Rights in the In-Law Enclave
Muneera Parbeen looks at the double standards set by mothers-in-law
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
It's actually quite stupefying to think that women themselves also act against the rights of their own kind. A section of male readers could jump up at the previous sentence and breathe a sigh of relief. And yet, that remains the reality.
There are mothers and guardians who always, wishing to conform to society, hold back their female children from living life to the full. And by that I don't mean just partying, going out, and wearing fancy clothes. I mean living life to the full in its fullest meaning. From reaching out for their full potential.
Take, for instance, the entire in-law mechanism in a society as ours. Mothers-in-law, whatever they might believe in theory, are not known for their support for the emancipation of the women under their immediate control.
I know there are a lot of mothers-in-law who are better and more just. But I talk about the majority of those who are not. It's not unusual in our society to find that mothers-in-law are one huge force that actually takes pleasure out of belittling a woman's personal rights.
A woman, once married, and especially if she is compelled to live in a joint family, is more or less subjected to the control of her in-laws. It is the "duty" of the daughter-in-law to look after the house, nurse and care for the elderly, cook, clean, entertain, and hold up the family status without a word of protest. In other words, her only function in life is to obey the tyranny of her in-laws.
Extremely upsetting to think about, but nevertheless the real picture. And society has taught us to conform to the uncivil practices nurtured by many, so much so that we are even scared to talk about it in public.
A false sense is instilled in us while young, that by holding up pretensions -- as all is fine at home when it is not -- we try to buy "respect" (izzat) from our fellow society dwellers.
Many a mother-in-law will point out that certain tasks are only a daughter-in-law's responsibility and duty. And these usually include all the difficult tasks in the house with meticulous detail. Most of them serve to a large extent only the needs and comforts of the in-laws.
The situation is worse if the mother-in-law has herself been ill-treated by her own mother-in-law in her time. She will bide her time till she gets her a daughter-in-law in the house, to sort of take revenge for the own wrongs she suffered.
"But I had to do all these in my time and I never uttered a word!" She will point out time and again to her victim.
She will never stop to remember though, that torturing daughters-in-law, physically or mentally, is wrong. They remain as wrong as they were when the same was done to herself when she was a young bride.
There will be few from the same household to come to the support of the victim, because people usually take the easy route out by up telling themselves that "that's the way things are in our country/society/culture/religion."
No one bothers to think whether the things done are right or wrong.
They say when God created us, we were given a brain to do our own thinking. Watching the people in a society as ours -- where the abuse of women, especially wives, invariably tops the list of similar crimes from around the world each year -- one wonders if God might have actually forgotten to give that part of the brain that think to us.
You would think that victims would be more empathetic towards another victim's fate. Not when it comes to mothers-in-law, I guess.
For there are bad people, and there are petty people. And there are uneducated and less educated people.
These women, please remember, are mothers, mother who have tenderly given birth to their own children. And yet, they don't shy away from hurting someone else's child.
Mothers who in their own times wished that their husbands had been man enough to help them around the house or stand up for their rights, will now easily tell their sons to not help their wives in household or child rearing activities because those are a "wife's duty" alone.
Mothers, who, instead of rejoicing in the achievements of their daughters-in-law and in the fact that this generation of younger women are able to enjoy a certain freedom that she could not have, will happily (and repeatedly) torture their daughters-in-law about going out to work to chase their dreams.
Of course, most of these mothers have daughters of their own, too, whom they wish to see get better deals out of life than they did.
But you see, those are the women's daughters you are talking about, and daughters-in-law are not these women's daughters.
So people give as good as they received.
If only someone would open the windows and point out to such women that it is the year 2009 outside and not the 18th century, when social injustice was a way of life.
Having more than one daughter-in-law in the house, you would want to believe, eases the pain for the newer and younger girls coming into the family. No sir, those elder ones usually jump at the opportunity to do their own bullying. One can easily understand why the older daughter(s)-in-law gang up with their mother-in-law at this point to make life hell for the newcomer in the household. It gets them into the good books with the old lady and also is sweet revenge of sorts.
I am not kidding. And this is no joke. It happens in most households.
Some of these may sound like petty issues, but they never are. To be forced for years to eat oily and spicy food, say, instead of other preferences, and not being allowed to cook separately for herself, (or being subjected to mental torture and verbal abuse for daring to cook separately for herself) -- yes, such seemingly petty issues can over the years grow into cancerous proportions of anger.
And you are very right, the continuous Hindi serials on cable TV illustrating this household gangster-ism, instead of bringing down the number of such instances, actually contributes to them. The less educated minds are very vulnerable. It's easy for people who have been wronged or suppressed for years, having to put up with all kinds of ill-treatment for years and years -- from not being allowed to hang her own picture on the wall to being forced to miss out on her favourite cousin's wedding for no fathomable reason -- to think that they can in similarly small ways make others go through the hell they have been through.
By now, I am sure, many readers have stopped reading and are thinking of how this image actually fits into the lives of so many people they know.
Of course there are good examples, always, abundant examples to the contrary in society, but the numbers of those unfortunately are not enough to prevent them from recurring time and again, generation after generation.
It is not just female in-laws, of course, who wrong people, but I am not even going to go into the subject of men, who mostly don't believe in women's equal rights, anyway.
And is it only the mothers-in-laws who infringe women's freedom. What about other women in the household? Sisters-in-law? Other daughters-in-law of the house?
They enjoy the drama by constantly contributing to the mistreatment of the newer daughter-in-law. If newspaper reports over the years are taken into stride, imagine just how many daughters-in-law have died at the hands of other female members of their household.
It's got to stop and some day it will stop. It just has to.
Don't mistake me for an in-law hater. Because, why if I can see and understand the wrongs, would I hate my in-laws? Especially when they are nice and good to me? And treat me like a human being instead of "just a daughter-in-law"?
But I am not talking about fortunate me alone, I am talking about all of us. Don't even for a minute fool yourself that such things only happen to others and not to you. Like the Sidr making a million homeless and paupers but not us!
Many of us may live in a safe enclave for now, and we may very well end up on the other side of the fence when we wed. For there are cancerous people like this aplenty in this country. They live in the flat above us, and the one in the flat beneath us, and next door, and down the lane, in my locality and in yours.
They are our aunts and friends, or our friends' aunts or aunts' friends. Or our relatives who live back in the villages. Believe me, they are very near us. Just open your eyes and see.
Let us not turn a blind eye to a problem that bugs more than a good half of this nation. We can all help to change this situation, by starting within our own households. Drops of water can oceans make.
For now, however, I can't tell you of how ashamed I am of those who claim to be women, my sisters, but in no way behave like even a decent human being. They may have got their XY genes alright -- but nothing more.
Shame on them all.
Muneera Parbeen is a Sub-Editor, The Daily Star.