A Free Woman
A free woman doesn’t owe anything to anyone.
My parents never considered me a part of their family. Even though they were more progressive than many people of their generation and gave me an education, they always expected that I would pay them back because it was a loan that I owed them. They *let* me study in the US and fulfill my dreams but then they asked for that money back so they could throw their daughter a lavish wedding, which they saw as their *real* duty in life.
In India the Patriarchy is alive and well. It is a rule that society enforces that girls don’t belong to their family. Once they are married they are considered a part of their husband’s family and everyone is subconsciously aware of this eventuality from the moment a girl is born. The wedding is essentially a celebration of transference of ownership of the woman from her father’s family to her husband’s family. It is an extremely painful affair for the girl and for the family she’s parting from, and there’s usually a lot more crying than the movies would have you believe.
I watched a documentary called A Suitable Girl that follows 3 women from different socio-economic backgrounds during the course of their twenties, as they try to find husbands in India. This is a duty they must fulfill, a threshold they must cross before their lives can *really* start, before they are fully accepted into society. In the movie there’s a matchmaker whose job it is to find these women husbands, and one of the women for whom she is looking for a match is her own daughter. Eventually she finds a match and the wedding preparations begin. On the surface everything looks rosy and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves practicing for their dance performance, choosing clothes they’ll wear and food they’ll serve. But as it gets closer to the wedding a day comes when the matchmaker, the mother of the bride, is in tears because she can’t stop thinking about her daughter leaving the family. And all anyone thinks to say to her is, “you’re doing the right thing”, “we all know this is a hard thing but it has to be done”, “you’re doing a great job, you’re fulfilling the highest duty expected from the parents of a girl.”
The kicker is that once her daughter is married and lives with her husband abroad, the mom goes and visits her often.
From the outside it looks like nothing has changed except that her child doesn’t live in her house anymore. Which is true for children all over the world who grow up and move out of their parents’ houses to start their own lives. So why was the mom feeling so torn up by the thought of her daughter getting married and leaving the house? Why did it feel different than if the daughter was just leaving home because she’d grown up and it was time for her to move out and live her own life?
It’s because of what it *means* for an Indian daughter to be married. It means that she’s no longer part of her parents’ family and has been given over to the family of her husband.
It means that from the moment a daughter is born to an Indian family, her parents know that one day she will leave home and never come back. Right from the start of her life they begin mentally preparing themselves for the departure of their child. Her wedding day, the day for which everyone prepares fervently and waits eagerly, is the day of her farewell.
And it is an exceptionally bizarre experience when it happens to you.
When it happened to me it felt like it came out of the blue. Overnight my parents started treating me differently, like they didn’t have the claim on me that they once did. In some respects it was actually a respite, but mostly it just felt weird. From the inside I didn’t feel any different, on the outside I didn’t look different, and yet after a single ten minute ceremony, to them I had somehow *become* different.
It came out in the small things. Offhand comments made in the heat of the moment when they were just talking and not really thinking too much about what they were saying. Like once when my dad was mad at me for something I did and he was about to say something harsh when my mom said, “you can’t talk to her like that anymore.” As if what she really meant was, “she’s not a part of your family anymore.”
None of this is overt. No one ever talks about any of this explicitly. And yet everyone knows that it is there. Woven into the fabric of society with the gentle silk of a spider’s web and yet casting a net so wide and strong that it’s almost impossible to escape.
For a long time I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain any of this. It just felt like something was off but I couldn’t tell what it was. If I ever tried to point out to my parents any inconsistencies in their behavior, they would just dismiss my concerns and say they didn’t mean anything by it. Or if they were feeling particularly spiky that day they would say that I was making too much of it and could stand to take things a little less seriously.
So I always felt like the fault lay with me, like they weren’t really treating me differently just because I was married so I must’ve been mistaken when I thought to question it. I tried to forget about it and move on but then something else would happen, some other unexpected and subtle change in their behavior that would ignite this feeling again and once again my concerns would be dismissed and my questions left unanswered.
Now I know that I was seeking answers from the wrong source. It was in their interest to be gaslighting me and have me questioning myself because it meant I wasn’t questioning them. As long as they were able to say that there was one right opinion and it wasn’t mine, they were in the clear.
I’m not even sure this behavior was intentional on their part. Because now that I know what I’m looking for, I see it everywhere. The fact that it’s so widespread tells me that this behavior was probably passed down through generations. And people just accept it as part of their lives and perpetuate it without really considering the consequences.
In all Indian families that I’ve seen, parents are doing something similar to their children. Making up rules that they have to follow to be considered “good” daughters, but all the rules are arbitrary. They are inconsistently enforced and the ones that favor the parents need to be taken *very* seriously while any concerns that the child has are to be dismissed offhand.
Now that I’m able to describe this phenomenon as a pattern of thinking or a system that society unconsciously adheres to, I see it in many other places than just my hometown.
Women have been suppressed using these techniques all over the world throughout history. Any minority anywhere has seen and felt these differences in how they were treated. If you have ever been in a position where you had no power and no control over the outcomes of your own life then you know how this feels. Maybe, like me, you weren’t able to describe it clearly at first but you were certainly able to recognize instinctively that something was not right.
It’s as if one day I woke up and got a tattoo on my face that said “she is a woman, treat her differently” and everybody could see it but me.
At first I believed that I must’ve been doing something to cause this, that it was my fault that they were treating me differently. So I tried everything I could think of to change my behavior, to change myself, just to please them. Suppressed any original thoughts I had so they wouldn’t feel threatened; became more submissive and acquiescent of their demands because I believed they were right. Because I believed that they were more powerful than I was.
Little did I know how big the world really is and how much room there is for everyone. Even outspoken young girls with radical ideas that no one can contain and who grow into strong, self-assured women no matter how much anyone tries to stop them.
There is a place for us where we are accepted and our candor encouraged. There are people out there who want to hear our stories and learn about our lives.
If we can hold on to our real identity and remember who we are, regardless of what anyone else says or what the balance of power looks like. If we can be true to ourselves and believe that there is a time and a place where we can say what we really think. If we can see that no matter what is going on on the outside, nobody can stop us from being who we are inside our minds, then we can be free.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
- Maya Angelou