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Of ghar-jamai jokes and their side-effects

Written By: amodini - Aug• 07•07

Image courtesy xkcd.

My cousin Ashish is getting married. A love marriage to his non-Punjabi colleague . Both Ashish and Manisha are MBA grads. Working for MNCs in Delhi. Manisha’s family is very well-educated and progressive. Her Dad is no more and she and her Mom live in Delhi. Her married brother lives in Bangalore. Since Ashish is flat-sharing with a bunch of bachelors right now, chances are he’ll move in with Manisha and her Mom after the marriage. Manisha while a sweet-tempered girl, is no shrinking violet. Which means that if you ask her a question, you’ll get an answer. Which is good I think. However with the crowd back home, this is getting her the “badi tez hai” (clever – in a bad way) reviews. Imagine, a girl who actually says more than “Haanji” ! Plus people are sniggering over the fact that Ashish is all set to turn into a ghar-jamai, and move his suitcases into his mom-in-law’s house.

So reports my sis-in-law and she’s sniggering too. I don’t see the problem with his moving to wherever he chooses. All this ghar-jamai taunting because it’s his wife’s parents ? What if it had been Ashish’s mom instead of Manisha’s ? Then, it’d have been expected of Manisha (as a good bahu) to go live with her mom-in-law ! That’s what I tell my SIL. But she thinks it’s tradition. But don’t we want tradition to change ? And he’s not technically a ghar-jamai, I tell her – he’s not going to be sponging off them or anything. Yes, yes, I am told – but it’s all in good fun. Good fun ? I think not. I think it’s “fun” which causes a whole lot of bad damage. Not to Ashish or Manisha – they couldn’t care less. But to all of us who participate in this good fun, and take our cues on behavior and acceptability from this.

This “good fun” is subversive. Because what are we saying really when we snigger at Ashish ? That he’s a loser because he’s “listening” to his in-laws ? Why is a guy who thinks of his in-laws a loser, while a woman who does the same “a good bahu” ? We are essentially sending out a message that her parents have lower social strata than his, or however you choose to put it – they aren’t as important, their opinion don’t matter etc. And why ? Because they are HER parents, not his. Implied SON VALUE. Implied lesser value of daughter.

Further discussion with my SIL brought about a solution from her. After the marriage, Manisha’s Mom must leave Manisha with her new husband, and go live with her son in Bangalore. I didn’t see why. Because he’s the son, see ? I still don’t get it. Why, when Manisha is fully capable of supporting her Mom, should she go to her son ? Why must we not look upon daughters as being able ?

I am labeled a radical by family, and my Mom no less, when I bring up this implied value of women we project when we speak so carelessly and in so much “fun”. Do I want my daughter to listen to talk which implies lower esteem/respect just because of gender ? What are the young people learning when they hear us talk like this ? “Don’t cry like a girl” – how many times have you heard it ? Why are girls “supposed” to cry ?

As I was growing up, I would be harangued by the Mom and Aunties for not knowing how to cook, do laundry etc. – what would my in-laws say ? Is a woman’s self-worth all in her prospective in-laws praise ? As I question my Mom many years later, she says that that was in jest. Dangerous jest. I had my Dad to even out the score, but what of those girls perpetually steeped in such jests ?

This is the root cause of most social malaises plaguing women today. This carelessly worded, disempowering jest. This “good fun”. When we imply, however slightly, however jokingly, that women are lesser, by birth or gender, that they are weak just because of who they are , and who they are born as, we spread beliefs. This “fun” and it’s underlying value system, and the mind-set that girls and things relating to them are weaker, not worth opinion or care, gives rise to dowry, infanticide, foeticide, bride-burning, eve-teasing, domestic violence.

