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The bahus in exile
Villages in Haryana and Rajasthan which have a skewed sex ratio are yet to make peace with the women who arrive in their homes as brides from distant states. These brides are treated with the contempt reserved for women of 'lower' castes and never allowed to integrate with the community.
For over two decades, men in Haryana, Rajasthan and Western Uttar Pradesh have been bringing in brides from far away states of Assam, West Bengal, Orissa and even Kerala because the preference for a male child and sex selective abortions have created a shortage of women. But the Jats, Ahirs, Yadavs and Meo Muslims among whom this practice is endemic are far from making peace with it. The brides and even the families they marry into face caste-based social stigma and discrimination.
"It is considered a dishonour to get a bride from outside. After all, she is not from our caste. Who knows from where they have sourced her? The compulsion to have someone run the house forces them to seek a wife from another caste. We don't associate with them easily, " say women during a focus group discussion in Rohtak.
The well-off of the land manage to find local brides, but men who are at some disadvantage are forced to seek cross-region brides, as these women are now termed. These men maybe widowed, underemployed, have little education or land, or they suffer from some deformity. Normally they enter such marriages when they can longer fend for themselves or their mothers or sisters-in-law cannot or will not handle household chores for them. The need for a female body to perform free labour, both productive and reproductive, appears to be the biggest incentive to enter a marriage that violates the strict caste rules that are observed in the region. But these families, particularly the woman, end up facing the brunt of a slew of social sanctions.
The logic of 'supply and demand' has not increased the value of the girl child. Not wanting girls is strongly linked to property inheritance rights. These landowning caste groups do not want their daughters, after marriage, demanding their share of the property. They would rather face a female shortage than fret about long-term implications of a skewed ratio.
This was revealed in a report 'Tied in a Knot - Cross-region Marriages in Haryana and Rajasthan, Implications for Gender Rights and Gender Relations'. Put together by Reena Kukreja, a researcher based at Queen's University, Canada, over a period of two years, it spans a large area: 226 villages in Rohtak, Rewari and Mewat districts of Haryana and Alwar and Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, and in 10 villages in Balasore district of Orissa. About 1, 216 crossregion brides participated in the research which was funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy.
All migrant brides are pejoratively called 'Biharan' by the locals. It is a term that is loaded with meaning of poverty, desperation and savagery. "The Jats, Ahirs and Yadavs project themselves as civilizationally superior to the brides and their natal communities are branded as thieves, 'sellers of daughters' and 'primitive savages'. They are continually derided about their eating habits, dress and manner of speaking, " says Kuckreja.
In the source areas, families marrying their daughters cross-region are extremely poor;have little or no land assets;have seasonal, low-paying, agricultural wages and are usually indebted to local moneylenders due to marriage expenses. Plus, women who are darkerskinned are discriminated in the local marriage market and more dowry is demanded from their families. Resultantly, such women are unable to get married to locals as their families are unable to afford the demands.
The criticism of these 'outside' women is often vicious and completely prejudiced. "When she first came here, her body stank of fish. We simply couldn't sit next to her. Gradually, as she started eating our food, that smell lessened. The women smell because they are Bihari and eat rice and fish, " say the women neighbours of a cross-region bride in Rohtak.
But potential bridegrooms do not have a choice in the matter really. The option of sourcing brides locally through inter-caste marriages, particularly with Dalits, is banned by khap panchayats. There is tacit approval for the practice of seeking wives from outside the region even if these women sometimes belong to lower caste groups. "Such marriages do not pose a challenge to existing local caste hierarchies and discriminatory social practises that accompany them, " explains Kuckreja.
For the families that source brides from elsewhere, it is easier to hide or fudge the caste identity of someone whose home is a couple of state away. But there is a great anxiety regarding the impact of such on the caste and racial 'purity' of the community, particularly the Jats who believe themselves to be racially superior.
This fear of pollution of caste and race by the 'Bihari' brides is totally irrational but also unshakeable. "If the influx of the Bihari brides continues, our race will gradually be wiped out. And then, the Bihari race will take over control. Gradually, in this manner, we will get finished and Haryana will be filled with Bengalis and Biharis, " say local women.
Such anxieties and prejudices play out in the way the children of such marriages are treated. "Our ancestors said that a child of such a union will be disease-ridden and genetically flawed. The khap panchayats are worried about this too, " says a Dahiya Khap elder of Sonepat district.
The locals say that the children of such marriages will not find it easy to marry locally. "Our community is bound to ask: 'Whose children are these? Where's the mother from? What caste or gotra is she?'" point out some men in Rohtak during a group interview.
These prophecies are already coming true. "My son is 19 and still unmarried. I'm trying hard to find a match for him here. He's labeled the son of a Paro (woman from across (paar) the Yamuna), " says a Meo Muslim father from Alwar. In an ironic repeat of their parents' fate, most of these children too may end up seeking brides and grooms from outside their states.
