Women and Marriage

IHM’s blog is one that I read regularly. Although I rarely take the time to comment on the issues she writes about, when I read her post and the comments on it today, I simply had to share my views on the subject.  And I thought putting up a post about it would be far better than scribbling in the comments column.

I have been married for three years now. And to this date, I keep hearing about how women are expected to behave once they are married. In fact, I have heard tons about how women or the female species in general are expected to behave- period. Being brought up by a couple of people who taught me  and my sister to be our own person rather than confirm to the norm, I had not thought much about how it would be for me post marriage. I had always had friends telling me about how things would change once I got married. Many of them were brought up to believe that marriage was the be all and end all of their very existence. Not me. I always believed things would be different for me. I got married when I was 23. I had seen my friends getting married and turning into completely different people by then. But I still believed things would be different for me.

I come from Kerala- a state that has record levels of literacy and record levels of gold being given away as dowry every year. A place that in spite of all the progress it boasts about is still extremely conservative when it comes to tradition. When I got married, I had always wanted it to be a low-key affair. That did not happen. I had to give in to my Grandparents pleas and agree to a big fat wedding. But, I chose the guy I married. I had broken a golden rule there you see- good girls don’t find their own guys. You leave it to the parents. I had known TS since I was all of 8. We had been neighbours. We had grown up together. We had been friends. And then we had fallen in love. And I thought since we had known each other for so long, any transition would be smooth. Wrong.

The very day after I got married, I was told to wear a bindi since married women always did. I wanted to laugh but I complied. But then, I wasn’t so much worried. I was only going to be around the family for a week and then me and TS were flying to Singapore. Thankfully, TS is not one of those guys who insist on following tradition. I don’t wear my wedding ring or my mangalsutra. I haven’t worn sindoor except for the week after my wedding. In fact, if you look at me you would see absolutely nothing that would scream “married”  at you. It works for both of us. The first time we came home after our wedding people were shocked to find no sign of a married woman on me. Sure, I was criticised but I have learnt to take it in my stride.

I often get told I don’t look married. Then again, most people don’t believe it when I tell them I’m 26. I look younger than I am, thanks to some awesome genes from my parents. I am short, reed thin and with a little effort, can pass off as a school kid. People expected me to put on weight or change in some way after I got married. I haven’t. Not physically at least. But marriage changed me. I had to become more responsible, more so than TS. I had to quit my job and move to where TS was, something TS could not have done. And society expects no man to do that either. I have friends who have sacrificed their careers for their husbands, for family. I have friends who have put their lives on the back burner for the sake of their husbands or kids. For them, marriage has truly meant the end of freedom in almost every way conceivable. I have friends who have to ask their husbands or in laws permission to come home for functions and festivals. I have friends who have to ask their husbands’ permission before going out to meet with friends. I have friends who call up their husbands to ask permission before they buy something.

And when I look at them, I think how different my life is. I do not have to do any of that with TS. We are more like best friends than a married couple. We both believe that marriage is all about loving and respecting the other person and that is exactly what we do. TS lends me a hand in all household chores. When we both were working he only saw it fair that we both shared everything equally. But this is not set in stone. There are days when I shoulder more and days when he has to do the same. But most of my friends and a majority of my family dislike the fact that I let TS cook, clean, sweep and what not. It has been set in stone in their minds that it is exclusively my forte and TS is not to be dragged into it. They find fault with the fact that some days I tell TS I can’t be bothered to cook and we order in. They find fault with the fact that some days I’d rather sit and read or write than clean the house.

I have always been someone who has tried to do everything perfectly. When I was working I used to work, come back home, cook dinner, read, blog, spend time with TS and sleep. I would do the same and also include cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing to the mix, and manage to go out with TS or our friends. It exhausted me on some days, even with TS’s help but, I loved doing it. And I was proud of the fact that I managed to do all that. But there were people who still grumbled, still thought I wasn’t doing enough. Now, I’m back in India preparing for a couple of exams. TS is all alone in Singapore. When we told people of our decision to stay apart, there were some who vehemently opposed the idea. How would TS manage on his own? Never mind the fact that till we got married, he was managing fine all by himself. But now it was somehow blasphemy to even think of the fact that I would want to pursue my studies and career at the cost of TS getting a hot meal on the table three times a day. Yes I feel bad leaving him behind. That’s because I love him to death. But we both decided that what I am doing now is far more important for the two of us than anything else.

