently). When challenged by another woman reporter, Chatterjee turned defiant, and right when you thought she couldn’t have been any less subtle about the whole thing, she said, “As an Indian woman, I have the right to teach youngsters what they should wear, where, and when.”
Like my aunt, Chatterjee too had an apology to offer – “I am sorry if you are offended,” she said to the young girl, even if it was swiftly followed by a “don’t do this again.” A fake apology, of course because hurting sentiments of someone who is junior to you in age and stature is mere collateral in the larger battle of the preservation of sanskriti.
But the truth is that these women who dole out advice faster than political parties distribute freebies in the election season, seem to be convinced that it the goodness of their heart that pushes them to personally pinpoint your flaws. And that, you should be grateful to them for suppressing their burning desire to engage in gossip about you. How very large-hearted of them to loudly tell you to not sit with your legs wide apart in front of your male cousins, instead of going off with other women and secretly giggling about it instead. How very generous of them to announce to anyone who would listen, about the weight you’ve gained while you are having a pack of chips? How incredibly fortunate for us that they choose a cousin’s wedding to tell you to use a fairness cream otherwise “Shaadi kaun karega?”
“Also, people who don’t have much perceived control in their own lives like to control the lives of others.”
The whole case for concern is that this is what any good Indian mother would do. But in reality, these women are neither our mothers, nor are they genuinely concerned. So why then does the length of my skirt, the sound of my laughter, or the circumference of my waist bother anyone?
In an essay titled “Why We Feel the Need to Give Advice When We Haven’t Been Asked”, Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, says interference can sometimes come from “folks who are more narcissistic, assertive and aggressive; busybodies; and those with poor impulse control. Also, people who don’t have much perceived control in their own lives like to control the lives of others.” The advice-givers “are trying to demonstrate their dominance or superior understanding of things. Their hearts are not in the right place.”
Having little control over their own lives, first as daughters, then as wives, daughters-in-law – and even as mothers – women, especially in India, use whatever little opportunity they get to exercise their authority. This is often wrongly directed at unsuspecting young girls, who grow up and do exactly what was done to them, simply because they don’t know any better. Until, of course, these girls have a mother like mine, who turned around and told my handbag-shaming maasi, “Yeh teri beti ki tarah nahi hai.”
Akanksha Dhyani is a renowned expert on awkwardness, midnight snacking and answering difficult questions with Michael Scott memes. Exiled for her support of pineapple on pizza, she is currently believed to be hiding behind her humour and anxiety. Ask her about movie rights on social media @madrandomsoul.