Patriarchy in Punjab:documenting the Narratives of Women from Three Generations of Jat Sikh Families of Punjab

A little girl, not yet two years of age, is tied to a pillar with a piece of string. Her cousin, a boy, who is a couple of months older to her, is allowed to roam free. The mother is busy in housework all day; the father, a landlord, is out, supervising work in the fields. The grandparents assert that the little girl is too active; goes out into the buffalo yard and gets dirty. Hence she has to be tied up.”

Keywords: female foeticide, objectification of women, subordination of women, son preference, male honour, male domination, arranged marriage, female sexuality control, women as second citizen

This is not a tale of the middle ages, but of 21st century rural Punjab and of a village not more than an hour’s drive from the capital, Chandigarh. Today when the issues of women’s rights and empowerment are at the centre-stage of social and political discourse nationally as well as internationally, Punjabi women continue to be burdened by their gender and shackled with the barbed wires of patriarchy.

On the face of it, the times have changed, bringing with them a more open society, with greater liberty and freedom for women and girls. No longer are they confined to the private world of the family but ‘permitted’ entry into the public sphere. Yet the question remains: Is this liberty merely superficial or is it real? Has patriarchy merely changed its form from the dominance of one Patriarch in the family to a systemic pattern of male dominance?

This paper documents Case studies of three generations of Punjabi women and seeks to look into the structural framework of patriarchy, i.e. the nature and extent of women’s subordination, among Jat Sikh families of the Malwa’ region of Punjab to assess, whether and how patriarchy has changed its form over the Years.

The region is chosen because it ‘represents the true spirit of Punjabi folk traditions’, it is dominated by the tat landlords who control the political pulse of Punjab and provide the impetus into the strong feudal society. Our research on various projects in the interior of Punjab reveals that women of this class, regardless of their education and overall economic status, are still tied down by the same feudal and patriarchal values that bound their grandmothers. Three generations of Punjabi women from Jat Sikh agricultural families were taken for the case studies. Two-three women each from the age groups of 3040, 40-50 and above 50 were chosen.2

The research methodology consists of a combination of approaches. To begin with the respondents were just asked to tell all about their lives from infancy till now, particularly any ‘touching’ incidents, their happiest moments as well as moments of distress. This was followed by some probing questions about different aspects and the data so gathered was supplemented through observation.

Patriarchy and Punjabi Women

Punjabi society fits the typical description of patriarchy. Women have always had a secondary status in the highly patriarchal and feudal society of Punjab. A male is equated with the sun and the women are mere satellites, who derive their luminescence from the sun. From the womb to the tomb, women’s lives, nay their very beings, are shaped by male determined patterns.

For centuries, women in Punjab have had to bear the cost of the male battle done upmanship. Whether it was the invasions in the earlier ages, or the partition of India or the period of militancy, women became the trope of male honour and prestige. It was Punjab which witnessed in silent grief, its children killing each other, its daughters being raped, mutilated and kidnapped, which Urvashi Butalia calls “one of the great human convulsions of history.”3 Partition is now relegated to the history books but the Cries of the Countless women who fell victims to the ‘sexual terrorism’ reverberate inside Punjab even today and continue to haunt those who lived through those days.

Adoption of a democratic and egalitarian Constitution of India, brought with it equality in rights and opportunities. Yet women continued to bear the burden of the feudal and patriarchal ethos on their shoulders. A bird’s eye view of some select statistics reveals the extent of women’s subordination and oppression.

The sex ratio which had been gradually inching upwards up to 1991 (882) shows a sudden decline in 2001(874). What’s worse and likely to have grave consequences for the future causing great social imbalance is the drastic decline (82 points) in the sex ratio of the 0-6 age group, (it was 875 in 1991 and declined to 793 in 2001), indicative of the persisting female foeticide in the region.

While in the fields of literacy and health, Punjab has been doing quite well compared to other states, its female literacy rate continues to be at least 12 percentage points short of the male literacy rate and the school dropout rates of girls continues to be high. Likewise in the field of health, notwithstanding the high life expectancy and the vast network of health institutions, women and children continue to show a high rate of prevalence of anaemia4, indicative of (render discrimination in nutritional status, which is quite paradoxical considering the fact that Punjab is the precursor of both the Green and White revolutions and has one of the highest per capita income in the country.

The subordinate status of women is equally evident from the Work Participation Rates. Up to 1991 the female work participation rate in Punjab was the lowest in the country, merely 4.4 per cent. The 2001 Census reveals a much better position with 18.6% of women showing gainful employment, perhaps due to the changed definition of work adopted in this Census.

The unequal gender perceptions and social realities are as much reinforced through popular culture because it “encourages son-preference, it degrades the girl-child, it objectifies women, and it celebrates women oppressing women and legitimises female foeticide and infanticide….”5. This is evident from the couplet spoken on the death of a girl child, “Gur khain puni kattin, aap jayin bhra nu ghallee” (Eat molasses, spin your yarn, you depart, send a brother). The folk songs equally perpetuate the gender subordination and discrimination prevalent in the region. The predominant notion is of husband as malik (owner) and the woman as subordinate, as ‘paanv ki jooti’ (footwear).