If a woman is lesser than a man, how can her sexuality be greater ? Tease her, molest her on the streets, for she must walk with downcast eyes (or else she must be uppity or a whore). A woman is born to serve, her parents, her in-laws, her children. Not servile enough ? Beat her. A woman is lesser – she must be married, we honor her family by marrying her. She must bring dowry, her parents, because they are her parents, must kow-tow to our demands. Not enough dowry ? Burn her. Then marry again, because they will be countless other families willing to sacrifice their burdensome daughters on the altar of tradition. When a daughter is born, moan. For she brings with her the burden of dowry. We will not educate her because what will she do with her education ? She cannot be our support in old-age because she will be married and not ours anymore, and tradition says to not depend on our daughters. So when a daughter is born, strangle her.

Once while having a talk with my Mom and Masi, we bemoaned the unchanging mindset of society. However when I pointed out to them that we were part of the problem they were horrified. I get the same reaction from other family. Everyone else but us causes the problem. It is apparently impossible to get into our thick heads, that just because we treat our daughters, daughters-in-laws, sisters and mothers right, we don’t do them any favors. We don’t exalt ourselves by treating women equally. We don’t achieve saint-hood just because our daughter-in-law has the freedom to express an opinion, or work (although it seems like it if you listen to people). We just make ourselves human.

It just amazes me that we know how we talk, we know how we think, yet when the aunty-next-door (in these oh-so-posh-flats-on-the-Bombay-seaside) verbally abuses her daughter-in-law, we wonder what kind of people these are. Really ? They are our kind of people.

Horrors – but no, the problem does not start with us. For after all, we only jest.

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23 Comments

  1. Vinod Khare says:

    Stereotypes underly almost all jokes. What do we do then? Stop kidding? 😀

  2. Anu says:

    Hey!
    I was browsing around and in general procrastinating from what I should be doing studying) an I found your blog. Very entertaining. You know what else irks me to death? Mothers-in-law who feel it;s their right to harass their daughter-in-law and then proudly boast about it. Ok that really came out of nowhere, well I’ve seen it happen, but still… great blog!

  3. Debbie Ann says:

    You are so right, the jokes are a way of enforcing the rigid social order. I think it is well worth confronting the jokers, even if people give you a hard time for being humorless. Maybe there can be jokes the other way round.

    there is an old joke that goes – how many men does it take to tile a bathroom? three if you slice them real thin.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Simply Superb!!! Amodini,I’m your fan!!! And,not just because of this post.I’ve been following your blog for sometime now. Terrific. Keep it up!!!

    Arvind

  5. Morpheus says:

    I do agree with some bits here. But I do think things have changed. Being a female I have had none of this pressure, in fact ‘homely’ things did not come easy to my mum, dad taught her to do such things. I think constant bemoaning of the problem makes it worse. Its often better to talk about what has changed and how than what has not. Good article.

  6. AMODINI says:

    Vinod,
    If the jokes demean one party, then yes, you must stop kidding. Would you tell a Sardarji joke to a Sardar ?

    Anu,
    Thanks. I have a whole list of things I want to write about (rant ?), I take it a little at a time 🙂 .

    Debbie,
    I do get a hard time for being a spoil-sport. I’m told to cool it – how does it matter, just a joke, yeah ? However, if we don’t speak about it, noone even seems to realise there is a problem (even other women). And then people are really surprised that we have only 700 women for every 1000 men (oh, wonder why people are killing all the girls ?). It boggles my mind.

    Arvind,
    Thank You ! Am glad you enjoy my writing.

    Morpheus,
    Must say you are very lucky and a minority. I disagree with you though – not talking about such issues, makes people think it’s OK to do it – it’s OK to subtly deprecate the value of women, diss their parental family, imply that a woman and her associated worth can be ignored. It’s not OK, and we must say it, again and again – it will take a while to sink in.

  7. sarah says:

    great post– you are right on.

    i’ve found that once you jettison cheap stereotype-based humor, your jokes tend to be a lot more intelligent… and funnier.

