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Beyond the glitter of Desi functions lie women's free labour and not-so-free trauma

Women must meet expectations personally and culturally - and suffer silently

Trigger warning: This piece mentions sexual assault.

 As a child, I attended most family functions at my ancestral home, as is the case with most brown families. I have vivid memories of me and my brother dreading it. As soon as we reached and engaged in the festivities, we were torn from each other. He would hang out with my elder cousins running errands outside, taking women out for shopping and making arrangements, or just roaming outside. 

This is an archetype most brown families follow. Each family function has a clear, almost unsaid distinction between social spaces, roles, and responsibilities. Men can usually be seen making arrangements “outside” the home talking with vendors and handymen. While the women also make arrangements of some kind, their bounds are always “inside” homes. 

The women would sit with elders, take a rundown of the months gone by, and catch up, shuffling relatives and elders of the family, gab about the good, bad, and necessary of life. The conversations are always accompanied by chores of all kinds: peeling peas, sewing flowers, or making jugs after jugs of tea. While these spaces can also be a space for solidarity and bonding from woman to woman - they are often under heavy surveillance.

Tanmay Awasthi, a boarding school teacher and single mother, talks about her experience tackling law and family after the demise of her husband. “I was concerned about what I do and wear at family functions, what would my extended family think and say,” she shares.

Dr Anjuman Bains, a counselling psychologist based in Toronto, points out the microscope women are placed under during these gatherings, “There is a significant pressure and expectation to be a good wife, a good daughter-in-law. There are unsaid expectations for them to work in the kitchen, look presentable, put on vermilion, keep their opinions mellow.” 


Editorial credit: Ramniklal Modi / Shutterstock


Sukanya, a researcher in women's studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India, talks about how these roles are diluted owing to modernities and microeconomics of households, but these functions particularly lack an equal distribution of emotional labour. 

She recounts, “I remember during family weddings my mother cooked, served endless rounds of meals and took care of most of the rituals; all my father did was take a bath and put on a fresh kurta pyjama.” 

Women of the household are tasked with performing intricate rituals, usually passed down by generations with utmost accuracy. Elders of the family can be spotted in the vicinity of these rituals keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings and occasionally mumbling what is not done up to the mark. 

Sometimes family members do not shy away from rebuking in with their sermons and putting women in difficult positions where they have to appease the elders of the home and carry on the celebrations. 

Sukanya further adds how a home is divided and assigned different levels of comfort designed for women. A kitchen or bedroom is inhabited by groups of women who can resort to comfort, while there are extended sitting areas often occupied by men and guests. Women and even young girls are policed when they have to cross over to the other side to serve tea or snacks; they must drape a dupatta over themselves or wear appropriate clothing and conduct themselves with “modesty”. Greet them, but don't sit down to occupy space. Smile and be cordial, but not too much. Make small talk but keep your opinions to yourself. 

A similar factor here is that women and even younger girls have to manage feelings and expectations personally and culturally to get along with family. 

A*, a queer person with autism, who prefers to stay anonymous, recounts their experiences in their hometown. “I remember meeting my family in the village for birthdays and festivals like Holi; the tone policing would begin in the car ride over... I was told to be more feminine, more normal.” 

They further separated themselves from their family after being constantly nagged for being “Gaapi” (a gossip) as a child. “I was scolded, beaten up, my parents said I would end up breaking someone's marriage if I kept talking without a filter. I was hurt, but I still had my cousins... My faith in the family hasn't shaken yet.” 


Editorial credit: Chris Keenan / Shutterstock

These collective acts of abuse create a toxic cycle of denial for children unable to process and communicate their needs and fallacies.

 “It was the night of my sister's wedding in my village. I was watching a movie with my brother, a 34-year-old man when I was trying to sleep, I felt him move closer to me, and he groped me. It went on, and I stayed in bed silently.” 

These feelings can manifest in the form of many actions like not saying no when one would want to, doing incessant chores, and listening to endless rants of elders that are hurtful or even threatening or much like A’s case of sexual abuse. Be it a younger girl being asked invariably to cover herself up while around or a new bride repeatedly questioning her plans to conceive can create a hostile environment for them to dread every time the family gets together.

Dr Anjuman explains how recovering from incidents of this nature is a long and exhaustive process. Flashbacks from nooks and corners of the household are one of the most common and early manifestations of abuse, followed by triggers within the body. 

She further explains how the impact of this abuse on young girls is unparalleled, and they end up with massive issues. She describes it as “a total dismantle of one’s self.” 

 At the end of a festive day, women are so overworked that they can barely evaluate, let alone address, the emotional toll these situations can take on them. With no safe space to process the trauma, women are left with the choice to escape or avoid these gatherings, but not all have that outlet. 

Wedding seasons roll around, so do family emergencies, and women must confront their abusers again. Even go as far as cooking and cleaning up after them. Each woman has to face the consequences and the aftermath of her trauma in her own way. A* fell into a deep depression, and it took her years of self-acceptance and validation of her own trauma that let her heal from the incident. For Tanmay, it was taking control of her own life and further managing the expectations of her in-laws that finally gave her agency.

Dr Anjuman steers how one can navigate these situations “I know it can be a cliche but opening up to someone you trust, joining support groups, meeting people with similar experiences help.” 

She also suggests a list of things that can be done in case professional services are inaccessible. “Survivors often blame themselves for the incident...forgiving oneself is important. Recognising the triggers that your body is trying to tell you, recognising it, reconnect and re-love it.” 

She emphasises the importance of reinventing traditions, rituals and our memories of these functions. From picking the loved ones, we want to surround ourselves with to reaching out for professional help. 

Unless these power dynamics are not constantly checked, questioned and protested against with reliance, brown family functions will continue to be an oppressive force for women.

*A: Name changed to maintain anonymity

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About the author

Lana is a Screenwriter and Director born and raised across small hamlets of Bihar, India, and currently based in New Delhi. She is a multidisciplinary storyteller composing films, articles and web shows which depict the intersections of class, gender, crime and politics. She aims to create space for migrant women and their artistic statements. She has written and created for Vice News, UNICEF, National Geographic and Discovery+. Instagram: @likhti.lana



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