Originally posted on http://thechicksandbalances.com/
“It’s common for a girl’s parents to ask her prospective in-laws if she will be able to work after marriage.”
For women who come from slightly progressive Indian families, often marriage is a regression to an older time. The rules have always differed for the daughters of a house and the daughters-in-law [unless they are all equally oppressed]. In the same house, daughters are ‘given freedom’ to go to University, earn degrees and build a career, while the mother or daughters-in-law are not extended those same freedoms.
‘Housewife’ isn’t merely a term for these women — it’s a hole they have to climb out of. Those who want to work [many are kept from the thought by internalizing the roles given to them] are not just discouraged by family, but face serious ridicule and alienation from female relatives and friends.
Set against the backdrop of vicious female competition, little camaraderie, and constant same-sex policing, the rules of society or ‘propriety’ created by men are enforced by women — And it is women who actively help perpetuate female oppression in the upper middle-class Gujarati society in the UAE.
For educated women — both young and old — social scrutiny by other women who have settled into their roles is the new boundary.
This new woman — one who refuses to fit the mold society has provided, one who adopts ideas of independence and financial freedom and strives to self-actualization beyond the confines of community — is criticized for having her ‘priorities wrong’, her children are labeled as ‘spoilt’ because of lack of attention, and they ‘pity’ the poor husband who has to put up with the monstrous ambition of his wife.
For patriarchy that runs on the subordination of women through — among other things — financial dependence, this social feedback mechanism serves well: Women viciously attack other women who want to escape the roles given to them.
S, a married woman with three children who decided to start a business, says it best: “The male ego is afraid that his wife will outdo him, become strong and independent, render him useless, and rob him of his upper hand.”
This male fear has meant that boundaries are set for women at a very early age: your father, brothers and uncles tell you what is and is not ‘possible’. This is reinforced when you see other women in your family obeying these rules. You then learn and internalize these behaviors socially.
Women feel disappointed at the start, but they have no choice. So, they end up having to accept these boundaries. They buy into it, and consciously or unconsciously start enforcing them with other women.
Middle-class women are often ‘forgiven’ by their peers for [over]stepping into the workforce because it’s a necessity for survival, not a choice. This class consideration also plays a significant role psychologically for the upper middle-class.
Take, for example, R, a certified auditor and 30-year old married woman with no kids. She was married into a family where none of the daughters-in-law work [there are over twelve!]. Before she said yes to the man, she laid out a single pre-condition: No matter what happens, she will [be allowed to] continue working.
Surprisingly, she [and this demand of hers] was met not with jealousy, but pity. Since the other daughters-in-law live a life of leisure, depend on their husbands financially and prioritize socializing over working, they look down at what R does — associating it with a lower class of living.
Why this mindset? All the daughters-in-law in R’s family were married very young [18 to early 20s] and are used to being financially dependent. The way they talk about finance is elitist and derogatory, especially when discussing the financial situation of another family. Without commending or supporting women for their entrepreneurial spirit/gumption/bravery in breaking the rules, they employ a tone of “I’ve heard they’re so broke that the women have started a kitchen at home, selling snacks and things.”
“They don’t know the feeling of independence, or pride when you achieve something on your own. They’re happy in a little bubble they’ve made for themselves,” says R.
Women are also constantly given the false dilemma of choosing between family and work. It goes deep, starts early, and is chiefly and subtly imposed by women in the family.
R has faced a barrage of veiled comments from her mother-in-law, and the other daughters-in-law, urging her to quit her job. Their stellar argument is: “If you work, how will you have a baby?” The two are seen as mutually exclusive, so if she decides to start a family, work will have to go.
For B, a married woman with a kid now in college, working was out of the question. “Once I got married, my priorities had to change. We were in a joint family. When I wanted to start working after 20 years of marriage, my husband and his family reacted with a big ‘NO.’”
Other women criticize married women if they don’t have children within a few years of marriage. Through this rule-set, they rob their peers of the power of deciding what, when and how they want to build a family — when to get married, if they even want to be married, when to have babies, if they even want to have babies, how to raise that child etc.
Social alienation is a sharp tactic in the toolkit of domination [although, here it is the extension of female subordination].
For S, this reality came down hard when she decided to start her own fashion line. With no college education, an incomplete high school education, and weak English-speaking skills, she found her ability in an arena that required none of the above. It was her creative outlet.
Not only did she find that her female relatives and even some of her friends reacted out of spite at the idea [How dare she think of such a thing?], but her proposition was met with silence. Not encouragement. She was ridiculed and shamed — in front of others, and in private.
“The underlying atmosphere for women is competition. Under the social niceties, nobody wants to see you succeed — especially female relatives,” she says.
S recalls one Gujarati baby shower vividly. From the moment she walked in, one of her female relatives approached her ‘mean-girls style’ and complimented her outfit. The second relative promptly asked ‘Where did you get it from?’ The first one chortled and said ‘Don’t you know she’s a designer now? She doesn’t buy clothes — she makes everything herself.’
Their gaze changed — it was challenging and threatening to S. It wasn’t just their words — it was their body language, their icy attitude, and cold tone of voice. She was made to feel incompetent, and doubt her already weak confidence through cold and snide remarks, sarcasm, and gloating. “I was given condescending unsolicited advice — it made me feel like I was doing everything wrong.”
Similar routines came to pass, and S held it together by pretending that she understood the comments to be genuine instead of what they were — facetious.
She also coped calmly with relatives attending her exhibition out of ‘social obligations’, only to gasp at the price tags, and roll their eyes.
Being S’s daughter, I have unique insight into the situation, as cousins and aunts genuinely complimented the outfits I wore, created by my mum. But this was the extent of their genuineness. They employed unhealthy and vicious ways of coping with her success. They would copy her designs outright, and visit the same tailor she used etc., but they wouldn’t seek her out for fashion advice. Not once did they validate her, or celebrate her achievement.
For these new women, the implications are heavy and real. They lose confidence, battle depression that comes with idleness or purposelessness, and keep womenfolk from progressing evenly.
It’s a good place to ask: Who’s losing here?
Anyone who has ever started a B2C business will tell you: social networking is a pillar of success. Success starts with word-of-mouth recommendations from people who know you, and vouch for your work. When those people turn their back on you, your endeavor is doomed to fail from the start, because they willed it to fail.
For Gujarati women who typically have all their time taken up by socializing within the community, outside social circles barely exist. What happens to women like B, S, and R?
For example, S broke even and had a few gains, but personally she felt deflated and defeated by the treatment she received from her peers. She decided to discontinue the business. Shamefully, now, whenever she engages in learning something new — pottery, wood carving — she keeps it under wraps.
Once B’s son grew up, she found herself unable to fulfill her own potential. She was painfully aware of the boundaries set by family and society, and found herself dealing with mild depression — until she said “Fuck you” to everyone and started her own successful jewelry design business [outside the Gujarati community in the UAE].
R has quit her job and is now building a consultancy start-up with the help of male relatives, turning a blind eye and ear to the whispers of her female peers.
If we can break down the boundary of female competition, that’s one less hurdle the new woman has to jump over.
The only feasible actors here are the daughters. Being educated with agency, open minds and interaction that extends far beyond community, it’s their responsibility to loosen the threads of patriarchy by creating a supportive and safe environment where women can voice their ambition and be encouraged.
Real, even, progress is achieved not by individuals breaking out of existing networks, but by those embedded in the networks changing the rules — one at a time.