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Women, marriage and (in)security: Multiple scenarios, similar fears

Sharing two pieces that highlight the stressful relationship that women seem to have with the institution of marriage. This Quartz piece from China that tells the story of married women who condone and finance criminal acts to eliminate their husbands’ mistresses puts the spotlight on an uncomfortable fact: that marriage is about social sanction and financial security. What about love, companionship, trust?

The other piece from The Guardian highlights this same stressful relationship that women have with marriage, but in the light of Muslim women in India who live in perpetual fear of “talaq, talaq, talaq” from husbands whose motivations to remain married to them are often purely exploitative in nature.

That women should be so dependent on marriage for their security in an age where more women are financially independent (not nearly enough though!) is a travesty. That women should constantly live in fear of the consequences of a failed marriage is also a sad reality, and it’s not just poor women we’re talking about here.

I’m sure men too are stressed about marriage and the responsibilities that come with it and that could be fodder for another conversation, but surely the idea is to move towards a social structure in which marriage is a matter of choice for both men and women and not a social tick mark burdened with so much expectation and anxiety?

Some unsolicited advice to men in relationships!

I got a call from a childhood friend last evening. We are particularly close and talk often, especially when we need to share something that we hesitate to even tell our own selves.

She asked me a strange question; in fact, it was a strange conversation:

Her: “Is it ok for me to borrow money from my parents or my brother?”

Me: “What do you need the money for?”

Her: “Just like that, I want to keep it with me. I have no savings.”

My friend is married, with two children. Her younger one will start school soon. She is a trained nursery school teacher and immensely talent with children. She used to teach, but has given up her career for the last three years to bring up her children.

Me: “I would not borrow unless I needed the money for something specific. And how will you pay it back?”

Her: “I don’t know. I don’t have a job right now. When I start working, I will repay I suppose.”

Me: “Would your parents not get worried if you ask them for money just like that? Is everything well at home? Did you have a fight with <husband’s name>?”

Her: “No, no. Nothing like that. But yea, I need money for myself, for small expenses. I have been spending from my savings from when I was teaching and now I have run out of money. I am not used to not having anything in my bank account.”

By now, she is sounding really distraught and confused. We talk things through and then agree that it would be best to talk this out with her parents when she visits them next and just ask them for some money to tide her over instead of taking a loan.

I also ended up urging her to look more aggressively for work and not feel guilty about leaving her young ones at home or in daycare. I reminded her that the decision to have a second baby was a joint one and that her husband is also responsible for her decision to be a home maker till the children grow up a little.

I was upset that she hesitated to ask him for expense money. That she felt guilty about wanting little pleasures in life. That she was so conflicted between her duties as a mother to her children and her need to be financially independent.

So many of us women are in this boat. Why do we accept the taunts and jeers, seemingly harmless but actually potent, that our husbands and others dish out to us, about decisions that are perfectly rational- like not going to work for a few years OR choosing to remain working even when our children are small? An individual has her own reasons to take these decisions. There is no formula here. Everyone is entitled to do what makes her a happy and satisfied person. And it is binding on a woman’s partner to support her just as he would expect his wife to stand behind him through the trials of life.

Marriages, relationships are so complex and intertwined, and so so fragile. Communication (especially about aspirations) and financial transparency are key pillars that both partners need to work on together. This is what I would say to the men of this world: If your partner’s happiness is not important to you, if seeing her smiling and confident does not make you proud, if you find yourself unable to respect what she wants and expect her to always pay heed to your needs over hers, then you are not cut out to have a woman in your life! Let her go and let her lead her own life. Whatever that life may be, it will be better than wasting her talents and love and energy with you!

A bit radical, but that is what I really think! I know the black and white options do not work in reality. Many of us struggle desperately to make things work against many odds. And whether to hang in there or make a clean break is also, in the end, an individual decision that we must respect.

Related blog post, also interesting!

Social prejudices are rarely broken by rational explanations: Vicky Donor makes a brave attempt! Apr 25, 2012

Let me tell you at the outset that I am biased here. Vicky Donor has been written by Juhi Chaturvedi, first cousin to my closest friend Nupur. Juhi was a role model for us when we were in senior school in Lucknow. She was studying art and everything she did was cool; her photography and her dark room, her paintings fascinated us tremendously. She was driven, even then. Later, Juhi and me bonded over the fact that our baby girls are about five weeks apart in age and I would hear stories of her struggles with managing motherhood and two careers, her advertising one and her scriptwriting one- a superwoman, no doubt!

Last night, as I watched Vicky Donor, her first script to make it to the silver screen, I could only think about the toil it must have taken to make it this far-the sacrifice, the hard work, the points of conflict and low self confidence she must have been through to finally be able to bask in the warm light of success. Way to go, Juhi!

Coming back to to the film, it deals with the subject of sperm donation. In the course of the film, the script moves the subject from a taboo, unspeakable issue to Vicky’s family appreciating what he has done for humanity, the gift he has given childless couples, etc. The film is well-researched and intends to get people thinking about a subject rarely on anyone’s horizon; but I doubt social prejudices are broken so easily.

In India, and in other conservative societies, issues related to sex and fertility are sensitive subjects. The cycle of life dictates that women are meant to bear children. The fertility of men is rarely questioned, even though low sperm count is becoming common thanks to the stresses of modern, urban life, the onset of lifestyle diseases, higher incidence of cancer among younger people, etc. Add to that the growing number of dysfunctional marriages. Yet, couples dream of having children; not always because they genuinely love kids and want their own, but because of social pressures to show the world theirs is a normal, ‘complete’ family.

Another reason why sperm donation is particularly repulsive to Indians is because in ayurveda (first seen in writings around 600BC), conservation of semen (or virya) is considered essential to maintain masculine strength and health. The loss of the fluid is considered debilitating and believed to drain away well-being and wastage of semen is considered a reason for many sexual malfunctions, including impotence. With this baggage, it would take a lot for a nation that is reluctant to donate blood fearing loss of strength, to be all right with donating semen!

It’s a complex issue, and its heartening that the medical community thinks attitudes have changed in the past few years. Men in childless marriages are slowly coming forward to accept donated sperm. Experts, however, say that it is not donated sperm but intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) or in-vitro fertilization, in which a single sperm is injected directly into one egg, that is the way forward for men with low sperm counts to father children. There is, I hear, an even greater demand for donor eggs, which is an even more loaded issue. How will society accept a woman donating her eggs to help childless couples? It could go either way. Personally, I think women being perceived as givers of life, it should be an easier pill to swallow, but its controversial, I agree.

All in all, kudos to Juhi and Shoojit (and John) for tackling a tough subject. Amid the laughs and the songs (which I thought were rather redundant and actually made an otherwise pacy film lose its momentum), it would be worth it if the film makes even a tiny chink in the attitudes of Indians and towards taboo subjects!

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