NEW DELHI – Young Indian women fear and loathe her. Soap operas showcase her iron-fisted rule. And sociologists spend hours debating the torment she is accused of unleashing across the country.
Mothers-in-law have long been demonised and parodied all over the world. But they have an especially fearsome reputation in India, where stories of bitter and abusive struggles with their daughters-in-law abound. According to a new book, relationships between mothers-in-law and their son's wives have never been more dysfunctional in India, where it says rapid modernisation has collided with staunch family traditions.
"It's a phenomenon that started around the year 2000 and has been building ever since," said Veena Venugopal, author of The Mother-in-Law: The other woman in your marriage. "This is the worst generation for mother and daughter-in-law conflict," she told AFP. Women, especially in isolated, rural India, have historically married young and joined their husband's family under one roof – where they were placed at the bottom of the pile and often relegated to performing household chores.
India's economic liberalisation in the 1990s brought double-digit growth coupled with social progress that allowed legions more women to pursue higher education and a career in cities. Like their peers in the Western world, these middle-class urban Indian women have also started delaying marriage and having fewer children. But such social changes are often not accepted by their mothers-in-law many of whom are stuck in a different age, Venugopal argued.
"Daughters-in-law are more educated and have more options and want to make more decisions for themselves and yet they are trapped in these marriages," said Venugopal, an editor at The Hindu Business Line newspaper. The book details 11 cases of middle-class women across the country and their relationships with their husband's families.
One bride, a television journalist, was forced to hand over her salary every month to her mother-in-law who also forcibly took charge of bringing up her two young children. She was never allowed to sit on a couch, chair or bed, only a concrete surface in the home that she shared with her husband's extended family, for whom she was expected to cook and clean after finishing her day job.
"These are people you come across in your professional life and never imagine that they live such traumatised lives behind closed doors," she said. Venugopal, whose book was published by Penguin in May, said she hoped to kickstart a national debate about the changing roles of husbands, wives and their families which remain cornerstones of Indian society.
"I also hope that men feel slightly embarrassed about all this and get into the act. Most do nothing to resolve these conflicts, their way of dealing with it is to ignore it," she said. For generations, boys have been favoured over girls who are less likely to receive a decent education, medical care and even food, according to governments and research groups.
Men, considered the bread winners, wield the power while the women are married off. "The daughter traditionally is never part of the house because she is something to be gifted away," said New Delhi-based social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. "We are a deeply patriarchal society."
Numerous soap operas on Indian television show the domineering mother-in-law battling with her younger, prettier daughter-in-law who always loses the fight over money, her husband, food and space in the home. The shows have long been wildly popular particularly among women, many of whom can sympathise with the struggles and torments being played out on screen, Visvanathan said.
"It's very therapeutic for them." Venugopal argued that such dysfunctional relationships appear to be passing from one generation to the next. Instead of bonding with her son's bride, the mother-in-law seizes the chance to unleash her own kind of repression and anger. "The mother-in-law herself has been a repressed daughter-in-law. She has waited 20 years for the chance to be the powerful one in a relationship," she said.
Not surprisingly, mothers-in-law reject the bad rap detailed in the book and are fighting back against such negative stereotyping. Neena Dhulia said a string of laws have been introduced to protect daughters-in-law from dowry-related and other abuses, which in turn are being misused to help them obtain divorces and persecute mothers-in-law. "Women these days are better educated. They know how to manipulate these laws," Dhulia said.
"Women are also very independent (these days), they have no tolerance and they have high ambitions." "For them, it's as easy as ordering pizza. They ring up, file a complaint and the mother-in-law is arrested," she told AFP. Dhulia runs a forum in southern Bangalore and other several cities for mothers-in-law who are being victimised by their families, a service that attracts 15 to 20 phone calls a week.
"We have spent 30 to 35 years taking care of our children. Are we really demons or monsters?" she said.