  8. anonymous coward says:

    >>This “fun” and it’s underlying value system, and the mind-set that girls and things relating to them are weaker, not worth opinion or care, gives rise to dowry, infanticide, foeticide, bride-burning, eve-teasing, domestic violence.

    You lost me totally at this. How does jest lead to bride burning and calling a woman an “uppity whore” is beyond me. You have responded to a comment by talking about Sardarji jokes. If I make Sardarji jokes, does that mean I will go out on the streets baying for their blood ?

    • Preeti says:

      Look at it this way.

      If you are a devout Muslim/Hindu/Christian would you mock your own faith?

      Would an African-American man joke about how his great, great grandmother was raped by her white master?

      Would a child joke about how his father beats the crap out of his mother?

      Why not? It’s just jest, right?

      Humour is often a reliable indicator and descriptor of a person’s underlying attitudes.

      It is also a tool to dominate somebody psychologically.

      In India, a lot of hostile, passive-agressive behavior is disguised as humour.

      People say the meanest, most disrespectful things and then claim to be only jesting.

      Yeah right!

  9. sarah says:

    You lost me totally at this. How does jest lead to bride burning and calling a woman an “uppity whore” is beyond me. You have responded to a comment by talking about Sardarji jokes. If I make Sardarji jokes, does that mean I will go out on the streets baying for their blood ?

    It’s about reflecting an attitude. Sexist/racist jokes don’t exist just as jokes in themselves; they are a symptom of a specific outlook, and that outlook is also what spurs people to act. Someone who thinks beating women up is funny is a lot more likely to actually beat up a woman than someone who doesn’t. There’s not a one-to-one correlation between the two groups (jokers and do-ers, let’s call them) but you can bet most of the do-ers would find the jokes funny. And the jokes help to perpetuate the idea that it’s OK to find domestic violence funny– maybe it’s not so bad after all. And how do you fight back, and get help leaving an abusive relationship, if that’s not something to be taken seriously?

    So, yeah. Jokes about beating women = not funny. Ditto racist jokes.

    Making jokes about racists, on the other hand… 🙂

  10. AMODINI says:

    Sarah,
    Exactly – however I find most jokes on desi TV and cinema sexist/racist – hard to find “real” comedy. Also, thanks for the clarification to Anon. Coward – nicely put.

    Anon.Coward,
    Sarah’s response is what I’d have written – I hope that answers your question ?

  11. amodini, I came here thanks to desipundit and went through all your archives. You might need to evict me now because I qualify as a certified squatter.

  12. AMODINI says:

    Terri,
    Thanks – glad you found it interesting enough to linger.

  13. got here via Rohini’s blog and enjoyed this post! here’s my take on it – written long ago. its so refreshing to find someone who feels the same way.

    http://themadmomma.blogspot.com/2007/04/skeletons-in-closet-and-ghar-jamaai.html

  14. […] Amodini – Of ghar-jamai jokes and their side-effects. […]

  15. Ramya says:

    Beautifully written! And I couldn’t agree more. A lot of things that was say in jest, for good fun, shapes our notions of what is acceptable and what is not. Sometimes, some jokes even tend to diminish the awfulness of hurtful practices (it could be rape jokes, jokes about men who are abused etc.).

  16. I hope you got my comment, it just disappeared! -IHM

  17. […] The Last Bastion – No Sex education for us. We’re Indian. – Of Ghar-jamai jokes and their side-effects – Indian television and […]

  18. Kameswari says:

    Great post. Couldn’t agree more !
    As a kid, I have heard such “jokes” from relatives and seen them in movies. And that had an immense affect on my attitude. Only now do I realize that that way of thinking is wrong.

  19. nityadwivedi says:

    So, realistically written.
    If you ask her a question, you’ll get an answer. Which is good I think. However with the crowd back home, this is getting her the “badi tez hai”.
    That’s me and I have proudly had this “tez” tag among “crowd back there”. I enjoy it now:-)

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