Desi Bahus: Gladiators in the Arena
Often the search engine terms used to find this blog are quite amusing. One term especially caught Desi Girl’s attention, “why are desi girls so mean to each other.” This post is an answer to this question and the one posed by Desi Bahu.
Women’s oppression in any male dominated society and violence against women (VAW) in homes perpetrated by men is a sad situation. It not only demands attention but often becomes the poster of all violence against women thus ignoring other forms and agents of violence against women. Behind the closed doors in the warmth of the families, familial abuse is often pushed under the rug in the name of family honor. In desi families, male to female violence is as common as else where in the world but what makes VAW in desi homes unique is the involvement of women in perpetrating violence against women. There is ample of documentation of women abetting dowry murders and launching psychological warfare against bahus. But why do women abet VAW?
The answer to this malady rests in the nature of desi household. Desi households are patriarchal (male oriented and dominated), partilocal (on marriage woman goes to live with husband’s kin) and patronymic (woman and her children take on man’s name thereafter, belong to his lineage). In patriarchal societies, women derive status through their association with men in family and marriage. A woman’s social status is dependent on her male kin, whose daughter is she, whose sister she is, who is her husband or who is her son and so on. To expand it further, her social status is related to that of her male kin; if her father or brother are a wealthy then she is considered wealthy. Even though she does not own that wealth but her association with the wealth owner bestows her preferential treatment and higher social status. There is a premium placed on the social and economic status of families in negotiating matrimonial alliances. The qualifications of a bride are reduced to her physical assets that are impermanent in nature like her beauty; fair complexion etc. whereas, a groom essentially has to be able to provide for his family and if not so then his kin should be able to provide that security. At the same time it is understood the bride’s family will help her husband and his kin in the time of economic need. Thus marriage appears to be a site of economic exchange where value of women is dependent on the men they are related to. The question still remains unanswered why women abet VAW. For that we need to go little further.
After marriage when a woman moves into the new household there are already other women there, she has to establish her self. Some women (MIL and SIL) are her spouse’s blood relatives thus have more history and authority in the household and other women like her are brought into the family through marriage (wives of other brothers in the family, called bahus or co-sisters). The status of these bahus is stratified according to the birth order of their spouses. The elder brother’s wife has more say than the middle or younger brother’s wife. This hierarchy is not static there is always a tug of war as the status of brothers is again not limited to their birth order. It depends on how able each brother is physically, professionally successful, charming, has good relationship with his parents and siblings etc. There after a woman’s status further depends on the nature of her conjugal bliss. If she has a good relationship with her husband and he respects her then she is considered good on the other hand, if her marriage is bad her status is immediately threatened (some natal families do not want to be associate with the daughter who has a bad marriage; she is discriminate against her sisters who have successful marriages). Beyond this is another part to this equation the social-economic standing of natal family of each co-sister that determines her status in the sasural (marital home). Hence it is imperative for women in order to establish themselves in the marital home they have to dislodge the conjugal harmony of the other co-sister(s). We have already discussed motivations of MIL and SIL in this dislodging project in the previous posts.
Competition between the co-sisters is not based on their personal worth but on that of their relationship with men in their lives. Even though motherhood is celebrated in desi cultures; mothering of son is treated preferentially. Thus desi households constitute the site for struggle for resources and power. Resources being respect and establishment in the family and power constitute ability to control personal life and lives of others. The ranking of DILs based on age, motherhood and attributes of spouse and natal family keeps women divided. The incoming women not only have to compete against the women already there (MIL and SIL) they also have to rub shoulders with those who are possibly their cohorts. This differential access to power and resources leads to redivision of household labor among the women and exacerbate the antagonism between them and embeds them in an oppressive system where they do not question lack of their personal worth and privileging of their dependence on male kin.
This competition is systemically designed within the desi households and is culturally supported. There are folk songs* sung at weddings that describe the meanness of other women in the conjugal family. It is a kind of anticipatory socialization of the bride to be, preparing her for a war to secure her foothold in the household. These songs narrate how MIL, SILs and co-sisters are always scheming to dislodge the new bride and disrupt her marital harmony. Another culturally supported means of this dislodging project is through the range of joking and respect avoidance relationship between the DILs and brothers-in-law. The husband’s younger brother has a joking relationship with his elder brothers’ wives. He is assumed to be like her brother who provides her with comic relief and support in the hostile household (sexual overtures are possible). At the same time younger brother’s wife has respect avoidance relationship with his elder brother. This not only channels the competition between co-sisters but also set limits on sexual propensity between the opposite sexes (there are always exceptions depending on the economic status and physical prowess of each male member). With this frame of reference if we analyses the question why women abet VAW within homes a clear picture emerges that lack of personal worth or worth just based on physical attributes keeps women looking for means to find worth through their association with men. The desi bahus in desi households are like gladiators, slaves raised to hurt other slaves for the amusement of patriarchy and patriarchal interests. Similar behaviors percolate beyond the walls of homes when women see their self-worth only through others.
Like the search engine term said “why are desi girls so mean to each other,” the answer is as simple; they do not know their self-worth. For some the self-worth is invested in material possessions and for others it is in the possession of relationships, pricy commodity could be prospective boy friend or husband. These people have learned the only way to feel worthy is through manipulating and belittling others to quell the competition. It is a pity how some people in order to feel good about themselves invest so much time and effort in manipulating and making others feel bad. It is just like the puzzle about two equal lines- without using a marker how you can elongate one line. Answer is, to make one line longer partially erase one of the lines. Unless people realize their self-worth for who they are beyond their relationships and material possessions they’ll keep wasting themselves in these petty personal politics and miss out on the wonder of human existence. If you are a person who is feeling bad for what another person is doing or saying to you, please know that you have to value your self and know you worth. Your self-worth lies in you alone and your relationship with your creator/universe. If you know what they are saying is not true then you do not have to bother your self because that is not who you are. Define yourself don’t let people define you. Try using my formula
“If you are not paying my rent or my bills then what you think about me does not matter.” Try it, it works.
*एक सुख देखा मैंन मैया के राज में, I saw peace in my mother’s reign,
सखियों के संग अपने, गुडिओं का मेरा खेलना Playing with my friends and dolls
एक सुख देखा मैने भाभी के राज में, I saw peace in my SIL’s reign, (brother’s wife)
गोद में भतीजा रे, गलिओं में मेरा घूमना Nephew in the lap, my strolling in the streets
एक दुख देखा मैने सासू के राज में, I saw pain in my MIL’s reign,
आधी आधी रतियाँ रे चक्की का मेरा पीसना I grinding mill until midnight
एक दुख देखा मैंने जीतहाणी के राज में, I saw a pain in my elder co-sister’s reign
आधी आधी रतियाँ रे चूहले का मेरा फूँकना I blowing smoke of the earthen stove