“It took my sister-in-law nearly 12 years of backbreaking service, of relentless forbearance, of putting up with all kinds of humiliation, of disproportionate sacrifices of her desires and personality...to finally get her in-laws’ mellowed down. In all this while, she did not raise her voice even once. She bore their atrocities with a straight face. In the end, she won them with love”. Said one friend of mine. An unmistakable hint of pride in her voice.
The conversation started with the lachrymose context of TV soaps and saas-bahu serials. Meeting this friend after quite some time, we talked about the weather, regular office work, interesting holiday options, Cricket World Cup, and finally, movies and serials. Being daily subjected to the saas-bahu drama in my home TV (my granny has the remote), I had a clue of how these serials worked. A mere glimpse at the characters of these serials and earful of lines, and you could figure out the entire context. Women are shown to exist on the extremes. While some of them live the life of archetypal Indian bahu – a docile cook, a faithful ever-forgiving wife, an obedient daughter-in-law, a giving mother, a diligent worker and a sacrificial lover. On the other hand are the exact opposites – tyrannical mother-in-laws, scheming wives, cunning daughters, plotting sisters, conspirational workers and destructive friends. Either white or black. No greys. The ‘white’ ones would be seen either smiling happily or crying inconsolably. The ‘black’ ones would either have their face twisted with malice and eyes gleaming with derision, or a threatening glowering look on their faces.
So I joked with my friend about the farce being shown in the serials, saying, that these extremes existed only in reel life. At this, my friend grew pensive and somewhat serious. No Sonal, she said, these characters are everywhere. I have known of families which make their daughter-in-laws sit on the floor while they are perched on the sofa. I have seen it with my own eyes – happen to my own sister-in-law.
Shocked by the vivid portrayal of this domestic shame, I could not find words to say. I didn’t have to. The topic had set her talking. “My sis-in-law is made to wear a sari every day, irrespective of the weather, with the aanchal draped neatly over her head. In that uniform, she’s also supposed to perform all domestic chores such as washing, cooking, sweeping, swabbing etc. And if, by mistake, her aanchal gets out of place exposing the skin on her back, her mother-in-law swiftly pinches her there to remind her of her dress code”. I could imagine the scene – an overworked voiceless woman also trying to prove her chastity to her mother-in-law by covering every square inch of her body. Being made to work like a house maid, and also follow detailed prescriptions laid out by her in-laws.
It revolted me. Boiled my blood. How could another woman – mother in law or whoever, touch me without my permission? Let alone pinch me! How could anybody else tell me what to wear and how...more so when I am taking care of their entire household?
I could not resist. I blurted out, “Just who the hell gives these in-laws the right to dictate terms?” I could feel the sweat on my palms. The shoes of this sari draped woman were too thorny to endure. To this, my friend dejectedly replied, “I’m not even talking of rights Sonal, I’m only saying, that if you don’t like my skin showing, allow me to wear salwaar-kameez”. Her eyes begged for a solution when she said this. It was a voice ringing with subservience and defeat. It was a statement of bargain. The bargain for justice that women have been pleading for centuries.
If not clothes of my choice, at least salwaar-kameez?
If not education of my choice, at least intermediary level?
If not groom of my liking, at least a meeting before wedding?
If not profession of my knack, at least a part-time job?
If not independence of movement, at least one visit to my parents?
If not freedom to speak my mind, at least pretend to hear me once?
If not a life of my decisions, at least a mute witness in it?
This is how women have bargained for justice. Trying to achieve their rightful due in crumbs and morsels. Never quite having the courage to snatch her freedom off the clutches of her exploiters.
It’s so unfortunate that lured by temporary reliefs, women have not adopted the zero-tolerance approach towards her limitations and feudal fetters. Her protest has remained limited to some obsequious pleas of grants...as though she was a criminal out on parole.
When will this woman stop bargaining? When will she grab the reins of her life in her own hands without bargaining for allowances, claiming her rights as her own? When will she know and understand it too well, that there are no victories at bargain prices?
The exploited sister-in-law of my friend, and many other such women, should read the lines written by great martyr Bhagat Singh, in his essay he wrote while awaiting his execution in Central Jail, Lahore:
"Don’t ask for rights. Take them. And don’t let anyone give them to you. A right that is handed to you for nothing has something the matter with it. It’s more than likely it is only a wrong turned inside out."