Women are theoretically free, at least as far as most of the law goes, but in practice women are controlled much more by the culture of “concern” dispensed by husbands and families. In this piece we discuss how love is used to turn relationships into prisons for women.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
A few months after we got engaged my ex-boyfriend’s mother had me over for lunch. She asked me to stay over but I told her that I had to go back to work.
“Your job will be a problem after marriage,” she said, “It’s better you do all this journalist-journalist for now, and then later stick to teaching.”
“Why would I do that?” I asked her, genuinely confused, “I am not qualified or interested in teaching.”
“Yes, but you can do B.Ed,” she said, “Teaching is best for women, you will be home by lunch time and take care of the house too. A woman has to keep a nice house along with her career.”
Of course, having grown up in this country, I was aware of how women’s career choices and work liberties are subject to the authority and “permission” of so-called elders, but I was appalled nonetheless. I was appalled because I never thought that applied to me, I was raised by parents who insisted on financial independence and career-mindedness as the primary goal for their children. I started working the moment I could and it has always brought me a tremendous amount of joy. Besides, I was supporting my boyfriend at the time, he didn’t have a job, and when he did have one, he would frequently either quit or be fired from it, so the fact that his mother wanted me to make compromises on my career when it was the only reliable source of income was shocking to say the least. I knew I had to get out of that relationship.
After I did get out I realised just how pervasive and vast the plot to control me as a woman in the relationship really was. It started in really strange and subtle ways. For instance when I was seventeen, I was attending a friend’s party. I was dresser in a white skirt and a black shirt, and this really cute tie with skulls on it, and during the party someone took a picture of me with my friends and posted it to social media. A casual and meaningless occurence, really, but later that night, my boyfriend called me enraged. He ranted and raved about how much of my thighs were visible in that skirt. I hadn’t given it a thought, I mean, they’re my thighs and I didn’t quite get the memo on having to keep them hidden.
“How does it matter?” I asked him, “They’re my legs.”
“It matters because I love you,” he said, “And I should be the only one who sees your legs.”
Love. Love is often used as the reasoning behind why women are being told to modify their self-chosen behaviours. Men expect, and women are taught, to find the idea of possession attractive. My ex certainly felt so. He felt that I should feel so lucky to be with a guy who cared so much about me he was willing to yell at me to keep other people from looking at my legs.
“I trust you,” he often said, “I just don’t trust other people.”
This statement, the idea that when women are told to cover up and avoid being out at night especially in clubs and bars, is because their “protectors” are concerned for them is the root of why victim shaming exists. Even before anything has happened, we ask the woman to ensure she isn’t doing anything, by way of clothes or behaviours that indicate a compromised “morality”, that could tempt criminal intent in another person. Part of that probably comes from the ego of being deemed a “protector” but a part of it is just desire to control women like objects that you own once you love them. My ex’s idea that he was entitled to my body, and no one else was, was indicative of how he viewed me. He viewed me as a thing he had the right to control. He expected my compliance as a given, and the lack of it was an unnecessary inconvenience to his larger and more important plot of getting his way with another person.
We do this in many ways and it is not only romantic love that is part of the framework that keeps women in check. Parental love, fraternal love and sometimes even platonic love between friends plays into exactly this. When girls are raised, they are often told by their parents that exhibiting certain behaviours will lead to the love of their parents diminishing. Girls are told they shouldn’t drink or get into arguments with people. Their brothers are given to right to spy on them to ensure they aren’t engaging in untoward behaviours like going out at night or hanging out with boys. Friends of parents feel like they are within their rights to contact parents with complaints about a girl’s behaviour. All of this because people are allegedly “concerned” about us. Aside from “concerned” control there is also compliance from women that is expected and love is used as the bargaining chip. Women are often coerced into marriage because their parents want them to do it for the love of them. Parents romanticize the idea of seeing their daughters as brides and deem the moment of marriage as the one in which they have finally grown up. Parents often tout marriage as this mythical land where women can finally be free and do everything they ever wanted, like take trips and wear dresses, if their husband allows them to do so. Every girl has heard this at some point, the statement that their dreams can come after marriage even though they know that through marriage they will be sending you to a place of more confinement. Marriage in India comes with a whole gamut of familial control from people who often are, essentially, strangers.
We are expected to let people we barely even know, the parents of our husbands, tell us how to live. They are allowed to determine when we wake up, whether we can go to work, who we can be friends with, how we must keep our houses, where we can love, when we should have children. I mean an excellent example of this can be found in the jarring Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking” where one of the mothers looking for a match for her son states at the dinner table that she intends for one of her sons to be married by the end of the year and the other to have a child the following year. Once you do that, then also in the name of love, you’re expectedly to let the “elders” in your life teach you how to parent. They tell you what compromises you have to make professionally in order to be a mother and they tell you how to behave with your child. They tell you when you should have another and in some cases they tell you when you should abort another. We might say that these things happen only with “uneducated” people but I’ve lived my whole life around educated, even affluent, people and I can state definitively that the social issues that govern how women are controlled ail the educated and uneducated alike. My former boyfriend’s mother was not uneducated, she was a central government employee. The woman on the “Indian Matchmaking” show wasn’t uneducated, she was from an extremely wealthy and affluent family.
Ultimately we are not asking women to marry because we want them to experience the joy of love, the joy of love doesn’t require marriage, you can have it in any form and at any time. We are telling women to marry because that is the gilded cage in which we can convince them that gold necklaces and sarees are worth allowing a man to dictate when you wake up and whether you can work. It’s telling women that love means something different for us. It means that we must let our “husbands” tell us what to wear and where to go. We must take any freedom we are given and be grateful for it. We must never allow our husbands to clean the house, wake up before us in the morning or make our coffee. That’s what we expected to see as the nature of love.
In that case, I say, fuck love.
If love means I have to let five people decide what I have to do with my life, I don’t fucking want it. If love means someone else knows more about my marriage plans than I do, then fuck it. If love means that I must marry before so-and-so dies or because so-and-so wishes it, love can fuck off. If love means I must smile when someone tells me rules I must follow because I married their son, fuck love to fucking hell. If love means I have to put on make-up and sweep floors before daylight has broken, love can fuck itself.
But I know that’s not what love is.
That’s the patriarchy. It doesn’t love us. Love is just a tool to it, but women aren’t. Women are not tools of the patriarchy. It can go love itself.