|HER WORLD||Sunday, July 1, 2001, Chandigarh, India|
FROM THE GRASSROOTS
Ela is a young Gujarati married woman with two beautiful children under five. Eight years ago, she was in the USA, her life devastated and fractured after her quick divorce from her Punjabi husband. "I had just three torturous months of marriage," she says now, "My father and my ex-father-in-law were close friends for over 20 years. They did business together, travelled together on holidays and invariably had a drink together whenever they could snatch a ‘happy hour’ together. The two families grew together and we children were friendly. The two fathers, somewhat publicly, dreamt that one day, their children would marry and make them relatives rather than just friends. With this goal in view, ‘uncle’ as I called my father’s friend, would bring his son to our home and wink at me, though I was too young to understand his motives.
"Uday, his son, was at Harvard when the two fathers got serious. Uday was called to India and we were given every opportunity to meet and talk about a possible marriage. At 21, I had little or no idea about what marriage entailed. I fell madly in love with the concept of marriage. I felt that if both families wanted this union so badly, it could only bring happiness to all concerned.
"One year later, we were married and though Uday was a Punjabi and I a Gujarati, we settled well in the USA. Within weeks however, I found that Uday was lazy, miserly and dependent on his father for even a minor decision. His father, ‘uncle’ to me, would phone every so often and offer solutions and even tell him how to ‘keep a wife in her place’. We would fight constantly and one day, Uday disappeared under his father’s advice to another job in an unknown city without leaving his whereabouts behind. My parents rushed to the USA, settled me in a job and then I filed for divorce. My parents felt that a man who could run away from his wife was likely to repeat his behaviour and leave children too if and when they came. At 23, I was totally devastated. It took me three years to consider marriage again. I was wooed so well, that I took another risk with a second marriage. Today, I am married to a wonderful man and have two children. My life is full, my career is going places and I am busy enjoying my children and home."
Ela’s story is not really unusual. For one reason or the other, marriages are breaking up today within a few months of their rather elaborate celebration. On the one hand, the concept of romance and love is commercialised through the proliferation of Valentine’s Day cards, explicit music videos and romantic films. On the other hand, however, young couples find themselves incompatible within a short time and have no qualms about separations or divorces.
There are many reasons for this developing situation. First and most important is the fact that young, educated, upmarket parents give their sons and daughters the freedom to choose their life partners with a no-holds-barred attitude. For example, a celebrity politician mother says, "My children are free to choose their partners. Whoever they bring home, out job is to say ‘Tathastu’ or ‘so be it’. With luck, this attitude works out. But when things don’t work out, the lives of not only the children, but also of the entire family become fractured. The reasons for the break ups are legion. Inter-religious, inter-state or even inter-community marriages are stressed when cultures and life-plans don’t meet and merge. If both the husband and wife are inordinately proud and unrelenting in their religious, cultural or traditional beliefs, they get into hard-line situations where compromises become impossible. Young people in love are so besotted with each other to begin with — just like the singing, dancing heroes and heroines of Hindi films — that they think their love can overcome any differences or setbacks. In reality, when the sexual passion has been consummated and on the wane, the differences assume gigantic proportions unless one party agrees to surrender to the lifestyle of the other.
Marriages where great class, educational, value and lifestyle differences occur, need greater efforts to succeed. The stress outside the home — at work or in business — is so much today that more stress at home or in the marriage becomes unbearable. With men and women mingling freely at work and at leisure, the temptation to stray away from a stressful situation overcomes cultural taboos and relationships break down like a house of cards. Infidelity, particularly on the part of husbands, is therefore a major cause of divorces today. Women, always riddled with double standards in morality, are at last prepared to throw out a constantly erring husband or become promiscuous themselves.
Secondly, says a prominent social worker, the major new cause of the increasing number of divorces in the middle and upper middle class is the changing attitudes of young girls and their parents towards women’s status within marriage. Young, upwardly mobile parents do not think of their daughters as paraya dhan anymore and are often willing to take up cudgels on her behalf at the slightest sign of marital injustice done to her. This attitude shows up in the wedding celebrations itself when a bride’s parents demand equality and the right to have a say in every aspect of the ceremonies just life the ladkawala. The bride herself too, openly says and behaves to show that the bridegroom is not ‘doing her a favour’ by marrying her as was the belief in the past. Indeed, in her upbringing and education, she is taught that she is ‘no less’ than her bridegroom and is an asset to the matrimonial family and the true Lakshmi of her new home. Her parents, she feels, must gain ‘a son’, the same way as his parents gain a ‘daughter’. To wit, a young girl, wooed by her boyfriend, says while accepting his proposal that her parents are ‘not looking for a son-in-law but a son’. And if later, it turns out that the groom or his family treat her or her parents as ladkiwalas or somewhat ‘less important’ than them, then there is hell to pay. Today’s daughter-in-law is as vociferous as the mother-in-law of yesteryear.
