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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Marital inequality: “Tradition” and the subjugation of women

Of all the questions, personal and social, with which I have grappled in my life, there is one that evinces the most visceral and dismissive scoff from a lot of people – conservatives and progressives alike.

I first asked it when I was too young to comprehend the response I got. Or so I have been told.

It was the first time I had watched the video of my parents’ wedding, heard the song – “babul ki duaen leti ja” (Dear Daughter, Take the blessings of your Father) play towards the end and seen my mom being escorted out of her maternal home by my grandfather and grandmother into the flower laden Fiat of my dad’s family. My natural impulse was to ask – “Why did you leave your home? Everyone is crying. They clearly don’t want you to” as my mom’s was to answer – “Because after marriage, women have to go live with their husband’s family.”

“But why?” I asked then and have been asking ever since.

Planning Weddings or Internalizing Subjugation?
This phenomenon of sending the daughter away to her “new home” is something we are all too familiar with, even in the 21st century. No questions are asked. No assumptions are challenged. There is no discussion. Apparently, it is the way it is.

Why should my father and my family have to pay for the wedding? Why does the groom’s family get to impose their demands of dowry, expensive venues, gifts and the like on my family? Why are we, the women, the only ones required to leave our current living situations – our homes, our families, our livelihoods, our identities, even our names, in the name of matrimony?

One spends a lifetime in this maze of social norms called “our culture”, and internalizes its subjugation so well that it becomes a part of our identities and belief system, hardly ever questioning the premise of relevance of age-old rituals in today’s day.

Upholding “Tradition” or Stifling Debate?
I will be the first to admit that I am far from being a bystander in this debate. More so, it is hard to do so when you realize that eventually you are headed toward the same fate unless you are prepared to be ostracized from the society. Just mentioning the concept of “nuclear family” out loud can get you labelled as willful and “westernized” and disqualifies you as a good matrimonial match.

The harsh reality is that marriage in the context of Indian culture and society, is NOT a celebration of two people pledging their lives and welfares to each other on equal grounds. It has never been. I don’t need to cite thousands of studies and articles in support of my statement. The empirical evidence pervades our lives.

Heck, just watch a Bollywood movie, any movie, that has a wedding woven into its plot (there should be no dearth of those) and you will see clichés rife with gender inequality. The bride’s father laying his turban at the feet of the groom’s family symbolizing his supposed inferior status, the bride’s family borrowing and/or going broke with the wedding/dowry expenses, the bride wailing her heart out during the send-off ceremony, the bride requiring the “permission” of her in-laws and her husband to visit her own parents after the wedding. Again, I could go on. But it has already started to make my blood boil.

Now what’s interesting to me personally, is that we, as Indians, are so blatant about this inequality that we refuse to define it as such. We would rather bring out the big guns – the proverbial trifecta – Culture, Tradition and Religion, to justify the senselessness of this archaic practice than admit to its uselessness in the present day and age. In most cases, the debate is shut down even before it begins.

The Individual and Institutional Defenders of Misogyny
“What’s the alternative?” Some ask belligerently. “That a man should leave his home to live with his wife’s family?” Because apparently, nothing hurts a man’s ego more than being a ghar jamaayi.

Others reject the notion of nuclear family units as selfish and immoral. “Who is supposed to take care of ageing parents?” They demand with the self-serving ferocity that is so characteristic of patriarchs and misogynists. And the sad part is that the institutions of our country support them whole-heartedly.

The Supreme Court of India, the pinnacle of justice system in our country which is supposed to uphold the rights of ALL its citizens, and not just men, in a long history of clamping down on the rights of its female citizenry, recently granted divorce to a man on the grounds of his wife refusing to live with her in-laws.

In an article published by The Guardian, the freelance journalist, Vidhi Joshi, reports the language employed by Justice Anil R. Dave in his ruling. Justice Dave could have been repeating a dialogue straight out of a Bollywood movie when he argued: “In normal circumstances, a wife is expected to be with the family of the husband after the marriage.”

This Judge of a supposedly “secular” and “democratic” country cited the “pious obligation” that Hindu men have to look after their parents. One could not have expected anything else from this Andha Kanoon, which refuses to criminalize other heinous crimes committed against women within their homes. Marital rape is still legal in India because apparently our society asserts that a wife’s body is her husband’s property. The patriarchs like the honorable Mr. Dave would rather subjugate half their country’s population in the name of cultural norms, archaic practices and religious scriptures, rather than open their eyes to the stark reality of the status of women in the Indian society.