As a matter of fact, the predominant notion of patriarchy as control of female sexuality finds its full portrayal in Punjabi society. Hershman observes “The control of female sexuality is closely related in Punjab society to notions of male honour and shame.”6 And “…the function of panda is to act as a way of guarding and defining sexual rights over women and their child-bearing powers.” 7

Death ceremonies equally reflect the centrality of males in the social structure of Punjab. On the death of an elder in the family, the son (even if he is an infant) is made to wear the ‘pagri’, symbolising that he is now the head of the household. It is the son who has the privilege of lighting the funeral pyre of his parents. In case a person does not have a son, the pyre will be lit by the closest male relative.

Widows are supposed to wear a white dupatta (normally a length of cloth which covers the head and the bosom). As a matter of fact in Jat Sikh families, traditionally women were even required to take two dupattas, one which covered the face and the other covered the head.

After the death of the husband, the wife’s parents gift her clothes and some gold ornaments. The natal relatives come in a party to mourn in a ceremony called ‘kaan’’ and they bathe their sister/daughter; she wears the clothes brought by them and the previous ones are gifted to the ‘nain’ (the barber’s wife). Even when the woman herself dies, the clothes she wears to the funeral pyre, called ‘kafan’ are brought by her natal family, symbolising that she takes nothing from her marital family and her status remains subservient even in death.

Chadar andazi’ continues to be a common practice in Punjab. The origins of this custom probably lie in the Punjabis unwillingness to give up his land. So when one brother dies, his wife is given to the other brother (generally younger) through the system of Chadar andazi. (Sometimes the brother is young enough to be the woman’s son, but he is forced by tradition to take his brother’s wife as his own. Of course this does not preclude his getting married again to a younger woman. The woman, however, has no choice in the matter.)

Such traditions reinforce the preference for sons in Punjabi society. Bearing of male heirs establishes a woman in her marital family (pair jammauna). Hershman opines “A woman who fails to produce male heirs is always vulnerable to the possibility that she will be discarded and her husband will take a second wife.”8

Consider the following: A 65 year old man and his 60 year old wife went to a private infertility clinic in Ludhiana. The doctors managed to reinduce menstruation in the woman, who was well past menopause, and she conceived. Due to some complications there was a miscarriage. Why did they take all this effort at such a ripe old age? They already had three children, two sons and one daughter. The problem lay in the fact that their elder son was physically and mentally challenged from birth, while the younger one passed away due to brain tumour at the young age of 21 years. So they were desperate for a male heir. When medical technology failed them, the man resorted to the age–old technique of marrying again. He brought home an 18 year old girl. At the same time they got their elder son married to a woman from a needy family. Their desperate desire for a male heir was fulfilled by the elder son’s wife.

If that is not enough for numerous instances of wives trying desperately to bear sons in mid 40, regardless of the impact upon their health and lives. 

In the past female infanticide was a common incident. Modern technology has cast its shadow here too. Now it is no longer necessary to wait for the birth of a girl child before killing her. Female foeticide has become a common practice, and clinics especially in rural areas widely advertise, “spend rupees 500 now than rupees 50000 later.” 9 Technology has gone further an advance to a system of pre-conception sex selection, wherein it is neither necessary to kill the girl child nor abort the foetus; but the sex of the child can be determined through a system of separating the X and Y chromosomes.

The growing impact of the women’s movement; the adoption of an egalitarian Constitution, along with a plethora of laws aimed at ameliorating the poignant situation of women, spread of technology and faster communications should have had an obvious impact in loosening the shackles of patriarchal and feudal ethos. Yet women continue to be suppressed, subordinated and exploited in some of the old forms and many new ones. At Places patriarchy would seem to have loose and its hold only to show that the loosening is nearly a mirage and actually male domination continues in more subtle and intense ways. This is amply reflected in the following case studies, which reveal the women of the first generation to have been subject to intense male control so much so that they could not even breathe freely. However, they have internalised the values of patriarchy so thoroughly, that they themselves have become institutions or agents of the patriarchal system. The second generation seems to have a greater deal of liberation. Yet the restrictions are equally strong. The third generation is ostensibly quite free. Yet obviously this freedom is dependent upon male privilege. They can revoke the freedom as and when they so desire.

 Case Study 1

The first case study is that of Jat Sikh woman, aged about 75 years, belonging to an agriculturist family. At a time when you judge Sikh women were never sent to school, she not only did her graduation and got a degree of B.T,  but stayed in a hostel, a albeit a girls, hostel. She was also enrolled for B.Ed but fell sick and did not complete it. The credit for education probably goes to an educated father who was employed as an S.D.O., and who believed in education for girls.

