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/ Will Speak Out: Narratives of Resistance in Contemporary Indian Women's Discourses in

Hindu Arranged Marriages
Devika Chawla
Abstract: Much has been written about the importance of
recognizing and understanding resistance as it is
experienced by members of Other and/or marginalized
worlds. In this essay, I discuss resistance as enacted by
middle-class women of a Punjabi community in
contemporary Hindu arranged marriages who live in
South Delhi, India. Accessing life-history narratives of
women currently involved in these marriages, 1 argue that
the structure of the Hindu marriage creates a
constraining framework of power within which women
are placed in disadvantaged positions. It is within and
from these positions that women resist filial relationships
in structural, relational, and interactional ways. 1 explore
two emergent forms of resistance — Marital Self-
deftnitions and Addressing the Mother-in-law. I explore
these forms as truncated resistances because my
participants resisted 'what they could' within the
constraints of a fdial reality. Finally, I conclude by
merging my voice with contemporary transnational
conversations about the problematics of interpretation
and naming resistance.
Arranged marriages continue to be normative in
many Asian cultures, such as Japan, India, Korea, and so
on (Applbaum, 1995). Specifically, among Hindus in
India, they continue to be the most popular form of
organizing a marital relationship (Mullatti, 1995). Despite
globalization, modernization, and urbanization, the
number of arranged marriages continues to outnumber
'love' or 'self-arranged' marriages. In fact, an estimated
95% of all Hindu marriages in India are still arranged
marriages (Bumiller, 1990; Chawla, 2004; Kapadia, 1958;
Kapur, 1970; Mullatti, 1995).
Research on the arranged marriage in the humanities
and social sciences has been limited to historical and
comparative sociological analyses. Historical literature
has generally emphasized the structure of the family,
Hindu norms, traditions, caste, and so on. Social-scientific
work on the arranged marriage in the last five decades
includes socio-psychological surveys that focus upon
comparisons between 'arranged' and 'self-arranged'
marriages in India (see Chandak & Sprecher, 1992;
Dhyani & Kumar, 1996; Kapadia, 1958; Kapur, 1970;
Rao & Rao, 1975; Ross, 1961). More recently,
sociologists and historians at the University of Delhi have
explored issues surrounding kinship, sexuality, same-sex
marriages, marital laws, and the state (Uberoi, 1993,
Within sociological research, a few seminal studies
examined urbanization and Hindu family life. In 1958,
Kapadia traced the history of the marriage up to the early
1950s (the study was first published in 1955), and
concluded that although there were changes in marital
trends with industrialization and urbanization, marriage
among Hindus remained a holy sacrament, an obligation
and a duty that went beyond industrial progress. A decade
later. Gore (1968) looked at urbanization and family
change, and found that Hindu traditions won over forces
of urbanization and industrialization in both rural and
urban areas (see Ross, 1961 and Kapur, 1970 for similar
findings). These studies are invaluable because they
explore change and also because they describe Hindu
family structure and member roles. 1 rely upon these,
among others, in a subsequent section to explore the
structure and role distribution of a typical Hindu family.
Other social scientific research on Hindu arranged
marriage has dealt with marital satisfaction, adjustment,
attitude change of college students about the arranged
marriage, and more comparisons between love and
arranged marriages. The results, based on urban samples,
are often contradictory. For instance, in a study about
attitudes toward the arranged marriage, Rao & Rao (1975)
found that 91% of the college student sample (n=182,
evenly distributed by gender) disapproved of the
traditional form of 'arranged' marriage, and the high
'disapproval' rate was attributed to factors such as
modernization, industrialization, education and the
breakdown of the joint family system. A similar study
conducted almost two decades later by Chandak &
Sprecher (1992) found that in a survey sample of 66
respondents (n=66, 48 women and 18 men) over half
approved of traditional system. This study, conducted two
decades after the Rao & Rao (1975) study, points to a
reversal in the modernization trend. It has an unevenly
distributed sample with three times more women, but that
is left unexplored and unexplained.
