Are women their own worst enemies??

I am in a sour mood today. This usually happens when my day starts badly, or my daughter is in a god awful fussy mood or when one of my patients is not doing well. Today, the reason happens to be none of the above. Instead, it is because one of my patients told me very nonchalantly that she was pulling her daughter out of school. The girl in question was an 80 percenter, was so popular that her teachers apparently came home to beg her parents to let her continue on. But the parents were unmoved. The teachers went a step ahead and dangled a scholarship carrot which would reduce the financial burden. No difference. They explained that the college which would accept this girl was not co ed, wondering whether that was one of the parent’s concerns. No avail. Coolly, the mother tells me that she decided against it, because, hold your breath…. paying the city bus fare was not worth it!

This probably happens to many thousands of girls across India. But what pricked me most was the amount of carelessness that the mother displayed when she spoke about her daughter’s plight. She tells me that the girl cried for a while, stopped eating well and finally accepted her fate and is now working as a maid. The more I got flustered, the more calmer the mother seemed. My arguing on her behalf did not make one bit of difference. I asked her whether she did not want her daughter to be in a better financial, social position than she herself was in now?  She parrots that the matter is closed and she is happy now. I ask her how she would have felt in that place. She says she was never interested in studies. I wonder whether she did not feel some amount of pity when the girl cried. She coolly denies it. And THIS makes me so mad!

I have been party to many heated debates with my friends and relatives on the matter of whether women were in fact women’s worst enemies.  The topic itself used to drive me crazy. Outwardly calm, I would be fuming inside at anybody who would condescendingly support that statement. I would argue against it and sulk for the next few hours at least.

I am, I feel, slowly having to eat my own words. The amount of discrimination I see in my everyday practice is to put it mildly, is enormous. Over a period of time, I feel I have become over sensitive to it.

It creeps in so mildly, that its over before you think up a sarcastic retort that you hope will teach them a thing or two.

The wilt in the voice when they say, “ Oh, I have ONLY three daughters”, (no matter that they are all double graduates), or when they say” Please keep me healthy till I PUT my daughter into a good home” ( as if it a piece of furniture you want to sell). Or when a patient as old as my granny pats me on my head and says “ Hope you have a son who can follow your path”. Or when they proudly claim” He is my ONLY son” (after three daughters who were sired hoping for them to be sons). When relatives of mine think a hundred times before letting their daughters go to some hobby class far away from home, because “these times are soo bad”. One of my friends once told me that a patient of hers who was grateful for the care given, pulled her aside and thrust a hundred rupee note into her hand as a contribution towards her daughter’s future wedding. The implication being that it was a burden!

I am sure most of us have been through circumstances similar to these on a regular basis. And thinking back to most of these instances, the person who would have sighed the discomfort happen to be women.

Like the word BITCHING. Well accepted, commonly used and quite often by women, but so discriminatory. Somehow, it makes me feel small. Makes me feel ashamed to be a woman.

Like when I see photographs of female genital mutilation, and the people who restrain the victim are always women!

When I read reports in newspapers of mothers in law being held for dowry harassment. When I hear about two heroines having a “cat fight”. When women talk ill about other women and judge them as being characterless. Elderly women in the household who in the behest of upholding traditions of the yore, harass the younger ones. When working women are not cut any slack at home the way their spouses are. When younger women make specific demands of not wanting to live with or care for their in laws even before meeting and gauging them.

And somewhere subconsciously, it does seem as though women are the ones holding the others behind. In their defense, maybe, just maybe a few of the factors influenced their way of thinking:

  1. Women who are less educated, end up believing myths and misconceptions easily. And because they have no solid knowledge of why what is being done, they assert themselves, mainly in front of other younger women, for all the wrong reasons. That is probably the only way they can wield authority, which defines them.
  2. Women who marry so young that they have no idea what they are missing in their youth. The frustration shows through in their middle age, when they are angry with others who seem to have enjoyed more than they have. They end up judgmental- a classical case of sour grapes.
  3. Some others who have been brought up in the above two scenarios who think that it is the normal way of life and repeat the cycle.
  4. And though I seem to be repeating myself way too much, I have a serious grouse against the typecasting ways of the television soaps, which mouth dialogues like “ a girl’s place is always next to her husband” , “ Once married, only my dead body will go back to my maternal home” or “how will you ever live alone in this big bad world( and hence you need marriage asap!) and the like… I’m sure you get the thread. In most homes, people from all age groups between three to a hundred sit glued to watch these. Probably subconsciously start believing that this is the way the world thinks.

