Lockdown? An Indian memoir on marital autocracy

Lockdown? An Indian memoir on marital autocracy
March 31, 2020 hemlata

Photo by Rajeev Chanda on Unsplash

Article by Swetha Anusha Goteti, Edited by Smita Suchde Grütter

This is not news. Due to the Pandemic, a state of emergency has been declared by governments across the world and a third of the global population is on coronavirus lock down[1]. To the human species, considered by nature to be a social animal[2], social distancing is like living in a straight-jacket. Right? Let me illustrate this with a personal story. The story of my mother who lived more than half her life in a lockdown, years before the word itself came into vogue.

Staying at home after marriage was by no means a choice my mother made, rather it was an imperative – she was ordered to obey. Amma (as I refer to my mother) always dreamed of working in an office. And why not?

Like girls in those days, Amma, the first born of 7 children, was taught to respect elders, learn customary traditions and cooking, but she was also taught to carry out bank transactions, run the household operations and take care of any necessities for the family outside the house, too. Until she got married!

Amma knew the family which she was getting married into (my father is a distant cousin) and so, right after high school, Amma was married off, and sent to live with my father and his mother. She was just 16 and my father, 20.

My grandmother, father’s mother, an orthodox brahmin woman, who had married when she was just 8 was the oldest member of Amma’s new family. She toted her austere old fashioned values on Amma, by declaring vehemently that Amma should not step out of the house for any reason – be it for work or grocery buying. “My daughter-in-law represents the ethos of our family that should live through generations.”

Amma’s duties as a daughter-in-law included obeying her in-laws’ wishes, cooking, cleaning, child caring and only stepping out of the house for a ceremony or family function accompanied by other family members. Even visiting her own parents required permission from her in laws, who would decide the duration of her visit. As my grandmother grew older, the rigid norms did abate, but by then, marriage had already crushed Amma’s self-esteem and potential.

This is not just my mother’s case in erstwhile India. This is the story of many women and girls even in modern India. It was not deemed necessary to seek a bride’s consent before fixing the alliance, back then, but in many parts of India, the situation still remains unchanged.

A survey in 2017 shows 20% of youth between the ages 15-34 are against the right for women to work after marriage[3]. Another article from BBC reports astonishing data on working women in India[4]. Nearly 20 million Indian women quit work between 2004-05 to 2011-12, the largest chunk — 53%, being women aged 15-24. In rural areas, the female participation rate dropped from 49% to 37.8% between 2004-05 and 2009-10.

We may fret or sulk on the current upheaval of a global epidemic, but I implore you to meditate on the circumstances of millions of women, who like my mother are forced against their will, to forgo a major part of their existence. In times of crisis, let us look for solutions instead and find hope. Even though Amma herself led a life of suffocation, she never let that deter my dreams and aspirations. She encouraged me to study and work hard and most importantly, boldly ensured that my future in-laws’ agreed to me working post marriage.

Change happens from the bottom up. Just like my mother challenged the cultural norms laid down for her daughter, there are mothers everywhere who wish for a different and brighter future for their daughters. In a majority of cases, barriers like economic status or geographical constraints obscure these dreams for many.

At HEMLATA, we strive to shatter the barriers with the H100 initiative. The HEMLATA 100 initiative aims to create real and sustainable impact by empowering 100 talented girls with full scholarships to ensure that they live a life, full of purpose, dignity and self-worth. www.hemlata.ch/H100/

We are staying at home today for our own safety, to avoid the spread of Covid-19. But for girls in India, a different type of lockdown is defining a life clogged with imprisonment and coercion. The former has a ray of hope, for normalcy, but the latter can only be reversed if we consciously rally for change. Be aware and stay safe.

[1] Business Insider – https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=US&IR=T

[2] Aristotle, Politics

[3] Share of young adults who think it’s not right for women to work after marriage across India in 2016 – https://www.statista.com/statistics/733444/young-adults-attitudes-on-women-working-after-marriage-india/

[4] Why are millions of Indian women dropping out of work? – https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-39945473