Additionally, today’s educated and often working mother-in-law bends over backward to accommodate a young girl who has been romanced and brought into the family by her son through an arranged or love marriage to disprove the theory that all sasus are horrible, cruel creatures. In other words, a young wife goes into marriage with her ‘attitude’ and is in no mood to compromise more than her own judgement or upbringing allows. Divorces often come about because of these new uncompromising attitudes. If the bride leans towards her parents constantly and creates a situation where the husband has to perforce choose between his parents and her family, tensions build up and the explosion is not far away.
Tensions and resulting divorces in modern marriages come from various reasons. Obviously, the most common is the inability of one partner to satisfy the other sexually. Our society presumes that the purpose of every marriage is sexual activity and procreation. If the husband is impotent or sexually lazy or even uses withdrawal of sexual relations to harass his wife, this can be an adequate ground for divorce. Widely publicised is the torture piled upon a bride for bringing inadequate dowry to matrimonial family. Such torture is also a sure ground for divorce.
Gone are the days when brides hung on to their marriages for fear of ignominy and social censure. If they are humiliated for dowry, they often quit and fight out the battle for their Streedhan in the courts which are now sympathetic to women’s issues. Thirdly, to make a working woman the breadwinner of the family and deprive her of all her earnings to torture her is also being accepted by the country’s courts as grounds for divorce. Such cases have brought to light the increasing tendency of Indian husbands to drink, gamble or indulge in vices and fun-times at the cost of the hard-earned money of the wife. Yet other judgements of the court have shown that a husband forcing his wife to commit immoral acts such as having sex with his friends or for money is a ground for divorce. Physical and mental torture, verbal abuse and constant humiliation are acceptable causes for divorce, both for men and women. With domestic violence on the increase, and with intrepid women also innovating methods to pile mental torture upon their husbands, this ground has been cited in many a divorce case countrywide. Lately, the courts in India have held that an abortion without the husband’s consent is also a ground for divorce because the father also has an equal right to his unborn child. In all divorce cases heard by the high courts or the Supreme Court of India, there is a clear respect for women’s rights and equality but at the same time, the law requires that both partners make concerted efforts to make a go of the partnership which they have accepted willingly for a lifetime.
Yet others cite the growing financial independence of young girls as a cause of the higher incidence of divorces in India. Highly educated and qualified women today earn hefty salaries with attractive perks. Though the husband enters the marriage with every intention of honouring her ambitions and supporting them, after the first flush of romance is over, her importance in her profession and in society becomes the bane of the marriage. Suspicion and sarcasm rules the relationship and it breaks soon. Numerous examples prove that when a woman earns more or is famous and popular because of her work, he husband acquires an insecurity complex and the marriage cracks up within a short time.
In many cases, the wife’s transferable job, her late working hours, her total dedication to her job or profession and to top all this, her argument that she has as much right to her career as the husband, hack away at the roots of the marriage, leaving it in a shambles. The conclusion here seems to be that women are changing at a faster pace than men and though men love the money and perks a woman brings into the family, they do not like her devotion to work or her expertise or the consequent popularity. An extrovert wife who attracts friends and is liked by her colleagues often becomes a point of irritation to the husband. A glamorous and beautifully groomed wife causes envy in her husband. Conversely, a young wife, frustrated when left to manage the home and the children full time, hates her husband’s neglect of her and rebels in any way she can. Thus, divorces happen because of the constantly changing roles of husbands and wives and very often, the husband’s inability to accept his wife’s independence of views, status and money earning power.
Probably the most common cause of the growing number of divorces is that fact that urban and rural Indian families of the upper class and middle class do not seem to mind a divorce in the family anymore. Parents and friends of a young man or woman are very supportive of the break-up of a bad marriage and there is no stigma attached to either party. The old adage that a woman ‘goes to her sasural in a doli and comes out only on her arthi’ is no more operative. Rather than suffer from a bad marriage or stew for a lifetime in a rotten relationship, a man or woman prefers to leave the ugliness and agony behind and a make a new beginning. The chances of remarriage for men are good and for women, they are improving steadily.