At the same time, studies on marital adjustment and
satisfaction display some consistent results. Sociologist
Promilla Kapur's (1970) socio-psychological survey
entitled. Marriage and the Working Woman in India,
investigated marital adjustment among Indian urban
working women (n=300), and concluded that women in
self-arranged marriages did not adjust better or worse than
those in arranged marriages. Kapur's study remains the
most descriptive document available as she used a
combination of qualitative and quantitative data in
presenting her conclusions. However, her qualitative data
is merely used to support her findings, and is not analyzed
per se. Moreover, Kapur's study, though seminal, is now
over three decades old. A more recent study by Dhyani &
Kumar (1992) also examined the relationship between
type of marriage, marital duration, sexual satisfaction, and
adjustment (n=240, urban women married for at least one
year). They found that type of marriage and marital
duration had no significant relationship with marital
adjustment. In sum, while these studies offer valuable
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 5
insights into the socio-psychological processes that factor
into an arranged marriage, less attention has been given to
women's contextual experiences in these marriages.
This paper contributes to contextual research about
family experiences of contemporary Indian women in
Hindu arranged marriages. In examining narratives of
resistance which emerged in my ethnographic life history
study of 20 urban women in a South Delhi Punjabi
community in India, 1 show how my participants accessed
different marital self-definitions, silence, and an
embodied material resistance against the central figure of
the mother-in-law in their marital homes. The significance
of this essay lies in its addition to literature on gender,
marriage, and family in some crucial ways.
First and broadly, I provide discussions about a
highly understudied context in marriage and family life -
the Hindu arranged marriage. The study answers Turner
& West's (2006) recent and urgent call for expanding the
contexts of the study of family life in their new Family
Communication Sourcebook, Much family research has
assumed that family communication issues are similar
across groups thereby overlooking unique issues, and
glazing over religious contexts (Galvin, 2004). This study
undoubtedly expands the context of family research,
alongside it unravels the intricacies of Hindu marriages
arranged by kin. For instance, the notion of women self-
defining marriage within arranged marriages
problematizes the idea of arranged marriages as a
structural continuity in this community. In redefining their
marriages, these women dislocate as well as reinvent
common perceptions about such family systems.
More specifically, this study is significant because it
also dislocates the notion of family confiict which has for
the last thirty years focused upon spousal, parent-child,
and sibling conflict (see Roloff & Miller (2006) for an
overview of family confiict research). Even though
mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships have
been studied, confiict between these family members is
generally used to predict low or high marital satisfaction
(see Bryant, Conger, & Meehan, 2001; Turner, Young, &
Black, 2006). My study, however, shows how such
conflicts are a product of the structural/historical context
and are fundamental to understanding women's
experiences and marital interactions in these contexts.
Moreover, in showing conflict and resistance as
symbiotically linked, this essay moves us beyond a study
of family confiict styles (such as avoidance and
engagement) and power into addressing resistance as a
means to live 'with' the conflict or to help bring out a
'new' resolution. Finally, this resistance is framed as
discursive thereby contributing to Third World feminist
sensibilities that privilege the local means/actions/
practices un/consciously employed by women to cope in
their daily lives.
In the following sections, 1 highlight the history of
Hindu marriage and structure of the Hindu family before
proceeding to describe my fieldwork which took place in
Delhi, India. Following this, 1 explore in-depth two forms
of resistance that emerged in the stories narrated to me in
the field. I conclude my essay with a discussion about
how my study merges with contemporary transnational
conversation/s about the problematics of interpreting and
representing resistance.
Hindu Marriage in History
The Hindu arranged marriage and family are a case in
point for looking at the family as ideology and a site in
which power relations are structured and distributed in
constraining ways. Historically, all Hindu marriages were
premised upon similarity of social standing, which often
included the caste, class, religion, and education of the
prospective couple. Despite forces of modernization,
urbanization, and liberalization, the number of arranged
marriages in India far outnumbers 'love' or 'self-
arranged' marriages (Chawla 2004; Bumiller, 1990). In
this section, I rely on historical literature, to explore the
roots of the Hindu marriage. Further, 1 describe the basic
construction of the Hindu family to explain the context in
which the narratives in my study emerged.
