Sudhakar clarifies ‘modern women’ remark — and his justification is as problematic

“A lot of modern women in India want to stay single. Even if they get married, they don’t want to give birth. They want surrogacy. So, there is a paradigm shift in our thinking, which is not good,” Sudhakar had said.
K Sudhakar
K Sudhakar
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Karnataka Health Minister K Sudhakar drew flak when a clip from his address on World Mental Health Day on October 10 started doing the rounds on the internet. Sudhakar was speaking at the National Institute for Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru when he said that “modern women” want to stay single, and don’t want to have children even if they get married.

He also seemed to criticise nuclear families, saying that these days, people do not want to live with their grandparents or parents, and that the decline of joint families was the reason behind increasing stress among people today. “Stress management is an art. This art we need not learn, as Indians, we need to preach to the world how to handle stress. Yoga meditation and pranayama are wonderful tools and education that our ancestors […] taught the world. Unfortunately, today we are going in a western way. We don’t want our parents to live with us, forget about grandparents being with us. And today, sorry to say this, a lot of modern women in India want to stay single. Even if they get married, they don’t want to give birth. They want surrogacy. So, there is a paradigm shift in our thinking, which is not good,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, his comments drew flak with many people calling Sudhakar out for criticising women who exercise their choice, on the pretext of them leaning towards “western culture” or being “modern”. Following this criticism, Sudhakar issued a clarification on Monday, saying that what he meant was that the “Indian family value system can address the mental health issues that we are facing today.” He also said that it was unfortunate that the clip from his 19.5-minute address was taken out of context, thereby losing the larger point he was trying to make.

Sudhakar’s clarification takes the Indian cultural supremacy argument, emphasising that unlike western society, which is based on “individualism”, Indian society is “collectivistic” in that it promotes interdependence and cooperation, with the family forming the focal point of this social structure.” He quoted this paper published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, to argue that thus, Indian families are more intimate, involved in caring for its members, than western families. He also attributed his comments on “younger generation shying away from marriage” on the YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey. “There are very little gender-wise differences in these trends,” he said, referring to the statistics like 19% millennials and 23% post-millennials being uninterested in children or marriage. “It is applicable to both boys and girls,” he added.

“The only point I was trying to convey was that our youth can find solution and solace to mental health issues like anxiety, depression and stress in our traditional family and its value system which offers a wonderful support system. I would like to clarify that I had no intention to single out women nor did my words mean so,” Sudhakar argued.

Firstly, that the Health Minister of a state was prescribing ‘culture’ as a solution for mental health issues, that too on World Mental Health Day, is ironic and problematic. Mental health depends on various factors including our intersectional identities, systemic injustices, and how much support a state healthcare system provides. As Health Minister, it would have been apt for Sudhakar to focus on policy measures and state support for mental health. The focus on ‘culture’ for ‘stress management’ instead is disheartening.

It is interesting to note, further, that while in the clarification, Sudhakar states that there is not much difference based on gender in terms of the millennials who don’t want to marry or have children, during his speech, he only highlighted the fact that more women don’t seem to want these things. His argument isn’t surprising – women have often been disproportionately criticised for breaking away from patriarchal practices by self-proclaimed upholders of Indian culture.

And while families can be a source of love and support, they can also be places of oppression for some. In most societies, women are still considered and expected to be natural caregivers, and the distribution of domestic labour continues to be gendered, with women shouldering the majority of it. In 2020, Oxfam released a report called ‘Time to Care’, which found that women are expected to perform unpaid care work as “acts of love”, without really taking into account physical, mental and emotional effort these tasks require. The report stated that globally, women do 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work every day, which is the equivalent of 1.5 billion people working for eight hours a day, without wages. And the value of women and girls’ unpaid care work is $10.8 trillion annually.

So, when the Karnataka Health Minister talks about the greatness of large Indian families, let’s acknowledge the fact that most joint families continue to rely heavily on women’s domestic labour and care work, done without complaint, to remain harmonious. And most women do this without getting a proportionate say in matters because patriarchy mandates that the de facto head of the household continue to be a man.

So, is it really so unfathomable that “modern women” are realising how skewed and biased these social structures are against them and want to break away, or, pursue them on their own terms such as by wanting to not marry, not live in large, joint families which will continue to expect them to be in caregiving roles foremost? Where their value, despite what they bring to the table academically, intellectually or professionally, will continue to be primarily judged by their ability to do household chores, and bear children? Is it so absurd that women want to be decision-makers about their own bodies, and some do not want to go through pregnancies, which puts considerable strain on their health, finances and responsibilities?

In an ideal, egalitarian world, it could be great to have families, including big families, with equitable distribution of labour, respect for individual autonomy and communal harmony. But that’s not the world we live in. Women make difficult choices all their lives; it is not that women who are “strong” and “independent” do not feel loneliness or don’t want companionship. However, they may want these things on their own terms.

There is little that scares the world more than a woman who knows her mind, and exercises her choice. More women are redefining “traditional” structures like the timelines and conditions they want to date, marry, or have children in – things that men have long taken for granted. And that, no matter what minister Sudhakar says, is a good thing, long overdue.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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