After all, some of the most famous and talented men and women of our age have gone through divorces, survived and found happiness in a second marriage. Anupam Kher, Kiron Kher, Ramesh Sippy, Mohammed Azharuddin, Manoj Bajpai, Shobha De, Javed Akhtar and Renuka Shahane and Ashutosh Rama (both of whom married recently for the second time) have all been divorced and lost nothing in life. In the best families in India, daughters have returned to their parents to avoid getting burnt in a bad marriage. Middle class divorces are too innumerable to even merit a discussion. The lower classes or working classes always accepted kadi-mod or sod-chiththi or talaaq as a part of their social norms.
Social commentators and researchers are no more shocked by the widespread break-ups of marriage and the resulting divorces in Indian society. Indeed many among them see divorces as a healthy consequence of the dramatic change in the status of women. The more women seek a life of dignity and self-reliance, the more they will be prepared to throw away the yoke of a burdensome marriage, they say. Divorces are a symptom of a society in turmoil. Until men and women find harmony and a sense of balance in designing relationships in the new millennium, divorces will continue to become a social norm rather than a rare aberration!
Maddona the woman who epitomises second generation feminism, albeit in a slightly parodic, flash-trash kind of way, has officially taken her husband’s name. The girl who was born Madonna Ciccone and stayed that way emphtically through her first marriage to Sean Penn and the partnership with Carlos Leon which produced daughter Lourdes, has finally, at the age of 42, consented to become Mrs Guy Ritchie. Her credit card (American Express Platinum, naturally) says so and so does her white jacket.
This would not matter much if Mrs Ritchie were not part of a growing group. Two years ago Victoria Adams became Victoria Beckham while Mel C became, at least for an unhappy short while, Mel G. Women, it seems, are increasingly taking their husbands’ surnames when they marry, and not just in that "Oh, let’s both be called Smith on the gas bill because it’s easier" kind of way. Rather, it is a self-conscious means of marking a profound change in sense of self and wanting other people to witness it.
‘Last week at work an email came round from a woman letting everyone know that her name was going to change from Jane Carpenter to Jane Sadler, I found it inappropriately formal and intimate at the same time, as if she were announcing a sex change,’ says Catherine Harrington, 39, a university lecturer. ‘What’s more, given that we both work in a social science faculty which runs courses on gender, feminism and women’s history, it felt weird that here was a woman announcing that she was about to voluntarily take on her husband’s identity. I mean, this isn’t Lloyds bank in the 1970s.’ Harrington has put her finger on the unease felt by that generation of women which is now over 35. Taking your husband’s surname just seems so regressive: you may like sleeping with the enemy, but that doesn’t mean you have to join his gang.
Sarah Mather, who is 44 and on her second marriage, puts it succinctly and with passion: ‘It took women centuries to achieve the right to a full legal and cultural identity independent of their husbands. To give that up because of some soft-focus, sentimental fantasy about "happy ever after" seems to me the worst kind of bad faith.’ Mather is right to link naming and legal procedure. In the nineteenth century the legal doctrine of couverture meant that a wife had no legal identity separate from her husband. Echoes of couverture persisted until well into the twentieth century and it wasn’t until 1935 that married women in Britain obtained the same rights over their property as single women. Hardly surprising, then, that in the modern women’s movement in the States in the late sixties sisters chose to hang on to their own names. The realisation that these names came from their fathers and were therefore already tainted by patriarchy then led to some contorted compensating strategies.
‘For a time in the late Eighties there was this vogue for naming girl babies after their mothers and boy babies after their dads,’ remembers Elizabeth Granger, 37, a New Yorker now relocated to London, ‘Sending Christmas cards became a nightmare. You always felt that, unless you got all the names bang-on right, you were going to trample across some very delicate sensibilities. I used to long for the days when you could just put "The Smith family" on the envelope and leave it at that.’ This kind of intricate if emphatic revisionism was never going to happen in Britain. Instead, married women muddled through with a series of spur-of-the-moment decisions about what they wanted to be called in any given situation, and lived with the consequences of their fudged identities.
