Women on the Rise in India Feel the Riptide of Tradition
Course on How to Be a Dutiful Housewife Has Strong Resonance
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page A16
BHOPAL, India -- By some measures, Meena Mangtani was a model of emancipated Indian womanhood, with a college degree in business, a working knowledge of computers and English and a desire to land a job in a bank. She even harbored the notion, as she put it recently, "that men and women are equal, that we can do anything."
But Mangtani, 23, said she had come to see the error of her ways.
In preparation for her imminent marriage, the slender, dark-eyed grocer's daughter is nearing completion of a popular three-month course on how to be the ideal Indian wife. Among other things, the course emphasizes the importance of household chores, suggests keeping sex to a minimum and advises that the key to blissful relations with a new husband is to "think of him as your god." It also recommends extreme deference to mothers-in-law, who typically live under the same roof as the new brides.
At a time when Indian women are struggling to shuck off centuries of oppression and are entering the workplace in record numbers, the teachings of the Manju Institute of Values serve as a reminder of the enduring power of tradition in Indian marriage -- and, some say, its continuing role in holding women back.
"Even if they say something mean to us, our first instinct should not be to retort back, but to stay silent," said Mangtani, who now maintains that her new husband and his parents will decide whether she pursues a career. "The 'I' in me was very strong. Now I have learned that we are newcomers in that family and we have to adjust. We have to reduce the ego."
Such lessons might seem redundant in this nation of more than 1 billion people, where traditional views of marriage are deeply entrenched. In most cases, for example, parents still arrange their children's marriages and -- if they are parents of the groom -- expect substantial dowries, even though the practice supposedly has been outlawed since the 1980s.
Even Indian marriage, however, is not immune to the pressures of globalization and rapid urban growth. The newsmagazine India Today recently published a story on marriage that cited the role of Internet matchmaking services in empowering young Indians to play a more active role in choosing their mates. Although India still has one of the world's lowest rates of divorce -- largely because of the stigma it confers on women -- the percentage of marriages that end that way has risen steadily over the last decade, especially in urban areas, according to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi.
To social conservatives, such trends represent a dire threat to India's family-oriented culture and values -- a threat that the Manju Institute, among others, aims to combat by reminding women of their customary domestic role.
"Women make house," Aildas Hemnani, a retired civil servant who founded the institute in 1987, told his students the other morning as they sat cross-legged on the floor of the Hindu prayer hall that serves as his classroom. "Men make society. But where does the society come from? Because a woman, when she is making the home, she brings up model citizens."
Such attitudes infuriate development experts in India, for whom there is no bigger or more urgent challenge than lifting the status of women, who continue to lag behind men on key social indicators such as literacy and access to education. Every year, more than 6,000 Indian women are murdered by their husbands and in-laws -- sometimes doused with kerosene and burned to death in purported kitchen accidents -- for failing to yield to demands for bigger dowries, according to national crime statistics.
By encouraging women to remain subservient to their husbands and in-laws, the Manju Institute and others like it are "reinforcing patriarchal norms and values," said Kumari of the New Delhi research group. "When there is some empowerment happening, I think this is absolutely pulling them back."
A dulcet-voiced guru with swept-back white hair, Hemnani, 62, denied any desire to thwart women's progress. "We don't want her to always bow down -- that would be wrong," he said, noting that the course textbook, which he wrote, advises women to seek police protection from abusive husbands and in-laws and reminds husbands to treat their wives with tenderness and respect.
But he cautioned that women should not regard themselves as equal partners with their husbands. "The moment you say partner, that's where the clashes come," he said, adding in reference to the husband, "He's not God, but he's like God."
Hemnani's training center occupies a three-story concrete building next to a private school in a quiet neighborhood of Bhopal, a pleasant central Indian city known for its man-made lakes and also as the site of the world's worst industrial accident, the 1984 gas leak from a Union Carbide plant that killed at least 2,000 people within hours and injured tens of thousands more.
Funded by a wealthy Bombay family and a distant guru who serves as Hemnani's mentor, the institute charges no tuition for its marriage classes, which meet six mornings a week, although Hemnani is happy to accept donations from students and other followers. About 3,000 young women have taken the course; he said he offers a compressed version in other cities several times a year.
At one recent session, Hemnani began with lessons in Sikhism -- an offshoot of the Hindu faith from which his teachings borrow heavily -- and natural healing, including advice on good sleeping habits. Then he directed Mangtani, the business graduate, to read from his textbook on surviving the rigors of the Indian joint family. (Though patterns are changing, a new bride is normally expected to join her husband -- especially if he is the eldest son -- in the home of his parents, who are supposed to adopt her as their own.)
"After marriage, the bride should not think she's going to the in-laws' family to throw her weight around," Mangtani read. "Instead, she's going there to serve the family and perform her duties, in order to turn that home into a heaven."
Hemnani's textbook is filled with such advice. "The bride should do everything according to the wishes and orders of the mother-in-law and father-in-law," it says. "The mother-in-law and father-in-law are never wrong."
It also offers plenty of tips for getting along with a new husband. "For a woman, her husband is everything," the textbook says. "The wife should sleep after her husband and wake up before him. . . . When he returns home, welcome him with a smile, help him in taking off his shoes and socks, and ask him to sit down. Bring him water and biscuits, and with a smile, ask him about his day. A husband's happiness alone is your life's goal. . . . Do not go without your husband's permission anywhere."
In addition, the textbook includes a section on how a husband should treat his wife. Among other advice, it suggests: "If there is anything missing or inadequate in her cooking, do not get angry, but explain to her with love"; "never raise your hand to hit your wife"; and "sometimes praise her good qualities."
As for sex, the less the better: "You can be celibate even when you're married," Hemnani advises, citing a Hindu saint's recommendation that couples have sex only once in their marriage. "If they are not happy with that, then once a year," he writes, warning that more frequent sex "reduces your lifespan."
Mangtani said she saw nothing wrong with Hemnani's recipe for harmonious marriage. "These are our duties -- not to go on insisting on our rights, but do our duties," she said. "If we perform our duties well first, our rights will come."
Notwithstanding her college education and career aspirations, Mangtani became engaged to her fiance -- whose family owns a license-plate factory in a town about five hours from Bhopal by train -- as part of a deal brokered by the two families.
After the families agreed on a dowry of 300,000 rupees -- about $6,400 -- the young man and his grandfather traveled to Bhopal, where Mangtani met her fiance for the first time. "He was happy to hear that I prefer a joint family," she recalled.
Her parents hosted an engagement party the next day.
Mangtani has seen her husband-to-be only twice since that day seven months ago, once to go to a movie and another time to take a boat ride on a lake. But she does not seem worried about getting married to a virtual stranger, in part, she said, because of the lessons she has learned at the Manju Institute.
"The whole idea is to surrender yourself to your husband and new family," she said. "If they let me have a career I will have a career, and if they don't that's okay. My prime goal is to serve."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company