In a simple understanding, arranged marriages among
Hindus were marriages generally organized by parents
and elderly kin (Sur, 1973). In earlier times,
intermediaries called sambhalas, or traditional
matchmakers, were employed to keep the genealogical
history of each family, and ensure that the bride and
groom were not related from five to seven generations
(Sur, 1973). In more recent times, these criteria have
stretched. For example, Mullatti (1995) outlines seven
criteria that are currently followed by matchmakers: kin;
parents and relatives; caste; social structure; moral value
compatibility; academic compatibility; occupational
compatibility; the family's moral history; and horoscope
compatibility (though not necessarily in this order). In the
past two decades, parents have begun seeking matches for
their children through matrimonial columns in
newspapers, magazines, and now even via intemet
(Mullatti, 1995; see also "Rearranging Marriage" in the
weekly magazine India Today, 2004). The criteria, rules,
and other norms for arranging Hindu marriages differ
from region to region within India. So, for instance, in
urban areas such as Delhi, young men and women have
begun meeting via intemet matrimonial websites. These
sites match people using some of the basic criteria
explored above. However, it is important to note that
these are not dating websites, and parents/kin have a say
in the meetings that occur through these mechanisms. As
any social phenomenon, Hindu marriage has evolved over
time and it is important to examine its socio-historic
construction to comprehend the distribution of power in
the home.
Hindu marriage is said to be derived from laws
interpreted in the Dharmashastras which in tum have
their roots in the 3000-year-old hyms called Vedas and
Smritis. The Vedas and the Smritis are considered the
oldest surviving documents from the Vedic and Epic age
(what are considered the first recorded periods of Indian
civilization from 4000B.C. - 1200 A.D; see Kapadia,
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 6
1958; Shattuck, 1999; Lipner, 1994; Zysk, 1989). These
texts tell us that Hindu marriage dates as far back as 4000
B.C'. Written by holy men of the time period, these
scriptures (as are scriptures across most religions) are a
collection of rules and conducts for society at the time
(Zysk, 1989).
A general theme across these scriptures was that
marriage was a duty and a religious sacrament that was
required of all human beings for the well being of the
community. Through different periods of Indian history,
these texts underwent various interpretations. All
predominant interpretations (which were male until very
recently) outlined four main aims of life for Hindus
(tailored for men). These were: dharma, artha, kama and
moksha (Kapadia, 1958; Lipner, 1994). Kama represented
the instinctive, and was connected with satisfying the
emotional, sexual, and aesthetic urges of man. Artha
referred to the acquisitive instinct, and signified man's
enjoyment of wealth. Dharma was of primary concem
because it aimed to balance the instinctive and
acquisitive. Dharma was achieved by gaining the
knowledge that artha and kama were means, not ends.
Dharma represented the harmony between "temporal
interests and spiritual freedom" and is a key element in
Hindu life (Kapadia, 1958, p.27). Moksha represented the
end of life and the realization of an inner spirituality in
The four aims of life were to be accomplished by
conducting life in four stages which were —
bhramacharya, grahastha, vanaspratha and samnyasa.
The second stage, grahastha, dealt with marriage and
included the goals of dharma, progeny, and sex. Even
though marriage was required of all Hindus, its
advantages were enjoyed by men, who benefited both
spiritually and economically (Mukherjee, 1978). Men
were spiritual beneficiaries because they married in order
to beget sons who would light their funeral pyre. In
ancient Hindu philosophy, having one's pyre lit by a son
ensures the male line a place in heaven, and more
importantly rebirth in the next life as a human being (said
to liberate future generations of the family). A male heir
was also an economic necessity - he was desired because
he alone could continue the family line and inherit
ancestral property (see footnote 2 for the revised laws on
property). Therefore, historically, the Hindu marriage
was, according to Mukherjee (1978), 'male-emphasized.'
In fact, the word 'wife' was often used interchangeably
with 'household' (see also Shastri, 1969). In fact, the
Sanskrit word for marriage - vivaha - translates into
procuring/abducting a maiden from the house of her
father to the house of her husband.
