The Princess and the Burden - Women
in Marriage and Society
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.
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
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.
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
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 ex-Army eye surgeon with my own practice at Dwarka
. She enjoys writing both thought provoking and fun articles now
The opinions expressed in this article are that of the writer.
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