Of the many things discussed about mother-daughter relationships, I find there is one that is almost taboo. Women don’t like to hear or talk about it.
The issue I am trying to broach here is that of a certain betrayal of daughters by their mothers, in the cultural or societal value system that women subscribe to, and the choices they make, for themselves and their daughters. These value systems and choices deeply undermine women in general, and make them vulnerable and weak.
This betrayal marks many a personal relationship between mothers and daughters. But it also holds true for the larger collective, in how older generations of women relate and respond to the younger generations. One can in fact identify nuances of this betrayal in all cultures, but I find it most pronounced in the Asian cultures.
Silencing the Betrayal
Not only is this betrayal deeply entrenched in Asian cultures, but daughters are socialized exclusively by their mothers from infancy to both accept it, and keep it a secret. British-Indian author Jasvinder Sanghera in her book ‘Daughters of Shame’ writes about this in her own family and the British Asian communities. “I was brought up to keep secrets, ugly secrets about bullying, coercion and fearwhich were all part of everyday life in our family. I believed it was shameful to discuss things with outsidersand if I did I would compromise our honour—izzat—the most important thing in my mum’s life…[Later I] learnt that mine wasn’t the only Asian family held together by a suffocating web of secrets…”
Jasvinder’s sister had died in a violent and abusive marriage, while her parents, including her mother, who witnessed the violence, did nothing to protect their daughter, preferring to remain silent to maintain their ‘honor’ in the community. Later Jasvinder’s mother tried to force her as well to marry a man not of her choosing, who she did not want to marry. To avoid her sister’s fate, and still not being able to tell anyone or seek help outside, Jasvinder ran away from home.
Not only is this painful mother-daughter dynamic never discussed, but should there be an indirect reference made to it, women are quick to dismiss it as something that mothers have no choice over or cannot deal with the way they actually desire to, because they lack ‘power.’
But the truth is, that even under the most difficult of situations, where no matter which path a woman takes, she will face persecution in one form or another, she still has the power to decide, which of the persecutions she is more willing to endure. Often mothers choose that option that gets them a little consolation prize, their own little corner, however sordid, subservient and insignificant within the context of the larger, grander scheme of the brutal patriarchal hierarchy. In their desire for this petty “prize” mothers often knowingly sacrifice their daughter’s safety and well-being.
I can testify to this from my own experiences as an Indian woman, from what I’ve known and witnessed in my family, in the Indian communities both in India and outside, and through the work I do with my campaign, The 50 Million Missing which is lobbying to stop India’s female gendercide.
Testimonies to the Betrayal
One of the cases The 50 Million Missing Campaign had intervened in was that of baby Karishma whose paternal grandmother had tried to kill her on numerous occasions. See her story here. The father’s family, that had wanted a boy, and resented her being a girl, had starved the child, beaten her senseless, and not even named her for the first two years of her life hoping she would die. They also abused the mother. The 50 Million Missing campaign then moved the mother and daughter to a safe house and extended to them all the support they needed to make a fresh start in life. Simultaneously we started legal proceedings for attempted murder charges against Karishma’s father and his family. However, Karishma’s mother secretly returned to her husband’s and in-laws house one day, taking Karishma with her, without informing us.
While Karishma’s mother was from a poor family, and had not yet completed high school, astonishingly the same response is seen in women who are highly educated, professional and working. In another case that the campaign tried to support, the woman was from an upper-class family, highly educated, professional and economically well off. She wanted to move back with her daughters to her husband and in-laws house, where her daughters were not only unwanted, but there had been a vicious attempt made to kill one of them when she was a baby. The mother said that she believed that a father’s house was a daughter’s ‘rightful’ place in society. When we asked her how she could risk her daughters’ safety, she said, she would have her husband and in-laws sign an affidavit , to the effect that if she moved back into their house, her daughters would not be “hurt, harmed, raped or killed.”
So why when they are aware of the risk and danger they are putting their daughters through, not to mention the emotional and psychological trauma of abuse and rejection, would these mothers make these choices, even when there is a safer alternative?
It is because they fear the consequence of the alternative choice on their own lives. Women in India in situations similar to the ones described above, face outright rejection from the neighborhood and communities in India, when they choose to leave their husband’s homes, even if their own lives and their daughter’s lives are in danger. They are blamed, ostracized, vilified, and persecuted by people around them in different ways. They are labeled as ‘sluts’ and ‘whores,’ and treated with total contempt by society. Where earlier they found themselves victimized by their husbands and in-laws, they now feel the whole world is out to get them.
