Patriarchy can’t survive without hierarchy and rigid but complex rules that ensure everybody knows their place. So Indian daughters in law in traditional and patriarchal families may not give their opinion but they are expected to be gregarious extroverts in some situations.
Reading or quietly listening to music, spending time with their own social circle or not wishing to interact with (and seek approval of) the social circle of those who are higher in the family hierarchy is considered disrespectful and non-sanskaari.
They are expected to be Sanskaari Extroverts who know how to win the approval of the third cousins, friends and acquaintances of those who are higher in the family hierarchy.
‘Letter from another Indian woman’ asks how to deal with this and more.
I have been following some of your recent guest posts about dealing with abuse[link] and manipulation [link], as well as the letters that are often published in your blog. I am 28 years old, and I have been married for about 6 months now. From what I have observed around me, and in my relations with my husband’s family, I have a few questions that I would like to use as topics of discussion.
As background, I married my long-term boyfriend, whom I have known for some years. We met while we were at grad school . I have met and interacted with his parents several times before we got married, and during that period, they seemed fairly normal. My mother-in-law has an advanced degree and was a working professional all her life. His parents often lived in different cities, owing to transfers. My husband was primarily raised by his grandmother, and when he was older, was put in a residential school. Whenever I have spoken to my in-laws, they seemed proud and supportive of my education and career. I found these welcome; I was very clear that I wanted to marry someone whose parents I could get along with, and who would not be unreasonable when it came to my personal choices.
We went back abroad after the wedding. I came to India (without my husband) for a vacation this month, and went to spend some time at my in laws’ place. My husband told me to visit them only if I felt like it – I went because I thought I could get to know them better. I stayed for 10 days. However, I realized to my shock that there were sides of my in-laws that I had never anticipated.
Every day, she had at least ten different friends and relatives over, to ‘introduce’ me to them. She made coffee and snacks (I helped as much as I could in a foreign home), and I was expected to serve it to them and receive praise for being such a ‘good daughter-in-law’ (no, I was just being a decent host-helper). My achievements (education-wise and career-wise) were emphatically repeated to every group. The audience oohed and aahed and congratulated my MIL for getting ‘such an accomplished bahu’, while I cringed with embarrassment, yet smiled politely. It felt really uncomfortable to be made into some sort of a trophy. Their conversations were not something I could participate in: they gossiped about their other friends, their sons and DILs that I was sure the minute they left he house, they would gossip about me as well. And then my mother-in-law bade me to touch the feet of all the women who had come home to ‘bless’ me. Some of us don’t believe in falling at people’s feet. When I expressed my inhibitions to my mother-in-law, she said that this was de rigueur in her circles, and besides, it was ‘good manners’ and ‘polite’ to seek people’s blessings. Some of these people were her bosses at work, so I was supposed to ‘make a good impression’. Her tone made it sound like she thought I was ill-bred.
Secondly, I realized that she has a temper issue. Whenever she is stressed, she shouts at whomever happens to be nearest to her that she considers her inferior. This includes her household help, people who live in her building and her siblings. I noticed that while they say nothing to her face (they mostly grin and shift their weight), they say nasty things about her behind her back.
I was with them for just 10 days, but I had her shout at me for no fault of mine three or four times. The last time, I lost my temper too and said I had done nothing wrong, why was I being shouted at. She replied saying I was ‘disobedient, talking back to her, had no respect for elders, acting like I was smarter than her, trying to one-up her to gain her son’s affections (!)’ accusations that I now know don’t apply to me at all. However, I was very hurt at that time. I have not been able to talk to her normally ever since.
My FIL took me aside and said that this was normal with her, and ‘if I ignore the temper and harsh words, she is a wonderful person’. He also said that she regrets not having spent time with her son when he was little, and now feels bad that he was not able to get leave and come down to be with her.
When I discussed this with my husband, he said he would speak to his mother when she was in a better mood, and that I did not have to be there any more and go back to my parents’ place. He also said that my MIL had been abused verbally and physically by her father when she was young (they could not answer back when shouted at, or they would be beaten). While I feel sorry for her, and understand where the cycle of abuse began, I don’t think it excuses her behavior.
So here are my comments/questions:
1. I am quite introverted by nature, and meeting lots of people for an extended period of time, gossip and small talk tires me out. However, in Indian families, the DIL is supposed to be gregarious, extroverted and quite the life of the party.While I found it difficult to play this role for 10 days, I shuddered to think of DILs who live with their in-laws and have to face an onslaught of people on a daily basis. In fact, I have heard it said in some homes: “your daughter is not outgoing enough, how is she going to adjust with all the people at her in-laws’?” Why this expectation? Further more, signalling that one is introverted and reserved gets her branded as ‘impolite’, ‘haughty’, ‘thinks too much of herself’ etc. Practically, what can an introvert do to communicate that such expectations are too much for her, and that she means no disrespect by wanting her own time?
2. It appears like most families want a woman who can answer questions in a checklist, fit into a mould that they have crafted of an ‘ideal DIL’, not a real woman. I don’t think any real woman can be all that! And I think this expectation is fairly universal – it is the rare parent who is actually open to getting to know a person, as opposed to a checklist. Practically, what can a woman like me do to convince my in-laws to get to know the real me? Is that likely? Is that even a good idea?
3. When I told my close friend about these incidents, and asked for advice to deal with it, I was told that ‘I should have inquired more’ and absolutely verified they were good people before marrying my husband. ‘Now it is too late, why complain now? Just adjust.’ was the refrain. I found it astonishing, but realized it is fairly common. The narrative that if you have a bad husband, or bad in-laws, then it is your fault is too prevalent today.But that’s not really true! Can one ever know a family so intimately without practically living with them for a month?
4. My in-laws are in their 60s, and getting older. While I don’t foresee living with them since we live abroad, if they are sick and ailing, I would want to take care of them. I want to have cordial relations with them if I can. But I am also sure I don’t want to be shouted at repeatedly for no fault of mine. Practically, what can I do to inform them that while I would like to be cordial, I don’t welcome intrusions and certainly not temper tantrums?
5. The very idea of a DIL (or even the son) negotiating boundaries with in-laws is considered rude, impolite and disrespectful. But I don’t think the MIL-DIL relationship is hierarchical. I am just a woman who happened to marry her son. How do we negotiate boundaries without it coming across as disrespectful? What is the best answer when one is accused of disrespect, when all one is doing is negotiating boundaries?
6. I have observed that my MIL inhabits a very hierarchical society. She fawns over her bosses (she practically sat on the floor at her boss-lady’s feet while she had coffee), and expects anyone younger than her to fawn over her. She takes it lying down when her bosses shout at her, apparently, and expects her ‘inferiors’ to not retaliate when she shouts at them. This is symptomatic of a larger social problem.
I don’t consider myself having significant problems. My husband is very fair and understanding, and we get along well. He protects me from having to face intrusive questions (about kids, etc.) from his extended family. I don’t have to live with my in-laws. However, just going by my experiences, I feel like I have experienced a taste of what so many many women in our country go through every day, and how that wears down their confidence and erodes their sense of self. This is practically human rights violation, it shouldn’t have to happen to anybody.
I request you to publish this letter, so that I can hear from your readers.