Paradoxically her husband was also well-educated and studied in Chief’s College, Lahore, yet he was a conservative to the core.  He was in the army for a short while, later an entire smuggling officer and then took to farming his ancestral land. He was also a member of the Punjab Legislative Assembly.

Although she does not know the exact year of her birth, she does know that everybody was extremely happy. There may have been some disquiet over her birth in her mother’s natal family. However, her paternal grandmother sent instructions that the girl child’s birth should be celebrated. She was even gifted gold bangles on her birth by her paternal grandmother and considered auspicious for the house, “because the birth of a son followed my birth”. In fact she seemed to subscribe to the same views herself, claiming that her bhabis and daughter-in-law were also lucky for their ‘families, because their birth had been followed by the birth of sons.10

 She admitted that female infanticide had been widely prevalent in her village, although she did not know the exact means of committing the crime. The reason probably was because one of her aunts had been ill-treated by her in-laws, hence it was considered better to kill the baby girls at birth rather than let them be troubled by their in-laws.

She did not recall any major difference of treatment between her brother and herself. As stated earlier, there were no restrictions on her education and she even stayed in a hostel in her college days. But she never travelled alone. She did go to the market with her friends, but never to the movies, for she preferred to go home for the weekends, not because there was any restriction as such on her going out. Of course at home she could not go out to the market except with her parents.

She had some interesting recollections about her natal family. Her father, she said was all-powerful in the family, although he did listen to his mother. He loved his children, but they were nevertheless scared of him also. She also recollected that he had an extra marital affair with a Muslim girl, who could sing very well. He used to go and stay with her too. Her mother accepted the affair, because it was settled that he would not bring the girl home. Moreover he was a maukanawaz (opportunist) and kept my mother happy too”

Hers was an arranged marriage. There was no question of seeking her opinion and views and she only caught a glimpse of ‘Sardar’ once in the railway station, when she went to see off his sisters (There were six of them). She was a little disappointed on seeing him for the first time at her marriage time, because everybody had praised him to the skies. However, he was quite nice to her. He did not stop her from visiting her parental house whenever she felt and even sent a man to accompany her on the journey.11 She was still not permitted to travel alone. As a matter of fact she stayed at her parental home for quite a few months after the birth of each child (She has three children).

However, her life in her marital village was quite restricted. She never went into the village. In fact she did not even venture outside in her natal village. The girls used to come to her house.) Whenever, she had to go anywhere, the vehicle used to come right to the door to pick her up. She revealed that there were some parts of the house which she actually saw only after her husband’s death, when she had to look after things. She did not take out a ghungat, but that was only because she never came in front of the elder males in her household. Either they never entered the inner courtyard, or if they ever did, she would withdraw to her room and stay there till they went out. But she insisted that actually she was shy and reticent by nature and hence this withdrawal from the company of her seniors and even other villagers. Incidentally, in the initial years of her marriage, she was not even permitted to go into the kitchen because there were male cooks there. If she wanted to cook anything for herself, the stove and utensils would be brought to her room.

But when her husband went to jail with the Akali jathas, she had to stay put in the village, because people would have said “chhod ker chali gage” (ran away in a time of crisis). She even took charge of the cotton picking, but “mind you, I never went into the fields. The men (hired labour) got the picking done and reported to me at home. I took charge of the accounts. Later, my husband praised my account keeping and said it was even better that his”. Incidentally, till today, she has never seen the family fields.

She further stated that no male could enter the inner courtyard, except the brother-in-law who intermediated in her marriage. One day, she recollected, a bodyguard sent by the local police entered the courtyard. Her husband went to the police station and literally bawled out the in-charge over there. Another time, while they were going somewhere, a man known to her husband met them and just happened to inquire where they were going and whether she, his wife was going with him. “My husband slapped him” and stated that it was none of his business.

Her first child was a daughter. A child was born in the house after about forty years. Hence it was a happy time although her sisters-in-taw (her parents-in-law had passed away when her husband was very young) would have preferred bog. However, the baby girl too had to face quite a few restrictions. The second child was a son12. He too had to lead a protected and sheltered life. The reasons for the seclusion and restriction on the baby girl and the baby boy were quite dissimilar and highly patriarchal. They were extra protective of him because he was a boy- a male heir; ‘logan nazar lag jandi13. This was also the reason why she was extremely happy at the birth of her granddaughter and she still calls her ‘chotta munda’. The granddaughter, it seems, was born after about 10 years of the marriage of her son. If a boy had been born, people would have been jealous. Hence it was better that a girl child was born, she remarks.

Case Study 2

The second narrative is also of a 70+ Jat Sikh woman from an agriculturist family. She was born in pre-partition Punjab. Her father passed away when she was quite young. She had two elder brothers, but the head of the household was her uncle who controlled all of them.