But they also know for all the heart-ache and rejection they have to bear from society when they get out of abusive marriages, at least their daughters are safe! If they return to their husband’s homes however, though it might jeopardize their daughters’ lives, it will earn them society’s forgiveness, and a tiny shred of social regard. In the end, desirous of this little prize from society, most Asian women opt for the latter.
Deep in their hearts, where they hear the voice of their own conscience these mothers know they have done wrong. They know that their husbands and in-laws have done wrong by them, but that they themselves are just as guilty in trading off their daughters’ well-being and safety. So they make a consistent effort through customs, traditions and injunctions, to hide the dark, ugliness of their choice, by brainwashing their daughters into accepting it as ‘normal,’ and yet never speaking about it openly. To protect their ugly secret, they silence it. To pretend it is ‘normal’ when they know it is not, women train their daughters to accept and perpetuate it in their lives and choices too.
Healing the Schism Between
To heal this massive schism in the personal and collective relationships of women, there are three steps that are absolutely essential: 1) Confronting the betrayal 2) Un-silencing it, and finally 3) Acceptance.
In the book, ‘Snowflower and the Secret Fan,’ a story about a 19th century Chinese woman, Lily, who in accordance with the customs for women of her times, had to submit to the extremely sadistic practice of foot-binding, Lily explains her life in these words: “For my entire life I longed for love…I dreamed that my mother would notice me and that she and the rest of my family would grow to love me. To win their affection, I was obedient…[and] tried to fulfill their expectation for me – to attain the smallest bound feet in the county. So I let my bones be broken and molded into a better shape. When I knew I couldn’t suffer another moment of pain, and tears fell on my bloody bindings, my mother spoke softly into my ear, encouraging me to go one more hour, one more day…In this way she taught me how to endure, not just the physical trials of footbinding and child bearing but the more torturous pain of the heart, mind and soul.” However, later, in life she painfully recognizes the meaning behind what her mother was doing and eventually confronts her. She says, “With horror I realized that during those awful days [of foot binding] she had not been showing me mother love at all. In some twisted way, the pain she inflicted on me had to do with her own selfish wants and desires.”
Jasvinder Sanghera in her book ‘Daughters of Shame’ also talks about the need for women to not just recognize and name this betrayal, but to speak out openly about it. She says “I have also tried to batter down the wall of secrecy. I realized that by staying silent, women like me were making it impossible for anyone to help and I wanted to change that.” It was however not easy, and Jasvinder talks about how it isolated her from the Indian community, and often left her feeling alone and very vulnerable.
It is equally important for Mothers to accept their role in all this. Even though this is rare, recently I was amazed to watch a woman actually admit to it on public television in India. In a show on female feticide, where women talked about the unbelievable brutality they’ve been subjected to by their husbands and in-laws in being often repeatedly forced to abort their daughters, Parveen Khan whose husband had savagely bitten off chunks of flesh from her face for having daughters, and who eventually got out of the marriage and now raises her girls on her own, directly addressed all the mothers watching her on TV and said, that as unforgivable as the violence is that is inflicted on women, it is just as wrong for women to tolerate it and allow their daughters to be subject to the same. Watch the video here (with English subtitles).
When Mothers Stand by their Daughters, Their Worlds Change
In February 2012, in the city of Calcutta in India, a woman who had gone to a night-club with some friends, was gang-raped by a group of men in a car. See her story here. When she tried to file a complaint she was jeered at not only by the police, but also the Chief Minister of the state, who is a woman! She faced what all rape victims’ face in India – blame, verbal abuse, and suspicion. This is the reason why a majority of women don’t file rape charges. What gave this woman the courage to come forward? She said that most people had advised her to remain silent and not go to the police. There was only one person—her grandmother—who encouraged her to fight back, demand justice, and was by her side all through. Later the victimized woman explained, “Apart from the encouragement, my Nanno (grandmother) also counseled me about the difficult road ahead – rounds of questioning by the police, uncomfortable questions from the society…. She prepared me to face all that. I draw so much energy from her!”
For all the talk of women’s empowerment through education and jobs, the truth is that a lot of the violence women are subject to is harbored in this schism of betrayal in mother-daughter relationships. If we want change, we will have to individually confront it and take responsibility. It is only when enough individual women find the courage to do this, however terrifying and lonely it may be, that we’ll begin to see a change for women at the societal level.
More about Rita
Rita Banerji is an author, photographer and a gender activist from India.
Her book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies was released by Penguin Books in 2008 (Penguin Global, 2009). She is also the founder and chief administrator of The 50 Million Missing, an online, global campaign working to stop the ongoing female genocide in India.
Her works have been published in magazines and newspapers in the USA, U.K., India, Nepal, Hong Kong and Australia. The publications include The London Magazine, New Orleans Review, and India Today. She blogs at Rita’s Blog.
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