I agree these may be oversimplifications, but at least they may help us to start the rehab work.

The theory of women being women’s worst enemies may not actually be true. We hear stories of women having done great service to their fellow beings and the world in general. Women who brave the odds and manage to reach the top.Women who have helped out their children and displayed grit and determination in helping them reach great heights. I feel strongly that these are the stories that need to be venerated, celebrated and followed in media, kept as mandatory reading since primary school, as dinner table discussions in most homes, and as heroines of prime time tv. The social media network and the internet, still only reaches very few.

And then hopefully, this adage will die a fitful death!

Let us start a change.

This morning, our hired help got an emergency call from her daughter’s home. Apparently, there was a tiff between her daughter and son in law, no doubt precipitated by her mother in law,that led to a big war of words. The reason for the fight was that the daughter had returned home a day later than was permitted by the monster in law. My maid was ordered by her son in law to take her daughter back home forever, just like that. And worse, my maid obeyed meekly and begged for forgiveness! My maid’s daughter is all of eighteen, married off 6 months before her birthday, despite all our protests and a very timid, quiet girl. Before her marriage, she would handle all the household responsibilities before going to work herself. She used to work without taking without a day’s off, even on her birthday. And finally agreed to marry a man 10 years her senior, without as much as speaking to him, because her mother told her to. And now this!

In the past few days after “India’s Daughter” was released, I have seen every social media platform, every single TV station, every whatsapp group and every newspaper give enormous publicity to what happened. There have been pro ban messages, anti ban messages, protests held and discussions dissecting every single aspect of the documentary and the attitudes that prevail. I did watch the documentary myself and felt my skin crawl and tears fall freely when the creep ( in the garb of a lawyer) and the accused speak of Jyothi/Nirbhaya almost mechanically. I felt a helpless outrage. And then it remained that way. Because:

  1. I feel that no amount of media coverage may change the harsh ground realities of thousands of millions of faceless, nameless Nirbahyas across our country or the world. The huge mass of humanity which watches these shows and newsreels are those who already seem to have a slightly different, egalitarian and non traditional mental attitude. These are not much the group who needs to change. Change needs to happen in the rural most parts of India, where women’s dignity and independence are still decided by the men of the family. Where women are not individuals, but burdens. Where the society (as Mukesh Kumar’s lawyer aptly put it) has no place for women. No point in just showing them the middle finger. We need to actively change them. But how?? We have “Beti bachao, Beti padhao”in place, but no “Beti ko respect dena bêteko sikhao”anywhere in sight.
  2. The evil mother in law does exist. Those who have different rules for their daughters and different ones for their daughters in law. Those who think and believe that the ‘sun’ rises and sets with their ‘son’, or rather because of him. They shower so much love on their sons that it becomes a sort of emotional debt to repay back that love, by taking sides when there is fight between the mother and the wife! The daughter in law that they themselves sought after the many ‘girl seeing’ sessions, becomes an object of hatred because she tries to tweak the rules of the house a little. A reverse Oedipus complex I would say! It is difficult to be non judgmental about such women and rationalize their bad behavior with many excuses. When we try family counselling in such situations, it feels as though you are smashing your head against a brick wall! And the men of the family at best, look mutely, smile condescending smiles and say “Oh, you know women, what can we do? “, and act as though the whole thing had nothing to do with them!
  3. And the so called myth that ‘Women are women’s worst enemies” seems true to a certain extent. Pick a random case of dowry death, the MIL is almost always the master mind. Pick a case of child marriage, the mother is the one who has ‘counselled’ the daughter that this is what is best for her(as in the case of our maid). Pick any post marital conflict, the mother is the one advising the daughter to go back, so as to avoid the shame society would hoist upon them, lest a daughter comes back to the maternal home in disgrace. Pick any child who has dropped out of school, it is because there was no one to share the mother’s burden of work (it does not occur that the boy can share this burden too!). These are the bitter realities, which we as the middle class have forgotten and brushed under the carpet. We are truly a lucky group of people whose parents changed their attitudes. But for a lot of other women, these painful realities are a part of daily existence, and they come to us as patients of depression, or victims of assault, if they try swimming against the stream.
  4. Finally,us. Most of us did download the controversial video and watched it in horror, a lot of us walked candle light marches, many hosted seminars on the evils occurring to women and many spoke/ wrote about it( including me, by the way), but it did not cause change where it mattered most. When my maid got her daughter married, it was on the tip of my tongue to advice the girl to rebel, and go back to her studies. But I did not. I protested feebly, and then left for her to decide. I feel like telling my abused patients to get the hell out of their abusive marriages and make a life for themselves, but refrain because of my so called professional ethics. When I hear my neighbor beating or scolding his wife in a drunken brawl, I choose to curb my anger, rather than go back there and help bash the living daylights out of him! I am sure most of us are in the same state of helplessness and hence the quantum of people abusing/ disrespecting/ troubling/ and killing women will not subside.