‘When I had my little girl, I was determined to be known at the GP’s surgery as Davies, even though Lottie’s sumame is Smart. But every time I went to make an appointment there was a 10-minute fuss while they scrolled through the records to match us up. In the end it was easier to give in and call myself Mrs Smart,’ recalls Belinda Davies, 34, echoing the experiences of thousands of married women at the school gates, in dentists’ surgeries and at the bank.
At work, confusingly, the pressure is all the other way. ‘I was delighted to give up my maiden name, which I’ve always hated,’ says Sophie Lemon, 32, an advertising executive. ‘But when I told colleagues I sensed a real chill among both men and women. It was if I was announcing, then and there, that from now on I would be knocking off at 5 pm and going home to cook fishfingers for my husband’s tea. I could see a whole suburban, lower-middle-class fantasy evoked by my simple request to be known as Sophie Porter.’
Madonna, presumably, did not share Sophie Porter’s longing to be shot of her maiden name. In fact, her insistence on keeping it throughout her marriage to Sean Penn is said to have been one of the causes of their many rows - certainly Penn’s present wife tactfully calls herself Robin Wright Penn.
So what made Madonna
choose to change her name? Perhaps this: today’s love story has
everything in a different order from the days when it belonged to our
parents. These days babies arrive after flings and before relationships,
and love settles in a cohabiting partnership but refuses to catch fire
in a marriage. Madonna knows that anyone can get married - she had
already done it once. She also knows that, with luck, pretty much anyone
can have a baby, because she’s already done that twice. What had
eluded her up until now, perhaps, was that trickiest of things, an
enduring love relationship. And having finally found it, in the middle
rather than at the beginning of her adult sexual life, she wants to mark
the moment for what it is: transforming. (ONS)
FROM THE GRASSROOTS
Imaliya Village, Madhya
This enraged the villagers. Ram Khilaway, a marginal farmer, stood up and demanded that the committees be reorganised. They accused the panchayat secretary Prakash Aacharya of working under Singh’s influence. The matter subsided only when sarpanch Prem Bail and tehsildar assured the villagers that the memberships of the village committees would be revised in consultation with them.
Imaliya is a small village with 200 households, 64 km from the state capital Bhopal and all its panches are women. It is supposed to be an example of women’s empowerment to which Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister is committed. But the persistence of untouchability in Imaliya shows how far this typical MP village was from Gandhi’s dream of Gram Swaraj.
Yet the wind of change is blowing. Asked why she did not accept the glass from her low caste deputy, sarpanch Prem Bail is almost apologetic. "It’s not because I believe in caste. I am observing a fast today," she tried to explain. Glib explanation, perhaps. But the very fact that she had to do the explaining shows that the upper caste landholders have started realising that things are changing. Imaliya village merely reflects this social change. Unlike Imaliya, the gaon sabha meetings in several villages of Vidisha could not be held this month for lack of quorum. The new law required that at least 20 per cent of the village voters should be present for a valid meeting and one-third of those present be women. "In most villages this requirement is difficult to fulfil," admits Vidisha’s deputy director (panchayat) Geeta Kamathe.
In village Nayapura, another 10 km away, village patwari Hariram Gaur was waiting for the villagers to come for the gaon sabha meeting. The panchayat secretary has gone to the main road to spread the word that the meeting will start soon. Almost similar is the scene in Sankhedi village, another 15 km away. Patwari Ram Prasad Gaur, village sarpanch Mangal Singh and panchayat secretary Madan Gopal and half a dozen villagers are waiting under a peepul tree for the quorum to be completed. After a couple of hours, the government officials sent to the village to conduct the gram sabha meeting return to the district headquarters.
These may not be exactly encouraging signs for Digvijay Singh but there is no denying that his government’s decision to transfer nearly all of the powers previously exercised by gram panchayats to periodic village mass meetings or gram sabhas is a bold move with potential to bring about a silent social revolution. "He has gone from representative democracy at the grass roots to direct democracy. This experiment is a leap into the unknown. It may work well, or prove disappointing — but there is no doubting its audacity and its broader significance, says social scientist James Manor.
Only one other Indian state, Rajasthan, has adopted a similar policy. But since the Panchayati Raj institutions in Madhya Pradesh have for several years been stronger than those of Rajasthan, the Madhya Pradesh case needs to be taken especially seriously. Indeed, it has major implications not just in India, but globally. More than 60 countries worldwide have experimented with some sort of democratic decentralisation over the last 15 years or so. But evidence currently available indicates that none has gone for direct democracy at the local level to the extent that Madhya Pradesh has now done.
