Repressed Souls of South Asia

Published in SouthAsia (June 2007)

South Asian women repress anger. They are always expected to maintain a semblance of propriety. Anger is only to be expressed by their male counterparts, or so dictate our social norms. Ayesha Hoda psycho-analyzes this pandemic and tries to unweave the threads of cultural oppression and subjugation in the Indian Sub-continent.

Women’s issues have gained centre stage in South Asia these days. Empowerment and independence are amongst the goals chalked out in discussions on television, in magazines and by NGOs working for the benefit of women.

There are often debates on issues of rape, domestic violence, the violation of basic rights for women, honour killing, prostitution, sexuality, divorce, male-domination, eve-teasing and so on. But what we do not always consider is that inherent in all these issues is the practice of our women, of bottling up their feelings and reactions, even in situations where outbursts might be necessary.

A Global Practice:
Globally, any expression of anger is associated with men. While no eyebrows are raised when boys, even at a young age, take an aggressive approach to project their fury, girls are often advised to stay away and adopt a problem-solving approach. In most cases, this may, in fact, be nothing else but repression of anger, leading to long-term resentment.

Commenting on this social reality, Sandra Thomas, psychologist and director of the nursing doctoral program at the University of Tennessee (Knoxvillle), aptly says: “Both men and women have been poorly served by the gender socialization they have received. Men have been encouraged to be more overt with their anger. If boys have a conflict on the playground, they act it out with their fists. Girls have been encouraged to keep their anger down.”

It thus appears that this is a global trend; even western societies have a patriarchal system and are male-dominated, following the rules set by men. However, one may also safely generalize that this practice has grown rather chronic in our part of the world, that is, South Asia.

Before considering the consequences of this passive approach to anger taken by women, let us first try to investigate the causes of the development of such a habit. Why is the expression of fury considered ‘manly’ and more uncivilized for our women, as compared to men?

Repression of anger by women was not always such a dominating characteristic of South Asian society, if we analyze our cultural history. One can only infer that this is a result of some Arab creed, or the influence of the concept of agni pariksha (test by fire) of Hindu women or a Christ-like submission taught to Christian wives, or perhaps a combination of all these factors. Not speaking up or tolerating injustice is equated with being good, especially for women and the practice is reinforced from one generation to the next.

It is also about who decides what is right and what is wrong. Our society is not only androcentric but follows a patri-local system (brides relocate to live with their husbands’ families). This may often decrease the kind of influence that women may yield in their household, as compared to a matri-local system. The concept of a nuclear family is still largely alien in the region, so equality is a distant dream.

South Asia also has one of the worst gender divides (greater than the Sub-Saharan countries), with Pakistan being in an even worse position than India. There is discrimination in wages, provision of basic needs (such as health needs and literacy), etc.

Within households, there are specific roles defined for males and females, which they are expected to follow religiously. Several families still give preference to the male child (based on the idea that the boy will be the future breadwinner and the pride of the family). The girls, on the other hand, can only expect to uphold the family reputation by being ‘good’ (which equals submissiveness).

Going further, we see that women are often also discouraged from higher learning (even where finance is not an issue) or from pursuing a profession (such as archaeology or sports) which is thought to be a man’s domain. They are not always encouraged to take up a job because the work environment is expected to lack decorum. There are several organizations, which do not appoint women at all, as per their policy.

With rising consciousness of the importance of higher education, it is rather frustrating for women who are not allowed to have their way due to a mindset. Match-fixing or arranged marriages (with or without consent) also  keep women distracted and produce the urge for financial independence which they expect will give them more control of their lives.

These factors cause frustration. However, due to social conditioning, with mothers and other women in the household as role models, women adopt an uncomplaining attitude. Even if they do express their anger, at certain points, they themselves tend to think that it is not something socially acceptable. To save face, they avoid reacting in this manner in front of people other than their family members.

According to Sigmund Freud, repression is an unconscious function of the ego, which controls a person’s desires, wishes, memories, etc., which are part of the id. As a child, one learns what is right and what is wrong. As one grows up, one’s ethical standards become the repressing forces that help lead a civilized life.

Repression is a normal psychological process, important for personality development. However, when an emotion as natural as anger is subdued constantly, there may be acute problems in the long run.

The most obvious problem for an individual may be infrequent but unpredictable and untimely outbursts of anger, which are often also misdirected. Locally, the lack of psychological therapeutic techniques or anger management exercises leaves women without any solution or outlet. Women are not even conscious of practices as simple as meditation, relaxation, looking at nature, painting and so on, which are often healing.

An example may be quoted here. An educated woman (who chooses to remain unnamed), belonging to the middle class, had problems in her marriage; she was battered and verbally abused by her husband. She become more capable of dealing with the situation, when on a psychologist’s advice, she started voicing her thoughts in front of different people. Whatever her listeners may have said about her being so loquacious about matters so personal, she gradually learnt how to handle the problem and was able to give vent to her fury.

Other than this, anger has an alarmingly close relation with depression. The inability to express negative feelings tends to build up a depressive tendency. With psychological treatment still considered taboo by many and the easy availability of medicines without the prerequisite of a prescription, women often opt for self-medication.

They may dwell in self-pity. Even though they follow what the society deems as acceptable behaviour, they experience a feeling of worthlessness, because of the lack of power to make any difference to their own lives. In extreme cases, women may engage in self-destructive activities and substance abuse and have frequent nightmares and unpleasant thoughts. There are also physical symptoms of repressed anger, such as ulcers, panic attacks, headaches, hypertension and hysteria.

Apart from these impacts, which affect an individual and her relationships, passive anger can lead to destructive gossip, putting people down and provoking aggression without being directly involved in the act. South Asian women, then, cannot be expected to be strong role models for anyone or address the issues that affect them.

In order to move towards gender equality and make the search for self-identity fruitful, one should first become conscious of problems such as these. Anger is an emotion, which is far from subtle. Though it is modern practice to find other ways of releasing anger, this should be applicable to people regardless of gender and in context of the situation.


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