This is a testimony from one of our female Indian readers about upbringing and marriage in traditional Indian, and Hindu families. Her husband has also helped me a great deal in understanding how marriage and family works there. This experience does not reflect every family in India, where in certain places western values have taken hold, but would be common if not the norm in many communities today.
According to articles I was shown, about half of Indians today believe it is acceptable for a man to “beat” his wife, and about 90% say a wife must obey her husband in all things. Divorce among Hindus in India is also exceptionally low. I believe testimonies such as these can give us a good idea why. While I usually do not include discipline material in which children are present, I do here, since it is a necessary part of the story, and reflects much of the culture. I have changed the names in the story to letters, for the sake of privacy:
I was born into a very traditional family with highly conservative values. My father has 2 older sisters and 2 younger brothers. My parents had an arranged marriage. Appa was 28 and Amma was 17, almost 18 at that time. I was born the very next year. N followed the next year and U was born a year and a half after that. My brother M was born 3 years after her. He is the only son. Therefore, he gets a lot of privileges. Appa will be sending him abroad for higher studies after he completes his bachelor degree here.
While growing up, my sisters and I had to return straight home from school / college / tuition. U often flouted this rule and often managed to talk her way out of it. M can hang out with his friends for a while. All of us women ate our meals only after the men, including M, had eaten. A lot of families still follow this tradition, but in recent 15-20 years, many families have stopped doing so.
Growing up, we all knew we had to obey our parents and other elders and Amma obeyed Appa. I remember some occasions when she talked back rudely to him. He would slap her on the spot, then take her into their bedroom. Many times, we have heard the sound of Appa’s belt and Amma crying and pleading with him to stop. Thus, it was programmed into me from an early age that the wife should obey her husband or face the consequences. Whenever I asked Amma and R (my paternal grandmother), they said it was normal. I have often seen my mother crying in the kitchen and rubbing her backside. One time, I told her Appa was a monster to beat her like this. Her reaction? She boxed my ears at once and told me never to say such things. It is his right as her husband. As his wife, it is her duty to submit to the correction and be a better wife in future. I started seeing things in a new light.
Although our father spanked us sometimes, it was always over our clothes. Our main disciplinarian was Amma. If we behaved badly, disobeyed or a neighbor complained about our actions, she never hesitated. She would slap, pinch, twist our ears, use whatever she could get hold of and spank us thoroughly. Over the years, I have received several thrashings with a broom, the roti roller, hanger, you name it. U was less likely to be punished. N got her share, but it felt like I was punished more frequently and more severely than both of my sisters. My brother received his fair share as well, but when he turned 13, only Appa disciplines him when physical correction is required. Appa has used his belt on me on a few occasions. He used a cane very occasionally, but when he did, he hit me only 2 or 3 times.
R came to live with us following the passing of T (my paternal grandfather). I was about 10 I think. I attained puberty when I was 12. Since that time, R asked Amma to let me sleep in her room. I took care of all her needs and spent hours listening to her as she talked about how a woman should be in her parental home and marital home. Submissive wife, obedience and the like were words she repeatedly drummed into me. None of us girls were allowed to cut our hair above our hips, but one day, when she was 15, U sneaked out and got a haircut. Her long, wavy hair was cut up to her shoulders. Amma wanted to beat her, but Appa laughed and told U she looked cute. He also told her it was a one-time thing and she shouldn’t repeat it. Of course she repeated it in a few months and once again, Appa stopped Amma from punishing her.
Oh yes, before I forget. On special occasions such as our birthdays or auspicious days, we children had to touch our parents’ feet with our heads and get their blessings. Amma has to touch Appa’s feet like that. Amma only sits in Appa’s presence when he asks her to. N and I followed her example, but U didn’t, needless to say.
Yes, U could get away with a lot growing up. By the time she was 16, she was spouting all kinds of feminist stuff. Appa tried to correct her, but even then she could talk circles around him and not be punished or be punished very lightly. I thought when she got admission to _____ University, she would lose all her family values. Fortunately, she fell in love with the right man and things are as they should be now.
Now for legal age for marriage, it’s 18 across India, but thousands of girls are married by the age of 16 or 17. Surveys show that 47% of Indian women are under 18 when they are married. In my family, it’s the norm to get the daughters married if they are 16 or older. To my knowledge, almost all women in my family (Amma, my aunts, cousins, sisters, etc) have gotten married in teenage only. Where education is concerned, girls are allowed to go to college, but only study degrees like English, history, etc. No engineering, medicine, law, etc.
Marriage is mostly arranged marriage only. The family does not encourage intercaste marriage. U was allowed to marry the man she had chosen because he is from our caste only and family is good with similar traditional, conservative values like mine. R and Amma reinforced constantly that after marriage, submission to husband is the natural way to be. I took these lessons to heart. U rebelled against them.
Pattima and Amma always used to say don’t ever get ideas into your head that you’re equal to a man. You’re not. You’re a woman and your husband will have complete authority over you just like your father. Always remember your place. As for discipline, I’ve seen my mother get punished and how she behaved after that. She taught us this was normal and a man has every right to physically correct his wife when needed. Occasionally, the punishment may go overboard, but just bear with it.
As for the religious texts and gender roles, the Manusmriti says a woman has to be under her father’s authority till she’s married. Once married, she is under the authority of her husband. If she becomes a widow in old age, her son has to take care of her. As you can see, a woman has to be under a man’s authority throughout her life. Independence for women is not advocated. How many women stick to this today is anybody’s guess. This text is against divorce for any reason. Once married, the wife should worship her husband as God even if the man lacks virtue. That does not matter. She has to be obedient, bear and raise children and take care of the home. Chapter 3 of the text says a woman has a place of honor in the family. Where a woman is honored, God dwells (M 3:56). A woman is cherished, but she needs to be under a man’s authority throughout life. She shouldn’t deny her husband her body. A woman attains salvation through her submission to her husband.
One of the Hindu religious texts that clearly shows the relationship between man and wife in marriage is the Manusmriti. There are teachings which are very practical and universal, as well as others which reflect Hindu mysticism, or may be unique to the culture. Here is a relevant chapter: http://eweb.furman.edu/~ateipen/ReligionA45/protected/manusmriti.htm
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