This objectified and prescribed role for women can
be more contextually understood by looking at the forms
of Hindu marriage. Marriage was divided into eight
forms, those that were 'righteous' {dharma or acceptable),
and those that were 'non-righteous' {adharma or
unacceptable; Mukherjee, 1978). Of these eight, the first
four forms of marriage were considered righteous. These
were - brahma, prajapatya, arsa, daiva. Even though
they differed in degree, these four forms were organized
by the bride and groom's father and paid for by the
bride's family. The bride's family received a negotiated
'bride-price' from the groom's parents, but her personal
wealth or stridhana (a material bridal gift given to her by
her parents at the time of marriage) was inherited by the
grooms' family. With the material bounty shared by
parents from each side, the bride was ultimately left
economically impoverished and at the mercy of her in-law
family. These four righteous forms of marriage, beneficial
to the male line, evolved into what we consider to be
Hindu 'arranged marriages.'
When kin and family were not involved in marital
negotiations, and marriages were self-arranged by the
bride and groom, they were considered non-righteous
(adharma). These forms - gandharva, asura, rakshasa,
paisaca - were considered 'female-emphasized' due to
economic, social, and spiritual reasons. First, at the level
of status, the marriage was not arranged by kin, and thus
frowned upon. Second, on the economic level, the bride
and her family benefited from the union because the bride
kept her stridhana, her parents did not bear the economic
burden of the marriage, and the bride had independent
resources because it was she, and not her parents who
received the 'bride-price.' It has been speculated that
these forms of marriage not arranged by kin came to be
later called, 'love marriages' (I have used the terms love-
marriage and self-arranged marriage to mean the same
thing in this essay). Finally, on the spiritual level, while
the first four righteous forms of marriage (also male-
emphasized) were supposed to spiritually liberate future
generations of the groom's family, the next four did not
do so (Mukherjee, 1978).
Structurally, these eight forms of marriages have
numerous implications. First, they clearly show that
marriage was organized around inheritance and there was
a need to protect sons. Second, because marital forms
were given value, women within each form began to be
treated accordingly. Women in the righteous (arranged)
forms of marriage were treated with more respect than
women in the non-righteous (self-arranged) forms
(Mukherjee, 1978). The Hindu woman who had never
been attributed much status and authority in the scriptures
eventually experienced a more devalued status in the non-
righteous form of marriage mainly because she was held
responsible for having drained the family of economic
resources (ironically, she was not responsible because
property laws favored men, her husband would eventually
inherit her wealth). At the same time, in the righteous
forms of marriage, the women did not have any economic
status at all. Men, on the other hand, were the clear
beneficiaries of both forms of marriage, spiritually as well
as economically^. Therefore, on every level, men's roles
and treatment in the family were advantaged. To better
understand this, I tum now to the previously mentioned
sociological literature to explore roles, authority, and the
intemal relational stmcture of a Hindu family.
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 7
The Hindu Familv: Structure and Power
In his study. Urbanization and Family Change, Gore
(1968) tells us that an ideal Hindu family in contemporary
India consists of a man and wife, their adult sons, their
wives and children, and younger children of the parental
couple (see also Sharma, 1997). A 'joint family' is
generally a multiplicity of genealogically related nuclear
families living under the same roof, sharing in worship,
food, and property. It has been described as a group of
adult male coparceners and their dependents - the
dependents being wives and children (Gore, 1968; Ross,
1961). A coparcener is a joint heir. For instance, if a
father has two sons and one daughter, the sons would be
considered joint heirs; but, a daughter would not inherit
property. According to Hindu Law, an adult male and his
sons were coparceners in ancestral property (Gore, 1968;
see also footnote 2).
Hindu women were not entitled to any property rights
until 1956, and therefore were economically dependent on
their fathers, husbands, and later on their sons if they were
lucky to have male progeny (Gore, 1968; Kapur, 1970).
