Gender Inequality And India’s Middle Class

Lies Our Mothers Told Us
Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden by Nilanjana Bhowmick looks at the gender inequality that forms the bedrock of India’s middle class. An excerpt:

In 2011, I lived in a rented house in Noida. One night, there was  furious knocking on my door. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes  and hobbled to the door. A woman was standing there—I didn’t  know her. She looked scared and confused. 

‘Please come…he is going to kill us all.’ 

I ran after her, disoriented, to their house, at the other end of the  floor, expecting murderers, robbers, rapists. I found a scene of utter  chaos. I could see a woman crying, a man shouting, and an elderly  couple looking anxious. I pieced the story together as I dialled the  police. The shouting man and the woman who came to my door were  my neighbours; the elderly couple were her parents—the woman had  called them when her husband had started roughing her up to sign  divorce papers.  

My neighbour was a school dropout but a successful businessman.  His wife held a business degree but did not get much use out of it. Her  father met all their demands for dowry—the girl was ‘overweight’—and  gifted his son-in-law a luxury car and an expensive honeymoon abroad.  He even fulfilled the man’s periodic demands for cash. But alas! He  couldn’t arrange for a male heir. The day after she gave birth to their  third daughter, she was served a divorce notice from her husband. His  mother wanted a male heir, no matter what. So strong was her desire  for a grandson and dislike for her three granddaughters that she had  started calling her third granddaughter ‘faltu’, useless.  

That night, the police came and advised them to settle it between  themselves. My neighbour’s wife was sent back to her parents with 60 lies our mothers told us her three daughters and he got married again. All for a son.  When I think of this incident, I think of how arranged marriages  continue to perpetuate the practice of dowry, son preference, and  domestic abuse.  

In the last two decades, I have rarely come across a marriage which  did not involve the exchange of high-value gifts or cash. Contradictory  to the commonly-held belief that dowry is only prevalent in rural  areas or among poorer communities, it very much remains an all India scourge. The system of dowry, now practised clandestinely,  forms a large part of arranged marriages and is the bedrock of the  transactional nature of such marriages. This ultimately leads to the  understanding that when a woman gets married there are certain  things she needs to provide to her family in return for maintaining her  status as ‘wife’—at the top of the list is producing male heirs.  

The late Mitu Khurana, a Delhi-based doctor and anti-foeticide  activist, had taken India by storm when she had sued her husband  and a hospital alleging that they had pressured her to abort her twin  daughters; this was the first case of its kind in the country. My last  conversation with her was in October 2018, when she had been unwell  and we had promised to catch up once she was well enough to talk. ‘I  have fractures in both my hands,’ she had written to me in an email.  ‘It’s painful to write but let’s talk soon.’ However, she passed away  before we could have that conversation.  

Mitu’s decade-long fight for justice is possibly one of the most  well-known dowry cases in India.1 Her struggle exposed the hypocrisy  of the educated middle classes. It had lifted the veil of secrecy from  son preference, the menace of dowry, and resulting domestic abuse, all  intrinsically connected. It had also exposed how the system is stacked  against a woman seeking justice as well as the patriarchy inherent in  our justice system.  

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Mitu was born and brought up in Delhi. Her parents found her a  match through a newspaper matrimonial—a well-established surgeon.  Her mother-in-law was a retired school headmistress. She felt fortunate arranged and approved 61 to be marrying into such a progressive, forward-looking family. The  nightmare started soon after her marriage, as demands for dowry kept  escalating. She also alleged that her in-laws pressured her to determine  the sex of her twins when she was pregnant and later pressured her to  abort her daughters. But Mitu gave birth to her daughters and stayed  with her parents, who were supportive. Throughout her ordeal, Mitu  said what shocked her the most was the apathy of the institutions from  whom she sought justice. Every official she met advised her to settle  with her husband, she had told me. ‘The police, the judiciary…they  all feel the law is for woman victims who are dead—not for survivors.  If a woman has survived, she was misusing the law. So, they felt I  was misusing the law. 

‘The mindset from top to bottom is that a woman’s place is in her  husband’s house with her husband and if she is trying to step out of  an abusive marriage or she is trying to do anything of the sort that  I am doing then she is basically misusing the law. 

‘My parents encouraged me to study and be a professional woman.  But today I realize education is no safeguard for women in this country.  I am a doctor and if this can happen to me, what hope is there really?  Our homes will have to change and that’s what I am fighting for. But  during my fight I have realized that I am not just fighting against my  husband or in-laws but the whole system.’ 

 Excerpted with permission from Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden by Nilanjana Bhowmick published by Aleph.

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