I am no expert on marriage. The fact that you have been married for 30 years doesn't make you an expert to offer advice to someone else. Every marriage is unique and the answers to the problems in a marriage can be found only by the two individuals involved. It is a bit like life - the fact that you have lived for 50 or 80 years doesn't make you an expert on life. I am very conscious of all this and yet this is a post on some of my thoughts regarding so many things that seem to be going wrong with marriages in our society. This was triggered by a series of posts on IndianHomemaker's brilliant blog.

The other day on a Tamil television Channel, a young man was passionately lashing out against women's right activists and how they are , in reality, not helping women:
Have you noticed that in most of the cases it is girls who are educated and from relatively affluent backgrounds? By and large it seems that there is no harassment of women among the poorer sections. So does it tell you anything about the women who make an issue of harassment? A lot of it is because these women have a very low tolerance level, their expectations from the marriage are too high and they just (mis)use these laws to harass their husbands and their in-laws.
In my opinion, he was missing a lot of obvious points. Why are there fewer cases of harassment among the less affluent sections? Firstly their expectations from a marriage are very low. Sometimes their economic dependence on the man makes them accept a less than equal treatment in marriage. Many times it is also that they tend to be conditioned by conventional acceptance of male superiority or the stereotypical glorification of women as embodiments of patience, tolerance, sacrifice etc. For a list of these, we need to look no further than our television serials with phenomenal TRP ratings. Girls from poorer families also know that they are not welcome in their parent’s home if they take such problems to them. They would be promptly sent back to deal with these with patience and tolerance. So they soldier on hoping for things to change or at least develop the serenity to accept the things they cannot change as bad karma or fate and look for some positives in their life to keep them going.

The thing is that is you have grown up seeing the men and women around you behave in a certain way, you get used to that level of violence as 'normal'. I have seen families where men routinely raise their voice which is condoned in the name of pent-up stress at workplace finding release at home. If you watch Malayalam films, it is not uncommon to see men raise their hands on their women in the name of getting them back on track.
Things like this shock you only when you are from a different background or when you know that such behavior is against the law. So if there are less complaints from certain segments of the population, it is either from a higher level of tolerance or immunity to such behavior or because of ignorance . In many cases it is also the lack of support from one's own parents as IHM talks about in this post. It is indeed true that many of our girls cannot say “mere paas maa hai” (or pa / bhaiya/ behen hai). Once a girl is “married off” she is expected to adjust to her new lifestyle which is a healthy attitude as long as all is well with the marriage. But it is unfortunate that many families take this position even when the girl is subjected to harrassment and cruel treatment at the hands of her husband or his relatives. So the girl’s reaction to such treatment draws from her early experiences in life ranging from resignation and passive acceptance to resistance and revolt.

In most instances it is only girls with sufficient awareness of their right s and law who have been brought up in a democratic family who tend to raise their voice against such injustices and are willing to fight it legally. This has nothing to do with their being spoilt or their inability to adjust although there may be a few cases where it is true. In most of the cases, it is because they find their self-respect and dignity compromised by putting up with such treatment. Lesser tolerance to any cruelty will only make a society fair and just and civilized and hence there should be more support for girls who have the courage to speak up against such violence.

But what is disheartening and disturbing about such cases which come to light is that despite belonging to the more privileged sections of society, many of these are cases of dowry harassment. Now there are laws in India prohibiting the demand for dowry and yet we have educated people occupying important positions indulging in the practice. In the case of the airhostess who committed suicide on jan 1, the parents have gone on record saying that they paid close to 25 lakhs in cash as dowry and now they claim that the suicide was caused by dowry harassment. Why did they get their daughter married to a family that demanded dowry – was that not a clear clue to them about the family into which they were sending their daughter to live? And aren’t her parents equally guilty of encouraging dowry by agreeing to the demand and paying it? And what about the girl - an educated girl, pretty to boot with a job – why did she allow herself to be traded with dowry? Why did she not have the courage to say ‘no’ to their dowry demands? Now the parents are raising their voice on the grounds of dowry harassment - where did their awareness of law and rights go when they agreed to the dowry demand and abetted in a culpable activity? Are the laws of the land to be flouted at will and invoked at will, when it suits us? If only they had said ‘no’ at the time of dowry demand they might have a daughter alive today. Albeit unmarried but happy. But today even if they see the husband and his parents behind bars, will it get them back their daughter?

