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Does a woman have her own identity? Women in the north-east of India are usually identified as “belonging to” either the father or husband, even when educated and accomplished.
For many women their identity continues to be a ‘house wife’. It seems normal and natural to say “I am a housewife”. It is so ‘normal’ and natural that when a woman introduce herself as a “housewife” it doesn’t register in one’s mind what that actually implies.
Recently I was part of the media team visiting some villages in Dimoria block in Assam. We met a lot of women both in the village and in semi urban areas. After the initial “hello” and greetings, it is usually followed by “I am a house wife’ when asked what she is doing or engages in. One really needed to probe and go slow if one wants to know what all activity she engages in. This comes only when one is interactive and pose queries about her life or daily activities – more as a conversation or a sharing and not as a question. One has to really indirectly probe to understand and know the woman – her life and all about her.
This is not only in Dimoria or in some villages in Assam; for most women in north-east India ‘house wife’ is an identity. The concept that a woman ‘belongs’ to a man – her father – and then later her husband, has been so much internalized by women in these northeastern states that it comes naturally to them to be called ‘housewife’. They have also learnt the word ‘housewife’ – which is an English word – so that they use the right word as their introduction outside of the homes – to the outside world.
Besides internalizing and an acceptance of the given identity, it is also considered a ‘status’. One of the reasons why young girls would be constantly asked when is she getting married or taunted over marriage is that the girl / young woman needs a ‘status’ and that is of a ‘housewife’.
To be a housewife is a higher status than to remain ‘unmarried’ – that is at least to ‘belong’ to someone – a man. This also further strengthens the concept of ownership for a man – that he owns his wife – to the extent of ownership as a property or an asset. To be an asset is considered a value.
This identity is not only in rural areas. Even educated women in urban areas still introduce themselves either as ‘housewife’ or ‘the wife of so and so’. Most women who are not working outside their homes as a salaried person in an office or an institution do not considered themselves as a ‘working woman’. The new term ‘homemaker’, that is considered a better terminology than ‘housewife’ is yet to be conceptualized or understood.
The new term, however, does not make much of a difference. ‘Home making’ is an unpaid job, and not necessarily a ‘respectable one’. Given that the concept of woman at home – and making a home – is so natural that it does not make much of a difference to that of being a “housewife” – home and house is the same and the work is the same. Home – maker – signifies that a woman’s job is to “make the home’ to take care of the “home” – and not the man.
Women’s names in the north-east are also shortened, mostly a pet name. Women normally do not tell their names in full. If insisted upon, their full names would not include the surname/second name. Those that (reluctantly) spell out their full names would tell us the second name / surnames of their husband as their second name or surname.
Earlier, girls who enrolled in school would simply give their names – no first or second or a third. This has changed though over the years as there is progress in academics and school education. With an increase in enrolment, and with too many similar names – surnames have become a necessity.
Interestingly even academically educated and accomplished women, after their marriage changed their second / surnames and take their husband’s names. This is done legally and their affidavits can be seen published in newspapers.
In north-east India it is considered that a woman does not have a ‘permanent’ surname / second name – here the clan name is the second/surname name. A woman, when married, left her ‘clan’ and became – actually adopts – her new clan – that is her husband’s. Thus she is required to use the clan name as her own second name.
A woman before marriage is under the ownership of her father or in his absence her brother or clan / a male family member. This ownership is sort of like – owning a property / asset- where claims are made by the owner.
This is obvious when statements such as this are made to a woman – whom do you belong to? After marriage she is considered ‘belonging’ to her husband and his clan. Thus a man is the owner, and a woman belongs to her father before and later to her husband – not only the individual but the whole family clan.
A woman’s identity therefore is ‘fluid’.
Her identity as a daughter, a sister change to that of a housewife, a mother. In any profiling of a woman, be it in more advance or lesser privilege – a woman is often described as a – mother of n number of children, or wife of so and so. While the profile of man usually not have any of such mentions – like “he is a father of n number of children”. If a man’s profile mentioned his wife or number of children, the better half or wife would obviously be a well-known personality (with an addition of a mention of her father!)
When I started writing and my name in the byline began frequently appearing in the media, people started asking “who is your father?”. Even more annoying is the frequent question “are you the daughter of x ( one high profile relative)”.
The obvious assumption is that a there should be someone – of course a man – the father – behind a woman. Your identity comes with a tag or a label, an addition. Or does a woman even have an identity of her own?
Image source: By Anusingha – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
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A journalist writing on/ of north-east India and engaging with women groups in the
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