A few years back, I went to a drama festival with Yuvraj organized in Kolkata, India. At a dinner hosted on the last day of the festival, a woman approached me and asked, “Are you the director’s wife?”
I smiled and said, “Yes, but I’m not an artist.”
I exactly don’t remember why I over-expressed myself, or perhaps I knew where the question was leading.
Yuvraj asked her, “Are you an artist?”
“Yes. Even at home and in the theatre.” She said sarcastically. “Yes. Even at home and in the theatre.” She further added, “I think all husbands are directors even at home and in the theatres. They just direct wives.”
I didn’t know exactly how to respond to such a serious matter at that time. But suddenly, all three of us laughed, and that became quite an awkward situation.
I still remember the short encounter with that ‘director husband’s artist wife’ and that evening when she left me with some profound words.
This is a matter of theatre. But, does our social environment differ from that of theatre and acting? Or, is our social environment different from the environment of the famous Bengali actress Poulomi Basu from Kolkata?
‘I think all husbands are directors. Not only in the theatre but also at home.’ Bratya Basu, her husband, is the director of the famous drama company Batyajon Theatre in Kolkata.
I put up with the fact that I didn’t try to recognize Poulomi from her own identity, and I wonder what has caused me to do so. I believe that the place of artists in modern theatre and cinema is high, but the artists of the house can be compared to the ‘dancing artists’ from 70 to 80 years ago, whose sole purpose was to entertain the kings and emperors.
In the present case scenario, the position of the directors of the family theatres is different. The ‘director father,’ ‘the director brother,’ ‘the director father-in-law’ or as indicated by Poulomi Basu, ‘director husband’ being the most influential of all. So we can explain the same thing from the point of view of gender discrimination or gender politics. Men are often the directors in theatres or movies because they are also the directors in the home, society, or in many other empowered walks of social, political, and professional life.
It might be amusing to hear such symbolic reference or metaphor, but this harsh reality brings misery to anyone who faces it.
How long should one’s hair be? What sort of clothes should one wear? How should one laugh? How much loud should one speak? Who should one become a friend with? How much to study? Choose to get married or not? Who to match to marry to? When to have a baby and how many? Answers are all in the pockets of the directors only. Some great directors go to the extent of having the right to choose the sex of a child unborn.
On the other hand, the female artists act with the same amount of enthusiasm and dedication in the play, and it is staged with the utmost respect in the theatre of society. This acting in theatre or film is certainly not an easy task. It is an excellent craft of an artist but to live by such guidance and direction is the disgraceful and ugly act of our society and its people. Every actress is experiencing their sadness and sorrows irrespective of their environment. There may be some conscious directors out there who can understand the situation of these actresses, but there might be such directors barely. I doubt.
Let me provide you with a simple example of such social behavior at large. The way actress Priyanka Karki’s pictures solemnizing her pregnancy were judged and commented on shows the bitter reality of the society where men are the directors by default and women are considered as the characters to be directed and played on the stages of social and household life.
Just because Priyanka Karki is a woman, she doesn’t know how to live her life. Others must instruct her. Others? Who others? Men in this country should teach every woman what to do and what not to. Only men know such things because they are the directors of our so-called ‘modern society.’
I have many experiences of being an artist’s non-artist wife. A few months ago, I met a sister I had been meeting and talking to for years.
“Is there a drama going on in the theatre now? Which play are you doing?” After having a little bit of formal and usual chitchat, she asked me.
She seemed happy about the reopening of theatres closed for a long time due to the pandemic.
“It has started. I, too, saw one, but I don’t know which play is on now.” I replied.
“Don’t be silly!” she said as if I was joking with her.
“Honestly, I don’t know, and I don’t work there,” chat continued.
She looked shocked at my revealing the fact before she opened her mouth to express it.
“I didn’t know you weren’t acting. Even though your husband is a director, why haven’t you acted in plays?”
Many critical thinking people must have thought what nonsense she was talking about. Why not understand such a simple thing? She is merely an example of the thought-representation of our society. There is something wrong with our understanding regarding the existence of women on this planet earth. Why do people not think differently that a husband and a wife are two different personalities of different interests, dreams, and traits, might be having a few in common? It is a very trifle matter of making an understanding by common sense. I am the director’s wife for sure, but I have my own job out of my husband’s profession. I do not enjoy explaining to people that I am self-reliant.
