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Mum(in-law)’s the word

By Nadia Shah

I was recently talking to a Desi woman in her late 70s about challenges she experienced in her early married life. It’s hard not to feel sad for this daughter-in-law (DIL) because she didn’t have a safe place, or any place for that matter, to vent. Clearly, there is a stigma attached to talking about problems, especially problems with in-laws and family, but sometimes staying silent can have a serious effect on one’s life.

In her generation (in South Asia), there was a culture of silence, a culture that somewhat still exists today. She described how her Mother-in-Law (MIL) would kick her out of the house without giving her a reason. What would this DIL do? Absolutely nothing. She would stay silent. Her MIL would accuse her of doing things she didn’t do, while she sided with her own daughters. Still, this DIL said nothing. Her MIL had unrealistic expectations of her but she would continue to remain silent, because her culture expected silence.

About 70% of the cultures in the world are termed “collectivistic cultures.” Aspects of a collectivistic culture includes indirect communication, doing what’s best for the family or society, and vertical hierarchy. In a vertical hierarchy, a person of “lesser” importance (typically younger), is expected to not speak against someone of “more” importance (typically older). This DIL was low on the hierarchy.

This DIL’s husband wanted to defend her but couldn’t stand up to his mom. Oftentimes in the collectivistic cultures, including Desi culture, there’s a fear of disagreeing with elders, especially with parents. Some South Asians associate disagreement with disrespect. But being afraid to disagree and holding feelings inside can lead to resentment. People should be able to disagree without the other person feeling disrespected.

So who should have spoken up? While I usually don’t recommend putting your spouse in between an in-law conflict, in this case the only person that might have had any influence was the DIL’s husband (MIL’s son). If the DIL spoke up in her own defense, no one in either family would have supported her. The culture of the time dictated that the DIL stay silent.

This culture of silence still somewhat exists in our society. However, I see it changing. Younger generations aren’t as passive and fearful. Being less passive has its limits, as one can become too aggressive and disrespectful, but there is a way to disagree while being respectful and I encourage that.

What would you do if you were in this DIL’s situation? What would you do in this current society if you experienced the same challenges this DIL experienced?

I almost forgot to mention the most inspirational part of this DIL’s experience. Despite every challenge this DIL experienced, she still prays that her mother-in-law is peacefully resting in Heaven.

This post was originally published on South Asian In-Laws.

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