For all their anxiety about being overrun by outsiders, the locals don't seem to see the writing on the wall. Their preference for the mild child will only result in an even greater influx of women from outside and more "racially impure" children. It just might catalyse the social upheaval they have been trying so hard to prevent.
This bride from Tripura who was married into a family in Alwar says she faces discrimination every day. "The women would question me: 'Where are you from and which caste do you belong to?' When I'd answer them, they'd say I didn't look like I was from that caste but looked like someone from a lower caste group... They'd bring it up everywhere. "
A bride from Odisha married into a Rewari family says the grilling became so uncomfortable she cut down on socialising. "Initially, I couldn't go anywhere. They'd remark, 'Oh, don't drink water from a glass. Cup your hands, we will pour it for you. Or a use a cup reserved for the 'low castes'. I would refuse to comply. I finally stopped visiting people. "
This is confirmed by women in Jhunjhunu district talking about migrant brides. "Her caste identity is unknown. The villagers don't allow her to touch anything here. If she is from our caste, we would not impose any taboos on her. How can we allow a woman with a dubious caste background to handle our things?"
MYTH OF THE BRIDE BAZAAR
Most cross-region brides enter marriages voluntarily;not all of them, in fact very few of them, are trafficked
In Mewat district alone, more than 20, 000 women have been brought in as brides from other states. However, the popular belief that hundreds or even thousands of these brides have been bought and resold several times is not entirely true. Sadly, these stories have left these imported brides stigmatised. Most of these cross-region matches are arranged by women who themselves came from other states and these marriages are substantially different from those where the women are trafficked through force or deception. And as the number of such alliances increases the myth of bride bazaars is being challenged.
Talking about the rationale of finding a groom for her sister in Rajasthan, a woman from Akola in Maharashtra who is now married in Jhunjhunu says: "We are three sisters. Two of us got married here in Rajasthan. Only one was left in Akola. We felt that once our parents passed away, our brother wouldn't allow her to visit us. Nor could we then visit her. So, we decided to bring her here. "
Research reveals that usually, no money changes hands between the groom's family and the women's parents. Instead, it is the mediator who gets paid commission and marriage expenses by the groom. It is the agent or trafficker who circulates the myth of parents selling daughters to justify asking for a hefty price for arranging marriages.
"There is a growing demand for brides due to the shortage of women. The effort is to ensure these women get social recognition and legal rights. " says Virendra Vidrohi, secretary of Matsya Mewat Evam Shiksha Vikas Sansthan in Alwar.
According to Vidrohi, the 'victim needing to be rescued' myths are being kept alive to obtain funding from foreign agencies. While he does admit that there have been cases of trafficking, he says that 95 per cent of such marriages are regular;the only difference is that these families have chosen a girl from a poor family in Bihar or Assam.
Reena Kukreja's own study shows that trafficking has happened only in a small percentage of cross-region marriages. "However, to label such marriages as 'voluntary' is problematic as it is a fact that poverty and economic marginalisation is what pushes women and their families in the source areas to make such 'voluntary' choices which, in reality, could be exploitative and oppressive, " says Kukreja.
From stealthily bringing in eggs or cooked meat dishes for their wives from meat-eating parts of the country like West Bengal or Odisha to even choosing to break away from joint families that exploit their wives' labour, some men appear amenable to making efforts to make their wives' lives more comfortable.
Though majority of migrant brides do face social control and face ostracism from locals for their different diet, facial features, skin colour and practices, within the intimacy of the relationship with their husbands the men are more sympathetic and willing to accomodate.
"I take her to the city for an outing. We eat samosas and snacks there and enjoy ourselves. When she first came here, she was disconsolate. I'd take her out to cheer her up, "says the husband of a migrant bride in Haryana. Most Haryana households have a vegetarian diet with wheat as a staple;meat or eggs are taboo and rice is considered inferior. But husbands often buy rice for the wives and take them out to nearby towns where the brides can relax. "I buy rice for her and bring it home. She eats it whenever she wants to. Even I have adjusted to eating rice once a day. I give her money so that she can buy what she feels like, " says the husband of a cross region bride in Rewari district.
In some cases, the husbands have even broken away from the joint family system and set up their own household, which is considered radical as men are supposed to live in a joint household. "My mother-in-law would pick fights with me. So, we decided to move away. I was also not used to a heavy workload. That's why I asked my husband to set up house separately. He agreed, " says a bride from West Bengal who is now in Rohtak district. Such a move is a huge relief for the women as it liberates them from continual surveillance, oppression and excessive demands on their labour.
Even the elderly in-laws are often happier with the migrant bride compared with a local one, if only for her labour. "She takes good care of me. We work in the fields and get covered in dirt. This one washes the dirt off me with care. The other daughters-in-laws are local and belong to landowning families. They'd rather kick me with their feet instead of washing them, " says a mother-in-law in Alwar about her decision to live with her younger son and his migrant bride.
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