What started as a simple comment has somehow morphed into a full-fledged rant here. What I am trying to say is, people in India still have preconceived notions about how married women are expected to behave. Married women still have to juggle a lot of balls in the air and majority of the women I know try hard to do this. And a large number of women have to lead lives far different from what they expected simply because they got married. And this preconception is precisely why people say someone doesn’t look or act married when they encounter someone who does not fit into the married mold. And that is why most Indian women take that particular statement as a compliment when they hear it.

Missing Women?

I came across an article on Yahoo! India today, that said that women in some villages are forced to marry more than one person from the same family due to a shortage of women. Some of them end up being married to 4-5 brothers in the same family. I had come across a similar article a long while back in India Today. I think I was in school then. The presence of this article on the site today, shows that the situation has gone from bad to worse. This horrifying scenario can be pretty much attributed to one single factor- female foeticide. Girls are simply not being born to keep up with the number of men, and society has to resort to such measures to keep their families moving forward. I find this concept, horrifying, disgusting and more than that frightening.

These families justify their stance saying that a single wife in the family will ensure that their property will not be divided among many households and some such drivel. But just imagine the plight of the woman. Lets think about why a situation like this has emerged. Since the institution of dowry started, there has been a steady decline in the number of the female half of the population. Leave alone villages, even in metros, parents consider a son as a blessing- someone who can earn and take care of them in their old age. Whereas a daughter is always a burden- someone you bring up only to get her married off, with a sizeable dowry to ensure she stays alive, and if at all she happens to be employed, the minute she is married her in-laws will have more claim on her salary than her own parents. There is no guarantee that her parents will be taken care of. And among some staunch Hindu’s, there’s the belief that only a son performing the last rites will ensure moksha for them. To this day, I hear people repeating this. And if a couple is not blessed with a son, in spite of having daughters, it is always a nephew who gets to do the last rites.

I digress. Daughters are a burden- in addition to the hefty dowry and the money “wasted” in educating them, there is also the angle of safety. Who in their right mind would want a daughter in a society where abuse starts right from the hospital bed where the girl is born? Sometimes, in spite of all the safety you can provide a daughter, tragedy still strikes. And that kind of “disgrace” is the worst kind- it doesn’t matter if it was for no fault of the girl. She will still be blamed. Sometimes, even I feel scared when I think of having a little baby girl. What guarantee is there that I will be able to protect her in this society? There are none. She could be assaulted, raped, shot, killed, have acid thrown on her face- disgraced in every way possible from the minute she is born. A son, on the most part, needs no such taking care of, no such protection. So why not avoid the headache and have a son instead of a daughter. Sex selection and foetal sex determination are banned in India. Yet, it happens. The rich decide to get the pregnancy terminated, while the poor, who often have no access to such facilities usually wait until the kid has been born to take action. The number of cases (reported & unreported) of female foetuses being killed, girls being abandoned minutes after birth and even killing of the girl child has shot up drastically. And recently, I read about a motion to legalize sex determination in our country. That will be the end, I tell you. We might as well be heading towards an all male society. Women will become a scarce resource soon.

The article I read today also mentioned that for most poor villagers with daughters, this scenario was a boon. Their daughters are a scarce resource, and they have the power to bargain now. In olden days, the guy’s family had all the power when it came to a wedding and the dowry demanded was often hefty, something that a poor farmer could never be able to afford. Now the tables are turned. Women are in short supply and so, their parents have the power to bargain. They see this as a golden opportunity to get their daughters married off sans dowry. In some parts of India, the situation is so dire, grooms families are paying the brides parents to give them their daughters in marriage. And for these parents, the fact that their daughter could be married to 3-4 men does not matter. They are simply getting rid of a headache. Simple. And does this situation teach these people anything? No. Am sure once the woman is married off, to one or all the brothers in a family, she will still be under pressure to produce a son. And the vicious cycle continues.