As for other cases of cruelty in marriages, perhaps it is time we introduced a contract in Hindu marriages too like the ones in Islamic and Jewish weddings where the obligations of each party are spelt down and violation of its terms is sufficient cause for divorce. It is true that our mantras too speak of the obligations of a husband and wife but unfortunately they are a little dated and in any case no one understands them. Additionally contracts have the flexibility to incorporate some clauses according to the individual’s concerned based on their expectations from the marriage, their levels of tolerance to what may be construed as cruelty etc. It is all fine to take a romantic view and talk about marriage being a sacred bond which is not to be reduced to the level of a mere contract. But the minute dowry enters the equation, a marriage is already reduced to the level of a commercial transaction so people might as well make the transaction water-tight and secure by having a proper, legally-enforceable contract in place.
When two strangers marry, it takes a while for the sacred bond to develop. The contract will keep things on course at least until such time as it will clearly spell out what they are entering into even if they cannot comprehend the vows of the Saptapadi. With the relationship between the individual and society becoming more tenuous, a legal contract is certainly a better option. A contract might also serve as a starting point from where the couple learn to develop trust, love and respect for each other and work toward the sacred bond envisaged by the traditional marriage system. But for beginners. a contract could be like that extra wheel on the bicycle providing a safety net.
27 Responses
  1. apu Says:

    Usha-ji, I think social contracts are well-enforced in very small and tightly knit societies - in the olden days, when the unit of society was a village, and within that a particular caste group, everyone knew everyone else - and social contracts were easier to therefore enforce. Moreover, a man may perhaps ill-treat his wife but he would perhaps find it difficult to go beyond a limit, because his own sisters would be married into related families and so on. Today, as the world has expanded and we are no longer dependant for approval on the village or small community, legal contracts become a must...

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Well said Usha. I also accept what Apu says. Perhaps, there is a need for legal contracts in a broader perspective of providing women a sense of security (tab unke paas contract hoga.. :-))

    I am on your side.

    -- Vinay Chaganti

  3. Yup you are absolutely right!

  4. dipali Says:

    'But for beginners. a contract could be like that extra wheel on the bicycle providing a safety net'.

    Such a wonderful way of putting it!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    One word: PRENUP!

    Seriously, anyone in this day and age who gets married without a prenup is a complete jackass who fully deserves all the misery they get.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Brilliant idea Usha. I had blogged about prenups once - it seems in India prenups are not accepted by the law.
    Also there should be some fixed rules in prenups - these should not be negotiable. Like domestic-violence, stopping either partner from meeting or supporting their family, infidelity is important and should be definitely included. What happens if the couple has no kids? Does that allow the man to divorce the woman? (traditionally acceptable)
    A well made, balanced contract could solve a lot of problems.

  7. Neither a legal contract, nor the social strictures that are currently in vogue in India, will ensure a fair and balanced marriage. For this, three fundamental changes need to take place.

    Foremost is the financial independence of women, and it's an absolute must. Without this, there is no way to guarantee mutual respect in a marriage.

    Second transformation that is needed is in the area of sexual relations. As long as the society places a premium on virginity, a woman with one or more prior sexual relations in or out of marriage, is at a disadvantage. It will not go away with a stroke of pen across a legal paper.

    Finally, it's about time that the men and women of India grow up and take charge of their lives. As long as the parents are expected to find a spouse for the child and fund the wedding, practices such as dowry and worse will persist. Stealthily, perhaps, but persist nevertheless.

    I was surprised to read in a recent blog post, the poignancy that surrounded the biday ceremony of a well educated, dual career couple. Actually, the husband was moving into his wife's posh apartment across the town! WTF...

    As long as a woman continues to let herself be treated as a movable property, she cannot command respect in marriage, civil or religious.

  8. Lekhni Says:

    I completely agree with all the points that Rational Fool made. Prenups or legal contracts are useful for dividing assets and imposing financial penalties for bad behavior (think Catherine Zeta Jones & Michael Douglas).

    But legal contracts cannot make anyone behave with courtesy or dignity.

    I agree with your points about passive/ resigned attitudes and lack of awareness of rights. Financial independence and confidence are very necessary. Society should stop blaming women for divorce.

    But domestic violence happens in the US even when none of these issues exist. Ultimately, the problem is that women just don't walk away when they should :(

  9. @Usha
    ... it is time we introduced a contract in Hindu marriages too like the ones in Islamic and Jewish weddings where the obligations of each party are spelt down and violation of its terms is sufficient cause for divorce.

    I hope you are not serious!

    The status of women in Islamic and Jewish traditional marriage laws are little better than those prevailing in Hindu marriages. For example, check out the bill of divorce in Judaism, get, and its implications for women here.

    About the status of woman in Islamic marriage, I cannot put it any better than what Ayaan Hirsi Ali has already done in her short film, Submission. Believe me, the last thing that any thinking woman should do is to marry into Islam.

  10. Usha Says:

    apu: yes. Also, our levels of tolerance are going down which is justified in some ways and not in some. So why not draw the lines at the outset?

    Vinay: Not just the woman but all concerned.

