Divorced Women in India Are Still Treated as ‘Damaged Goods,’ While the Men Are Only ‘Free’
Divorce is never the easy way out of a relationship. It marks the death of a relationship that is a significant part of a person's life, sometimes the biggest part of their identity. We may argue night and day about how a woman should be seen as an individual and not as a relationship, but the fact is that most women in India are still associated with their fathers and then their husbands. And most are still told that they are 'paraaya dhan' and that their real house is that of their husband's, that her only goal in life should be to land a good husband and strive to make him happy. Let's not kid ourselves by saying that this only happens in the villages. It is still a reality in urban homes. In some way or another, women are instructed on how to keep their husbands happy. Most of these instructions involve keeping her happiness aside.
The previous generation often laments that the “kids” of today don't know how to handle relationships. They blame our lack of patience and drive to succeed in our careers as the reason behind increasing divorce rates. We're also told that “family values” is why India had such low divorce rates earlier. And now, since women are speaking up against domestic violence and refusing to tolerate any bullshit from their husbands of in-laws, “family values” are dying, and divorce rates are increasing. Because of this attitude, many families shy away from supporting women who choose to walk out of a marriage.
This experience of divorce, written on Quora anonymously, reads like a summary of most Indian women's experiences, when they choose divorce over staying in a bad marriage.
“I am a highly educated and self dependent woman but the day I chose to walk out of an abusive marriage of 9 years, all hell broke loose. I was threatened, disowned by my parents and sisters too. I was a disgrace to the family and its reputation. It didn’t matter that I had a small child in my arms. I was kicked out of my parents’ house in the hope that I will go back to my husband. After a struggle of 6 months, my parents did allow me to visit them but every time someone crossed my path and inquired about my well being, my parents responded to them that I was just visiting them and that I still lived in the US with my ex. When this is the reception from your own well educated family, imagine the treatment of society. I am sorry to say but I am ashamed to have been born in this country of mine.”
Pooja* says that in her family, two cousins went through a divorce around the same time. One of them was a man whose wife left him, and the other was a woman who was stuck in an abusive marriage but tried very hard to get out of it. When the male cousin got divorced, she says, it became a joke in the family. His ex-wife gave up custody of their son and instantly became the villain in the family. When he got married for the second time, soon after his divorce, it was celebrated like any other wedding in the family home.
Things changed when the female cousin decided to get married again. Everyone had concerns about who the boy was, something that was never questioned when the male cousin was getting married. His judgement was enough to choose another partner for himself, but hers was not. She was asked what the rush was, another question that the male cousin escaped. When she announced her pregnancy soon after her low-key, blink-and-you-miss-it wedding, eyebrows were raised. Did she get married because she was pregnant? Was she having an affair with this guy while she was still married to the first one? Till date, Pooja* says, this has remained fodder for family gossip.
No one recognised the female cousin's bravery for getting out of an abusive marriage, all alone in an alien country. Talk in the family ranged from “compromise” to commenting on how stubborn she used to be as a child and how it might be affecting her marriage. But the male cousin's childhood attributes were never questioned when he got divorced.
One Reddit user talks about her cousin's divorce, and how it's more painful for her to face her own family than share custody of her child with her ex-husband.
“She was married and living in the USA for fifteen years before they finally divorced (he was abusive and irresponsible with her money, to put it mildly) and she has a daughter from the marriage as well. She is a very successful scientist, but still feels everyone's judgment on her. In her home in India, her parents had family pictures of all their children and their spouses and children. Once a maid asked, where is your elder daughter's spouse? I see no pictures of him. After that, her parents don't anymore have pictures of her or her daughter in their living room.
Most well meaning relatives and friends feel sorry for her and keep urging her to remarry. She isn't against the idea, but this persistent idea of you need a man to feel complete really puts her off. Everyone takes it on themselves to find her someone, but the fact is, she already has a vibrant dating and sex life, but obviously can't talk about it to family.
The stigma doesn't even end with older relatives whom you would expect to have archaic views. Women are often targeted, behind their backs, when their divorce becomes public knowledge.
A friend got divorced recently and while his encounters with several women were making him a “stud” again, his ex-wife's trips with friends and family came under the scanner by everyone who was her “friend.” No one thought that maybe she's going on a trip to cool off after such a monumental event in her life, or even that it was none of their business how she chose to lead her life. Everyone in her pictures was scanned, especially her male friends. Was she dating already? Wow, the slut.
He, on the other hand, was just another bro who was free from a gold digger, and could finally have some fun. One of the versions doing the rounds was also that she had trapped him, because she came from a marginally less affluent family, and was now milking him for all he was worth. This was triggered by the fact that she took the car that her parents bought for her and her husband, when she left the house. It took a long time for even a half-hearted acknowledgement that the problem was probably both ways, and just because she never told us, we never knew her version and, even though she probably never heard it from her ex-husband's friends, she was suddenly under suspicion. Everyone thought that she was “on the prowl” again, hoping to snag another hapless rich fellow.
As an unnamed user on Quora says, most of the stigma in urban India comes from the divorced woman's friends, who now see her as a vamp of the Bindu variety.
“I got divorced a year ago so maybe I now have had some time for the chaos to settle and for me to be more objective about it.
Accusations of the law being biased towards women run wild in this country. Let one case of misuse of Section 498A be reported, and MRAs take it upon themselves to denounce all women who get alimony, child support, or who have, even rightfully, accused their husbands or in-laws of dowry harassment. There are demands flying around all over the internet to get rid of the section of the law that protects women who are harassed and assaulted for dowry. For the one woman who may misuse the law, there are countless others for whom this is the only way to punish their abusive husbands and in-laws. Are wrongful convictions enough reason to change existing homicide laws?
The legal convention of men giving alimony to women has also come under question. In most marriages in India, women are expected to give up their careers either at the time of marriage, soon after, or when a baby comes along. Their primary job, as they're told from the beginning, is to keep their husbands happy, even if that means that she has to alter everything about her life. Even if they're allowed to work, their career progression, and consequent pay hikes, are affected when they can't stay as late as the rest of their colleagues, or have to refuse assignments, because their in-laws don't want the “lakshmi of the house” to be out at night.
For women whose income is snatched away from them, demanding alimony when the marriage breaks is not unfair at all. And this doesn't even hold true in all cases, regardless of the woman's financial status. In many recent judgements, the courts have recognised that a woman who is financially independent and earns enough does not need alimony.
Divorce is not evil, and the people who go through it are not trying to break down your sacred “family values” and destroy the world. They're only trying to break free from bad marriages and get their lives back. It's a fact in India that men don't have as hard a time as women do, after a divorce. A divorced man will get married again, but he will still prefer to marry a single woman. Because divorced women are damaged goods, but the men are just free.
*name changed to protect privacy.