A woman gets married to her partner, leaves her independent life back home to live with her husband’s house with 50 other family members, is expected to adhere to family traditions that go back hundreds of years of monarchy, gets dragged into crude family politics by the senior bahuraani, isn’t allowed to leave the house without due permission, is bitterly talked about by her new neighbourhood, and is silenced from complaining or seeking help. As much as the British Royal family would despise this being said, they are not as different from a middle-class Indian family.
Even as the rest of the world is stirred up about the inherent racism that British society and tabloids continue to practice even today – after all, a racism that justified slavery and colonialism for hundreds of years takes time to surrender – there is one aspect to the interview that the US and Europe audience would not be able to relate to as much as the Indian audience would. And that is the plight of a married woman in a joint family.
In the West, when kids turn 18, they move out of their parents’ house and learn to live on their own. And so, once they get married, the woman is not expected to erase her pre-marriage identity and fit in a strange house to call her own – she doesn’t have to cook dishes to impress the parents, or wear saris and salwars that the new family would approve and pray to the same gods they do.
However, things change when it comes to the British Royal family. As Meghan Markle told Oprah in the interview, she left her life as an American actress to shift permanently to London to perform her duties as a member of the royal institution. As soon as the news of the two dating spread, the Brits started commenting on Meghan’s ethnicity, her history of being a divorcee and what her intentions behind marrying into the Royal family might be.
Sounds familiar to ‘choice’ marriages in India? Family dinners are held before the wedding is fixed to discuss whether the girl is trapping their seedha-saadha munda.
Once Meghan became the Princess of Sussex, tabloids started filling pages on how she was not sitting according to royal etiquettes, wearing black nail paint on occasions or had a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ when her bra was visible during an outing. In her biography that Markle submitted for the Royal family website, she mentioned her life-long commitment to social work and women empowerment. It comes as no surprise that none of her work came to limelight for her critics while talking about the new Royal member.
This is similar to how women who live in joint families are policed for their clothes and follow the family customs instead of considering her an individual with personal choices.
The story of the Princess of Sussex was the same as the story of the Princess of Wales, Diana. Like Markle, Diana faced harsh camera flashes and pen strokes of the British media. The two shared the pressure of being married to a family, fitting in and only being allowed to do what looks good for the family. Both of them suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts because of being suffocated by traditions and reputation. Markle told Oprah how when she told the Royal institution about her suicidal thoughts, she was denied help because “it wouldn’t be good for the institution.” None of the Royal family members stood up to acknowledge her debilitating health and get her help.
Markle’s story is indicative of the lives of married women who aren’t allowed to lead independent lives after marriage. While she had the privilege of a supportive husband who was sensitive towards mental health, the resources to seek help and separate from the family, and a support group of friends and family, most women in India do not have any of these.
According to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau, housewives accounted for the second-highest percentage (17.1%) of all suicide victims in India in 2018. Additionally, more than half of all women suicide victims that year were housewives.
Once a woman enters a new family after marriage, she is made to do all the domestic chores while being constantly mistrusted and put to the test by the whole family, often even by the husband. She is isolated from her maiden family and silenced within systemic expectations and disappointments. Especially if the woman belongs to a different caste, religion or culture, she is reminded of not being a part of them.
Markle’s interview has brought up the conversation of the impact of oppressive traditions on one’s mental health, especially women. In the name of reputation and “this is how it is,” women continue to be silenced, and even killed in some cases. The statistics of women dying by suicide must be taken up seriously by NGOs and government bodies to build a more efficient system of helpline numbers and rehabilitation centres and questions need to be raised about the cost at which we wish to keep customs alive.