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Desi in-Laws Waging a Psychological Warfare Against Bahus

28 Nov

Desi in-Laws Waging a Psychological Warfare Against Bahus

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Last week I was talking to an old friend she sounded quite depressed and negative. I probed her and asked her what was making her so unhappy. She ceded it was the same old in-laws problems, manipulations, making snide remarks about her family, her upbringing, incessant complaining about how she lives her life, constant bickering and all the regular stuff. Her spouse dwindles from indifference to blaming her for all that was ailing his side of the family. He insists he isn’t expecting too much all he asks of her is to keep peace in the family. Call his parents once a week, not to talk back to them when they visit them or when she visits them. Was it really too much to ask? In ideal conditions may be not but here was an ongoing psychological warfare.

 Snide Remarks as Psychological Warfare


A psychological warfare is a war of the mind to defeat the enemy’s will to fight. It is a planned use of communications to influence human attitudes and behavior, to create in target groups behavior, emotions, and attitudes that support the attainment of dominant group’s objectives. Early in the marriage the berating comments regarding the quality of the wedding feast and the quantity of gifts given to a woman by her natal family at various occasions began. The gifts given to her by her natal family are thoroughly screened and denigrated in a way that makes her feel inadequate and ashamed. These comments were intended to humiliate her and put her on the defensive over every conceivable matter. The whole process of constant humiliation is aimed to demoralize a woman.  As in the psychological warfare a dominant group uses subtle persuasion than direct physical force by relying on logic, fear, desire or mental factors to promote specific emotions and behaviors. The aggressors employ similar tactics. As the breakdown of a woman’s marriage is the worst disaster imaginable, and that her life has no value of meaning outside marriage. Her feeling of vulnerability makes her desperately desire to somehow to carve a place for herself in her in-laws house, how ever, dreading the terms she must accept.  The never ending snide remarks, make her feel perpetually insecure, as she never knows which occasion may be used to demean and threaten her further. 

The premium placed on the preservation of marriage forces women to become a hostage in their marriage. Her parents would rather see her dead than return to them after a marital discord so she is expected to listen to this trash talk and not protest; remain silent. Her silence further irks the perpetrators of berating remarks, often mother-in-law and sisters-in-law play more mind games. Like instigating her husband how she has talked back or has been disrespectful. Their aim is to rupture her only intimate ally in the family. She is doomed either way if she remains silence she is taunted for being a snob and if she protests she is further tortured and her natal family is blamed for her faulty upbringing. The ideal of generational reverence is thrown on her face “ma-baap ne kya yahi sikhaya hai (Is this what your parents taught you),” “badon ki izaat karma nahin aata (She has no respect for elders),””Gamandi hai, apane aap ko kya samajhati hai (She is proudy and thinks of herself highly)” etc. Every thing ultimately turns to disrespect and insult her side of the family. If she tries to seek help from outside she is chided in the name of “ghar ki izzat” (family honor), “ghar ki baat” (private family matter), it is exactly how psychological operations are employed to generate pride and unity for desired incumbents.


This psychological warfare is part of a strategy to make women except a subordinate position within the family and feel grateful for being allowed to survive at all in the marital home. The retaining of the daughter-in-law into total subordination is an essential part of her transition from the natal to the marital home. But practically she remains a baharwali (outsider) until her death. She attains a permanent membership after a ‘shradh’ (offerings to the dead) is performed in her name.


The man’s family feels they are entitled to a compensation for their investment in his education and upbringing. They fear his wife may prevent him from doing so where as the reality is if he has a family he’ll have his own expenses. This insecurity of parents in many families takes the form of extracting dowry. But families where financial dependence on the sons is not a question still employ these tactics to subordinate the new bride. Why? The answer would be there is a peculiar taste of having power over another person. Sahota (2004) in her research found even when there were no mentionable assets to transfer women desired to be mothers of sons because they wanted to have the pleasure of becoming a ‘saas’ (mother-in-law). One woman conceded “Daughter-in-law will come and I’ll rule. When MIL’s have a daughter-in-law, she enjoys. This goes on like this (284).” The primary purpose of this violence is to degrade and victimize a woman so that she retains a desperate fear of disobeying the powerful.

 The economic dependence and social stigma are a major cause for most maltreated wives being unable to live on their own and being compelled to return to their husbands. What about those who are highly educated professionals? If they question these oppressive behaviors their education and ability to earn is blamed. They are told they are the “bad” women who are not only disrespectful of elders but also have no family values; they are selfish, they want is their freedom and most of all want their husbands to denounce their families. These are hurtful untrue allegations. These allegations attain extremely painful dimensions when our spouses join the band wagon and start blaming and accusing us. All we want is an end to this psychological torture. 

How does one address the issue of constant emotional abuse at the hands of ones in-laws? The notions of respect and keeping peace at all costs do not go along with personal integrity and respect for self.