Her mother, and the other daughters-in-law of the family at that time had some difficult times. Her grandfather used to have his dinner at 1 a.m. And the food had to be fresh. And it was not as if they could sleep late in the morning. They had to get up at 4 a.m. Worse still, they were not permitted to wear shoes in the kitchen even when it was freezing cold outside. Here she was asked whether the men were allowed to wear shoes in the kitchen. She laughed and said that the men never entered the kitchen so the question did not arise. Incidentally the daughters-in-law never came in front of their father-in-law. Whenever he had to cross the courtyard, one man would announce that he was coming and the daughters-in-law would move inside till he had passed by. She recollected having heard that once her grandfather did not recognise one of his daughters-in-law, because he had actually never seen her face. He had seen her sitting for some time, and finally he told one of the servants that the bibi has been sitting there for some time and nobody has attended to her. The servant informed him that the bibi in question was his daughter-in-law.

Her family was very happy at her birth, because she had had five paternal aunts, two of whom had died in infancy, and the other three had died at a young age.

She studied until class V in the village school. But after that she was not sent to school because of Purdah system and restrictions on the movement of girls. As a matter of fact, she was very interested in learning to do path (read verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs), but she could not do this because the Bhaiji (priest) being a male, was not allowed to enter the house and she was not permitted to go outside.

She was not permitted to cross the threshold. In fact, she and her sisters were not even permitted to climb up to the terrace. Food, however, was plentiful and there were no gendered restrictions on what they could or could not eat. Her education had ended, but she learnt sewing and embroidery. However, she did not have to do any housework, as girls of their class normally were not expected to be involved in housework at that time.

At the time of partition, her uncle who had a carbine, managed to protect them. They were terrified because they had heard tales that in nearby Talwandi, Muslims had killed about 40 of their girls for fear that the Jats would take them. She remembers pleading with her brother not to kill them before he was sure that the mobs had actually come to the house and there was no way of saving them. She also recollects that her cousin sister was very brave and kept a sword handy at all times to fight off the mob and if needed to take their own lives.

Some of the incidents narrated by her reveal the intense desire for a free life which was shackled by male power and privilege. There was not even freedom to climb up to the terrace of the house. Yet, they used to sneak up to the terrace, when their uncle was not there. However, when they saw their uncle’s white horse coming, they would literally crawl down the stairs lest he see them. One thing which they always desperately wanted to see was the arrival of a baraat in the village.14 But their uncle without saying anything to them would quietly lock the door to the terrace. However, they often managed to see a baraat because another uncle who was a little more liberated would take them to the terrace through another route. This was a great high point of their life.

She got married around the year 1949. At that time, there were some problems at home. She stated that after marriage, she was very happy; there were no restrictions on her. A little probing, however, revealed the limitations imposed upon her. Going out of the house was out of the question. Moreover, in those days, in the summer months the entire family used to sleep on the terrace. But her father-in-law had given standing instructions, that they had to move into their rooms by 4 a.m. for it would soon be light and they could be seen from outside.

She never even sat at the same level as her mother-in-law. If her mother-in-law sat on a chair, she had to sit on a pidi (a low legged stool). Once, she recollected that by mistake she sat on the same bed on which her mother-in-law was reclining. Her mother-in-law literally looked daggers at her and she quickly sat on a pidi. She also remembered that when her elder son was born, relatives came to see him. Chairs were put out for everybody else, but a pidi was brought for her (Now, she says she would not do this regardless of the Consequences).

Taking part in household decision-making was out of the question. Once her husband purchased a shirt for her a short while after her marriage, but it was taken away by her mother-in-law on the pretext that newly married girls had plenty of clothes and so did not need new ones. She had two sons and one daughter. When her sons were born, everybody was deliriously happy, but for the daughter there was no celebration. Her husband was very happy, but sadly she herself did not treat her daughter very well. If her sons had the slightest ailment, she would rush them to the doctor, but her daughter would be given home remedies. Luckily the daughter survived, and now she is the apple of her mother’s eye. She revealed her son preference again when her grand-daughter was born, for she “was a trifle sad, that a daughter had been born”.

Her husband passed away when her sons were very young. The elder was merely 15 years old. They took charge of the property. Although they did not stop her from doing anything, yet the decision-making never came into her hands. After the marriage of her sons, her daughters-in-law took charge of the household. Although she did not expressly say it, her expression revealed the enormous upheaval felt by her in not being in charge of her own life even in her old age. She has to look to her children for even her slightest needs. Earlier, when her husband was alive and even after that, she had plenty of money, but never cared much for it. Actually, she says in those time, women had no use for money because all their needs were fulfilled by their elders or the males.

Her elder son passed away a few years back. Her elder daughter-in-law is very quiet and does not interfere much in the household affairs. She wishes she could do something for her because the girl has really suffered at the hands of her husband. Her elder son had wanted to marry his wife’s younger sister as well and had even kidnapped her from her school. The matter had become notorious throughout the state at the time; he even had to spend some time in jail, but the family used their influence to get him released. Yet the fact, that neither she nor her elder daughter-in-law exercise power in the household is illustrative of the fact that it is the presence of a husband which confers power to the females in a household.

