In mid-2020, a childhood friend called me in the middle of a night, aghast. She had finally met the man she had matched with on a matrimonial site. They had been talking for nearly three months on phone and seemed to get along well. But stringent and long COVID-19 lockdowns meant they could not meet sooner. When they finally did meet, it did not go too well.
He’d told her that after marriage, she would need to dress according to the expectations of his family — no shorts or dresses immediately after the wedding. “He said it’s a journey I will have to figure with his parents, and that ‘that is how things are’ in his family,” my friend recalled.
She called the relationship off after the meeting. “No one from my family has ever instructed me to dress in any particular way,” she added.
I was happy for her, but the conversation got me thinking. In most cases, it seems like a woman is expected to transform into a different person after her marriage. She is expected to change the way she behaves, dresses, eats, what she says, and who she speaks to. In many cases, the responsibilities of holding her marriage and the new home together also unceremoniously fall on her.
The problem is with a prescribed gender role — there is cultural baggage that requires a woman to adapt perfectly, and immediately, to a new family and its ways of life, no questions asked.
It’s true that marriage as an institution has changed over decades. The concept of an Indian family has also evolved in ways that accords its members more freedom to decide what they want to do with their lives. Women have begun to speak and take a stand for themselves, although the shift has been gradual and doesn’t uniformly cut across all communities and regions.
Who is a ‘good, family woman’?
For Shreya* (30), who got married to her long-term partner in 2018, living with the latter’s family meant she was expected to treat them—and feel for them—exactly the same way she did for her own family. While that may seem like an ideal thought, it seemed like it had to come at the cost of how she prioritised her own folks. She is now divorced. “My ex-husband did not like it when I spoke to my mom; he thought I did not speak to his mother as much, that I treated her differently from my own mother,” she recalls.
She was also expected to cook regardless of if she was in the middle of a work call or a busy work day. Shreya and her ex-husband were together for nearly six years before marriage— they earned the same degree from the same college, and then went on to work in similar fields. And yet her work wasn’t respected, while his was. She was also, almost always, called “uski biwi (his wife)”. It felt like she had no individuality, she recalled. The final nail in the coffin was during one of the spats, when her husband grabbed her neck and told her: “You can never be a good homemaker.”
Shreya is not alone. Several women I spoke to claimed all their worth came down to how well they played to the gallery of culturally sanctioned familial norms. The ‘woman-of-the-family’ template is dictated by a familiar set of clichéd rules: “They want you to be educated, they want you to work, but they also want you to be their puppet,” says Shraddha Pahuja (28), a research analyst and former journalist.
Her wedding was called off two days before the date in 2021. She said she was repeatedly made to believe that she knew less than her former partner and his family, and was not allowed to make her own decisions. “I wasn’t even allowed to choose the colour of my wedding lehenga. I felt I was being controlled and disrespected. They made me feel like everything they were telling me to do was for my own well-being, but in reality they were stripping me of agency,” Pahuja says.
How modern is the ‘modern family’?
Towards the end came the age-old ‘sanskaar’ (values) accusation: “When I stood up for myself and told my partner that I will not bear any disrespect, I was told by his mother that I don’t have any sanskaar. I was made to be the bad woman.”
For Poonam Chauhan (29), a freelance content writer, navigating this space after marriage came with an additional burden: To singularly hold her marriage and family together. In late 2021, a few days into the marriage, her husband starting being aloof and had stopped communicating. When he started giving her the cold shoulder, her in-laws asked her to take ‘personality development classes'. “I was told by my in-laws that it’s my job to keep the family and my marriage together. I was told men don’t lose anything, a woman does. I was told that this is my family now and that I should not have to listen to anyone else,” she recalls.
Pahuja added that while times have changed, they have also stubbornly remained the same. She said while families claim to assume a ‘modern outlook’—which broadly means they are not as traditionally rigid as they were in the past—it can often be just for show. Her former partner’s family, she said, was “well-educated, and the mother was a school principal”. Their values and how they treated her did not reflect this.
Ajith S J, a clinical psychologist based in Tamil Nadu, agrees. “The cultural patterns and history in Indian families can be rigid and difficult to wash out easily. But the blame-game doesn’t help; we cannot be authoritative to those who come to us. There is willingness in families to learn and unlearn the patterns if they come to us (for therapy), but some can be unreceptive,” he says.
A few women—while admitting they were not entirely happy inside a structure they never signed up for—end up treading a mid-path, sensing that it’s not all black or white.
Can anyone be blamed?
Indian families don’t exist in isolation and their dynamics can be best interpreted in the context of their societal and cultural background, says Ajith. “Any generalisation of any (such) patterns in Indian families can lead to oversimplification (of why),” he says, cautioning against any reductive conclusions. He says that families can be supportive and encouraging of their daughters-in-law, but adds that “the rigid hierarchical structure in the family often hinders the free flow of communication of thoughts and feelings.”
Darshita Srivastava (30), a marketing professional, finds it challenging to abide by the rules of the familial setup, where her actions are scrutinised almost every day. She tries nevertheless. “I understand we all grew up with certain beliefs, and it’s very hard to change that. No one is at fault,” Srivastava says.
Yamini Negi, co-founder Rich Psych, a tele-mental health platform providing online counselling and therapy, said: “A family order is clichéd in an Indian setup, but it is here to stay. The order is gradually changing, and perhaps only the tail-end is left, but a perfect attitudinal shift will take time,” she says.
For some women, conforming to family expectations is about preserving their mental peace — they don’t see themselves or their families in a position to change their circumstances. Sakshi Unniyal (29), a PR professional, said: “They (the in-laws) are supportive overall, but it’s evident that they do want me take care of everything and keep the house and my marriage in order.” She added she had to reject a promotion and a job offer that demanded longer work hours because she has a child now.
“Karna padta hai (It has to be done),” she says, with a sense of resignation. But she doesn’t blame anyone.
Anshika Ravi is a Delhi-based journalist and writer