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Sometimes I sit back in my chair. I sit and think. Mostly with a cup of tea in my hands, otherwise, with nothing in my hands. Mostly I think about how people think. Mostly I come to the conclusion that they do or do not think. Recently, I was thinking about what the dominant discourse is around the character of an ideal daughter-in-law. The necessity of having a term like that scares me already. We all understand the baggage that comes with it, don’t we?
The word “bahu” has found synonymity with docility, servility, meekness and exhaustive unrecognised labour.
As times are changing, the depiction of these bahus in popular media, like Indian TV Soaps and commercials, is gaining the load of high-class fantasies that might combine pomp with a topping of ritual labour- to invest the bahu with the values of the family, as well as the obedience that her position in the family demands. While sitting idle, I just made a list of the all that you need to be an ideal bahu, to get that crown placed on your head by the society and claim it like a pro.
1. You need to exude the class status of your family.
If you are aspiring to be an inspirational Indian woman in the role of an ideal bahu, the first criterion is to present yourself as the walking-talking model of the wealth your family holds. This is not my proposal. I swear I learnt this from the Indian Soaps.
So, ladies, put on all that hundred pound jewellery on you with that, match it or not, two hundred dollar saree and enter the kitchen to cook delicious pudding for your family.
Even if you are treated like a slave, the accessories show to people that your family is wealthy and you are well and happy and taken care of.
Also, you can even try sleeping with all that load on!
2. The calmer, the better.
Be patient and docile. If everyone around you is shouting at you and throwing their plates in the air because the food doesn’t taste like what they had last night at that five-star hotel, don’t fret. Just look down and say sorry. After that, instantly go back to the kitchen and prepare another meal. Even if you have any issues, let them die with you. You are not a woman who should talk for herself or aspire to anything that brings you any closer to individual freedom.
3. The dumber, the better.
You don’t need to have an opinion. On anything. You just stand there like a tamed animal and say “yes” to everything. If, ever, you think they are wrong, you’d still have to stand with them, considering how protesting would have dire consequences. It would be better, hence, you not use the brain that mother nature bestowed upon you.
4. No need to be a working woman.
You don’t have to work. You don’t have to be economically independent to be an ideal bahu. See, what economical independence might do is make you more capable of making your own decisions and thinking for yourself. You might enter into a conflict and leave your family because now you got money and don’t need anyone’s support. But. But won’t that lower your widespread fame as the epitome of all the beautiful values of meekness. Having money in your pocket and workplace exposure might decolonise your mind. Don’t let that happen. Won’t that take you farther away from that trophy you are going to get at the end of your never-ending stint!?
5. Always be in love, even if you are working.
Now, somehow, if you are a working bahu, you need to be a woman always in love with your husband and your family. As goes the tradition in Indian soaps (I realise I’ve been returning to the portrayal of women in Indian media but is popular culture not where the inspiration lies!?), you have to be so much in selfless love with your family that you neglect your career. Leave your job a couple of times because you have to sacrifice for your family, and neglect your personal professional growth for the sake of them. Keep your eyes and ears closed towards any successful women start-up stories or the feats of inspiring Indian women achievers, they might corrupt your soul and implant passion in your mind.
6. Be the superhuman who can manage anything.
If you are a housewife, you are already at your right place. Work day and night, doesn’t matter how unrecognised your labour goes. You have to manage everything, from the stain on your father in-law’s shirt to stitching the button back on your husband’s, from preparing your children a breakfast to getting them ready for school to literally EVERYTHING. And, if you are a working woman, do not ever expect to be treated like a working man. You won’t be asked for tea or even water when you reach back home from your tiring work. To be an ideal bahu, you have to have superhuman power. Manage it all!
7. Be the first one to wake up.
This I did not get from media. I have been rocking in this chair for quite a while now, as the hours pass, through nights, into the breaking of dawn. I have noticed how all the earlier mentioned precursors to an ideal bahu eventually end up in her being the first one to wake up in the whole family. When all the responsibility lies on you, you got to wake up before the first person to wake up, right?
8. Have a friend circle of neighbourhood bahus and then bitch about the world.
Ideal bahus also have these gangs where they socialise with each other and show people how they bond with each other, discuss important issues, mostly educate each other about family stuff. Within these cults, it’s very empowering to know, there are women expressing dissatisfaction at their social circumstances. But, being an ideal bahu, make sure it goes only as far as bitching and does not lead to any positive change that might help your situation or that of other women around you.
9. Impose your family’s wishes on your children.
Your children are not your own. They belong to the society. You are to make them behave as is expected from them by the society. All the important decisions about your children will be taken by the family.
Considering that you are already dumb, docile and mute, your only agency lies in forcing upon your children the wishes of your family. An ideal bahu is one who takes moral responsibility for her child’s behaviour, to whom fingers are pointed if the child forgets her ways.
In order to not be blamed, impose your family’s wishes on them and stay carefree!
10. Have a magical womb!
The last point is the one I find most interesting. You have to have a magical womb. That is, always to bear children. Even though times are changing, we still see the common perception about the ideal bahu’s duty to give her family their ghar ka chiraag. Some soap operas are expanding the whole concept and even making the ideal bahus conceive the devil’s child for the sake of their families!
These, in short, are some points you need to keep in mind if you want to fulfil the social expectations, as a daughter-in-law in a patriarchal society. I have said enough already, also in a tone that might help get my point across.
This Bahu is the carrier of cultural baggage of rightist philosophy and these forces of digressive culture will keep on countering the emerging aspiration of liberation in Indian woman today.
The responsibility lies on us, as a society, and individually, to boycott and try to subvert such perceptions that exist around us, in media and otherwise, that are regressive in the way they didactically present women.