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Who Decides What Is ‘Correct’ Behaviour For Women, Especially Daughters In Law?!

Gender stereotypes, though a by-product of the patriarchal society that we have always lived in, are now so intricately woven into our conditioning that despite our progressive thinking, we are unable to break free from them.

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Repeatedly crossing, while on my morning walk  ̶  a sticky, vine-coloured patch on the walkway, painted by jamuns that have fallen from the jamun tree, crushed by the impact of their fall, and perhaps, inadvertently trampled upon by walkers, awakens memories of the mulberry tree that stood in my parents’ house when I was growing up. Right at the entrance of the house, the tree caused a similar red and violet chaos on the floor, which greeted us each time we entered the gate.

Today, as I walked by this red-violet patch, I was reminded of an incident that my mother had narrated to me several times. It had taken place shortly after her marriage and her arrival in this house from her hometown.

A question of the ‘correct’ behaviour for a daughter in law

One day, she climbed up the mulberry tree, the ‘shahtoot ka ped’ as we used to call it, to pluck mulberries, and was merrily at it when she suddenly spotted a neighbour passing by on his scooter. She immediately jumped off the tree  ̶  embarrassed, reprimanding herself silently and making herself the promise of a more appropriate demeanour in the future  ̶  one befitting a married woman.

For a girl born and brought up in Dehradun, growing up amidst nature, in a house surrounded by trees bearing mangoes, litchis and peaches, climbing a tree came effortlessly to her, and so did some inconceivable feats, like grabbing a rat by its tail and hurling it out of the house and in the open. She lived in a large joint family. Climbing those trees with cousins of all ages, plucking fruits and then eating them together  ̶  my finite imagination renders me incapable of measuring the joy she must have experienced doing that.

Why then, could she not do the same, in her new home? Why did she jump off the tree? For years, I lived under the notion that she did so, on seeing the stunned look on the neighbour’s face. I was convinced about her being called on the carpet later to be told that such an act was not expected of the daughter-in-law of a highly respectable man that my grandfather was.

A moment of assumption was the silent death of the spontaneity of her spirit

Today, I asked her what the neighbour had said to her and her response left me dismayed. “Nobody said anything!” she explained. “I jumped off due to my own doubts and fears. Wo Uncle soch rahein honge – dekho, Dua ji ki nayi bahu ped par chadhi hui hai! (That Uncle might be thinking – see, Dua ji’s new daughter in law has climbed on the tree!)

For that girl who grew up climbing trees, this was probably the last time she ever climbed one. That moment of assumption was the silent death of the spontaneity of her spirit. That moment of assumption that arrived because gender roles and expectations are defined, as is the code of conduct for a married woman  ̶   no, not in a manual, but in our minds.

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Gender stereotypes, though a by-product of the patriarchal society that we have always lived in, are now so intricately woven into our conditioning that despite our progressive thinking, we are unable to break free from them. The solace in this 50-year-old story is that although she never climbed a tree again, the years that followed were some of the best years of her life, again in a joint family where fun never ended, albeit in other ways.

Have things changed yet?

This was 1972. Five decades later, I wonder if anything has changed. I can climb a tree on a holiday, or on a picnic, but can I do it otherwise, without glancing around to see who is watching?

The fact is that we, as a society, are still bound by an intrinsic need to adhere to norms. We live our lives the way others want us to, conduct ourselves the way others expect us to and try to fit into roles that others want us to fit into. And so, we don’t do the things we want to because of the self-inflicted burden of conforming to societal norms that leaves us so dissatisfied!

This Independence Day, besides the many other ills that we seek freedom from  ̶  as a nation, and as humanity,  may we also, on a personal level, break the shackles of our own mind, and learn to liberate ourselves from expectations, assumptions, boundaries, forced codes of conduct and anything that does not make us happy!

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About the Author

Anuja Dua Joshi

Anuja is a curriculum and instructional designer, working actively towards upskilling and transforming the lives of blue-collar workers. She is an uncompromising Utopian, and a lover of poetry, languages, music, food and travel. read more...

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