The saas-bahu relationship in Indian society is the stuff legends and daily soaps are made of. A lot is said about this love-hate relationship, but most of the narrative is stereotypical and the focus is rarely on the social and wellness related implications that women in Indian society have to endure, because of their sasumaa‘s attitude. S Anukriti, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at Boston College has published a paper that reveals how mothers-in-law in India have a big say in who a daughter-in-law interacts with, and whether or not she should go to a health care facility all by herself.  She speaks with SheThePeople.TV on how can this upper-hand given to a saas in a household affects the mental health of a bahu and how can this relationship be changed for the better.

You have published a really interesting paper: Curse of the Mummy-ji: The Influence of Mothers-in-Law on Women in India. What prompted you to conduct this study?

On this project, I worked with Catalina Herrera-Almanza (Northeastern University) and Mahesh Karra (Boston University). Our fieldwork coordinator was Praveen Pathak (Jamia Millia Islamia). During 2018, our team collected primary data on the social networks of 18-30-year-old married women in Jaunpur district, Uttar Pradesh. This data revealed that women have remarkably low levels of mobility and interact with very few individuals, besides their husbands and mothers-in-law (MIL), about their personal affairs or private concerns, especially with people outside their homes. This prompted us to look for explanations and, based on our understanding of the Indian context, we decided to test if co-residence with the MIL is a relevant factor. Our analysis shows that it is negatively correlated with a daughter-in-law’s (DIL’s) mobility and ability to form social connections outside the household, especially those related to health, fertility and family planning.

Your study found that only 14 percent of the women are allowed to go alone to a health facility while only 12 percent are permitted to visit the homes of friends or relatives in their village by themselves. What could be the reason? Safety concerns for women among rising incidences of sexual violence? Or patriarchal policing to “keep an eye” on the activities of a bahu?

In our survey, we did not collect direct data, either from the women or their households, on the underlying reasons why women are not permitted to go out alone. However, our analysis reveals that the negative relationship between MIL-co-residence and DIL’s number of close outside peers is stronger if the MIL does not approve of family planning, if she wants more children than the DIL desires, and if she wants her DIL to have more sons than she already has. These findings suggest that the MIL’s restrictive behaviour, in this instance, is ultimately driven by her preferences and attitudes about fertility and family planning. The MIL fears that outside influence may cause her DIL’s fertility outcomes and family planning use to deviate from her, i.e., the MIL’s, preferences. In fact, among the sample of women whose MIL disapprove of family planning, 71% believe that this is because the MIL wants them to have (more) children—this is by far the most cited reason, followed by 25% of women who believe that their MIL is worried about the side effects from using contraceptive methods. Moreover, the negative correlation between MIL-co-residence and her DIL’s outside connections is larger when her son (i.e., the DIL’s husband) also disapproves of family planning and when he is a migrant, i.e., has been away from home for one month or more at a time. These findings imply that the MIL’s authority is even stronger when the woman’s husband is often away from home and when his family planning attitudes are aligned with those of his mother.

saas bahu relationship research
S Anukriti, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics at Boston College.

The study also found that Mothers-in-law in Indian households get to have a say on social circles their daughter-in-law maintains and even family planning. How can this upper-hand given to a saas in a household affects the mental health of a bahu?

The lack of autonomy that women experience due to the restrictions imposed on them by their MIL or even by the husband are likely to have detrimental impacts on their mental health, self-confidence, self-worth, etc. However, our analysis/ paper cannot credibly speak to this question since we did not collect data on the mental health of the women we surveyed.

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I would like to note that the presence of the MIL might also be a positive influence in other ways—women tend to be married at a young age in this context, so the MIL may act as a mentor/guide to newly married young girls learning to navigate family life. A study has found that the MIL is a potentially valuable resource during pregnancy, and women who co-reside with the MIL are less likely to be anaemic during pregnancy.

More research is needed on this topic to fully understand the advantages and disadvantages of co-residence with the MIL.

Are there any specific health consequences that were observed among women, due to their dependence on their mother-in-law to visit healthcare facilities?

Yes. We find that women who have fewer close outside peers in their village are significantly less likely to have ever visited a health facility for reproductive health, fertility, or family planning services. They are also less likely to use a modern method of contraception. Thus, the mobility restrictions imposed by the MIL, and the subsequently fewer number of close peers that her DIL has, might have additional significant detrimental impacts on her DIL in terms of her access to health clinics and contraceptive choices.

