No. This is one of the very few words that we are taught while learning to speak. And why just speak, don’t we teach our young ones to the concept of "yes" and "no" and how to convey that with just a shake of their head? But when it comes to sanskaari Indian bahus, “no” is a word they are expected to use as sparsely as possible. The answer always has to be a "yes", because that shows your ability to adapt and adjust. And if you do not want to say "yes", well at least don’t say "no". Sex on your wedding night? Don’t say no. Changing your surname after marriage? Don’t say no. Adjusting to the customs of your new household? Don’t say a no. Elders think it is time for you to give up your career and plan your family. Don’t say no. A bahu who says "no" is immediately seen as rude, cold-hearted, unsanskaari and dominating. Saying "no" means refusing to adjust, to be demure. When in reality saying No should simply convey your refusal.
- Women in India are never encouraged to say "no". It is considered to be impolite and brazen.
- But not saying "no" leaves women in a very tight spot, especially as daughters-in-law.
- How do you get out of regressive customs and demands, if not by saying "no"?
- Why must "no" be burdened with the weight of familial and social consequences for a bahu?
Sex on your wedding night? Don’t say no. Changing your surname after marriage? Don’t say no. Adjusting to the customs of your new household? Don’t say a no. Elders think it is time for you to give up your career and plan your family. Don’t say no.
Indian women are raised to be polite and people-pleasing. A “good Indian girl” appeases everyone in her line of sight, no matter what the cost. And not saying "no" is a big part of it. Say anything, but just don’t say no. If you don’t like a proposal, if you do not want something being offered to you, work your way around it, in a way that you end hurting the least number of sentiments possible. By putting the weight of social and familial implication on a little word like “no” society robs us women of an easy way out, and our agency. And the situation only becomes trickier once a woman gets married and enters a whole new household.
Despite coming from an urban background, I am yet to come across a family who is willing to take in a bahu who isn’t compliant and who will live life on her own terms. If you are yet to be married, try saying “no” clearly and firmly when meeting a prospective groom and his family, to any of these questions, and you’ll know what I mean. You’ll take a break from your career for maternity right? Do you know how to cook? Will you switch your job to move to his location after marriage? Surely you won’t have any problem abiding by the customs of our household?
A “good Indian girl” appeases everyone in her line of sight, no matter at what personal cost. And not saying "no" is a big part of it.
Even when most of us find the courage to not say “yes” or defy the expectations to adjust, bahus have to find a way to do it in such a way that it doesn’t hurt everyone’s sentiments or offend the elders in the family, and that’s as easy as walking through a minefield every day. The possibility of misstepping is always high, but you get better with experience. However, the issues in question here may not be as straightforward as not following regressive norms. A daughter-in-law may be facing violence, abuse or harassment at her matrimonial house, and the internalisation of this concept of endurance and adjustment may be keeping her from putting her foot down. The hesitation to say “no” to husband for intercourse may lead them to take their wife’s consent for granted.
Big or small the inability to say “no” out loud and without any hesitation does cause daughters-in-law in Indian household a lot of discomfort. So what can be done here? For starters, teach your daughters to say “no”. They shouldn’t have to hesitate in refusing anything, from a request for a kiss on the cheek or a conservative practice in the household that doesn’t make sense to them. Secondly, Indian families need to stop advising their daughters to change their way of life, their ideology and their thought process in the name of adjustment. It won’t be easy to rid households of a patriarchal mindset quickly, but it is the little things like these that become a stepping stone for the larger change in the thought process that we seek.
Photo by Ashwini Chaudhary on Unsplash
The views expressed are the author's own.