    The double I.C: :)

    Dipali:Thank you.

    Anon: "Anyone" huh -I didn't think it was that bad yet!

    IHM: Prenups are not accepted by law? Wonder why!

    The RF, Lekhni: Once men and women learn to take charge of their lives , especially the women, these kind of cases would automatically disappear.
    But given the structure as it is and given the fact that young women still seem to expect their parents to 'get them married' or even rescue them in case their marriage runs into trouble, I was wondering if we could have some kind of legal doc in place whose terms are not left to the interpretaion of the "learned' judeges. As in the case where they decided that kicking a daughter in law or giving her used clothes to wear or even threatening her with a divorce are notto e deemed as 'cruelty':

    I wasn't holding up an islamic or Jewish marriages as any kind of model to emulate but only referring to the custom of using a marriage contract apart from considering matrimony it a holy bond.

  11. I agree with The Rational Fool, without financial independence there is no way to guarantee mutual respect in a marriage.

    Transformation is needed in the area of sexual relations. As long as the society places a premium on virginity, a woman with one or more prior sexual relations in or out of "marriage, is at a disadvantage. This is too true - kind of understood but never gave it a thought!

    Finally, it's about time that the men and women of India grow up and take charge of their lives. As long as the parents are expected to find a spouse for the child and fund the wedding, practices such as dowry and worse will persist.

  12. Sue Says:

    I had only one condition before marriage and Vicky promised to meet it but he violates it every day: he'd promised that everything would be his fault. Bah.


    Anyway, my question is this: who would draw up the pre-nup? The couples, a legal authority, parents?

  13. Usha Says:

    IHM: Even financial independence is no guarantee for mutual respect. But at least it gives you the ability to walk out of the relationship.
    Transformation is needed in the way we look at a woman. Society needs to look at her as a person and stop defining her in terms of her roles. Certainly we need to stop placing such a premium on virginity.

    Sue:I suppose it is the two people entering into the contract who should decide on the specific clauses. Of course the contract cannot contravene the provisions of the Hindu marriage act and whatever other act governs the legal aspects of a Hindu marriage. But they can probably define certain terms specifically like what would amount to cruelty etc.

  14. maami Says:

    This is a long journey ahead and I'd say if pre nup helps a few women then so be it. Whatever it takes to strengthen women we must keep at it, because atleast in India our support for educated ( shudder, economically weaker and illetrate women's status) and even is still fragile.

    We have a long way to go and every step prenup, economic independence, and pro women aids must be supported.

    Most vulnerable are poor sections of women.Even if we introduce pre nups or social contracts as the gender relations are overwhelmingly patriarchal and oppressive, they lose. They dont show up as statistics because they dont speak up or lack access to support.

  15. Mama - Mia Says:

    its really amazing how people think its OK to give / ask for dowry! even if nothing untoward happens, why the heck should dowry be exchanged.

    an old school of thought says that its a way to give the daughter her share of inheritance. if thats what it is, then it should be given to HER whenever it suits the parents!

    i think a legal contract the way they have pre-nups in the US sounds like a sensible idea. especially when marriages are breaking faster than ever before...



  16. Sue Says:

    What is bothering me about the idea of the pre-nup is the feeling that those who will need it the most will be the least likely to enforce it. I mean, if somebody goes along with the whole dowry demand-domestic violence line of line, she is unlikely to really enforce the conditions in the pre-nup.

    That's just my opinion, of course, fostered by the women I meet. Do you think that parents who have met dowry demands and sent daughters back to abusive in-laws will support their daughter's fight to stand by the pre-nup agreement? I fear I may be making blanket generalisations here, though.

    The real power of pre-nups I think lies in their ability to protect both men and women during the divorce divisions of property.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    "the obligations of each party are spelt down and violation of its terms is sufficient cause for divorce."

    get divorce and do what? i don't know about you, but i didn't have any idea the amount of stigma attached with divorce or even intercaste marriage in our society. how many ppl r willing to marry a divorced man/woman? i think its only namesake that these things r talked about as changes in society. lets not kid ourselves that things have changed.

  18. Usha Says:

    Maami: Something like a prenup is of no use to the sections who can neither read hat is written in the contract nor have the power to enforce it when it is violated. Changes can come about in their status and life only when the three conditions that The Rationalfool talks about become a reality in this country.Meantime my thoughts were only about cases of harrassment and cruelty among middle class, educated girls with a job which should give them some economic independence.

    Mama-mia:Yes now that women have a right to a share in their ancestral property, dowry has no such justifications. Anyway they can always write a will and give daughters a share.
    A contract is not to claim any financial benefits from the spouse but to lay down their non-negotiable expectations from each other so the boundaries are respected and they can work on their marriage within these limits.

