Society Marital Inequality – “Tradition” And The Subjugation Of Women

Marital Inequality – “Tradition” And The Subjugation Of Women

In terms of lifetime value, a son is an investment for the future whereas a daughter is deemed a hefty cost to the family. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to do the math here. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the fate of the girl child as paraaya dhan (someone else’s wealth) – a metaphor that I especially hate!

Of all the questions, personal and social, with which I have grappled in my life, there is one that evinces the most visceral and dismissive scoff from a lot of people – conservatives and progressives alike.

I first asked it when I was too young to comprehend the response I got. Or so I have been told.

It was the first time I had watched the video of my parents’ wedding, heard the song – “babul ki duaen leti ja” (Dear Daughter, Take the blessings of your Father) play towards the end and seen my mom being escorted out of her maternal home by my grandfather and grandmother into the flower laden Fiat of my dad’s family. My natural impulse was to ask – “Why did you leave your home? Everyone is crying. They clearly don’t want you to” as my mom’s was to answer – “Because after marriage, women have to go live with their husband’s family.”

“But why?” I asked then and have been asking ever since.

Planning Weddings or Internalizing Subjugation?

This phenomenon of sending the daughter away to her “new home” is something we are all too familiar with, even in the 21st century. No questions are asked. No assumptions are challenged. There is no discussion. Apparently, it is the way it is.

Why should my father and my family have to pay for the wedding? Why does the groom’s family get to impose their demands of dowry, expensive venues, gifts and the like on my family? Why are we, the women, the only ones required to leave our current living situations – our homes, our families, our livelihoods, our identities, even our names, in the name of matrimony?

One spends a lifetime in this maze of social norms called “our culture”, and internalizes its subjugation so well that it becomes a part of our identities and belief system, hardly ever questioning the premise of relevance of age-old rituals in today’s day.

Upholding “Tradition” or Stifling Debate?

I will be the first to admit that I am far from being a bystander in this debate. More so, it is hard to do so when you realize that eventually you are headed toward the same fate unless you are prepared to be ostracized from the society. Just mentioning the concept of “nuclear family” out loud can get you labelled as willful and “westernized” and disqualifies you as a good matrimonial match.

The harsh reality is that marriage in the context of Indian culture and society, is NOT a celebration of two people pledging their lives and welfares to each other on equal grounds. It has never been. I don’t need to cite thousands of studies and articles in support of my statement. The empirical evidence pervades our lives.

Heck, just watch a Bollywood movie, any movie, that has a wedding woven into its plot (there should be no dearth of those) and you will see clichés rife with gender inequality. The bride’s father laying his turban at the feet of the groom’s family symbolizing his supposed inferior status, the bride’s family borrowing and/or going broke with the wedding/dowry expenses, the bride wailing her heart out during the send-off ceremony, the bride requiring the “permission” of her in-laws and her husband to visit her own parents after the wedding. Again, I could go on. But it has already started to make my blood boil.

Now what’s interesting to me personally, is that we, as Indians, are so blatant about this inequality that we refuse to define it as such. We would rather bring out the big guns – the proverbial trifecta – Culture, Tradition and Religion, to justify the senselessness of this archaic practice than admit to its uselessness in the present day and age. In most cases, the debate is shut down even before it begins.

The Individual and Institutional Defenders of Misogyny

“What’s the alternative?” Some ask belligerently. “That a man should leave his home to live with his wife’s family?” Because apparently, nothing hurts a man’s ego more than being a ghar jamaayi.

Others reject the notion of nuclear family units as selfish and immoral. “Who is supposed to take care of ageing parents?” They demand with the self-serving ferocity that is so characteristic of patriarchs and misogynists. And the sad part is that the institutions of our country support them whole-heartedly.

The Supreme Court of India, the pinnacle of justice system in our country which is supposed to uphold the rights of ALL its citizens, and not just men, in a long history of clamping down on the rights of its female citizenry, recently granted divorce to a man on the grounds of his wife refusing to live with her in-laws.

In an article published by The Guardian, the freelance journalist, Vidhi Joshi, reports the language employed by Justice Anil R. Dave in his ruling. Justice Dave could have been repeating a dialogue straight out of a Bollywood movie when he argued: “In normal circumstances, a wife is expected to be with the family of the husband after the marriage.”

This Judge of a supposedly “secular” and “democratic” country cited the “pious obligation” that Hindu men have to look after their parents. One could not have expected anything else from this Andha Kanoon, which refuses to criminalize other heinous crimes committed against women within their homes. Marital rape is still legal in India because apparently our society asserts that a wife’s body is her husband’s property. The patriarchs like the honorable Mr. Dave would rather subjugate half their country’s population in the name of cultural norms, archaic practices and religious scriptures, rather than open their eyes to the stark reality of the status of women in the Indian society.