I am married to a person who is regularly involved in plays one way or other. In this long journey of ours, we have met quite many people, but I don’t remember being asked, “What do you do for a living?”
Other than my close friends and family, many of them, who know that I am ‘Yuvraj’s wife’, think that I am an artist directed by my husband just like others. We still can’t accept that a daughter can do a job of her choice or that a married woman can have a rewarding and distinguished career or profession of her own capacity or have her own eminent identity. When we can’t understand that husband and wife can have different jobs and specializations, interests and priorities instead of subordinating them with their husbands’ identities, women never stop getting disrespected in everyday affairs in all sorts of settings. As soon as they go out in public life, different tags of men’s identification require introducing women in places.
Yuvraj is a play director. People think of me as an artist. I sometimes compare it to another situation- if I had been a play director, would other people have considered Yuvraj a theatre artist?
Men’s domination over women can critically categorize into conscious and unconscious mastery. Men claim and accept themselves to be stronger and capable than women. Over the years, misinterpretations and the convention of repeated rumors of “Men are naturally stronger and more capable than women” seem to have led many women into believing it. However, this is not the only factor that has weakened women over the years. Men and women who consider themselves educated and guided by intuitive conviction are also not aware of the patriarchal point of view governing their thinking traditions passed down to the generations.
A few years ago, I was in Yangon, Burma, for my work. There was a small community of people from out of the city working for various social organizations in Yangon. I was the only woman from Nepal to work in that community, and Yuvraj was on my ‘dependent’ visa. The Nepali or South Asian who met us for the first time used to think of me as a wife who came on my husband’s dependent visa like others. They were surprised knowing that Yuvraj, a husband, was staying in Yangon as his wife’s ‘dependent’, meaning he was brought there by his wife’s job.
Men used to sit in groups at the meetings of the Nepali community in Yangon, where topics like country, politics, literature or similar other ‘important’ topics were discussed. In contrast, the group of women in the meeting talked about food, clothing, jewelry, and different Yangon experiences. As these conversations unfolded, I kept thinking: Would all the women in this group be interested in talking about these things? Did they also want to talk about politics or other similar issues or listen to the talk of others?
Society has accepted the rule that men should talk about who will win the US presidential election and women to talk about what spices to use in radish pickles. This is an unconscious form of discrimination between men and women that so-called educated people have accepted. But even today, a large number of people have found this situation to be very backward and despise it.
“Women are happy to talk about clothes and jewelry. Who is stopping women from talking about politics?” Many such questions continue to humiliate and discourage women who are the victims of many other forms of discrimination and disrespectful treatment.
Why is this happening? How did hundreds of years of practice convince women that their place was the kitchen? From the type of clothing, the choice of color, and to the definition of morality and dignity, look at how values are set up to make women different and weaker than men.
I see the need to disassemble this structure. Some people still mock women’s preferences using the weapon that- “Our culture and tradition are the greatest in the world. Let’s not spoil it.” The contract to protect the so-called civilized culture does not belong to women alone. And men don’t need to make a list of what women should or should not do.
Give women a space to think. They can think for themselves. For hundreds of years, women have been trapped in a web of gender discrimination. The practice of men controlling women as puppets in public life has led to the illusion that this is a natural phenomenon, especially among women. And these ill practices prevail because these are well backed up by superstitions not eradicated yet. It doesn’t even seem to root out easily soon.
Victims are also trying to prove the social and cultural practices of men and women that are going on in Nepalese society as a natural process created from the beginning of the earth. It’s as if some devastating destruction would occur on the eradication of such discrimination from society.
There are different religious groups within almost all religions. According to them, this discriminatory social and cultural practice is happening at God’s wish, so going against it is going against God. Many generations of girls have not been able to revolt against such behavior because they have been demoralized and controlled by such delusions for generations.
The bitter truth is that today’s discriminatory and gender-based violence is man-made. The practice of this ritual became something for the benefit of a man, and destroying it is an attempt to make society non-discriminatory and beautiful. Imagine how beautiful a society would be where daughters are equally respected. It would have been easy for men if women had their own intellectual work, identity, and profession.
If that happened then, the new female artists would not have to think like Poulomi Basu.
This piece was originally written in Nepali and is voluntarily translated into English for ShiningPens by Samyam Shrestha.
The writer is an outspoken Nepali activist for gender equality and writes on issues alike on different platforms based in Kathmandu, Nepal.