Joint Family System – boon or bane?

Blog post categorised under ‘Women’s safety in India’ series.

Puzzled? You might be wondering what our family system has anything to do with the safety of women in India. You are not the first, and wont be the last any time soon. But let me explain the connection. Hopefully, you will spread the message within your circle too.

In September 2015, I went to an international conference held in the Hague, organised by the Indian Diaspora in the Netherlands. The subject was “Rising Soft Power of India & Role of Indian Diaspora”. There were many interesting presentations on India’s soft power elements i.e. its culture, history, food, Bollywood, even the Indian heads of many IT companies all over the world.

In one of the presentations, a local politician (of Indian descent) spoke about how he and his colleagues (of Dutch descent) had spent much time with a big joint family of four generations in India and were in awe of the love, affection and care that flooded the house. They saw how the oldest member of the family, of more than 90 years old, had her birthday celebrated with the big family, and how the youngest got the attention and love from so many relatives. It filled the audience (predominantly Indian) with pride, knowing that their culture offers so much to learn from. The presenters then spoke of the budget cuts in the Netherlands due to which the old-age homes were going to suffer and in the long term, it seemed necessary to find another way to care for the elderly in the Netherlands.

Here comes the utility of the joint family system. They explained that they wish to propose this solution to the other politicians as joint family systems will reduce the need for old-age homes.

Great idea!

Or may be not. I disliked the proposition. Infact, I was almost furious at this suggestion.

I stuck my hand up, asking for the permission to speak.

I said, “With all due respect, have you worked out whose parents will live with the family? The wife’s or the husband’s?” They didn’t seem to understand why I was asking that question.

So I continued, “It is precisely because of the joint family system in our patriarchal societies, that when boys are born they are seen as pension plans, and when girls are born they are seen as dowry plans. This system alone is responsible for the female foeticide, the dowry deaths and almost all atrocities on women. So instead of solving one social problem, you will replace it by many more!”  They were stunned by my suggestion, but I got a huge support from the audience.

Let me jot down the many ways in which Joint family system is simply dangerous for women:

  1. It has led to systemic downfall in education of girls and women’s status.

Many social studies have shown that due to fact that the girl moves to a different house after marriage, her parents do not send her to school as that time and money is seen as an expense. The same time and money spent on the education of boy is seen as an investment because when he grows up, he will earn for them.

This attitude encourages low to no education for girls and uneducated girls remain dependant on men. This also means that they have no awareness of their rights.

2. It encourages dowry system.

The education or earning capacity of a boy always becomes a yardstick for dowry while the girl’s value is always counted as next to nothing. This simply encourages dowry system and dowry related deaths.

3. Boy becomes a pension plan, and girl, a dowry plan.

Joint family system in a patriarchal society ensures parents of sons that they will be looked after in their old age. The parents of the girls have to prepare for their old age.

4. It is the cause of female feticide

In all practical sense, people would obviously choose for the sons. No wonder the girls are killed even before they are born as they are simply seen as burdens. And contrary to popular belief, this is not only true for poor families. It is also true for well-to-do families.

At the same time, it would be unfair to call women only the victims. Women are equally responsible as men in degrading other women’s status. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law do not get along because it all comes down to struggle for power in a big family with multiple generations living together.

Recently, I got the chance to speak about these issues at another seminar held in Amsterdam. After the presentations, almost all female audience members came up to me one by one, took my hand in theirs and congratulated me for my presentation. One of them said to me “Today you said what we have always felt. Thank you!” I cannot even describe the pride and happiness I got from that simple gesture. A change had started. Awareness was created.

While it is important to be proud of our culture, it is also important to know its problems. We don’t have to ban a particular culture… but we must know what to keep and what to discard. Thankfully, the things are changing, girls are being educated and women are getting empowered. Its slow… but it is a change.

Share, if you agree!

4 Comments

  1. Hi Yamini,

    Brilliant Blog.

    I tend to agree with you regarding The Girl as Dowry Plan Concept of our society. It’s not executed correctly in our society. It was mainly introduced when women were not educated enough to financially support her partner to kick off the newly married life. So parent gave some financial support, But then people started misusing it and it became a sin of the society.

    Regarding your thoughts on Boys as Pension concept, I believe the issue is still not addressed in our society. Until there are elite and robust retirement plans for elderly people to not only spend good quality time but also share their life experiences with next generation (independent of their own family), Boys will remain consider as Pension Plan and as result unfortunately will get more importance over the Girl kid in the family.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said Mini, I like the pension-plan vs dowry-plan tagline. I also completely agree that we Indians like to take pride in our culture while completely denying that there could be need for any improvement anywhere. This is something that has been discussed for years in the Indian diaspora here (I used to be a voracious reader of India Abroad for years). I am so glad and proud of you that you got the chance to speak and voice your views, I pretty much got shouted down whenever I tried to speak up.
    The origins of the Indian Joint family lie in the old agrarian economy. When agriculture was the main source of income, it was beneficial to have a big piece of land for the whole family where labor and resources could be shared. And since men are tied to the land they had to stay there and it was the wife who had to move her body and soul to the husband’s house. However, when she alone moves to the husband’s house she is stripped of the support system of family and friends that she has enjoyed until now. Not only is she in completely new environment, she is alone whereas the husband has the entire extended family to support him. This, itself, puts the woman at the mercy of her in-laws and in a weak position. And for the brief time that I volunteered at an Indian social service organization, I often saw it in Indian migrant families even in the US. Most recently I heard about an Indian woman in a joint family who overheard her brother-in-law and mother-in-law speaking, “She needs a big thrashing so that she will learn”. She tried to call the police for help but when the police came the family shut her in a room and told the police that the kids accidentally dialed 911 and everything is “just fine”. There is power in numbers and when the woman is alone she is outnumbered by the husband’s family.
    But, we don’t have an agrarian economy any more so why hasn’t the system changed? Because when the system benefits one section of society that section does not want the system to change. And they do it sub-consciously because by now it has become part of our culture. If the mother-in-law doesn’t keep the daughter-in-law under control then people will criticize her because this is expected of her. This is our culture after all! If the husband doesn’t ‘control’ the wife then the society will call him weak; if he is man enough then he should keep his wife subdued. All these attitudes help reinforce patriarchy: meaning that men have more power in society. It has become part of our culture that the woman should stay home and look after her husband’s family. If she tries to step outside then she is blamed for escaping housework. Even when she manages to fight all norms and earn some money, the husband’s family controls how that money should be spent. Women of the husband’s family participate in this not realizing that such attitude is reinforcing patriarchy: as long as you are from the man’s side you are in a dominant position. And by doing this, they are indirectly ensuring that the man always stays in the powerful position in the society.
    And you explained well how the Indian joint family supports patriarchy: boys are expected to stay with parents and instruct their wives to look after the parents. But what about the wife’s parents? If a girl will never be able to take care of her parents then why have a girl at all? This is the single most important factor for female foeticide and infanticide. We may have the slogan “beti padhao, beti bachao” but if despite the education that daughter is forced to disconnect with her parents, then the preference for boys will continue. India can not save its daughters unless we as a society change our attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

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