India’s Eligible Yet Invisible Workforce

Some critics are happy to quote the education and employment statistics to score a point in this non-debate. They will assert that it is not a man’s fault; that less women are in the workforce and most households depend on the income of a man. So, naturally, women have to follow wherever the man goes, not vice versa. But even this, does not make any sense.

The 2014 Gender Gap Index report published by World Economic Forum, clearly shows that for every 100 men enrolled in secondary education, there are 79 women enrolled as well. But, due to the deep gender bias entrenched in our society, female labor force participation is abysmal when compared to those of men. The ratio stands at 0.36 – quite appalling for “the fastest growing economy of the world.” Clearly, it’s not that women are not qualified for employment. But a huge majority either don’t get to join the workforce or have to leave it after marriage.

I am not so biased as to lay the blame squarely at the feet of men. Of course, that’s how patriarchal conditioning works. Most women, till today, have come to internalise that financial independence is not as important as marriage. And thus, the oppressed partakes in her oppression, meaning a complete win-win for the oppressive system to continue. This is far from shaming women who choose the home and the hearth over their work life, but this is about the ridiculous idea that the former is every woman’s work, while the latter is unimportant. And mind you, this is a worldwide phenomenon where even a woman like Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. While sharing her own personal struggle with traditional gender roles in society, in her widely-read book “Lean In” has to remind herself and other women that they are not bad mothers for continuing to pursue their personal journeys, dreams and careers, or for being too tired some evenings to help their children with homework, or for having to miss a school event on account of work.

Also Read: Motherhood As A Choice And Not An Inevitability

If you, as a male reader, think this dismissive attitude towards female employment springs from a vacuum, then I urge you to think again; to look inside your home, and talk to the women in your life. May be, they can shed some light on the issue for you! Women all over the world are deterred from pursuing meaningful and long-lasting careers in fear that financial subsistence will eventually breed independence of thought and action. Just as men are discouraged to share the responsibilities at home. The few who share the workload in and out of their homes with their partners are ridiculed for doing so.

The Long Overdue Revolution Must Begin At Home

This system of matrimonial inequality is inherently unfair to both partners. A man should not have to carry the full financial burden of a household just like a woman should not have to throw away her career and become the most qualified house-maid/cook/laundress on her block or street. Where is the sense in that? How are we supposed to leave the tag of a “developing” nation behind, if half of our population is over-worked and the other half is doomed to sulk at the kitchen sink.

You think about the problem of matrimonial inequality long enough and the hypocrisies of this sacred institution that we love to brag about come undone. It rather starts to appear what it is; more like the vicious circle of subjugation and misogyny that it is and has forever been. Sure, it no longer requires a woman to be burnt at her husband’s funeral pyre as the ancient practice of Sati did, or requires a widow to be shunned from society as an embodiment of a bad omen (of course, they have to face a different type of ostracism now). Despite all the progress we have made over the last century, the gender scale is still leaning heavily on one side at the expense of the other, and will continue to do so, until we make it stop. One person. One family. One couple at a time.

Society 2.0

Son preference is rampant presumably because they will take care of their ageing parents, stay with them, provide for them while daughters will be hauled off to another family to cook, clean, bear and rear children, and earn only for the financial betterment of the other family.

In terms of lifetime value, a son is an investment for the future whereas a daughter is deemed a hefty cost to the family. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to do the math here. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the fate of the girl child as paraaya dhan (someone else’s wealth) – a metaphor that I especially hate!

Again, some of you will proclaim that it is meant to honour the girl. I personally cannot get past the word: paraaya.

To those who say that it is immoral for a son to be required to leave his parents, I would like to ask, “Since when does living in the same house qualify you as an effective caregiver to a parent? Does the rest of the world, which does not live with their parents after marriage, stop caring for them? Both my brother and I moved out of India to study and work in our early twenties. Does that mean that we have stopped caring for our parents?”

Why can’t a couple take shared responsibility of parents – husband’s parents as well as the wife’s – as equal partners? Are a man’s parents more special and require the sole attention of their daughter-in-law just because they happened to conceive a son? That they somehow won a lottery because they have a son?

The fact of the matter is that the tide has been turning for half a century. Ideas disseminate. Ideas proliferate and people, men, women and the transgender community, begin to question the status quo. Thousands of young families are already migrating to the urban centres of India, in search of brighter future or financial prosperity. Some have been driven out by necessity. Whether the patriarchs like it or not, the word ‘family’ is no longer synonymous with “joint family” when our social fabric is viewed through the lens of modernity.

It’s about time we update our ceremonies, metaphors, Bollywood rhetoric and overall mindsets to reflect the reality on the ground!


