Measuring self-worth in units of male approval: Marriage in India
By— January 23, 2014
While women’s rights in India have begun to make news this year, we are barely off the starting line yet. The news includes domestic and international outrage over the gang rapes of strangers, but these make up a very small percentage of the sexual attacks in the country. In India, more than 90 percent of rapes are committed by people known to the victim, according to a 2012 report by India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
I am yet to understand this logic: In India, it is legal to rape your wife, but it is illegal to beat her—though you can usually get away with that too. Estimates of domestic violence in the country vary widely, but no studies peg it to less than one in five women experiencing intimate partner violence at some point in her married life.
But if you throw a lovebird out of a cage, who will protect it from predators?
I’m not being melodramatic. This analogy comes from a friend who works with battered women in India. It’s not that she doesn’t wish freedom for those she helps—it’s that she has no idea how to help them reach for it when their whole being is carefully shaped to measure their self-worth in units of male approval.
After all, women in India have one important function: to make the lives of men around them easier—particularly the men they marry.
This is how it goes.
First, everyone wants sons—to carry on the family name, to bring in a daughter-in-law to take care of them in their old age, and so on. Daughters are a burden, an expense until they get married and serve someone else. And this is before any mention of their dowries.
Now, these dowries are interesting. A beautiful woman may win more suitors and have a better chance of getting married without a dowry. On the other hand, sometimes the deal has to be sweetened for the groom to accept the woman. This means that women can end up spending a lot of their unmarried life preparing for their married life, learning housework and acquiring “womanly skills,” like food preparation, decorative art, and so on.
Being educated and working a stable job that she can manage without neglecting her home are merely a bonus, as are skills like singing, sewing, and experience with child care (her siblings). Her virginity is expected—probably because if she knew about sex, she may try to expect a husband who could satisfy her in bed. Better to have her irrevocably committed to the deal before she knows enough to back out.
And she must maintain her looks. This can mean chasing whitening creams or maintaining a figure. And God forbid she gets a suntan or pimple scars! Injury or deformity is a calamity—not for the trauma the woman goes through, but because of the ensuing “Who will marry her now?” questions.
And then, of course, there’s the title of “girl” for any unmarried woman who doesn’t have white hair. So you have news reports of a 28-year-old “girl” getting raped, and you have to understand that it means a 28-year-old unmarried woman. It may be a regional use of the word, but it clearly reflects an inability to see an unmarried woman as an adult. This is partly fed by beliefs that marriage and motherhood “complete” a woman—which is often interpreted to mean that it “brings maturity” to frivolous girls. This would also be the time when they can stop expecting any respect, as expressed by an elected representative who said in October 2012: “Wives and victories lose their charm when they become old.”
Marriage is often also seen as a fix for various character flaws in Indian males. For example, drinking, gambling, antisocial behavior, and a lack of a job are often considered cues for parents to seek a woman for their son to marry. The idea: He will learn responsibility. In practice: Get him a domestic slave before he gets so bad that no one will marry him.
And the marriage itself brings about a host of challenges. These days, the aversion to a woman working outside the home is not as it was before, but, of course, the work must not mean that she neglect the home. It is not uncommon for a woman to return from work at the end of the workday and head straight to the kitchen—even if there are other family members already at home before she arrives.
Any conflicts within the marriage also come with a default of the woman having to adjust and not complain. Seeking help is “airing dirty laundry in public” and subsequently bringing shame to family. Asking for help within the family usually results in advice of the “Men will be men” variety. Any support from parents is extremely unlikely, as divorce or separation is usually perceived as a rejection of the woman for not being worthy or as a reflection of her character that she did not “adjust.”
The remarriage of divorcees or widows will rarely see celebration or attendance by relatives of the bride. In the same fashion, marrying divorcees or widows is frowned upon by the groom’s family. Both are considered inauspicious.
And so on. These are simply the most general and widely acceptable expectations of spousal relations without any complications like domestic violence, for example.
On January 11, actors in Superfast Comedy Express, a Marathi-language TV show, performed a comedy skit in which a man tells his father-in-law that his wife isn’t good, and that he wants to exchange her for one of her four sisters. The father looks smug and says that he knew the daughter wasn’t good but that he won’t take her back. Several “consumer” puns follow, including one in which the father says that since the marriage is more than a year old—the “guarantee period” is over. The man keeps insisting, and the father finally offers him his “second daughter” in exchange. The punch line: The second daughter is transgender.
The skit was a hit. And why wouldn't it be? The idea abounds that a woman is a product provided for a man’s satisfaction.
Yet the stigma attached to separation is a strong deterrent for women seeking legal help. Police routinely advise women to “make up” with their husbands instead of filing complaints against them, while the prosecution rate remains among the lowest of all crimes. Scandalous reports of judges asking battered wives to accept their fate, or humiliating them in court, are not uncommon.
In fact, there is a growing movement of men who call themselves “men’s rights activists” who claim to fight for men’s rights but in reality spend considerable time raising doubt that women are abused more than men. The movement also promotes the idea that women trap men into marriages in order to exploit, torture, and divorce them for alimony. And there is little counter-argument against this hate propaganda.
We have a long way to go before this country can become one where women are expected to be partners in marriage.