Senior officials in the state say that ‘all’ of the powers now exercised by elected gram panchayats will be transferred to gram sabhas (assemblies of all adults in a village). Decisions on development projects will be made by the full gram sabha, and those projects will be overseen by committees of ‘users’ or ‘stakeholders’ who will be elected by the gram sabha from among its members. These committees will manage the funds for all government and donor-funded development programmes. Leading figures in the state government are realistic enough to recognise that the new system may not work well (or at all) in areas where traditional hierarchies are still potent —and there are many such areas in Madhya Pradesh. They have, therefore, introduced safeguards which they hope will minimise those problems. They believe that this audacious and somewhat idealistic change is worth attempting. Whether or not it succeeds, this remarkable experiment will deserve a careful study.
The relative merits of direct and representative democracy can be debated, and so can the question of whether the above changes amount to democratisation. There is no doubting the democratising implications of one further dimension of the state’s new Panchayati Raj Act. At present, a diversity of ‘user committees’ — which are supposed to consist of the beneficiaries of various development programmes — exist in the villages to play a role in education, watershed development, forest management, etc. Under the new system, all ‘user committees’ will be chosen by the gram sabha, over which the panchayat chairperson or sarpanch will preside. Elected members of the gram panchayats will be placated by being given a minority of seats on most ‘user committees’ — providing that they have a stake in the projects that the committee will oversee. Proportions of seats on all committees will be reserved for socially excluded groups. One-third of the places will be occupied by women, and another third by people from ‘deprived categories’.
Apropos of the article "Gender bias: This L.O.C. remains the same" by Vimla Patil, I concur with her fully when she says that educated, affluent women are still subjected to the emotional torture. They are not considered an asset to society and are punished each time they cross the Lakshmanrekha drawn by men. The reason is that men are still attracted by her physical beauty. They see women only with lustful eyes.
The fault lies not only with men but with women as well. Despite their education and enlightenment, they fail to see the unconscious layers of their own personalities. They should know that they are not the containers only but also the content.
Thus the real remedy lies in the alchemy of their real education or enlightenment. This is the only cure. It will make them more assertive and will put an end to the dichotomy between men women.
Hans Raj Jain, Moga
The education of a girl is a prerequisite for her marriage, but it is also a challenge after marriage. In fact, the LOC has been encircled with more lines for educated and earning girls. Men feel insecure because her earnings denote a better status. Each time she rises and is promoted, she has to contend with harsh controls. As an earning wife she has to attend to her office, house, children, in-laws, and their guests, and her earnings are treated as her husband’s property.
On the one hand, man wants an educated-cum-earning wife, while on the other hand he still hopes for a traditional, docile wife as far as family life is concerned. Multiple expectations on part of the men, never end. So educated girls faces more odds than roses in life. The proof is ever-rising cases of tortures, dowry deaths and divorce cases. Girls can surpass boys in every field, but still can not face sasural.
Hari Om Mittal, Ludhiana
Exploitation of women galore
Apropos the articles "Money makes the marriage go" and "They are exploited in the name of tradition" (June 17), in India we have a system where dulha bikta hai - the cursed dowry system. Social values have yielded place to turbulent materialism. Women are thrown out from houses. Harassed-for-moredowry-brides commit suicide. Plight of widows is nerve-shaking. They live the life of a living Sati. They are sexually exploited in family circles. Rudderless, these women have to give in. Parents, especially bhabhis (brothers’ wives) dub them paraya dhan (in-laws’ property). In-laws say they have devoured their sons. These hapless widows search for a nari niketan, or some ashram in holy cities like Varanasi, Mathura or Vrindavan. Men’s lustful eyes don’t leave them there either. The Widow Remarriage Act has failed. It is now for society and women’s organisations to act in unison to give them the needed livelihood and dignity. The Supreme Court held these as a part of life in Maneka Gandhi and Narinder Kumar cases in 1978 and 1994, while elaborating the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution (Article 21) as a fundamental right.
S.S. Jain, Chandigarh
In a country like ours, where religion predominates the psyche of the people, the involvement of religious leaders in the fight against female foeticide is a welcome initiative. Appropriate legal action will have to support social action. So far we have only attempted to treat the symptoms that manifest themselves, and not the real disease which is deep-rooted in the low socio-economic status of Indian women.
Juhi Goyal, Chandigarh