With the amendment of Hindu property laws in 1956
allowing for female inheritance, and given increased
levels of women entering the workforce 'by choice' in the
latter half of the 20* century, there has been tremendous
change in gendered roles within families (Gore, 1968;
Indian National Commission Report for Women, 2001;
Kapadia, 1958; Kapur, 1970). Further, in the 1980s and
1990s, the liberalization of developing world economies
created new jobs for women throughout the world,
including India (Indian National Commission Report for
Women). In particular, the last two decades saw an
upsurge of women in the both the urban and rural work
forces. Of the 314 million Indians currently in the work
force, 89 million are women (Indian National
Commission Report for Women, 2001). Despite the
promise and arrival of economic independence and
changes in property laws many urban Hindu women
continue to accept and choose arranged marriages. It
would seem that the breakdown of economic disparities
would lead to an increase in 'self-arranged' or 'love'
marriages; yet that has not been the case (Bumiller, 1990).
Speculatively, this can be attributed to the structural
continuity of Hindu family life.
Historically, the structure of the Hindu family
(traditionally a joint family'') contributed to an overall
disadvantaged status of women. Formal authority was
always centered on the oldest male and thereby
hierarchically bound by age making it a 'vertically
extended family.' This hierarchy occurred on many
levels. Women were (and are) expected to move into a
new family which consisted of men who are all related by
blood. Therefore, women were always outsiders because
they did not share any biology with their new legal
family. Their status was somewhat elevated if they gave
birth to a son because doing so ensured their economic
status in the family. Once a son was bom, a woman would
feel more included in the family because she had been
instrumental in producing an heir who would provide
spiritual continuity to the family and economic stability to
herself In the event a male-child was not bom, a new
wife could be brought in (this changed with the Hindu
Divorce Bill in 1952 and women achieving a right to
property in 1956; see Derrett,1976; Kapadia, 1958;
Uberoi, 1993, 1996; see footnote 2).
Once married, the 'conjugal relationship' between
couples was discouraged from becoming too romanticized
and strong because the emphasis was on the socio-
economic welfare of the family. This, according to Gore
(1968), was a major cause of the degradation of women's
status in the family, which in turn was supported by
denial of property rights to women and by women's
inability to achieve economic independence. In fact, role
and authority segregation of men and women was
essential to the well-being of a joint Hindu family. The
goal was the economic well-being of the family and the
discouragement of individualism.
What we have here is robust asymmetry. If one were
to look at this social field in terms of power distribution
and power relations, we can see that there are two
concentric circles of power in the household, distributed
relationally. The outer, more powerful circle is the circle
of male relatives who are biologically and economically
bound, and so obligated to each other. The second circle
of power is the inner-circle which consists of women who
are not biologically related, have negligible economic
rights, and thus have few obligations to each other. They
find themselves thrown into the inner-circle with little or
no say in the goings-on of the outer circle. They are aware
that they are largely an instrument of procreation in the
Hindu marriage system. By being relegated to the 'inside'
their only connection to the outside is their husband on
whom they have little influence. As a result, power and
resistance as they experience it is 'bound' within a
structural framework, specifically the inner-circle.
Such an understanding of the power dynamics in the
home became more and more relevant to my study as I
began to access the life-histories of women from one
community in South Delhi. In the following section, 1
discuss the field practices that enabled these narratives. 1
describe, in fair detail, the multiple methodological tools
which allowed me to interpret my participants'
Research Practices
My fieldwork was conducted in New Delhi, India
where I traveled a few years ago to participate in an
ethnographic life history study of urban Indian women
involved in arranged marriages. My research practices
broadly centered around an ethnographic interviewing
framework because such approaches are especially
sensitive to context, dynamic processes, and subjective
perspectives (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Patton, 2000;
Strauss & Corbin, 1998). They allow us to understand and
articulate experiences that are inaccessible from
observation and survey methods (Denzin & Lincoln,
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 8
2005). Qualitative ethnographic research necessarily
positions the researcher as a part of the research process
in various roles such as interviewer, observer, co-
participant, participant, and the researcher is often known
as a bricoleur (Agar, 1996; Briggs, 1986; Denzin &
Lincoln, 2005). In this study, I wore the garb of the
bricoleur because 1 used a variety of tools, methodologies
and strategies to explore the experiences of my
participants. 1 developed a set of research practices that
formally involved interviewing and participant
observation. While these were 'methods' that 1 had 'set'
in advance, an 'informal,' yet significant methodological
tool was my own evolving subjectivity that re/shaped the
research process and become a necessary lens in my
interpretations and observations.