For the rich, educated class of society, dowry is still one of the reasons most prefer to have a son rather than a daughter.After all they have to give their daughter enough depending on their social standing. For some it is a matter of passing on the family business etc onto the “responsible shoulders” of a son. For some it is all about having someone to carry the family name forward, since the daughter is always “paraya dhan”. For some it is about the security of having someone stay with them and take care of them in their old age. The reason and excuses abound but, the fact remains, that these excuses make no sense. All these are non- issues if you make up your mind about it. If you decide not to give dowry, then it ceases to become an issue. It is as simple as that. Somehow people fail to see that. Some are scared that without dowry their daughters will be ill-treated in their in-laws place. It is a legitimate fear, I agree. We hear and read about these issues on a daily basis. But a hefty dowry again, does not ensure a daughter’s happiness. She could be tortured in spite of it. There is never any guarantee.

And thus the male: female ratio keeps dwindling. In spite of the best efforts of the government and various other non- profit and non- governmental organizations, the situation has scarcely improved. The numbers have steadily fallen and one sees no signs of it improving anytime soon. Something needs to be done to change this mindset of people. The government has to crackdown hard on anti- female practices and policies. The time for surveys and studies and declarations are over. This is not the time for false promises or fake declarations to implement suggestions. This is the time for action. This is the time to come down hard on stupid rituals and policies that make a girl unwanted and unloved. This is the time to effect a massive change in society. Lets all pray before it’s too late. Else, am sure the day is not far off, when “women” will be a category on India’s list of imports.

Social Conditioning??

Yesterday was a really hard day for me at work. I was tired, and in a foul mood, and I had a little thing called grocery shopping to finish in the evening. I missed my usual bus home in the evening, the next bus was impossibly crowded, and I ended up standing all the way home. And by the time I had gotten off the bus, I was ready to take offence at anything the world said or did. TS was on his way home and these days, due to a new train line opening, he gets home faster than me. And although I had asked him to carry on home, he chose to wait for me at the supermarket. Now, when I’m truly angry and depressed, I choose not to talk about anything. So me and TS finished our grocery shopping in pretty much complete silence and headed home. TS said nothing. I was not in the mood to cook but, if I didn’t there would be nothing for dinner or for the next day’s lunch and as I started to step into the kitchen, TS came up and said he would do the cooking. And he did. He made me an evening snack, cooked dinner and lunch, served dinner, washed the dishes and managed to chase away my foul mood in the middle of all this.

The one thing that I noticed was, all the time that TS spent in the kitchen, I had this tiny feeling of guilt at the back of my mind. I kept on thinking, I should be doing it. I should be the one cooking, not him. He’s had a hard day at work. I shouldn’t make him cook too. And then as soon as I started to think, I squashed the thought. I’d had a hard day too. Possibly one of the worst days at work I have ever faced. And I should not be feeling guilty about making TS cook for just a day. Usually, I manage the evening meal at home and TS is in charge of breakfast. But it is not the end of world if he does the dinner also one day. What bothered me the most was, in spite of being extremely vocal about women’s issues and gender equality and all, I was still feeling guilty about something like this. And I blame it all on social conditioning.

From the time we girls are old enough to understand, we are taught that we need to know how to cook. It is an essential skill that we need to be well versed in, in order to survive in this big bad world. We are taught that in future, the responsibility of an entire household will rest on our fragile shoulders and we will have to do everything from cooking and cleaning and washing and what not. And also manage a career if we insisted on it. This was something that I heard quite a lot and, thankfully, it came from everyone else other than my parents. My parents were considered not so lucky by many people we knew ‘cos they had the misfortune of having two kids- both girls. Oh! think of the sacrifices thee parents would have to make, think of the amount of dowry they would have to accumulate, the amount of money they would have to save for our weddings, the headaches that were sure to come during our adolescence. The list of issues would go on and on. But thank God for forward thinking parents, who bought me and my sister up to be independent, strong individuals who didn’t think their role was limited to the kitchen or that they were in any way inferior to the son(s) my parents could have had.

