“You don’t look like someone who could have led such a project.”

“You husband was your partner at the firm, so what did you do there?”

“It is different for women.”

The above are just a few of the casually sexist comments Yashika Singla was subject to as a successful architect running a business with her (now former) husband. The gender prejudice is, unfortunately, neither new nor surprising in a dominantly patriarchal society. Women as free agents, successful on their own, forging their own paths, without needing to rely on husband / father / other masculine crutches are obviously just as mythical as unicorns, patriarchy would have us believe.

A feminist primer

Singla’s book, My Subconsciously Feminist Father, tackles precisely this territory of age-old prejudice, patriarchal oppression, and socially validated codes of gendered behaviour. Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, the book seeks to question the status quo of gender relations and doles out advice for parents, particularly fathers, for raising feminist children, particularly, sons.

The premise is valid. In any deeply patriarchal and insistently marriage-centric culture, the task of parenting falls mostly to mothers and raising feminist children is not a significant goalpost in the journey for many. Singla’s quest to find a space of equal rights, equal privilege, and equal responsibilities is part pipe dream, part memoir, and fully aspirational feminist text.

The book does not assume much of a grounding in feminism on part of the reader. Like a primer, it sets out the essentials. Crucially, for readership in a country like India where feminism is largely misunderstood and mistrusted, not just by men but also by women, it clarifies that feminism is not about angry women who hate men but is “a collective scheme that requires constructive application in daily lives for the betterment of all. It is for men as much as it is for women.”

Echoing bell hooks, Singla avers that feminism is for everybody, and like Adichie, she says we should all be feminists. Primary lesson then being that feminism benefits both men and women, creating an “equalist” social order. The writer’s contention is that her father “accidentally” raised three feminist children, based on his ethic of equality.

The perplexing bit in the book, however, is the writer’s seemingly easy negotiation between the father’s “subconscious” feminism and outward patriarchal behaviour. The father who insists on an equal division of labour in the household is difficult to square with the father who believes cooking is a woman’s job, even as he contributes to other tasks in the kitchen.

The definition of feminism is further thrown into confusion when Singla writes about a friend who “definitely isn’t a feminist” but believes in gender equality and respects successful women instead of feeling threatened by them. This inherent contradiction aside, the book has much to offer by way of everyday feminist interventions in social, personal, and professional spaces.

This compact volume of just over 150 pages offers a comprehensive look at the gender power dynamic via a range of matrices. Tackling the still-thorny issue of whether a woman should take her husband’s name, the author brings a wry humour to her detailing of all the horrors her decision to stick to her maiden name threatened to rain down on her. She writes about how, while applying for a voter card, without seeking her consent, her name was changed to that of her husband’s, erasing not just her choice but also her individual identity.

The same question of permission and control often comes up in marital relationships. In many families, women need to be “allowed” to work outside the home or “allowed” to keep their names, as if they were lesser beings, subordinate to the husband and his family, the husband often being imaged as a guardian, a benevolent keeper.

To address this disparity, Singla suggests the model of teamwork, the marital unit or the family as a team that has assigned roles and makes an equitable division of both labour and leisure. Equality of labour has been talked about enough in contemporary discourse, but leisure remains largely ignored as a quantifiable category value can be assigned to.

Marriage, as a social and cultural institution, has been unequal in both expectations and responsibilities. The author perhaps oversimplifies the situation, drawing up a chart that essentialises the daily lives of husbands and wives, but she does offer a simple solution to the problem of unequal division of societal obligations, of compromises and sacrifices, “of recreation, respite, and, indeed, happiness.”

The distance between feminist theory and practice

The book is structured in the form of nine chapters, bookended with an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter carries an epilogue titled “Unsolicited Suggestions”, addressed primarily to fathers, exhorting them to raise feminist sons. “My book talks to fathers,” Yashika Singla writes, “because I strongly feel fathers are underdogs when it comes to parenting.” I cannot claim to understand why the author thinks that “fathers can instill qualities in children that mothers cannot”, but I do absolutely agree with her when she says that fathers can be educators and primary parents shouldering as much responsibility as mothers who have been socialised for centuries into roles of givers and nurturers.

Singla also shines the light on what has emerged as a serious concern in the public domain in the last few years – a Boys’ Club culture which ensures that men stick together and stick up for each other, an unspoken brotherhood that women do not seem to replicate. She points to the complicity of women in patriarchy, whether for the sake of benefits that accrue from submission to the hegemonic power or from an uncritical acceptance of status quo and a fear of upsetting the apple cart.

My Subconsciously Feminist Father is not a perfect exposition of feminism in 2023 – but then, nothing can possibly be, in a world as fractal, as judgmental, and almost conversely, as intersectional as ours. Singla’s work falters a little when she writes about “disguised feminism” or “Nouveaux Feminists”, and especially when she constructs a forgiving narrative for a father who occupies an oddly liminal territory between feminism and patriarchy.

The argument is structured largely on the basis of anecdotes, but the politics of the text is spot on. The book takes note of everyday praxis and the distance between theory and practice. It speaks fearlessly of prejudice and violence. It takes cognizance of quotidian inequities like access to toilets and the right to make choices. It also takes note of empty symbolism in most single-day celebrations of Women’s Day that are about optics and do not initiate any active political engagement.

However, by far, the greatest contribution of this book is its constant reiteration of the fact that feminism is for everyone, that it is essential if we want a society and safe family spaces based on equality and liberal values, and that men benefit from feminism and are lesser when they do not embrace feminism. For foregrounding everyday biases and for articulating gender inequities with compassion and without giving in to what can only be called justifiable female anger, My Subconsciously Feminist Father is a book I will be rooting for.

My Subconsciously Feminist Father, Yashika Singla, Aleph Book Company.