From a young age I’ve seen many women in my family go through major difficulties when becoming newlyweds and moving into their new in-laws’ houses. Now in my 20s, more of the friends and family I grew up with are going through similar struggles, like the older generation – not exactly the same, but both generations can still relate to similar experiences. The constant pressure for women to conform to the values that south Asian in-laws expect needs to end. When a daughter-in-law arrives, we promise her and her family that we’ll treat them like our own, but in reality some families can treat a new bride like a doormat and expect them to be nothing but a timid and obsequious ‘yes man’, while chipping away at her character and self-esteem, her independence and her mental health.
South Asian women more likely to commit suicide
A Hindu marriage is an extremely joyful but emotional day, especially for the bride as, historically in India, many brides would get married at a young age and be married off to a family they didn’t know too much about. The visits to see their family would be minimal and they would have to adapt to life with their new family immediately, without any say if things got difficult.
For my grandparents’ and parent’s generations, the new bride would be given no independence or agency, and they would face a barrage of judgements – on their looks, the way they acted, their mothering skills. Not only this, but they would be expected to clean and cook for everyone in the household, and in more severe cases, the relationship could be overtly abusive. Verbal, physical and/or mental abuse was common a few generations ago and many South Asian wives would suffer in silence.
Statistically, South Asian women are two-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide than white women – a lot of this is down to cultural conflict. One research study by the BBC said, ‘Having to hold down a professional job and then to come home and cook and clean – this clash of East and West can be difficult to cope with.’
At the end of a Hindu wedding, we hold a short ceremony called a Vidi where the family tearfully give away their daughter to the new family that she is marrying into – it’s extremely emotional, and over the years I’ve noticed that it’s not just sad because they’re watching the daughter they love dearly move into a new family, but it’s also this undercurrent of fear, this unspoken knowledge that the new bride’s life will be hard, and that she faces by difficult and unfair circumstances. Many men and women in the bride’s side will cry passionately during a Vidi for this reason – we all know a South Asian bride’s life is sentenced to difficult times and unfair treatment.
But times have changed, and this outdated mentality must end – in-laws need to realise that their new daughter isn’t a possession, she’s not a new hoover or an object to make their own lives easier – they need independence, a job, and all the pressures of the household chores can’t just be carried by the new daughter. Husbands need to realise that it’s a difficult change for their new wife, requiring huge and sudden changes – their wife is trying to adapt to her new lifestyle and their partner needs to be patient and understanding, and they need to compromise too.
Now, of course I should point out that not all South Asian wives are shackled up and depressed – I’ve seen many families truly love and treat their new daughters-in-law like their own. My own mother was very lucky not to have had to deal with this and was very happy in integrating with her new family.
However, I’ve noticed that the outdated mentality that a new daughter-in-law should jump at every demand and that her new family make still continues too often today. Faryal Makhdoon, the wife of British World Champion boxer Amir Khan, has been very vocal about her experiences with her in-laws and the treatment she suffered. She has exposed the horrific hidden culture of bullying by South Asian in-laws and said that her husband’s family was bullying her physically and mentally. Makhdoom stated that she’d had enough of their bullying and had decided to speak out on behalf of other women facing the same. She claimed that she was being abused by her in-laws because she didn’t dress the way a proper Muslim woman should.
As a society, we often mistakenly think that domestic abuse and the bullying of daughters-in-law is a problem for the poor or the uneducated, but that’s not the essential element. It is a power dynamic fuelled by a patriarchal system that designates the husband’s family members as the enforcers of authority over women’s lives.
This is also why many South Asians historically would not want to give birth to a female, as not only would the wedding be costly for the bride’s family, but it was also to avoid the problems a daughter would have to face in a new family. Having a male child would carry on the family name, be less costly for a wedding, and they wouldn’t have to give away a daughter, but instead gain a new one when their son married.
New bride is a potential threat
Another issue is that a new bride is often viewed as a potential threat to a mother-in-law’s long-term plans and security. The bride may convince her husband to break the traditional joint household by moving into their own home, which can leave the mother-in-law alone in old age and potentially with no economic security, particularly if there is only one son. It therefore falls to the mother-in-law to ensure her daughter-in-law does not develop the confidence or gain the loyalty of her son to an extent that she is empowered to encourage him to break the joint family. In-laws use indirect involvement and subtle tactics that control and regulate certain aspects of a daughter-in-law’s life.
Friends and family members of mine haven’t gone through what the older generation may have had to deal with, but some of the experiences are still similar. Just a week ago, a friend of mine said she really misses her family back home. I mentioned maybe it would be good to go home for a weekend as she hadn’t seen her family for a while but she said it would look bad if she went home without ‘a valid reason’. She can only go back to her home for specific occasions such as someone’s birthday, a wedding, someone’s graduation etc. This culture of needing reasons and ‘permission’ to do things that most people in many other cultures would consider perfectly natural creates problems between husband and wife, and problems for the bride’s independence and mental health. A South Asian bride isn’t a child, who needs someone else to decide what she can do, where she can go and when – she is a person and she needs to have her own hopes and desires recognised and respected. This treatment can destroy families, create marital problems between couples, and wreak havoc on the mental well-being of the women involved.
What families should do
So… if you’re a family who has a new daughter-in-law arriving soon, just remember she’s not an Amazon gift arriving through the post. Remember the difficulties she will face in adapting to the lifestyle that you expect of her. And remember to treat her like a human being not a prop.
And to the newlywed brides and wives that feel cornered or suffocated, make sure you keep communicating with your family, and don’t quietly conform to these old fashioned values, at any cost. For generations South Asian women have suffered from not being allowed to speak or to be heard, and we must end it now. It’s up to you to end this cycle of abuse, and to refuse to conform to these cultural expectations. This won’t be easy, and the pressure on girls to preserve their family honour by being a ‘good wife’ must be enormous. So it’s up to all of us. It’s up to husbands to support their wives. It’s up to us as brothers and sisters and parents to let girls know that we will support them even after they leave for their new families. And of course it’s up to the parents-in-law to change their attitudes and to recognise that they have a responsibility to their new daughters, to provide her with a good home, and to take seriously the meaning of the word ‘family’.
Where you can find help
If you need further help, Mind have developed five tailored projects targeting the South Asian female community:
• Greenwich Mind works with women in the Tamil and Nepalese communities;
• Leeds Mind have delivered tailored peer support, counselling and arts provision for Asian women;
• Suffolk Mind is engaging Asian and BME women of Muslim faith in Ipswich to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health;
• Mind in Ealing & Hounslow have been delivering art and gardening therapy to support the mental wellbeing of South Asian women;
• Bexley Mind is working with the Bangladeshi community to explore the impact of intergenerational dynamics on mental well-being.