In spite of this, there were always eyebrows raised when Mom or Dad said that I didn’t know how to cook. I was doing my degree then and except for the tea, coffee and rice and some simple curry, I was clueless about anything else. I had people say to my Mom she was making a huge mistake by not training me in all these “womanly” stuff. They said I would become lazy and spoilt and that my sister would also learn from me. They said I would not make a “good wife” or daughter-in-law. They said, me and my sister should be taught everything from ironing to washing to cooking to cleaning to the art of identifying the freshest of veggies. There were even people who told my parents not to educate us too much, as our future husbands or in-laws might not appreciate us being very smart. Mom and Dad never forced us to do any of this. We learnt when we felt we wanted to. There was no pressure. I learnt to grocery shop when I realized how difficult it was for my Mom to go shopping on her own, when it was just a few items, and I could easily get it for her on my way back from college. I learnt to iron when Mom was not around or when she was too busy to do it for me. I learnt to cook when my Mom was busy taking care of my sister who was extremely sick, and both of my grandmothers who were recovering from different surgeries.

Once I started doing stuff on my own, Mom or Dad would correct us if we were doing something wrong. I have seen my Dad ironing his own clothes, polishing his own shoes, cleaning and dusting, washing the car, gardening and in dire straits even cooking his own food. He chooses not to cook ‘cos Mom’s cooking is way better than his. But there was never a sense of something being thrust on my Mom or on us. And so, I grew up thinking and believing there was nothing wrong with a man cooking or cleaning although society always told me otherwise. Sometimes those voices would dominate my head and make me wonder, but, I would always think of what my parents had taught me and shown me and feel better. So me and my sister grew up doing the things we wanted to do and in the process ended up learning how to do pretty much everything. We both can do everything that society deems is a woman’s forte and more. Although my sister hates cooking and I cannot sew a button to save my life, we have both done good. I have a few “cousin brothers” (as we Mallus say) in our family who have been so pampered by their families that they don’t wash their own plates or even know where their own clothes are. And they are teenagers. While me and my sister could be living by ourselves and we would manage just fine.

I say stop this conditioning of women. This is an age when women can more than compete with men in any forte you can think of. When we can go out and work 12- 14 hour days and run a household, men can also come back from work and not vegetate in front of the television. If women can do well academically and professionally and be a good homemaker, then men can learn how to do these household chores too. After all, if it’s all about gender equality, men wouldn’t want to feel unequal or worse still inferior to women, would they?

So now, when the TS cooks or cleans of washes clothes, I don’t think of it as an event of international importance or of myself as a very lucky wife. It is just a division of labour. We both do everything depending on what we feel like doing. If I don’t want to cook one day, TS does it. If he’s lazy about ironing, I do it, and so on. I don’t believe I am a bad wife for not wanting to do something that has traditionally been considered a woman’s job and I don’t think TS should feel belittled if he is in the kitchen cooking. Thank God for his wonderful mother who taught that women are not slaves and men slave drivers. And here’s to more men like him and more mothers like his. 🙂

Hell!!!

