Desi Bahus: Gladiators in the Arena

24 Mar

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


13 Responses to “Desi Bahus: Gladiators in the Arena”

  1. Indian Homemaker December 28, 2011 at p12 #

    Congratulations 🙂 This post in one of the winners of ‘Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards – 2011’ (TRBA 2011). We would like to create an ebook with all the winning entries in 47 categories on Feminism and Gender Issues in India (and one category on Animals Rights). Please do let us know if you are fine with your winning post/s being included in this ebook. ( Please click here to let us know).


  2. Scribblehappy September 20, 2011 at p09 #

    Standing applause, DG !!Absolutely brilliant post. Loved your clarity.


    Welcome to GGTS, a safe space.
    Thank you for the compliment.

    Please share this message of hope with anyone who may benefit.

    Desi Girl


  3. Broken DesiGirl November 20, 2010 at p11 #

    Right on the one could express it better.

    We lived miles .. oceans away from my in laws. But they were always in his head, and their thinking always reinforced every weekend or everytime he spoke to his parents. One of my SILs was going through the same abuse I was going through .. why did she never correct her parents ? She looked the other way. Her parents could never do anything wrong. My other SIL always made my husband feel like he had betrayed his parents. She has a happy married life, she got a great humble Indian man, I call them rare jewels in the sad Indian society. I wish sometimes she would correct her own parents too. These women still do not want to let go of their control..their parents can never be wrong.. they can never be wrong.. How sad is that …


  4. Indian Homemaker November 19, 2010 at p11 #

    Brilliant post Desi Girl!! I will be linking to it many, many times!

    Thank you.


  5. desibahu March 24, 2010 at p03 #

    Why am I misplelling so much? I meant thanks for making people aware of these issues and creating this blog. Education about this issue is definately needed.


  6. desibahu March 24, 2010 at p03 #

    So I am still trying to convince myself what I overheard her saying to my MIL about me cannot be right. I Heard it. But I am telling myself and kind of believe that I heard wrong. It is possible to hear wrong, seriously. But I already know that she did humiliate me and my kids in front of my MIL and my MIL tagged along. MIL stepped further by hitting and cursing. Is this seriously how far it goes in many/most families? I’m amazed at our dirty culture. Wierd thing is, these women are also likely doing these things because they were abused themselves. Whast is beyond my comprehension is, a woman who says that her brother should not favour his wife, should not spend time/money with her, and that she and her family intentionally say negative things about his wife to him….this same woman complains when her in-laws do this to her. The justification is that her brother’s wife is not very educated and from a lower class family. The same MIL who brags about how her daughters’ and grand-daughters’ husbands spend money on them, help them with the kids, how many toys/clothes their daughter’s kids have, …………these same MILs complain when their DIL gets toys/clothes for her kids. They tell their DILs to stay in a small apartment while their sons are making houses for them. They have land, huge houses, factories, and can’t get enough. I think it’s a huge cultural gap. For them , the basic things that a DIL needs in her home is like luxury. They think we are treated like queens in our home becaus of the normal things that people have in North America. The most disgusting thing is how some parents show respect to their sons because of money, but behind these same sons’ backs, they talk very differently of them. And how, o how, is the son trapped and brainwashed. He trhinks my parents sacrificed for me, they lived in poverty for me, they are getting old……blah, blah, blah…………… Yes these are your parents and yopu have every right to make them happy, to give them a comfortable life, but there’s a point where things cross the line. These parents need to realize that the wife is the son’e life partner. His most important and intimate relationship. She is not just a baby, and service machine. But how do we change all these people? I think a big probl;em is poverty in our countries. Poverty and financial unstableness really makes people do wierd things. Thanks for masking aware of these issues and creating this blog.


