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The tyranny of the Indian uncle

Behind every case of a woman being robbed of her right to speak, live, love, study or dress as she pleases is a type of unhelpful uncle. Perhaps it is time we placed the Indian Uncle under rigorous sociological scrutiny

There is the obvious and virulent form of this unclepan you find on the internet and WhatsApp
There is the obvious and virulent form of this unclepan you find on the internet and WhatsApp (Illustration by Sarnath Banerjee)

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Show me a hard-working, financially independent professional woman—she need not be feminist, fabulous or flamboyant—and I will show you an insecure Indian Uncle who resents her. The news cycle of 2022 reminded us, yet again, of India’s deepening crisis of masculinity. Airlines obsessed over the length of women’s blouses, committees were formed to regulate inter-faith marriages, a young professor lost her job for wearing beachwear in her private social media pictures, universities penalised student facilitators who tried to help sexual harassment complainants, boyfriends brutalised girlfriends, thugs climbed over campus boundaries to invade a women’s college festival, and young men attacked girls on their way to study. Every week of the past year, we have huffed and puffed about what is going wrong with the way Indian boys become Indian men.

While it is morally convenient to look at these incidents as individual episodes triggered by a few deviants and collapse the conversation into the same old tired tropes on women’s safety, the rising tide of resentment against independent women can no longer be exclusively challenged by op-eds, sarkari committees or technical fixes. Sure, we can hold governments accountable for not having more women in the police or supporting safe housing and transport. However, gender norms are not manufactured by politicians or a gaggle of conservative or communal male miscreants alone.

As long as we continue to frame gender-based discrimination as exclusively the domain and problem of experts, women or queer communities, we will pigeonhole all conversations on justice and equality into a gender ghetto. To arrive at a cultural and political path out of inequality, we must avoid hiding behind impersonal technicalese and attempt honest conversations that acknowledge, describe and label the hostility patriarchy nurtures in each one of us. Especially men. The term “masculinity” is a hydra-headed monster, a grandiose academic phrase that hides more than it reveals. Feminist Paromita Vohra once asked, “What would we talk about if we didn’t just talk about toxic masculinity?”

Instead of hand-wringing about Indian masculinity, a term unfamiliar to most middle-class Indians, the many women I encounter through life and research talk about the urban uncle. For the past several years, I have interviewed young women trying to assert themselves at different types of urban metropolitan workplaces. From in-flight attendants to mutual fund managers to government officers, nearly each woman complained about “Indian Uncles” as the eternal obstacle to progress.

Also read: The role of women in the mutual fund industry

Women and oppressed communities are constantly scrutinised when they make demands for greater dignity and equality. Perhaps it is time we placed the Indian Uncle under rigorous sociological scrutiny for his reluctance to credibly supply these. Behind every case of a woman being robbed of her right to live, loiter, love, study, dress as she pleases, or even speak her mind, there is a type of unhelpful unclepan championing this theft. Those who indulge in this form of uncledom may not commit obvious crimes against women themselves. Instead, they gleefully or silently endorse the foot soldiers who do the dirty work of upholding our patriarchy.

Women and oppressed communities are constantly scrutinised when they make demands for greater dignity and equality
Women and oppressed communities are constantly scrutinised when they make demands for greater dignity and equality (Illustration by Sarnath Banerjee)

The history of gender relations in the past year, or even the past few decades, is not the history of women, LGBTQ+ people, minorities or marginalised communities, and their struggles alone. It is the history of how a certain kind of tradition-loving unclepan has come to dominate our online and offline discourse, while completely capturing the markets and mechanisms that distribute access to rewards, recognition, equal rights, fair pay and free speech.

If you look at the percentage share of upper-caste men who guide decision- making systems in media enterprises, our legislatures, our residents’ welfare associations or societies, our academic departments, big businesses, venture capital, the design of technology, it is easy to see that we live under the tyranny of the Indian Uncle. They earn the most in our country; they decide how people are treated for their efforts; they determine our minimum wages; they propel social media campaigns against those who openly hold feminist views; they gate-keep entry into jobs and valuable networks; many take their role as gatekeepers rather literally by presiding over the ad hoc closure of our colony or apartment gates. They live to dominate, and insist on imposing their bad jokes and mid-life crises on to the country.

An enduring attribute of the unhelpful uncle, often witnessed on Twitter-Pradesh, is his ability to drone on about ceding privileges or spaces he has never really lost. He fundamentally believes the world is a zero-sum game where another’s gain must be his loss. Uncledom is a quagmire of self-pitying-self-serious victimhood. Conservative uncles complain about the collapse of their prestige or place, while data continues to show how wealth and assets remain concentrated amongst men and certain caste-communities. Male economic dominance and educational attainment have certainly reduced in several Western countries. But elite Indian men are hardly confronted with a radically equal world.

Yes, more women are entering universities and niche sectors but we remain in the world’s bottom five when it comes to women’s economic participation. A recent EY report, Diversity In The Boardroom: Progress And The Way Forward, found women’s representation on Indian boards was 18% in 2022. France topped the chart with 44.5% women representation on company boards, followed by Sweden (40%). The report also found that women account for only 6% of executive positions on banking and capital markets boards in India. According to a report by the financial services firm Morningstar in 2022, only 8% of mutual fund managers are women. So, even amongst the upper echelons of the economy, boss ladies are few and far between. And yet, the unhelpful uncle feels he is being emasculated.