India’s Eligible Yet Invisible Workforce
Some critics are happy to quote the education and employment statistics to score a point in this non-debate. They will assert that it is not a man’s fault; that less women are in the workforce and most households depend on the income of a man. So, naturally, women have to follow wherever the man goes, not vice versa. But even this, does not make any sense.

The 2014 Gender Gap Index report published by World Economic Forum, clearly shows that for every 100 men enrolled in secondary education, there are 79 women enrolled as well. But, due to the deep gender bias entrenched in our society, female labor force participation is abysmal when compared to those of men. The ratio stands at 0.36 – quite appalling for “the fastest growing economy of the world.” Clearly, it’s not that women are not qualified for employment. But a huge majority either don’t get to join the workforce or have to leave it after marriage.

I am not so biased as to lay the blame squarely at the feet of men. Of course, that’s how patriarchal conditioning works. Most women, till today, have come to internalise that financial independence is not as important as marriage. And thus, the oppressed partakes in her oppression, meaning a complete win-win for the oppressive system to continue. This is far from shaming women who choose the home and the hearth over their work life, but this is about the ridiculous idea that the former is every woman’s work, while the latter is unimportant. And mind you, this is a worldwide phenomenon where even a woman like Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. While sharing her own personal struggle with traditional gender roles in society, in her widely-read book “Lean In” has to remind herself and other women that they are not bad mothers for continuing to pursue their personal journeys, dreams and careers, or for being too tired some evenings to help their children with homework, or for having to miss a school event on account of work.


If you, as a male reader, think this dismissive attitude towards female employment springs from a vacuum, then I urge you to think again; to look inside your home, and talk to the women in your life. May be, they can shed some light on the issue for you! Women all over the world are deterred from pursuing meaningful and long-lasting careers in fear that financial subsistence will eventually breed independence of thought and action. Just as men are discouraged to share the responsibilities at home. The few who share the workload in and out of their homes with their partners are ridiculed for doing so.

The Long Overdue Revolution Must Begin At Home
This system of matrimonial inequality is inherently unfair to both partners. A man should not have to carry the full financial burden of a household just like a woman should not have to throw away her career and become the most qualified house-maid/cook/laundress on her block or street. Where is the sense in that? How are we supposed to leave the tag of a “developing” nation behind, if half of our population is over-worked and the other half is doomed to sulk at the kitchen sink.

You think about the problem of matrimonial inequality long enough and the hypocrisies of this sacred institution that we love to brag about come undone. It rather starts to appear what it is; more like the vicious circle of subjugation and misogyny that it is and has forever been. Sure, it no longer requires a woman to be burnt at her husband’s funeral pyre as the ancient practice of Sati did, or requires a widow to be shunned from society as an embodiment of a bad omen (of course, they have to face a different type of ostracism now). Despite all the progress we have made over the last century, the gender scale is still leaning heavily on one side at the expense of the other, and will continue to do so, until we make it stop. One person. One family. One couple at a time.

Society 2.0
Son preference is rampant presumably because they will take care of their ageing parents, stay with them, provide for them while daughters will be hauled off to another family to cook, clean, bear and rear children, and earn only for the financial betterment of the other family.

In terms of lifetime value, a son is an investment for the future whereas a daughter is deemed a hefty cost to the family. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to do the math here. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the fate of the girl child as paraaya dhan (someone else’s wealth) – a metaphor that I especially hate!

Again, some of you will proclaim that it is meant to honour the girl. I personally cannot get past the word: paraaya.

To those who say that it is immoral for a son to be required to leave his parents, I would like to ask, “Since when does living in the same house qualify you as an effective caregiver to a parent? Does the rest of the world, which does not live with their parents after marriage, stop caring for them? Both my brother and I moved out of India to study and work in our early twenties. Does that mean that we have stopped caring for our parents?”

Why can’t a couple take shared responsibility of parents – husband’s parents as well as the wife’s – as equal partners? Are a man’s parents more special and require the sole attention of their daughter-in-law just because they happened to conceive a son? That they somehow won a lottery because they have a son?

The fact of the matter is that the tide has been turning for half a century. Ideas disseminate. Ideas proliferate and people, men, women and the transgender community, begin to question the status quo. Thousands of young families are already migrating to the urban centres of India, in search of brighter future or financial prosperity. Some have been driven out by necessity. Whether the patriarchs like it or not, the word ‘family’ is no longer synonymous with “joint family” when our social fabric is viewed through the lens of modernity.

It’s about time we update our ceremonies, metaphors, Bollywood rhetoric and overall mindsets to reflect the reality on the ground!

(Source: Feminism in India)

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