The Princess and the Burden

Women in Marriage and Society

Dr Anjali Mehta

As a young captain in the army, my duties included attending to officers, other ranks, and their families in the MI (Medical Inspection) room. Several of my patients got to know me rather well and opened up to me.Sunita, a newly-wed, lively, warm young Bengali lady talked a lot to me and referred to me as elder sister. One of my saddest moments was when I carried Sunita’s burnt body in my arms in a helicopter to a big hospital in a nearby town. She did not survive.

An official probe revealed foul play on the part of her in-laws. The husband, having found out he was sterile, felt she was of no use to him as he could never father any children. He felt she was an economic burden, nothing more. Economic burden remained indelibly etched in my mind. How could anyone so charming and vivacious be perceived as a “burden”? It is with Sunita and the word burden on my mind that I share these thoughts with you.

This article deals with women, both young girls and adults, especially in relation to the institution of marriage.

Childhood…Think of a little girl born into an affluent and educated family. The chances are that she will be her parent’s “princess”, doted upon and made to feel special. Her parents and older siblings will cater to her every whim.When the little girl attends school, her achievements will be lauded. Over the years, her aptitude will become evident and accordingly she will choose a profession. Since she has had a firm grounding and probably has a lot of confidence, chances are she will do well at her job and be economically independent. The milestones in her life follow a pleasant and predictable pattern and given life’s ups and downs are overall reasonably satisfying.
Now imagine one of her poorer counterparts sitting in a small town far away. One of the commoner epithets she may become familiar with is “burden”. Everything, right from the moment of birth, seems to focus on the all important word “marriage”. Parents feel less happy to get a little daughter as they think she will be a problem to look after, her marriage will entail much expenditure and ultimately she will go away and become part of another family.

Even we in our role as doctors sometimes find that a girl patient’s parents preface the medical history with “after all she belongs to the tribe of women” or “you know if this is not cured/removed she may face a problem with finding a suitor”. Sometimes some parents may not want to ‘invest” much time or effort in a daughter’s development as they feel the daughter will belong to someone else’s family in the long run whereas the son will, in all probability, stay with them all their lives. Occasionally, a young girl may overhear a careless remark from relative expressing fears that this or that imperfection may mar her chances of securing a good husband. The worry about the future may even be to the extent to cast a shadow of gloom every time the future is contemplated.

Can such an obsessive pessimism be healthy? Imagine the sort of lack of confidence such an environment would foster on an impressionable little girl. Only a few would be able to escape the inevitable low self-esteem that would rear its unwelcome head. The girl’s only fault is that she was born in a less well-educated and poor family .If, instead, the emphasis could be placed on securing a bright future in a chosen field and aiming for economic independence, then girls may become more focused and self-assured from the beginning.

Marriage…The years thus roll by, the stage is set, the girl is grown into a woman; and its time to get married.
The “princess” may fall in love or her parents may exactingly look for an appropriate suitor and expect him to look after their daughter well. She may be lucky to get a family that dotes on her or she well may suffer a culture shock. In any case her expectations will be high from her husband as she is used to a lot of attention. Oftentimes, as she hails from a more affluent background, her husband would be able to afford an independent house and adequate staff.

If she is used to a large family, the loneliness of a nuclear situation may get to her and she may want that the partner gives her total attention after the office hours to “make up” for her being alone. If there are the pressures of a joint family, she is likely to have a good line of communication open to her parents. They will also have total involvement in her affairs and try to participate to their utmost in ensuring her well being. They will give her the support to take life head on and in her stride.
As for the “burden”: expectations on all sides sometimes become very high regarding “marriage”. The girl’s parents have some expectations as they have invested such a lot, sometimes overmuch, in it even to the point of getting into debt. The woman has been hearing about this term all her life so realizes its importance. Also, the inability to secure a good match for any reason tends to make the woman feel less self-confident and reinforces the feeling that she is lacking in some way.
Once a match is found and the ceremonies over, the married life begins. Nobody has really explained to her that it’s not an easy institution. There is not enough formal counselling on marriage. The counselling is mainly informal, in the form of personal opinions and advice from well meaning elders who may or may not have had a very successful marriage themselves.

Marriage is a very vulnerable time for women as this is a period of tremendous changes and adjustments in their lives. Adjustments to a sometimes large and sometimes demanding family, whose members occasionally end up attacking the woman and often do not judge situations impartially. The in-laws often don’t make enough of an effort thinking it is their ‘birthright” that the girl will adjust to them. The husbands fall into two categories;some who understand but cannot speak up against parents because of emotional ties and not wanting to hurt them and others because they just lack the courage or sensitivity. The girl’s parents are sometimes not willing to provide a secure home where their daughter can retreat.
At times, a lot of responsibility is suddenly handed over to the girl almost as if people were just waiting for someone new to walk in, on whom they could shift their tasks. Along with the effort of having to adjust to a new and sometimes unfeeling family and perhaps a pregnancy, it all adds up to an awful lot for any young woman to handle.

The “burden” may find a nice haven or ironically enough may be more accepting of a bad situation as she has been used to not being fully accepted all her life. In case the marriage is not working or there is harassment by the in-laws, the girl sometimes has no one to turn to, not even her parents.
The girl’s parents often don’t accept that something they have been preparing their whole lives for does not seem to be working. Because they have invested so much effort into it there is a tendency to try and salvage something which is clearly not in the best interests of their daughter. The girl is afraid, alone and overwrought with cares.

The way forward….
The “princess” and the “burden’ are not watertight compartments but are used as an illustration to make an important point.
We must all ask ourselves the question how we relate to any girl we are associated with – do we make her feel like a princess or a burden? And it is in no way a measure of who she is as a person but rather a measure of how gracious, civilized and correct we are as a society. Our wholehearted efforts must go towards ensuring that a girl feels loved, confident and secure. Marriage and all that is related to it is important, no doubt, but it should really not be seen as the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence.
Since much of the concern over what sex one’s offspring is, ultimately stems from the marriage factor, is it not prudent to have some education/counselling around this ? There is no formal training about some of the aspects that married life may entail despite its universality. There is just a lot of informal advice given by parents, friends and well-wishers.
The people who can play a tremendous role in shaping a girl’s existence are her parents. They should be the first ones to instill a sense of confidence so that the girl can take on any situation with courage and equanimity. They should see that she is financially independent and provide a strong support system in times of trouble. No one should shy away from this responsibility and blame the girl or society in general. The parents should not feel that after a girl’s marriage their responsibility towards her or the ties between them are in any way diminished. Instead as both age and a greater understanding and experience develops of life in general, their relationship should only get stronger with each passing year.

Much less importance should be given to the institution of marriage at a young age. Any references to it should be withheld till the age of 16-18 years and more emphasis placed on getting educated and well-trained for a career and self-reliance. Thereafter, there should be counselling on marriage, clearly enunciating the inherent problems and responsibilities. Social studies in school curricula should include topics like nuclear families, joint families and the inherent strengths and problems of these. Men should be sensitized to the issue and asked to place themselves in the girl’s shoes. They should be made to realize how difficult it would be for many of them to function if they had to live permanently in the girl’s household. Colleges should employ counsellors who give advice on marital issues and not just careers. The legal aspects of marriage and their rights must also be made more widely available as information to women.

To conclude, we must ask ourselves whether we are a nation of exemplary citizens where each of us parents has the courage and sensitivity to make our own little daughter feel like a princess and protect her with all our might. Or are we a nation of criminals where we just shrug off another murder and say ‘the girl was merely a burden?”

Dr Anjali Mehta is an eye care specialist at sector-7, Dwarka, New Delhi.

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