To the extent that family planning can prevent undesirable births, improve birth spacing, and thereby affect the mother’s health, the restrictions imposed by the MIL can potentially have negative consequences on DIL’s health. However, our study did not examine the impacts on women’s health directly as our survey did not collect information on women’s health status.

Compared to a woman who does not reside with her MIL, a woman who lives with her MIL has 18 percent fewer close peers in her village with whom she interacts about issues related to health and fertility. How can such isolation affect a woman’s lifestyle?

A large literature in various social sciences has shown that social networks provide a range of benefits and services to their members. For instance, we obtain information and support on a range of topics—e.g., potential jobs, agricultural technologies, health products—from our social connections. Women lose out on these benefits when their access to networks is restricted. In our data, we find that women who have more close peers in their village believe that more women in their village use family planning—this suggests that women who have more outside social connections may be better informed about the true contraceptive prevalence rates in their villages, either because their peers provide this information directly or because they learn about it during their visits to the family planning clinics. The same is likely to be true about other things, such as information about women’s work. This is important because perceptions about social norms influence our behaviour and choices—and incorrect perceptions can lead to worse outcomes as shown in this study. The lack of peers also makes women dependent on their immediate family members for accessing places outside the home, such as health clinics, markets, curtailing their ability to go out when they want to or need to, especially if they are not permitted to go outside alone.

Also Read: Why Is It A Compulsion For Women To Please Their Mother-In-Law?

Where does access to Internet fit in this equation, if at all? Has the internet made it easier to escape policing at the hands of MILs for women? To form their own peer groups without any censorship?

I am not aware of research that has examined the impact of internet/ phone access in the context of restrictions imposed by the MIL, but I would think that access to mobile phones and the Internet should, in principle, enable women to forge peer connections without necessarily going out of their homes. However, mobile phone ownership is very low for women in India—only 33 percent of women in India own phones as compared to 67 percent of men. So, unless women have access to phones/Internet, they cannot benefit from these technologies. And, access to phones itself is gendered and restricted for women.

There is evidence that participation in self-help groups does help in this regard. It is perhaps easier for women to obtain permission from the MIL/ other family members to go to meetings of these women-only groups, and this has been shown to increase the number of peers as well as to make them more empowered.

What can change in the quintessential saas-bahu relationship in India for better? Should mothers-in-law continue to hold an authoritarian position but use it to shape a better life for their daughters-in-law, or should daughters-in-law be given more leeway to lead their lives?

Perhaps the “solutions” depend on understanding the root causes of the “conflict” between the MIL and the DIL. In the case of family planning, we find clear evidence in our study that the MIL has different preferences about how many children and boys her son-DIL should have, and her attitudes about family planning are also more conservative and she may be less informed about modern methods simply because she is older, less educated, etc. So, the solution here might be for policymakers to also target the MIL and not just the couple with informational campaigns and other programs that seek to promote family planning use, increase birth spacing etc. This is something that the health system in India is already trying to do, for example, through Saas Bahu Sammelans, although I don’t know how effective or widespread they are.

All operate within a set of social norms and several of them are biased in one way or another. This does not mean that we cannot affect change through public policy.

If the underlying issue is that the MIL has more “power” within the household due to the social norms and is, therefore, able to enforce her preferences on the DIL (and even on the son to a lesser extent), then policies that promote the DIL’s bargaining power can help. If the DIL’s income potential goes up because she starts a small business at home or if she starts working outside the home, then that may empower her within the household and give her more say in the decision-making vis-à-vis other family members including the MIL.

Mothers-in-law can be keepers of patriarchal practices or usherers of changes in a family, empowering their daughters-in-law. But is it really in their hands, which way do they want to veer? Aren’t they themselves victims of patriarchal upbringing?

Yes, this is true and related to the intergenerational transmission of gender norms and attitudes. In fact, the MIL’s “power” may ultimately stem from her husband being the head of the household. Once she becomes a widow and her son becomes the new head, she may lose her elevated status within the family.

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However, in this sense, the MIL is no different from any other individual in society. We all operate within a set of social norms and several of them are biased in one way or another. This does not mean that we cannot affect change through public policy. The role of policymakers, civil society, and researchers is then to recognize that policies that do not take into account these norms will fail to achieve the desired impacts. Public policy has to adapt to the context and also try to shape/ change outdated norms.

