I have been watching a rather interesting show on the way Queen Elizabeth the Second- the current reigning monarch of England- ascended the throne. The show follows her from a young newlywed who then becomes Queen much sooner than she anticipated when her father dies young (in his fifties, which one can agree is hardly ancient). To cut a long story short, her husband, Prince Philip, now finds himself having to give up his career in the Navy to support his wife, who is now the queen of England. His children, next in line to the throne, must have the name of the Royal House of Windsor, so out goes the adoptive Mountbatten surname. In a scene Philip bursts out, I have had to give up my name, my home, my career! He implies it’s too much to bear. Naturally one can imagine the great guffaw that rose in the minds of all the females watching the show, mine included. How tragic! Leaving a home that you love, giving up your name and your career to follow and support your spouse because it is your duty to do so? Welcome to the life of most women!
It is hard, truly, to literally overnight be part of a new family. Not only are you giving up the things that have a great deal to do with your identity, you aren’t doing it to become queen either. It’s difficult, even with the best intentions, to come to a different way of doing things- different inside jokes, ways of cooking, expectations. And sadly all too often women who have been badly treated by their new families tend to repeat the same patterns of violence when they create their own. Violence and abuse works like that. When parents abuse children, they grow up thinking that is normal, that while they hated it it must be the way things are. And because domestic violence is the most insidious, the most dutifully ignored and covered-up, victims of domestic violence often are never told that what happened wasn’t acceptable. That everyone deserves respect and kindness, even when they are being difficult or trying. After all, the powerful oppress the week, not the other way around, and it behooves the former to be generous to the latter.
There is a great deal of sanctimonious head wagging about domestic violence but one often falls into the simplistic description of it meaning husbands who beat their wives. It doesn’t account for fathers and mothers who beat their children to a pulp, to systemic emotional abuse engendered by mothers and sisters-in-law- women abusing other women because it happened to them, so in a way it’s a kind of revenge, or an internaliszation of a system being “The Way It Is”. What makes someone else more special or deserving of kindness when you didn’t get any?
And so it goes. Daughters-in-law are treated with contempt and disdain, and they in turn continue to either resentfully put up with it or fight back. Boxer Amir Malik and his wife Faryal Makhdoom are at the centre of a maelstorm of accusations about abuse the latter suffered from the former’s family, particularly his mother and sisters. It may or not not be true, but what is indeed true is that it is incredibly difficult to address this kind of abuse. The kind where someone will tell you to wear a dupatta, or keep asking where you’re going and when you’ll be back. The kind where you can’t tell the cook what to make do lunch because you aren’t allowed to decide, your mother-in-law does. When you spell it out it doesn’t sound like much- as you read this you’re probably thinking this is just silly. Only it isn’t , because it represents an insidious erosion. A slow and steady drip of control that seeps into everything and culminates after years in the big things, like having your own house or who your child marries.
Family is important in our culture, but the meaning of familial is taken too far. When you aren’t allowed to speak, make decisions for yourself, in any way step out of an invisible boundary, that is abuse. Being harassed about your clothes, your family, your dowry- all abuse. Marriage is a parternship, a merger really, and to treat it like some kind of power game is cruel and unfair and endless. When the emotional power games escalate, the physical violence begins. Women enter marriages already vulnerable from the things they have lost. Shouldn’t there be more to gain?