  7. desibahu March 24, 2010 at p03 #

    Great post. I suspected my SIL (husband’s younger brother’s wife) is jealous and trying to make herself and her kids win over the in-laws. Now I know why. The girl is “establishing her place” in the family. Now I also know that her mean comments about me or my kids or competetive behavior is not too out of line, culturally I mean. Luckily I have two aunts with extra empathy. These women are like jewels. Growing up, I never heard/saw my mom and aunts fighting or saying mean things to each other. Nobody said anything about kids. I came to the US at age nine, so I grew-up not giving differential treatment to people because of superficial things like wealth, status, gender, skin color,…………….. We have all kinds of people in my family, and even my husband can testify to this as he was surprised by the politeness in my family, that we are not rude to people who are darker, poorer, less educated, …. than us.
    My SIL is related to my in-laws. In my husband’s family things are different. So if you are wealthy, fairer skinned, or more educated, you have a right to yell, scream at, curse, and mistreat people. I didn’t even know what caste was. Lucky for me (I mean with these in-laws) my family is the highest caste in Pakistan, as of my husband’s info. My marriage is a love marriage. His parents were happy with our marriage because my husband was happy, I let my hubby and still do, give them huge amounts of money, and because my SIL and younger BIL’s marriage was very rocky in the begining. My husband makes more money, while she would tell her husband that she is embarrassed of him in front of her freinds. She was brave enough to demand her rights and speak up, while I gave up mine. I admire her courage. This made her a bad bahu, and me a good one. Now to me the fact that my marriage is better or my husband makes more, or all these superficial things didn’t make me feel better than her. But when she came into the picture, moved near us, I was shocked. Her behavior was unlike i had seen before in my family’s interactions or from others. She was giving dirty looks to me and my son. She’s extremely fair skinned..well so is my mom, my sister, my aunts, my grandparents, lol. I’m darker than her but considered pretty fair. Didn’t matter before. Now suddenly my cooking, my way of doing things, my house managing, my looks, my kids, my education, and I don’t remember what else is being put down/critisized. So her brother is rich. Okay point is? Now I get it. This is all part of her self-worth and she has to prove that she is more worthy than me, especially after that rocky start. And the comments like, “they (my in-laws) only like you cuz you can speak their language” are now funnny to me when once they made me cry.
    Saddest part is, after being humiliated by my MIL, FIL, SIL in this fashion, I also started judging myself by these standards. My already low confidence went lower, and I deserve this treatment I thought. I became so low I started making my self feel better by comparing these silly things to others. I was never like that before, neither was I of the jealous type. I’m trying to find me again. The better me. See how this is a nasty cycle. It makes people evil, and the cycle just keeps going. Awareness is a great treasure.


    • Careless Chronicles January 24, 2011 at p01 #

      Great post! You have got the power dynamics really well.

      @Careless Chronicles,
      Welcome to GGTS, a safe space.
      Please share this message of hope with anyone who may benefit.
      Desi Girl


      • nolongeraslave January 26, 2011 at p01 #

        Great aricle and it reminds me of another thing…I’ve met some Desi guys that say “Why are Desi girls so insecure?” Gee, how can you be secure and confident when you come from such a family? As DG said, a woman’s self worth is seen through others in Desi culture. If you’re consitently brainwashed to feel that way, it can be a long struggle to learn how have self-confidence from within.



  1. RESULTS: Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards – 2011 | The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker - December 26, 2011

    […] Desi Bahus :Gladiators in an arena – Desi Girl […]


  2. A woman is not a woman’s worst enemy. Patriarchy is. « The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker - November 28, 2010

    […] Patriarchy does not put the rest of the population under pressure to win the approval of their spouse’s relatives, so the rest of the population has little  opportunity to find out just how unfair and dis-balanced the system is. [Read Desi Girl's take on this here and here] […]


  3. If your boyfriend is abusing you physically… « The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker - November 22, 2010

    […] Girl Desi – You telling us huge number of men being beaten up by women is far from truth, please substantiate your argument with statistical evidences and peer reviewed studies. DG works in violence prevention in conjunction with law enforcement (in both continents), if you want she can give you all the stats you want. More men are abused by other men be it suicide bombing, religious crusades or family feuds for land and honor (that definitely qualifies for inclusion in family violence). […]


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