Case Study 3

The third case study is that of a woman aged about 60 years. She had studied upto class 10. Her parents were quite unhappy at her birth, because she was the third daughter and fifth child. Obviously if she had been a boy, they would have been happy, because boys are not considered liabilities in this society.

The respondent revealed that while her brothers were sent to school, a tutor came home to teach her and her sister (Her eldest sister did not study at all). They both studied at home till class V. After that her sister was married off, but she was sent to a nearby town, where her eldest brother, who, by then was a lawyer, lived. The school was right in front of the house. So she could go to and fro by herself. Here she studied till Class 10. Her movements were not very restricted at that time, for she could go to the market with her friends, obviously not by herself. She also went to watch movies with her sister and her husband. She even went for a trip to Bikaner with the school. She was head girl of the school and also sports captain. She also did quite well in studies, but the thought of her going in for further studies never crossed anyone’s mind. She was engaged while still in Class 10. She was not a minor at that time, because she had been sent quite late to school.

About her life in her parental village, she said, there were no restrictions. She could go outside to play, primarily because the entire village consisted of her immediate relatives. (All her father’s brothers were settled in the village and the entire population consisted of their offspring. There were no other castes or communities there.) She even used to go to supervise cotton picking when she was about 10-12 years old. She would go and bathe in the river with her cousins just for the heck of it.

She got married in 1965. The very next year a daughter was born. Because she was the first child, nobody minded very much, although they did feel a little sad that it was a daughter. However, when her son was born a couple of years later, the entire village of her in-laws resounded with all night celebrations. She had a third child in the hope of having a second son. But a daughter was born. At this time, everybody actually cried, although later this daughter was the most pampered in the entire family.

She had no problems with her in-laws. Her father-in-law had expired when her husband was very young. Her mother-in-law was extremely nice to her and her ‘jethanis’ There was no such problem of having to sit at a lower level, although she never came in front of her jeth’s (elder brother of her husband) or if she did, she came with her head covered. She did not have to take out a ghungat.

After a couple of years of her marriage, she alongwith her husband started staying in a nearby town, because her husband started practising as an Advocate in the Courts there. At this time, the children of his brothers also came to stay with her to attend school.

Around this time she had to confront the problem of her husband, who freed from the dominating influence of his elder brothers and mother, started going to the club and playing cards, sometimes not coming home till the early hours of the morning. She would argue with him, plead with him, all to no avail. However, he never spoke an angry word to her, because he knew he was in the wrong. After 1975, he started drinking heavily. (He had a major accident in 1975, due to which the use of his right arm was affected.) But it never occurred to her that she could have a life apart from him. While recollecting the terrible times she had had, sitting out the nights waiting for him to come home, alone with her small children, tears came to her eyes, even 15 years after his death. She had to literally fight with him a number of times to save his property, otherwise he would have sold it off.

However, there were no restrictions on her movement. She could go out as she pleased, although she only went to the market.

His death, in spite of every problem, left her stranded. Her son took over the reins of the family. He was barely 21 at the time. Yet he started looking after the family land. But her daughter was to get married. No match had been found for her. She was very tense about it. The match was settled by her son and a few relatives without asking her or her daughter. Luckily her daughter in spite of being highly educated (she was M.Phil.) was quite docile and agreed to whatever her relatives had decided. Her son’s marriage was not such a cause of tension. But even his was an arranged marriage. Again the younger daughter’s marriage was a cause of tension. There were money problems too. Howe today she too is well settled, except for occasional hiccups.

Now, she says, she is free of responsibilities. Her daughter-in-law is in charge. Her only problem is that she does not have enough money to spend as she pleases. But there is a wistful expression in her eyes, for now she is dependent upon her son and daughter-in-law for her every small need. She even cannot go anywhere without their permission, while her husband had never stopped her from going anywhere. Clearly a woman’s power in the household is contingent upon the presence of her husband. His absence leaves her stranded and rudderless and the power passes to the daughter–in-law.

Yet the ingrained patriarchal tendencies came to the fore when her grandson was born in 1993. She was extremely happy. “I would not have been so happy”, she declared, “if it had been a daughter.” Likewise, her elder daughter did not have a child for many years after her marriage. When she conceived they were all extremely happy, but although they had been praying for a cell of either sex, when a girl was born, tears came to her eyes.

Case Study 4

The fourth woman is the wife of an IPS Officer posted outside Punjabi. She is about 45 years of age and is a graduate in Law, post-graduate in Political Science, with an advanced Diploma in French. Yet her life is an endless tale of submitting to patriarchal control, of which before marriage her father held the reins and after marriage, her mother-in-law was the instrument of such control.