 In all Indian communities the organized propaganda against modern, educated and employed women as lacking in traditional values and their desire for personal freedom works over time. Thanks to the Ekta Kapur, bollywood and its sister regional woods in propagating myths of selfish modern woman who wants the old parents-in-laws out on the street. Our personal realities do not match those projections we work triple shift- taking care of children, working on full time job and being our husband’s personal cheer leader.

Role of Sons/Husbands

The role of men in this form of familial abuse is questionable. Often they absolve themselves by saying “it is between women,” “I know what she is doing is wrong but you have to understand she is my mother, you should respect her.” Is it that simple? Even the aggrieved wives absolve them of any responsibility by saying “We do not have any personal issues it is just his mother and sister that bother me.” This is a tell tale sign of an abused where they try to protect the secondary abuser and minimize the abuse. Abused women forget that MIL and SIL are his relatives, he has a history with them he knows them inside out, and it is his duty to protect you from their attacks. Standing by his wife does not challenge his loyalties to them. Each one has a special and irreplaceable place in his life. If he has to take sides and prove his allegiance to his parents then there is definitely something wrong in his relationship with them. No matter how hard you try, you cannot fix it because it is their relationship. If you decided to remove your self from this situation the allegations made by your detractors come true so you lose and your spouse turns against you. If it were another setting professional, market place, acquaintances one would walk out and disassociate themselves from such toxic climate. But a married woman is a hostage and a captive so she cannot walkout of the situation on her own unless someone offers help.

 Seeking Help

Most of women do not want to bother their parents with their personal travesties because they are taught to believe marital home is a woman’s actual home; to preserve it’s honor is her duty. Such occurrences are so common that all women know someone who is undergoing similar torture thus they believe it is common and their situation is not extra ordinary. Also they are humiliated and ashamed to accept that they are being tortured. Those of who have had so called ‘Love Marriages’ are further at loss because they feel they made their bed and now they have to lie on it.

Only when it becomes unbearable or extreme physical violence from the spouse ensues a woman actively seeks help. Families use all possible forms of persuasion and intervention by relatives, community elders to reinstate the daughters in the marital home. But if she has no parental support, no house of her own, and is not turning an income substantial enough to support herself and her children with dignity, she cannot exercise this option after sometime her natal family too will start blaming her or accept it as her fate.


Returning to Parents:

Once a woman is married her parents want her to visit them as a guest and do not want to participate much in her life. If she is happily settled she is respected if her marriage is in crisis her status in natal family also dwindles. The stigma attached to a divorced or widowed woman fears the natal families more than their daughters’ endangered life. Even she fears that she will be a burden on her brothers and in whose homes she’ll be more humiliated and unwanted than in her husband’s. Often parents will try to reinstate her back in her husband’s home irrespective of her fears of violence. They often make an excuse that ‘society’ does not allow divorced women to exist in peace. In fact, the so-called society is usually no more than a woman’s own family.


Single Living:

Even if a woman can afford to pay a higher rent the hostility of landlords towards, single or divorced women is such that only an exceptionally lucky woman will find a place. There are hardly any support systems are available to her outside of her marriage and the family. The safe and cost effective childcare is one of them. If her parents will monitor her children they’ll expect to scrutinize her personal life as if she was once again a teenager.


Most women are not allowed to socialize independently and build solid friendships, either before or after marriage. It is usually fathers and brothers who prevent women to have friendships of their own in the name of family honor and status. Most married women are compelled to socialize in their husband’s circles. So when they decide to walkout they lose those friends. Female colleagues can usually provide only as much support as their families permit. Usually, a woman’s friendship with a divorcee is looked down upon and virtually discouraged. If she seeks support from her male colleagues it is minimal and will provoke censure and scandal. Women should build autonomous alliances, and adult social life of their own, from which to draw emotional sustenance and support rather than only be the shadows of their husbands. 

What do Women Want?

Women want this persistent psychological warfare against them to stop. They want time out, a right to remove themselves from toxic environments until permanent peace is restored. Women do not want to break families more so when they have children they prefer staying for their sake.

If all else fail they have to leave for their sanity and survival they still want to be in the company of their husbands. This also puts them in a morally ‘right’ position in the eyes of their families and the world. They are seen as dutiful rather than defiant wives. Their desire to return to their husband is heavily influenced by all these pressures they faces in their parental homes, and by a lifetime of conditioning to believe that they belongs in their husband’s home.

 The question we face is being “morally right” more important than being happy? Please leave comments; in the next post we’ll discuss claiming our happiness in the times of psychological warfare.

Read How to Deal With the In-Laws


Sahota, Simarjeet. “The Social Correlates of Induced Abortion in Jaipur, Rajasthan: Phenomenological Study Gender and Reproductive Rights.” Diss. U of Rajasthan, 2004.

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