There are too few of us who do and too many of us who keep quiet. Far too many who accept a ‘pedha’ as a sign of happiness when a male baby is born and sweetened puffed rice (almost apologetically) when a girl is born. Too many of us who still believe that with marriage and children only, is a woman’s life complete. Too many of us who do not protest when widows are not given adequate respect at family functions… and so on the list grows.

Changing rules and government policies may work in the long run, but till then we may continue to lose many of our kind. So let us start the change in our everyday lives. Let us not wait for some incident to happen for us to awaken from our stupor. Let us start small, and consistent. Let each one of us make sure that our maids have an education. Let us not watch/allow watching of regressive serials where women are typecast. Let us not hum item songs, because they do objectify women, how much ever they are supposed to be an integral part of the script!

Instead let us show small children inspiring videos of women who have done great work despite their odds, as a part of school curriculum. Let us teach them how to use legislation in case they are harmed. Let them know that they need not swallow abuse just because their marital prospects and family honor may be damaged. Such small things may go a long way in building positive attitudes at a young age. Let us show them that…

women rights quotes

Can we get some respect, please?

Philippe Pinel removing physical restraints from a mentally ill woman in La Salpêtrière,France
Philippe Pinel removing physical restraints from a mentally ill woman in La Salpêtrière,France

There are a few illnesses in the world which resemble Voldemort! They exist but cannot be named or accepted. And mental illnesses top this list.Both the patient, as well as relatives, seem to be in a state of denial. In my practice,I have seen a range of behaviors which constitute this stigma. People sitting in front of me, suddenly getting a call on their cell phones, hurriedly pick it up and coolly proceed to tell the caller that they are in a cinema hall or market while making pleading faces at me; patients requesting to be seen urgently because they spotted a fellow villager entering the neurology section of the hospital (which makes him a patient with a respectable illness); or a mother who gets the child to the clinic without informing the father or grandparents!

The word  stigma, apparently originated in Greece. In Greek society, stizein was a mark placed on slaves to identify their position in the social structure and to indicate that they were of less value. The modern derivative, stigma, is therefore a distinguishing mark of social disgrace attached to patients in order to  identify and to devalue them. Stigma occurs in two different ways. One, wherein the general public, family and friends of the particular patient happen to discriminate the patient, and two, where due to this discrimination the patient himself begins to demotivate and hate himself.

There are box full of myths all over the place about the cause, nature as well as cure of mental illnesses. Hence, patients are feared for their potential violent nature, lack of will power and apparent genetic heritability of the illness. Stigma in any form is obviously painful and causes a lot of stress and loss of confidence in the person, but the amount of stigma faced by women having mental illnesses is really demoralizing.