As a child, she says, she was not permitted to go out of the inner courtyard. If a man entered the inner courtyard, she had to go to her room. She was not permitted to go to the neighbour’s house, but if ever she did go, a man would accompany her. (Man here implying the old family retainers). She remembers the time she wanted to go for a ‘teeyan festival’ in the village, but was not permitted to go as she was a ‘sardaran di kudi’ . (The very fact of their belonging to this class became repressive). She also always wanted to go and play with other children, but was never allowed to do so. Once she recalled she went to the fields with her aiyah wearing a sleeveless dress. She was given a shouting because of her dress.

Apart from these restrictions on her mobility, she was a pampered child. Her brother was born three years later. Yet her pampering did not diminish. However, even her pampering must be seen in the context of the fact that she was treated as a boy and called Billaji, Rajaji, etc. In fact once a farm labourer happened to call her ‘kudiye’ (girl) and she felt insulted. He had to apologise to her. But her brother was more protected due to the insecurity felt by her parents, as he was the only male child. Significantly, he was also not permitted to venture outside the house. But the reasons were different. Here, he was not permitted outside because he was the ‘heir’, ‘nazar na lag jaye’ .

She was not permitted outside because she was a girl. Her mother, she insisted, was much more liberated than her father. While her mother wanted her to be educated and have freedom, her father was of the opinion that girls should not be permitted outside the four walls of the house. ‘Eh to andar da khajana hai’ .15 As a child, she says, she felt suffocated because she wanted to participate in many more things. Her younger sister, who was thirteen years younger, had a lot more liberty, “partly because myself and my brother were there to support her, partly because by then my mother also could assert herself to some extent and partly because my father had changed his rigid attitude with the changing times.”

In school, she badly wanted to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as sports, etc. But although the school was co-ed, girls did not participate in such activities. She had participated in all activities in her primary school. She insisted that this affected the development of her personality. In contrast, in her college, she got lots of opportunities to participate in everything, from basketball and hockey to dance. But it was a little late to start. The restrictions were equally evident in the fact that although she stayed in a hostel for her graduation, she was not permitted to travel alone.

Her marriage was arranged by her parents, in fact by her father’s elder brother. She was not consulted at all. Actually she says her parents found the best possible match for her; an IPS Officer, from a good family background. She had no problems with the match, in fact had never even thought of the possibility of not having an arranged marriage. But after her marriage, her life was again full of restrictions. She was barely 19, catapulted suddenly into the position of an Officer’s wife and had to behave as such.

In her in-laws’ place, she did not have to draw a ghungat, but her dupatta had to come right down to her forehead. If her hair became slightly visible, she would be asked to pull down her dupatta. Furthermore, she could not sit on the same level with her elders, particularly the males in the family. Significantly, her mother-in—law was the instrument of patriarchal oppression. There were set patterns of behaviour. A slight deviation and her parents were summoned, “which was very painful for me. My father used to sit with bowed head and listen to the complaints in the true tradition of the girls parents being inferior.” Even 26 years after marriage, she says, her heart beats fast if she thinks of going to her in-laws, house. (It still has not become my house, but remains in-laws, house).

However, the liberty she craved was available while she was with her husband outside Punjab. He “allowed” her to learn painting, swimming, French, stitching etc. In fact she got her law degree and post-graduate degree after marriage. But her in-laws kept creating problems with all this. However, being away from their direct eyes she could do something, although their invisible control operated even here.

She recollects that she did not conceive for about five year after marriage. After two years, her in-laws started harassing her. Her mother-in-law even took her for a check up to their family doctor, who pronounced her perfectly healthy after examining her. All the time she was terrified that God forbid, there should be something wrong with her; she would be chucked out of the house. The doctors wanted to check her husband. Here her in-laws insisted that he was a six and a half feet tall strong man, there could not possibly be anything wrong with him, hence no need of a check up. However, a medical examination revealed that he had some problem due to which she could not conceive. Her own mother told her never to taunt her mother-in-law about the shortcoming her son, because it would break the old lady’s heart. However, due to good fortune, she conceived.

Now, came the problem of a son. Her delivery was in her parental place. Her mother—in —law insisted that had she got the delivery done in her marital place, she would have borne a son. She refused to accept any congratulations on the birth of a girl-child, saying, “koi kudi layee vi vadhai dinda hai.”16 Even her father-in-law was of the same opinion and offered to hold the newborn baby in a very gloomy tone. She recalls that when her mother congratulate her mother-in-law on the birth of a daughter, her mother-in-law said, “I will see when you get a granddaughter, how you feel”. Even after that, they kept craving for a male child, but she was not able to conceive.

The net result of all this is that now she is a patient of severe depression. She was a happy, care-free sort of person, but the atmosphere in her in-laws house, where daughters-in-law were meant to be seen and not heard, keep touching the feet of their elders, always on their toes, was so oppressive, that she went into depression.

Case Study 5

The fifth woman interviewed for the present study was aged 31 years convent educated and a graduate, from a reputed college of Chandigarh. She was the first child of her parents. The entire family was sad that a boy had not been born, but they accepted her. Her mother was barely eighteen years of age at the time. Her younger brother’s birth was greeted with lot of celebrations. However, she was considered very lucky for the family, because that year they had a bumper harvest and the family did very well, and particularly because a son was born soon after. In her natal home she was considered very sensible and her opinion was sought on all issues.