Since it is a cultural thing to take care of ageing parents, sooner or later every daughter-in-law has to cohabit with her MIL. But do the dynamics differ in this relationship, if these women are in cohabitation ever since the daughter-in-law sets her foot inside a household versus much later in the relationship?

I expect that there would be many differences in these two types of MIL-DIL relationships. But how much of the differences can be explained by when they start living together is hard to assess without more complicated data analysis. One has to take into account the fact that families that are joint families from the start may be different from families that start out as separate and then become joint later in life—and these differences could explain why MIL-DIL relationships are different in these families, irrespective of when they start living together. That said, when a MIL moves into the DIL’s family at a much older age, she may be more dependent on the DIL and hence less empowered relative to the DIL. The relationship is likely to be reversed when a young DIL moves into the MIL’s house upon getting married.

This relationship is subjected to intense scrutiny; it has been written and joked about, films and serials have their entire premise set around it. But why is there never a conversation on how the dynamics amidst this duo be bettered? Or is the saas-bahu relationship irredeemable?

Perhaps it is easier to market TV shows that show the conflict rather than the solutions! In general, gender-based issues have not historically garnered too much attention in mainstream films or TV shows. I have not seen the new movie Thappad, but it is rare to see mainstream movies being made about domestic violence, something that is exceedingly common, for instance. Maybe people do not recognize the severity of these issues, or do not understand how detrimental they can be, or they believe that some things cannot be changed, or they believe there is no market or audience for them. I recently came across a show called Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon that addresses these issues.

Tell us about your childhood? How did you end pursuing a degree in economics?

I grew up in a small town in Haryana and studied science until class 12. Thereafter, I moved to Delhi for my undergraduate (St Stephen’s College) and postgraduate (Delhi School of Economics) education in Economics. My initial foray into Economics was because I did not want to do medicine or engineering or business administration. I decided to try Economics, as my mother was an Economics teacher. I was always interested in issues of poverty and inequality, and, over time, I realized that economics provides an extremely helpful framework/ toolkit/ mindset for understanding social issues. During my MA, I wrote a research paper for one of my classes and the immense joy and satisfaction it gave me was not matched by the corporate job that I explored later. Within a few years of my MA, I knew that research in development economics is what I wanted to do, and that led me to pursue a PhD in Economics at Columbia University.

Since I joined Boston College in 2013, I have been the only female tenure-track assistant professor in my department. And the situation is no better in other universities.

What drew you to research on gender, development, and reproductive health?

I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to conduct research on these topics, but growing up as a girl in India constantly exposed me to gender biases and inequalities that women face at every stage of life. Not only does it anger me, but it also motivates me to delve deeper into the underlying causes and to explore potential solutions that can reduce gender inequality.

A research last year said that only about 20% to 30% of undergraduate economics students are female in universities. Why is the number of women pursuing a career in economics failing to rise?

Yes, this is correct—according to a recent study, the increase in women’s representation in economics that took place in the 1970s and 1980s has flattened out in the last two decades. In fact, economics lags behind STEM fields in the share of female undergraduate majors and PhDs. Researchers have not made a lot of headway into understanding the causes. Some studies have found that female undergraduates express less interest in economics, but it is unclear if this is reflective of true preferences or is driver was incorrect perceptions about what economics is and what economists study. A common mis-perception is that economists only study topics related to macroeconomics and finance. The lack of female role models in economics could be another driving factor. Two recent studies are here and here.

What has your experience been like as a student? Did you face any gender discrimination in your university years?

Fortunately, I had several female classmates and female professors during my undergraduate and graduate education. I do not recall facing any explicit discrimination in my university years. But now as a faculty member in an economics department, I am acutely aware of the lack of female colleagues. Since I joined Boston College in 2013, I have been the only female tenure-track assistant professor in my department. And the situation is no better in other universities.

Working as Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston College, what are the gendered trends that you have observed in classrooms while teaching?

I used to teach a class called Economic of Gender for undergraduates at Boston College. I was always surprised by the lack of male students in this class! In a class of 25-30, there would be just 1-2 male students. This reflects the general attitude one encounters that gender is a women’s issue, which it is not. I have also found female students to be on average less confident.

Image Credit: The Hindu

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