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Mother-in-law Reels: a quiet feminist movement?

Women content creators are using humorous Instagram Reels to portray the injustice they face in their marital homes

Instagram Reels have brought together a community of like-minded women who encourage and empower one another.
Instagram Reels have brought together a community of like-minded women who encourage and empower one another.

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There was a time when Instagram Reels were just about dance moves and pranks. Today, women content creators are using them to talk about life post-marriage.

Often, women, across ages, sections and strata, suffer disrespect, unfair treatment and outright abuse at the hands of in-laws. Many of them suffer quietly. Now they are telling their side of the story with a liberal dose of humour, creating little skits with catchy music, lyrics or film dialogue to re-enact events from their lives.

Also read: Why are people opting for a self-respect marriage

These posts are aimed at evoking laughs and increasing audience engagement. What is noteworthy, though, is their relatability. The popularity of these Reels has encouraged others to follow suit, albeit in a light-hearted way, inadvertently creating a quiet feminist movement of sorts.

Thara Gowda, 32, a stay-at-home mom of a six-year-old girl, has over 198,000 followers on Instagram and is known as the “pink nightie woman” after the outfit she frequently wears in posts. She puts up a Reel a day and plays to perfection the part of the disdainful mother-in-law who gives her daughter-in-law a hard time while coddling her son. Gowda uses the term “raja beta” for the typical Indian husband.

The ideas for the Reels, she claims, come to her in the form of numerous direct messages she gets every day. In a recent one, she depicts a scene where the mother-in-law refuses to call her daughter-in-law by name, instead addressing her as “Hey, you!” each time. “It’s one thing if it’s an honest mistake; they are ageing and they tend to forget. But you can tell when it’s being done intentionally to make you feel small,” Gowda points out.

She started making these Reels around the time of the pandemic, when she was restricted from checking on her elderly parents by her husband’s family. In the throes of anxiety, she could clearly see the skewed power dynamics at play.

Women are taught from a young age to put the needs of others, especially men, ahead of their own. In adulthood, such conditioning sets us back in our relationships. Even on our path to unlearning these beliefs, we are constantly faced with pushback, especially from other women, who unfortunately become the flag bearers of patriarchy in most families.

Chennai-based Zoha Sanofer’s Reels, which portray such interactions, are a laugh riot. The 28-year-old, a former RJ and YouTuber, has 165,000 followers on Instagram and is among the first to make videos in Dakhni, a language spoken mostly by the Muslim population in the southern states. Her conservative upbringing meant she had to fight for freedom every step of the way. It is these experiences that inspire her content.

Recently married, one of the things Sanofer talks about is the different rules for the daughter and daughter-in-law. The latter, unlike the daughter, is subject to restrictions and unreasonable expectations. “I openly call out all my relatives for their toxic behaviour. I have aunties who come up to me and say, ‘I know that video you made is about me!’ To this, I laugh and say, ‘Of course it’s about you! You really shouldn’t behave like this with anyone’,” says Sanofer.

While there was resistance initially, her family learnt to respect her space and decisions as her content gained popularity. “Nowadays, they are very careful about what they say to youngsters, which was not the case before,” she says.

Sanofer also emphasises the importance of financial independence. Such empowerment came much later in life for Sumithra Sriram, 46, who got on to Instagram on the advice of her 19-year-old daughter when she was on the brink of emotional exhaustion three years ago.

When a woman in her circle insulted her for being “just a housewife”, she ended up making an impromptu Reel about how, as a homemaker, she too is a “working woman” who gets no “free time”. The Reel went viral; today she has 43,700 followers. “I spent years taking care of my husband and my children, I never had a voice. Being a content creator has helped me find my voice and use it,” she says. All three have also been able to monetise their accounts and even do paid promotions through their posts.

Like Gowda and Sanofer, Sriram too claims that her work has brought together a massive community of like-minded women who encourage and empower each other. You can find them in every comments section, sharing their experiences. But they are no strangers to trolling, mostly by men. “Ninety per cent of the hate I receive is from men,” Sanofer says. “They comment on my appearance, they tell me to lose weight, they complain that my voice is annoying. It used to bother me a lot but then I realised, if they are this triggered, it probably means I touched a nerve.”

Also read: 6 Instagram accounts to follow to heal your inner child

Do such Reels pose a real challenge to patriarchy? There isn’t enough data on this, says Shalin Maria Lawrence, Chennai-based author, activist and intersectional feminist. “Most people cannot write feminist narratives or make documentaries, so this is a great way to talk about their lived experiences. And since the topic is handled with humour, it is received better,” she says. Lawrence writes a weekly column on feminism for the Tamil magazine Kumudam and published a book, Sandaikarigal, in 2022.

She has observed, though, that many such Reels tend to remain at the surface level, allowing for a laugh. It is continued resistance and honest conversations that bring about true change. “We need to see that the mother-in-law too is a victim of patriarchy,” she says.

Perhaps with time and effort, this movement will gather momentum and challenge the existing power structures. One can hope.

Indumathy Sukanya is a Bengaluru-based writer and artist.

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