In school she was hostel captain, good at sports as well as all sorts of extra-curricular activities. She was valued by her family, was lively and talkative. There was no discrimination as such. Yet her father was very strict and did not like her going outside, while her grandfather put no restrictions on her. Her father’s sisters also had no restrictions and had studied upto graduation.

When she was in the 9th class, her father had an affair with a woman. He was basically a womaniser, but this was the most serious affair he had ever had, one which disturbed their entire family and during the course of this disturbance, her younger brother too passed away. He brought the woman to stay in the old family house in the village. (They were staying in the new house). The shock of this still reverberates through her. The pain was very much evident as she spoke about it.

Her marriage was arranged by her grandfather. Lots of money was spent on her marriage, and she was quite happy. Of course like all girls she had quite a lot of dreams, all of which could not be fulfilled. So there was some disappointment too. In some aspects she was expected to behave like daughter-in-law and she resented it. For instance, she was expected to get up early and not talk to her elder brothers-in-law in a friendly manner. (By nature she was talkative and this went against the grain) But now she is quite used to it.

A few years after her marriage, when her sister was to get married, an altercation between her brother and her grandfather resulted in her grandfather getting estranged from the family and living separately with her father’s other wife. All the money was in his control and he refused to spend on the wedding. She went and pleaded with him, but he was willing to part with very little, which was not enough. At this time, her in-laws really supported her and enabled her to make all the arrangements for her sister’s wedding.

Yet her husband is extremely dominating. For instance, she can go out, but cannot visit any of her relatives without his permission. He does not permit her to take up a job, though she would love to. In fact, her mother-in-law would also like her to take up a job. He has a terrible temper. She recollected the time when her brother was visiting her and her husband had a fight over some little thing and told her brother to leave in the evening. She could say nothing. She just kept quiet. In fact her mother-in-law supported her. But even her mother-in-law can say little in front of her son. Such incidents occur quite often. Yet she says her husband is very nice. He only wants that her total attention should be concentrated on him.

He also controls the way she dresses. She is not permitted to wear jeans, etc. She can wear the latest trendy suits, but these must be ‘decent’. On the whole, she says, her married life is good. But she balks at the restrictions in other things. Yet she has no option, but to accept the domination of her husband and quietly agree to what he wants. The options are just not there.

Case Study 6

She was the youngest woman interviewed for the present study. She was also the youngest child of her parents. Yet her arrival in this world was nalt heralded by celebrations and joy, but by grief that a son had not been born, for then her parents would have had a jodi, as did her two uncles. However, soon she became the apple of her parents’ eyes as well as of her elder sister and brother.

Things changed, when her father passed away when she was merely the 9th class. Authority passed into the hands of her brother who was barely out of his teens himself. Yet he asserted his authority although he did really love her and often let her have her way. But her mother had no control over money and she had to ask her brother for money for her fees, for clothes and all everyday matters. Her father had provided her with everything without even being asked to do so. From her brother she not only had to ask but often got less than what she wanted. Yet she was also one of the heirs to her father’s property, which extended into about a 100 acres. However, society recognised only her brother as the heir to the property.

Her marriage was fixed by her family members and a few relatives. The considerations which weighed with them were merely her husband’s property and his family. At that time she had wanted the right to be able to say yes or no. But she never got that right. However, at the time of marriage the best thing she liked about her husband was his refusal to take any dowry. Yet the marriage expense ran into lakhs for they had to give gifts to his relatives and also spend a lot on the wedding feast. Her husband and in-laws were quite nice. But she was expected to behave as a daughter-in-law.

At the time of the birth of her second child (incidentally, a daughter), the issue of son preference came to the fore. Her in-laws wanted the second child to be a son and in fact, her mother-in-law told her that if a daughter was born, she should have another child, “because, she must have two sons”. She told her mother-in-law that if she bore a third child, her husband may not be able to contest elections as a debate is going on that a person with more than two children would be debarred from contesting elections. This quietened her mother-in-law. The incident also reveals that women of the third generation are learning to handle the situation diplomatically.

In town she was not expected to visit her mother and brother as often as she would have liked for it was not considered good for a girl to visit her parental family too much. She had learnt driving but is not allowed to drive on her own. Although her in-laws are quite nice, she has often become the butt of her mother-in-law’s caustic tongue.

Yet she has freedom in many ways. She loves to dress up, and there is no restriction on the number of clothes she can purchase. Of course these have to be traditional salwar suits. Her father-in-law would give her hell if she wore cut sleeves or left her hair open, etc.


