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The challenges of NRI women in extended families come to the fore, as job losses during the pandemic cause many Indian families abroad to return home.
The lockdown has been in effect for more than 100 days and we have been drowning in articles talking about the double burden on women, the plight of working mothers, stay-at home women etc.
While the majority agree in theory about the weight of patronising chauvinism, Indian families do not really alter most of their basic blocks to accommodate more freedom for women.
Among the numerous categories of women, the NRI daughters-in-law are a special and unique category.
Ever since the IT boom, emigration to western countries has been seen as the expected outcome of a ‘successful’ life. A large number of parents raise kids and educate them with this narrow definition, which often dictates their life choices. There are many angles to why the term NRI is so alluring, but it also hides a secret outline for women’s empowerment.
Living abroad, many women feel empowered as they are allowed to manage their house, commute and most importantly, cultivate self-expression without the judging eyes of the extended family. With the reasoning of “fitting in” in a more open society, even husbands shed their patriarchal attitudes with time and the progressive attitude often seeps into the minds of the children as well.
When visiting family in India, women in such cases do get the short end of the stick, as the norm dictates that married woman spends most of her time at her in-laws’ house, not her parents’ home. This rule has been navigated mostly with ‘time-share’ arrangements by reasonable adults but there are patriarchal exceptions to this rule (wherein, women stay the whole vacation in their in-laws’ house, and visit their parents for the day).
Usually a family settled abroad is considered a special visitor in the household and “the limited direct contact time”, makes feuds an unnecessary disruption. Not that feuds don’t happen, but they are usually marked down as “misunderstandings” and reasoned as “we see them once a year.”
In India, the perception of joint families with a patriarch is the norm in most households. Even in nuclear breakaways, the control and authority often continue, enabled by technological advancements like WhatsApp and whatnot. This mutation of Indian households is familiar to all and many online feuds have happened because a toddler refused to chat with a grandparent, or a weak wifi signal sabotaged a weekend family call. Navigating these situations is easier for women when living abroad. A sense of autonomy prevails, and the distance helps smoothen these human frailties and ego.
The global pandemic has led to many families being stranded in their hometowns for an unavoidable extended period of time (which mostly in the case of women translates as the husband’s house). Vacationing for a month and returning to familiar home turf outside India, is a whole different ball game when compared to the present situation for many families.
To understand this, one needs to closely examine the veil of patriarchy that dictates the household duties. Housework like cooking, cleaning, washing, drying often go unquestioned to the women. Additionally, serving extra delicacies for the people at home is considered the hallmark of Indian culture. The challenges of NRI women may now include this added work, with ample supervision from the matriarch(s) of the household.
Husbands who have shared hoovering, washing dishes, folding and what-not abroad get a clean chit from all these responsibilities as “he is visiting on vacation.” This unequal division of labour is very tiresome for women but nobody tries to dissuade this way of life. I mean, there is rarely a house where the vacationing wife catches up her morning sleep while her husband brings her tea from his mothers’ kitchen. The act of “a man taking tea for his sleeping wife”, would be the scandal of the century for the family. Sadly, even in her own parent’s house, this would be considered a sacrilegious event. The overall irony of this is that, while living abroad, this would have been the norm for the family/couple.
The joint family is often the crux of Indian values. It’s romanticized as an ideal for harmonious living for all human beings. The slights, silent manoeuvres of power, exercises of patriarchal control all under the guise of love, care and affection are often disregarded for some “greater good.” The easy pass men get in such societal set ups is no surprise, but the suffocating control that women feel definitely needs vocalization.
The stress of the lockdown doubled with the fear of job-loss is a mental burden hovering over many families. Financial independence (in case of working couples) is at stake and women who are already vulnerable to Covid job losses have more to fear. Women from NRI families currently living at in-laws’ house face uncertain futures. The sudden change in overseas fortunes impacts their financial as well as personal routine. Taking in the changes and adjusting to the new norms of cultural control is a hard road to cross.
The pandemic has affected women in many ways, from extra household work to increased domestic violence. The scale of disadvantages that women face is as diverse as the people around us. In the case of families, the basic unit of society, recognition of patriarchy by the better halves is not enough. Husbands need to stand up for their spouses, and not be silent witness to the emotional toll that women face. Cultural norms do dictate strict rules with a lot of emotional baggage, but by standing up for equality, men can support their wives in these critical times.
Top image is a scene from the Hindi serial Saath Nibhaana Saathiya
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