The other day, one of my friends’ send me this article. It paints a very scary picture of the moral policing done by some very “concerned” citizens in the state I come from. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. True, my state has always been conservative and not safe for women and all that but, I never expected married couples and siblings and whole families to be targeted. What horror! Being hauled up while travelling with your sibling, being asked for proof of being married to the guy/ girl you happen to be travelling with, being almost arrested for “illegal/ immoral activities” when all you were doing was having a fun time with your friends, being questioned for having a live- in relationship- all by random strangers who think it is their duty to preserve the moral fabric of the state. And even the so called law enforcers siding with them.
What century are we living in? And what happened to individual rights and choice and all that? Does this mean that I’ll have to carry around proof of my Dad being actually my Dad, my husband being really my husband and my sister being my own flesh and blood? And who died and made these men the custodians of morality and all that? These men who won’t think twice before roughing up a woman, or behaving in the most crass manner with women old enough to be their mothers or grandmothers, what moral values do they have? And why this acute nosiness? Why can’t these people bloody well mind their own business? The article quotes an instance of a brother- sister duo being hauled up by police for travelling together Apparently someone travelling in the bus thought they looked like eloping lovers. WTF!! What business is it of his even if they are eloping lovers? They have a right to elope if they want to- provided both of them are of the legal age to get married and all, if you want to get into the nitty gritties of things. And they have a right to live their life without interference from these nosy parkers.
The article also mentions an incident where a girl was roughed up by a handful of very drunk men because she happened to be travelling with a collegue on his motorbike. Apparenly it wasn’t proper moral conduct and these men wanted to teach the girl a lesson. Wat kind of lesson? For all they know, the girl’s parents or whoever else is “responsible” for her would have been aware of the fact that she was travelling with a collegue. People tell us women that its always safe to travel with a friend, or relative or colleague and this is what happens when we do.
Who gave these drunkards the right to beat her up? And what astounds me is the fact that the police seem to be siding with these men. Aren’t they supposed to exist for the sake of enforcing the law? And where in our constitution is there a law that says that a girl is not supposed to travel with her colleague? There is also the story of a man who was travelling with his wife and his mother in law and was stopped by a bunch of men who wanted to know how he was related to the women in the car. They refused to buy his explanation and insisted in believing that the women were prostitues. What business is it of these men to question this guy? Imagine how scarred the women and the man must have been from that single incident!
There is also a police commissioner who took it upon himself to ban guys from wearing low waist jeans and stuff. Now there are already severe restrictions on dressing and stuff in most colleges these days- for both guys and girls. Why go on to impose more? My degree days were pretty ok. There weren’t many restrictions on us, but still, any parent would be scared to send their daughters out dressed in anything other than salwars especially if they happen to be travelling by public transport. Not that any amount of covering oneself up helps. Its not like age or dressing or anything is a deterrent for men in God’s own country whose sole aim in life is to make life miserable for women. During my masters, the college I studied in had a strict dress code- salwars or sarees only on campus. It was a residential campus and very very safe. Yet, we had to adhere to a dress code. My working days in Chennai were a nightmare- especially travels by bus. Pinching, poking, grabbing- the usual drama. And most of these men would wait until you were getting off the bus to grab you. That way you don’t get time to react right? One had to be scared to even bargain too much with auto drivers. A college girl in Chennai got beaten up by an auto guy when she complained about him asking for a higher fare than what they had agreed on. And people just stood around watching the whole drama unfold. How could you muster enough courage to bargain with these kind of monsters?
And now with men like these prowling the streets looking for another victim to harass, and with the very “efficient” police force backing them, how can people like you and me step out in public and feel safe? How can I go out with my family and not feel scared that we will be  stopped by some random people and harassed, with people asking us for IDs and suff? How can I go out with my group of friends for a movie or for lunch or get together at someone’s house and not have people coming in and labelling me a slut? How can I go out with my husband without having my marriage certificate laminated and displayed around my neck for everyone to see? And how can the law makers and enforcers let these people roam free- disrupting peace and harassing innocents? How can they turn a blind eye when men like these go around bashing up people and making false claims and allegations and interfering in others lives and generally playing with the law?
I can go on and tell you hundreds of horror stories- personal and otherwise. My state boasts of one of the highest literacy rates anywhere in the world. Yet people seem to grow up with a very stunted intellect and thinking capability. They say its a place where they worship women as godesses. Thats probably the only time women are given some amount of respect. Else they are treated in the most despicable manner imaginable- they are tortured, leered at and made to feel unsafe in their very own homes sometimes. I say the law give us the right to defend ourselves. I say let us carry around guns or matchets or whatever- thats the only defence against these kind of men who just want to make trouble for us. Let us shoot these mischief makers and gropers and flashers in the balls if that’s what it takes to teach them a lesson. I think that’s the only way. With the police also turning a blind eye, we women will have to take our safety into out own hands. Who’s with me?