Excerpts from the August 2021 Newsletter
This month we’re sharing about one of our cherished Sakhi Kunj members, Tabbasum.
Sakhi Kunj, our sister organization in India, creates opportunities for women so they can lift themselves out of poverty through learning skills to build their own livelihoods. We share Tabbasum’s story (with her permission) to help raise awareness of the oftentimes oppressive systems in place in India which work particularly against women.
Originally from East Uttar Pradesh, Tabbasum moved to Delhi with her parents and 8 siblings (she has 6 sisters and 2 brothers) to find employment. Tabbasum’s father sells bangles door-to-door, while her mother works cleaning houses. The family is unable to continue their children’s education past primary school due to the cost of schooling in India.
To help support her family, who live together in a small 1 room house in Delhi, Tabbasum began looking for employment. In 2016 she joined Sakhi Kunj without any previous training. Sakhi Kunj provided Tabbasum with various types of training, including arts and crafts skills like quilling (a type of paper folding), making traditional yoga jewellery, and ornament design. She is now an expert at making different types of handicraft items, especially yoga jewelry, and has become a very talented artist. She is a beautiful soul, working to help her parents support their family.
An Arranged Marriage
In May of this year, Tabbasum and her family celebrated her marriage, which was arranged between her family and her husband’s family. Tabbasum is representative of a side of Indian culture that sees marriage, not as a union between two individuals, but rather as a celebration of the union of two families.
Arranged marriage is a culture where parents are entrusted to find the best matches for their children – to question their decisions is to betray one’s family. Ultimately, many Indian women believe that honouring their parent’s choices for them is more important than forging their own bonds.
Our own Western bias may find this problematic and difficult to accept, but it’s important we acknowledge that Indian culture is very different than western culture in the sense that they reject individualism in favour of community and family connectedness.
Especially in rural areas and in lower castes, both women and men are seen to have a duty to their family above themselves. This translates to girls and women being taught to view their parents and elder relations as the authority in deciding the best partnerships for them. The well-being and livelihood of one’s family is prioritized equally or more so than one’s own wishes. In India, there is great honour and integrity associated with caring for and following the wisdom of one’s elders.
Meera Ayra, founder and director of Sakhi Kunj, is acting as a mentor to Tabbasum. Entering into a new marriage is a huge step in Indian life, and Meera wants to make sure Tabbasum is happy. It’s important Meera develops a good relationship with Tabbasum’s new husband and his family, as they will have control over whether Tabbasum can continue working with Meera and Sakhi Kunj/Divineya Society.
If Meera can create a positive relationship with Tabbasum’s in-laws, she can continue to help empower her. But Meera must show Tabbasum’s new family she can be trusted. Once she has earned their trust and is deemed safe, Meera can continue her work with the entire family, establishing new understandings of women and their roles within the family.
Of course, not all arranged marriages in India function the way Tabbasum’s does, but it’s very common. In India today, particularly in rural or impoverished areas, women have very little autonomy. They are restricted by traditional and outdated concepts of a woman’s ‘proper’ role within family and marriage.
When women get married they’re given away to the groom’s family and expected to adopt their in-laws as their new family, following any rules and guidelines set out for them by this family. This is known as dowry culture – meaning, marriage is not simply a union between two people, but rather two families. The onus is on the bride’s family to ‘give away’ their bride to the other family.
In this sense, dowry culture perpetuates the view that a woman of marriageable age is a commodity, rather than an autonomous person.
Recently, we lost contact with Mustakim, Tabbasum’s sister. Meera would see Mustakim often as she would come to Sakhi Kunj to make Malas. Not long ago Mustakim married for love – so her family disowned her. Meera has been unable to stay in touch with Mustakim as the family has blocked all communication to her.
For Meera, this experience highlights the importance of establishing good relationships with these women’s families. If she wants to continue to support and empower more women like Tabbasum, she must earn their families’ trust.
A Complex Issue
Arranged marriage is a complex issue that doesn’t have an easy answer or solution.
As we continue our work at Divineya Society and with the women of Sakhi Kunj, we must be considerate and aware of the nuances of Indian culture. It’s not helpful to bring our own biases into these situations or attempt to change this aspect of the culture. Instead, we must do what’s best to support these women.
While we may have strong personal opinions on the issue, we have to check these at the door. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on women like Meera, who are doing the work on the ground to support these women in the best ways possible.
This is one way to avoid western paternalism.