I had a 25 year old girl, recently married who had had a relapse of psychotic illness(in which she behaved abnormally, got angry, aggressive and tried to assault the mother in law). This girl was our patient for the past two years and was completely stable with medication. Some time ago,the mother cautiously broached the topic of whether they could get her married. As is the custom, I took time to explain to her that it would be better that the prospective groom come for a counseling session; that he be in the knowhow of her illness and how it was quite harmless; that I would try and dispel myths which he may be having. If he did not agree, then it would ok.  She could get married to someone understands her illness and still accepts her!

When this was discussed within the family, it was met with strong opposition. The family felt that telling anyone would spell doom, not only for the girl, but for her younger sisters who were also of marriageable age. Hence, the mother carefully un wrapped the medicines from the wrapper, made different boxes and hid it in the girl’s clothing so that she could consume it as stealthily as possible. Unfortunately, post marriage, the girl discovered that the wardrobe given to her was in a landing where anyone could walk in any time, and hence started missing doses to avoid being discovered. This led to a relapse, the groom’s side discovering the tablets and blaming the girls’s side for cheating them.

Now they were sitting in front of me, the sulky husband, the fire brand mother in law to one side, the teary girl in the middle and the defensive mother of the bride to the other! And to take the matter to its logical conclusion, there were about 10 panchayat members who had tagged along!

The boy was unwilling to take her back, the Mom in law said, “If they lied about this, there may be other things too”. The mother who had spent heavily on the wedding, alongside a fat dowry, was livid.“Well, she was fine in our house. It is your fault she is this way. And if you want us to take the girl back, you may as well pay us back all the dowry and expenses of the marriage”. The panchayat members were cajoling, “Think about the girl. Who else will marry her? You have to give her a life. Take her back. She will listen to whatever you say and live like your servant!”(Well, this was supposed to be in support of the girl!)

In between all this, the girl was sitting eyes downcast and teary. It made me feel so low and depressed to imagine how she was facing this. She was unwanted by her own family, a burden which was now someone else’s responsibility. Otherwise, she would have to be kept at home and taken care of unto death. The husband, understandably felt cheated, but looked willing, if not for the mother in law who was already making plans for his second marriage and a second dowry! The panchayat felt that the deed had been done and it was now the girl’s fate to suffer at the hands of a spineless husband, and a tyrant mom in law!

This does not happen to be an individual instance. Whenever men develop a mental illness, we find the parents almost magically find brides for them who are willing to “adjust” to being with a husband suffering from an illness or disability. We have seen instances of husbands convincing wives (who are mentally ill) to agree to their second marriages, wives taking domestic abuse of aggressive, alcoholic  husbands with resignation and accept their husband’s infidelity with a pinch of salt. All the while feeling that either their children, or parents or the husband may feel bad if they desert them!

Parents of young girls are devasted when they hear of their child or relative having a mental illness. They take great pains to hide it from near and dear with the fear that they may spread word and spoil her future marriage prospects. All thoughts of education, job etc etc just fly out the window, and the only question that looms large is whether their daughter will get a good husband. Immediately, she becomes a second class citizen.

But reverse the picture, men seem to think that it is impossible to adjust with anything other than perfect. The minute their wives are diagnosed with a mental illness, there are barbed comments, outright disgust and a permission to insult their spouses any which way they please. Everything becomes their fault.I may be over generalizing here, but the ratio of men and families being nice and supportive to women suffering from mental illness is impossibly skewed in the wrong direction.

And the women themselves, in between suffering from an illness that shakes their very core, have to deal with a hostile world. No wonder, many of them relapse repeatedly.

Spreading awareness about mental illnesses, bringing up our girls to develop a sense of self worth, teaching them to fight back and not take crap( I mean, if the husband does accept the girl back, how could she live with him knowing that he did not even stand up to her??) may be over simplified solutions to a very complex problem. We have a long way to go. And a lot of awareness to spread. And a lot of confidence to build. Till then, there are thousands of those who suffer indignity in silence.

Indian woman mourns death of her relative killed in tsunami in Cuddalore