There exists a well-known, stereotypical trope within Indian family relationships. The ongoing feud between mother-in-law (MIL) and daughter-in-law (DIL).
It not only fills Indian interpersonal relationships but also mainstream media. If you tune into any Indian tv series, you will see the same setup. The boy marries and brings home his new wife. And overnight, the mother in law – who happily welcomed the newly married couple, now has pegged the new DIL as her arch nemesis.
The MIL now focuses on teaching the DIL, her place, to be an obedient conduit to the MIL’s will. Growing up as a woman and an Indian, this was quite easily one of my nightmares when I envisioned married life. On the one hand, you have to contend with a lifelong foe whose only purpose seems to be to make you unhappy. On the other hand, the bold DIL who speaks up and insists the married couple have their own privacy and autonomy, is almost portrayed as a wench, worse than a home wrecker.
But it is only with time and becoming a daughter in law myself, that I have questioned the existence of this centuries old feud. My MIL is a fierce, independent, free-thinking superwoman who has raised 2 wonderful kids, my husband included. She is the glue that holds the family together. She had all the makings to be a formidable MIL. But, all she has ever shown me is kindness and acceptance, to the extent of treating me as one of her own.
You would say, she sounds like one in a million. I should consider myself lucky. Well… shouldn’t this be the norm? There is really no positive outcome that can come from making a family member feel ostracised, subjugated, or unable to have a say. So, then it must exist out of some unknown “need”.
And in this need, the psychology, and the pattern of abuse becomes clear.
The Indian family system gears towards joint families that are traditionally patriarchal. In majority of communities, the role of head of the family moves from father to son. The daughters are married off (they literally stop being part of their original family and become members of the family they married into) with some money (dowry, or their “rightful” inheritance,) and the sons inherit the family wealth. The financial duties and decision-making passes from father to son, and the household duties and raising the young passes from mother to daughter in law. This creates a system where women do not have financial independence and the decisions in their life are made by men – from their father, to brother, husband and finally son. Without the financial support or approval of a man, as a woman, you cease to exist. Add to this, the highly sexually repressed culture that is so ingrained in India and the gap in understanding between men and women significantly widens. Boys are taught to command and lead. Girls are taught to listen and obey.
Applying this to the family scenario, by the time the son marries – the role of financial responsibilities and decision making would have passed on to him. However, the father still plays the role as head of the family or the patriarch. This traditional family hierarchy follows –
Father > Son > Mother
When the DIL arrives, suddenly there is a power struggle. As someone in the bottom rung of the hierarchy, the mother suddenly feels threatened that the new arrival will usurp her in her own home. She feels that the DIL will steal her son’s affection (or approval) away, and she creates scenarios that challenge the new arrival. This will be in the form of constant disapproval, complaining, unnecessary restrictions (restrictions that do not apply to her own daughter), and in extreme cases, interfering with the couple’s relationship, or verbal / physical abuse. The DIL in return senses the constant attack, feels constrained and tries to move out – which is obviously taboo. This creates more tension between the couple – and the husband cluelessly wonders why his mother and wife cannot get along.
This is a classic case of how bullying behaviour progresses. The mother who has been subjugated in her own home, forced to be compliant to all family members, now has the opportunity to gain authority over the son’s new wife, and also fight to keep her current privileges. She doesn’t realise that she is continuing to perpetuate the bullying she endured, and thereby the real culprits rest easy. In a family where both parents and adult son have shared responsibility, independence and financial support, there is no need for this hierarchy.
It would be a unit of mutual love, respect and support. Instead, in her misguided efforts, some MILs even prevent their DILs from gaining autonomy and financial independence, something that they could only dream of, but never had. Misery begets misery.
It is in women’s nature to nurture. In a natural setting, the women in the family would come together to support one another and raise the next generation.
This feud only exists in a system where a woman has worth only in relation to a man. So, while the MIL and DIL focus on fighting each other over centuries, they fail to see the real chains of patriarchal bondage, that pit them against each other and reap the benefits of their silent slavery.