  1. I have been asking the same questions since I remember and now that I am married I live under the same sword of judgement because I can’t hide my contempt for the unequal expections from a son I Mala and a daughter in law. I think that the rampant violence against women also takes root in this archaic thought system that refuses to go away. Read my write up on this here:

    • Amreen Gill says:

      Thoroughly enjoyed your piece. The misogynistic web that we, as women, are up against is frighteningly tangled up with every aspect of our world. I loved your analogy with the goddesses and the sacrifices – nothing but a hollow gesture (if it can be described as one) from a hollow mindset. It’s the streets we need to reclaim. Not the pedestals of “goddesses” and “good girls”.

  2. Arjun says:

    Good Article, presenting a very good point still exist in our society. And inequality on basis of gender is certainly is not fair for a girl, coming to new family &a atmosphere, and also for girls parents who spent most of their life to nurture and educate daughter. Whereas boy’s family has all rights on girl after marriage and even the kids.
    Somewhere, we forget both boy and girl have equal contribution in successful &a happy life; likewise, their parents.
    I believe that it should be mutual understanding between both spouses, equal & willing ( not demanded ) contribution from parents.

    • Amreen says:

      Thank you for reading my article Arjun. Society definitely needs more men like you. If enough people start seeing the injustice, we can finally make some change happen.

  3. Harjeet Iyer says:

    First of all I congratulate u Hitika for this wonderful article. The fact that young girls like u r realising the dangers of these traditions & bravely putting their views shows that v r in process of bringing change. This article by a girl as young as u itself shows that v have hope, its only v who can bring the change. It also reflects how modern ( not western) & broadminded ur parents are. Only when our parents, guardians give us proper knowledge & exposure we become aware of our rights. I strongly believe if every girl child gets an opportunity to be educated 50 percent of purpose is served. The remaing is done by being independent.
    This mean the girl should be capable enough to understand the difference between right & wrong, should not feel insecured without male partner & not bother of being rejected by anybody who does not support her independent thoughts. The scenerio in urban India is not that bad, girls are being more vocal, because they r educated( not only literate) & independent.

    • Amreen says:

      Thank you for reading my article Harjeet. I think financial independence and education are the two most important things for any girl or woman. If you don’t depend on others for money, it’s easy to cultivate independent thought.

  4. Arzoo says:

    “A son is an investment for the future whereas a daughter is deemed a hefty cost to the family” – This statement has been very true in the Indian culture. Daughters are deemed to be a burden on parents and they are always told that one day you will go to your “real home” – being the husband’s. We are forced to leave everything behind, our home, our identity, our loved ones, and above all we are forced to change our lifestyle, behaviour and attitude to suit the needs of our husband and our in-laws. Some women are forced to quit studying to get married, some are told to leave their job just because their husband or in-laws don’t like it. It is a harsh truth that most women in India continue to face till this day.
    There is no gender-equality whatsoever, as told by the story of a women in Satyamev Jayate show “Marriage”, where she was subjected to harsh brutalities. She was forcibly taken overseas, forced to obey the commands of her husband and was told that the only reason he married her was just so he could have a servant in the house to take care of all his needs. We are talking about educated ladies who have done PhDs, who are teachers, who have achieved their goals yet continue to suffer after marriage. We are also human, we have desires, goals, dreams to accomplish, then why are we considered any less than a man? Why are we treated unfairly, unequally? Why do women in India continue to be raped? Why aren’t men being taught to change their behaviour, change their attitude? Is it because they will carry on the father’s name and a daughter would go to her “real home”?
    However, I believe there is a very small change that is starting to happen as daughters are being educated, they are beginning to build their career, learn to fight for themselves and fight for their rights. Bollywood movies such as Mary Kom and Dangal are setting an example and showing India that daughters are not a burden, they are not lesser than anybody. They can achieve anything they put their mind to.
    Marriage is considered to be a “tradition” because of what has been happening over the past decades. No one has bothered to question the belief system or question the rituals and that is why daughters are subjected to a particular kind of upbringing that enforces those decade old “traditions”. In India, if you ask any daughter in today’s era about leaving their paternal home after marriage, they are most likely to say it’s just how it’s been over the years. Today, we see grand, lavish weddings not realising the amount of money the bride’s side has spent to meet the demands of the groom’s side. The pressure is always put on the bride’s side for expensive gifts and venues – why? Why is not considered to be equal? Why can’t the bride and the groom pay for the wedding equally? Because its “tradition”.
    Let’s hope to change this decade old “tradition”.

  5. Wonderfully written. Thank you for writing this piece.

    It’s a loop actually. Men being the sole breadwinner in some families and blaming it to women not contributing to financial responsibility and at same time women are forced to take care of homes because their partners are not being equal.

    This line is the summary. “We would rather bring out the big guns – the proverbial trifecta – Culture, Tradition and Religion, to justify the senselessness of this archaic practice”. We can justify any senselessness with these guns. What people forget is that culture is shaped by people and not the other way around.

    • Amreen says:

      Thank you for your comment Manisha. Glad you enjoyed the article. And I couldn’t agree more with your comment.

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