Punjab, the land of Mai Bhago and Sada Kaur, of Rani Jindan and Mata Sundari, is a picture in contrasts, where women, on the one hand are worshipped as ‘kanya devi’ and on the other, burdened by their very womanhood. The peaceful Punjab countryside with its lush green fields, reverberating with singing and dancing, veils the silent cries of its shackled daughters. Jai Sikh women have emerged from the extremely restricted and cloistered lives and achieved a certain degree of independence. Yet this independence and freedom continues to be fickle and shallow, likely to be withdrawn at the first sign of resistance to male domination. Patriarchy within the household has loosened its shackle end changed its manifestation from the overt control of life, movement ands .. freedom of action to covert control in more subtle and disguised ways. All the case studies reveal the varying patterns of male domination, in at least two of them, it is the mother-in-law who acts as the medium or instrument of patriarchal control. Yet, it is noteworthy that even where a woman such as the mother-in-law is exercising control, the power is contingent upon the acquiescence of the male, be it husband or son and is exercised more Over the daughter-in-law than over any male as such. Although, she becomes an instrument of patriarchal control, her exercise of authority cannot be seen as her empowerment, for the absence of the male effectively diminishes such power exercised by the woman.

A clear distinction becomes obvious between the first and third generation, yet it continues to be equally obvious that while Jat Sikh women have gained some control over their lives and sexuality, such freedom is contingent upon their subservience. If the women of the older generation quietly accepted the patriarchal modes of behaviour in which the males determined all the actions of women, the women of the younger generation are not showing much deviance as the 5th and 6th case studies reveal. Indeed, they are no longer looked down upon as inferior beings who have to be kept in their place by means such as Purdah or being made to sit on a lower level, yet they can assert themselves only when the males permit them to do so. Their actions and behaviour are equally dependent upon male acquiescence. They are learning new skills, but in many cases are not able to use them. Thus their ostensible liberty is accompanied by restrictions, which prevent their future empowerment.

Undoubtedly, none of the women studied talked about overt violences yet violence continues to be a major aspect of the lives of Jat Sikh women. One of the women interviewed (her case study was not included in the present paper) revealed how her husband even kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant and even threatened to kill the unborn foetus in the womb. Another revealed how her husband doubted the paternity of her baby, just because he was born a few days early.

A shift in patriarchal structures is evident. The older generation exerted absolute control. The younger generation is relatively free, yet the reins continue to be in the hands of men. They reveal themselves to be increasingly aware of their rights, but the degree to which they can avail these rights is contingent upon the degree of laxity, which the males exercise in their control and their keeping within the accepted line of social conformism.

Yes, the women of the younger generation did have some say in the bearing of the second child. However, the female sex of the second child was acceptable to the rest of the families only because they already had sons as their first born children. Once born, a girl child is not treated unequally in matters of nutrition, education, health, etc in this strata of society. Yet there is restriction on her freedom of movement, her freedom to choose, and her opportunities.


1 Punjab is delimited into three cultural regions: Mal wa, Majha and Doaba. Malwa is the largest.

2 Women below 30 were not taken for the simple reason that their experiences of patriarchy are as yet limited. Nor do they recognise them as such

3 Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Penguin, New Delhi, 1998, p.3

4 NFHS-II, 1998-99 reveals 41.4% of Punjabi women to be anaemic and Punjab and Haryana have the highest percentage of anaemic children.

5 Human Development Report of Punjab, 2001, Govt. Of Punjab, 2001.

6 Paul Hershman, Punjabi Kinship and Marriage, Hindustan Pub.Corp, Delhi, 1981, p.173.

7 Heishman 1981 175.

8 Heishman 1981 160.

9 The girl child will have to be given a large dowry at her marriage, while it is much cheaper to get the female foetus aborted.

10 Both her bhabhis and her daughter —in —law had brothers who were younger and next in order of birth to them.

11 Ostensibly to keep her company, sending a man to accompany her is indicative of male control, wherein the wife, howsoever educated and liberated cannot travel on her own.

12 She was given medicine for the birth of a male child. During her third pregnancy too she was given medicine to ensure birth of a male child. However, a daughter was born.

13 People would have cast an evil eye on him.

14 Baraat is a wedding party from the male side. In earlier years only the males came on the baraat to the girl’s house, where the pheras would take place and the baraat would return with the doli. They were probably not permitted to see a baraat, because the baraatis were expected to be high on alcohol and boisterous and their misbehaviour with a girl of the family would bring dishonour to the family.

15 Girls are a treasure to be kept within the four walls of the house.

16 Does anybody congratulate on the birth of a girl child?


MANVINDER KAUR. Project officer at the Centre for women’s Studies and Development at Chandigarh. Has various research articles to her credit.

AMEER SULTANA. Project officer at the Centre for women’s Studies and Development at Chandigarh. Has various research articles to her credit.

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MANVINDER KAUR. Project officer at the Centre for women's Studies and Development at Chandigarh. Has various research articles to her credit.AMEER SULTANA. Project officer at the Centre for women's Studies and Development at Chandigarh. Has various research articles to her credit.

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