There is the obvious and virulent form of this unclepan you find on the internet and WhatsApp groups—propelling misinformation, trolling feminist handles, frothing about love jihaad, body-shaming and victim-blaming. Uncouth uncles openly complain about how women dress at schools or in workplaces, empathising with #MeToo offenders, revealing their highly sexed way of tackling the female body that holds public space, demonstrating their innate resentment of the hard-won freedom of many salaried women to escape unfulfilling marriages (and bad sex) as a means of securing a living.

But these online uncles are easy targets. My conversations on workplace politics offer a more complex and nuanced picture of the unhelpful uncle. The men that drew maximum ire from the women I interviewed were not right-wing WhatsApp uncles. Instead, I heard multiple stories about how self-professed liberal uncles, often beta-men, could inflict chronic damage on a woman’s career and confidence. Navigating and complaining about a clear and clumsy display of bias is far more straightforward—although onerous—than its subtle and sophisticated form.

data continues to show how wealth and assets remain concentrated amongst men and certain caste-communities
data continues to show how wealth and assets remain concentrated amongst men and certain caste-communities (Illustration by Sarnath Banerjee)

In elite corporate workplaces, unhelpful uncles were colleagues who ignored or interrupted women, or belittled their contributions within organisations. In academia, you hear of social science uncles who only think of women as secretarial staff and research assistants, men who can recite Derrida but have never made a roti for themselves. Listening to women complain about senior male colleagues at the corporate, government or academic workplace, the unhelpful uncle emerges as India’s worst conversationalist. He seems to speak in lectures and finds it gauche to listen or be curious about another’s point of view. He rarely asks questions and only responds to flattery.

A 30-something Indian Institute of Management graduate spoke about talk-time, describing how many of her male colleagues would hog all speech and oxygen in meetings. She was always expected to offer “short hacks” or “quick downloads”. The #MeToo movement has taught us about predatory men at the workplace. However, if we look at gender parity in organisations beyond the metric of how cases of sexual harassment are managed, in the everyday stories of the modern workplaces one hears, we may notice that uncles across the ideological divide are united in how unskilled they remain in self-examination and in dealing with femininity in positions of leadership or professional excellence.

Also read: Women factory workers act out their dreams

Of course, liberal uncles are more stylish in their sexism. The most common refrain was how “progressive” men in positions of authority would privately praise women and remain muted in their public display of support. A retired government officer described how “posh officers who offer sermons on equality” were unable to handle the combination of professionalism, a commanding voice and bright lipstick in a woman. Fearful that these unhelpful uncles would judge her more than her work when it came to promotion cycles and plum postings, she spent her entire career constantly conflicted about how to “dress down” and speak at meetings.

If you adhere to the suffocating social standards of sexiness, one type of unhelpful uncle will believe all your success is because you are a seductress. If you deviate from garden-variety sexiness, another type of unhelpful uncle will ignore you and hate your disinterest in being a pleasing pretty object. Moreover, nothing seems to make an unhelpful uncle more suspicious than a single woman who does not need his attention, patronage or pat on the head. Beta uncles at work appear more comfortable working with women who are understated to the point of invisibility. But even the competence of the pliant female worker—who may be repressing great rage at her boss—is ridiculed and discounted at the office canteen as currying favour. Either way, single or married, classified by the male gaze as paavam or a patakha, all women in the workplace are sitting ducks waiting to be undermined and undervalued by uncledom. The success of straight men is spared this form of scrutiny. The worst prototype of the unhelpful uncle will always look for “hope” in any narrative on gender, while continuing to overwhelmingly mentor men just like himself.

Finally, unhelpful unclepan is probably an upper-caste affliction but it does not necessarily have a gender or age group. Many of the domineering behaviours described by the women I interviewed were displayed by young men. Years of socialisation in patriarchy, self-doubt, age-based deference, and internalising a feudal structure that props up upper-caste privilege and pits women against each other for men’s affections, implies women are as likely to display the bigoted traits of uncledom as men. Many prominent supporters of abusive men’s rights groups are female. The corollary is that not all middle-aged men are unhelpful uncles.

Even amongst upper-middle class and elite men between the ages of 40-60 (the age group typically used to define “middle age”), we find varieties and nuances of uncle-hood: those who go viral dancing to Govinda songs; those who fear losing their retirement funds due to a bad economy; those who worship Milind Soman (the Shah Rukh Khan for a type of wellness-minded middle-aged man); those walking away from long boring marriages or careers; those tackling lonely or unhealthy hearts; those facing neglect (suicide rates amongst middle-aged men are the highest in several countries in the world); those who believe women are more productive workers than men; those who fight to champion equal pay for others. Not all are unhelpful.

In fact, the biggest victims of unhelpful uncles are men they raise as sons or nurture as mentees at the workplace. One of the most moving pieces of media content churned out in 2022 was a brutally honest conversation on modern masculinity between podcaster Amit Varma and mental health activist Nikhil Taneja. Taneja highlighted how middle-class homes and institutions in India raise boys to believe that competitive achievement can singularly confer affection. Such a belief system invariably leads to lonely, angry and mentally unwell men.

The fact is that the traits of an unhelpful uncle lurk in each one of us in positions of any power and economic privilege. Before we point fingers and outrage at others, defeating the pandemic of pettiness in our economy and polity will require us to defeat the tyranny of the insecure uncle within ourselves.

For 2023, let’s all resolve to embrace our inner cool aunty and reject the unhelpful uncle.

Shrayana Bhattacharya is an economist and the award-winning author of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh.


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