27 Sep Is there an elephant in the room?
Indian culture can be proud of the strength of its families. Brothers care for sisters. Divorce is not a ready option. One can mention regard for parents – very high regard, desire for children – deep desire, high value for marriage – very high value. These are good, or should be. They are not so high in some other cultures.
However, one may also wonder and worry. Is it possible to be too strong on some aspects of family and culture? Can an over-rated strength become a weakness or even an injustice? Let case stories explain the need for this question. (Obviously these do not represent all families, but perhaps many readers will agree there is a problem. Any likeness to actual families is coincidental and illustrates the frequency of the problem.)
High Regard for Parents
When Anil married Ashwini he maintained an extremely strong sense of duty to his parents. He assumed without discussion with Ashwini that they would live in his parents’ home, expecting her to take on the tasks of household and cooking.
Ashwini felt like a servant to her mother-in-law. She would have preferred to go out to work but her mother-in-law said, No, so Anil did not listen to Ashwini’s wishes. Ashwini wanted them to have their own apartment, but Anil would not save towards that or even discuss it.
While Ashwini grew increasingly unhappy and could not get on with Anil’s mother, he ignored her distress and believed his mother when she said Ashwini was failing to adjust. It did not occur to him that the adjustment to make a good marriage must be mutual. Although Ashwini tried, hard, she was miserable because Anil rarely talked with her nor did he do things with her. His parents seemed more important to him than his wife.
Is this a strong family? Yes, strong in respect for his parents. It is extremely weak in the relationships of husband / wife and mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. What does the Bible say? We know it well. “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh” (Gen.2:24). Anil has over-rated the “good” of obeying his parents.
There is an “elephant” in this family –a man has retained his bond with parents and formed no strong bond with his wife. God wants strong bonds for marriages.
High Desire for Children
Samuel and Rohini are delighted to find Rohini is pregnant again after the birth of small daughter Shalini. They consider children important and fully expect a son this time. Just to make sure, they take the advice of a friend on how to gain access to a “helpful” ultrasound technician.
“Those are such pretty pink flowers in the vase!” exclaims the sonographer while gazing across the room, and Rohini knows she must hear the word “pink” to mean female foetus.
“What! Not a son!” exclaims Samuel. “We cannot afford another daughter. She will cost so much in dowry. You will have to go for an abortion.” His mother gives Rohini the same instruction.
Again there is an elephant in the room, an elephant of hatred for girls, not even letting them live. In some families, convinced desire for sons over-rides the love for children.
High Value for Marriage
When Malini married Shaju, she dreamed she would be loved and cared for by her handsome prince charming. She had no idea he had a relationship with a girl who worked in the same IT company who, because she was from a different community, would never be accepted by his parents.
Malini believed marriage is forever. Indeed, Shaju wanted the marriage too, so she would bear him a son to inherit family property, but he did not give her his heart or companionship.
During four years, the hollow marriage spiralled downhill with no happiness for husband or wife, even though Malini gave birth to a son. Shaju shouted and threatened. Malini cowered and tried to please. Shaju despised her, gave Malini no money, forced her to stay indoors, criticised and kicked her. Malini would not leave. She knew the family and society would blame her if the marriage fell apart, and anyway, she thought she had to accept whatever treatment came to her and never, never leave, even if life in the marriage was like hell on earth.
Shaju was exploiting her high regard for marriage, using and abusing her. For her safety and for justice, Malini needed something other than this ill-treatment but Shaju took advantage of her. There is an elephant in this room too. The way society blames women, and Malini’s fear of social stigma, enabled Shaju to abuse her basic rights to work, leisure and happiness, the right to have her voice heard in family discussions, her freedom of movement and then her right to freedom from physical assault.
Good and Extreme
Good cultural views can be full of virtue but when taken to an extreme they may be highly damaging, yet stand there unrecognised. Strengths can become weaknesses and worse, serious and destructive social and family predicaments.
A common theme in each case story is that the harmful extreme is detrimental to a female. That is why we mark March 8 every year as International Women’s Day in India – to remind us that lakhs of females receive disrespect and hurt when the family system becomes unbalanced and extreme.
Several people Jesus encountered had to learn the truth that strength can become failure. Think of Martha urgently making an elaborate meal for Jesus. The fine ambition went wrong when she criticised Mary for not helping in the project she had set herself.
Recall the story of Peter who out of loyalty to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane attacked a soldier and cut off his ear. He took loyalty that and healed the soldier.
Think how Pilate wanted to keep the peace with the Jews. He tried excessively hard and so allowed the execution of an innocent man, Jesus, the Messiah.
Remember that Thomas wanted scientific proof that Jesus was alive but he took it so far, he was not prepared to believe his own eyes. He wanted to put his fingers in the nail prints of Jesus.
How do humans spoil good values? They turn justice into injustice when they fixate on what suits themselves and not on what is right and just for others.
The apostle Peter wrote, “Show proper respect for everyone; love the brothers and sisters” (1 Pet. 2:17). Respect includes these meanings “Pay heed to… regard with esteem… avoid degrading, insulting, interrupting or injuring… treat with consideration” (Oxford dictionary).
Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 22:39 etc). This includes those closest neighbours, the women and girls of one’s own household. If people would respect women and girls in the same way they respect men and boys, we would no longer see such wrong in so many families. The elephant in the room in many homes is gender discrimination that harms and fails to respond to the genuine needs and requests of women and girls. Can the people of UESI mount a campaign and training courses for justice in homes?
About the Author
Dr Beulah Wood is a friend of UESI, serves as the Resource Person for Creative Bible Teaching Workshops at Highfield and is a regular faculty teacher of Theology of Family at SAIACS, Bangalore. She has lived in India for many years since 1968.