    Sue: A prenup is an optional document and so I guess that if they are open enough to draw one, they would have the will to enforce it if there is a need.

    Anon: 'And do what?"
    Why do you think every divorced person wants to get back into a marriage? May be many of them have had enough that they just want out of this whole marriage thing.
    If girls have a job this should be possible.
    Things are changing albeit slowly. A divorce does not carry such a stigma as it used to. They will probably find a compatible partner sooner or later.And with economic independence there is no hurry to rush back into another marriage.

  19. Sue Says:

    I know it's optional and I think it's a very rational idea. I'm just trying to think of ways to protect it, make it enforceable. All the ways I've come up with so far have had glaring loopholes, you understand, so I'm hoping you or your readers have better ideas.

    With luck we'll see it in our lifetime. Maybe.

  20. Apropos pre-nupts and marriage contracts, read what's happening in Islamic Egypt. Customs, law, and religion are no match for raging hormones ;)

  21. Anonymous Says:

    "If girls have a job this should be possible."

    appeal ledhu. i read ur other blog, matchless matches. i also happened to read a comment a few comments about what the expectation level is in a marriage. And sometimes, the same impatience and lack of maturity spills over in marriage as well and leads to divorce. i've seen it happen to a few friends of mine. not a happy state of affairs.

    "They will probably find a compatible partner sooner or later."

    Problem comes in finding the first mate itself. expectations are further lowered than usual second time around. i wish i could see the glass half-full like you do :-)

    "And with economic independence there is no hurry to rush back into another marriage."

    easy to say, hard to live by with peer pressure. there are only so many things that money can buy and time isn't one of them.

    and whats with the prenup anyway? i happened to read about the prenup which katie holmes has with tom cruise. i couldn't digest the fact that it sounds more like a business than anything else.

    how can we categorize what each has to do in a marriage? isn't it a give and take policy which comes with living together? i'm just confused basically.

  22. Anonymous Says:

    i'm not too worried about dowry as a problem. atleast not for long. going by the male:female ratio, its not long before girls get dowry :-)

  23. Anonymous Says:

    i'm sorry, i think that was uncalled for

  24. Ravi Says:

    I totally agree. Instead of Dowry, what we need is a mutually agreed upon contract which when accepted by both the bride and the groom should constitute marriage.

    The training wheels on the bicycle is an apt example. Most marriages fail because we assume our partner knows how to ride the cycle called marriage just like us.

    In foreign lands where there is no social overseeing of the married couple, a legal contract will help keep the marriage on tracks.

  25. diya Says:

    @ learned judges of the supreme court had held in a judgement last year that kicking a woman and giving her used clothes to wear did not amount to cruelty. According to them an act would be 'cruel' only if it induced the woman to comit suicide! That judgement puts paid to all the good that the 'Domestic Violence' Act might have hpoed to achieve, and shows what women are expected to undergo in their marital home! Parents who have already paid dowry and sent their daughter back to her marital home even after knowing that she is ill-treated there are equally to blame if she dies! They are in fact responsible for her death and should be tried as guilty. Why should marriage be an obligation in any society? I strongly believe that women are disadvantaged in this country just because marriage is treated as such!

  26. Anonymous Says:

    Hi Usha,

    Women being oppressed in marriages due to lack of financial independance has existed for a long time.

    On the other hand, my observation in the younger generation these days - it is the women that are harder to please. Most of us find it harder to please our anni's than our nathanar's.

    Most parents now say that it is easier to find a good son-in-law, as opposed to a good daughter-in-law.

    Times have changed! Most young expectant parents today want a baby girl for the above mentioned reason. This observation in the economically stable sections of our society. I have seen many of my own friends grieve when they have 2 boys.

    As more and more women are becoming financially independant, the traditional roles of husband/wife, father/mother is becoming a blur in families. Men and Women are less tolerant and not sure of what to expect from themselves and from each other in a marriage. That is what leads to higher rates of divorces (as already seen in western countries where women have been in the work force longer.)

    This is a complex issue, and I personally don't have a solution. Personally for me, one has to make good choices - if the inconveniences are minor, adjusting for the family unit is acceptable; if there is major abuse leaving the marriage for preserving the self is also acceptable.

    But for the immature/frivolous people out there - I guess there is no solution.

  27. I love the idea of a prenups, and marriage-related contracts but when I think about it more carefully, I can't help but wonder even if, say, prenups were theoretically legal and enforceable, would they change the situation much? I remember one line from a contracts text -- that a contract is only as good as the parties who sign it. And given that the "stronger" party (usually the man) would anyway be able to dictate the terms, and that, if the contract were breached, remedies would be dispensed by judges who could well have been very influenced by the patriarchal society in which we live, would there be much point of signing a contract such as a prenup in the first place?