1 am both native and other to Delhi and a member of
the Punjabi community to which my participants
belonged. I was bom and raised in India, thus my status in
the study can be considered that of an insider. However,
since I have been away from home/my field for eight
years, I was also a literal outsider. On the other hand, I
was a 'partial insider' since I grew up surrounded in
similar histories and marital narratives (Chawla 2003).
Yet, 1 was on the outside as I have chosen to by-pass this
form of marital arrangement. My positional displacements
remain deeply intertwined with my interpretations and
representations for the study as a whole (see Chawla
2003). A reflection about my own subjectivities
throughout the research process was a set of practices that
were integral to my interpretations and later
representations. Even though these quandaries are not a
primary focus of this essay, they emerge in my writing as
I engage with my interpretations of resistance in the
The formal research practices I employed were a
combination of retrospective life-history interviewing and
ethnography. My participants included 20, urban, working
and non-working, middle-class women from the Punjabi
community in South Delhi. They ranged in age from 27-
44, and were married in the early 80s, 90s and 2000s''. I
accessed the groups using a word of mouth and
'snowball' strategy. A majority of the women were
referred to me by families in the community where I
reside in Delhi, and all were previously unknown to me.
Their occupations ranged from homemaker to corporate
executives, medical doctors, teachers, special education
counselors, a sexual activist, journalists, day care workers
and private entrepreneurs. All participants had undergone
same-caste arranged marriages, thus discussions about
caste conflict did not emerge in the narratives. By limiting
my participants to urban, Punjabi, middle class, working
and non-working women in one community in South
Delhi, I 'bound' my participant group so that 1 was able to
seek 'saturation' (Bertaux, 1981). It follows then, that the
narratives presented in this essay are not representative of
the experiences of 'all' Hindu women in arranged
marriages, and therefore cannot be universalized to
represent an essential picture of a married Indian woman
or victim (see Hegde, 1996; Mohanty, 1988). Thus the
discussion provided here is one set of interpretations
about my participants, and must be understood within
those boundaries. These narratives may be read as cases
among cases of marital experiences that have the potential
to evoke moments of similarity and difference with
women in other contexts.
My interviews were audio-taped and conducted
predominantly in English, but when my participants
slipped into Hindi (the most commonly spoken north
Indian language as well as the national language, which 1
also speak), it was easy for me to translate. Specifically,
the interview protocol included 25 broad, open-ended and
conversational questions that were chronologically
written (see Chawla, 2004). 1 conducted the interviews in
sites chosen by the participants. In addition, 1 spent a few
days immersed in each woman's life. Such immersion
involved participating in the everyday activities of the
woman 1 was interviewing. This could involve a variety
of tasks such as traveling with some women to pick up
their children from school, talking with them about
parenting teenage children, eating dinner with their
families, going shopping with them if they asked me to,
and sometimes even talking with their mother-in-laws and
other extended family members while 1 waited for them.
Every night I wrote field notes about each woman's
activities and daily life. These notes along with the audio-
taped 'formal' interview enabled broader access to
The formal interview sites were usually necessitated
by the emotional status of my participants, and some
women specifically chose 'external' sites (not home) for
the main interview events. 1 interviewed Anita in a hotel
lobby because she wanted to narrate her story away from
the extended family household, which in her case
included about 15 members. Geeta chose to be
interviewed in her offices. As most of these women lived
in joint or semi-joint families, they asked me to interview
them during times when their homes were empty of the
extended family unit. Radhika asked me to come by her
home for the interview in the early evenings when most of
the family members were away.
Therefore, for some women, choosing to do the
interview was an act of resistance because they risked
incurring their extended family's disapproval or wrath.
The very act of 'speaking' and voicing the 'unsaid' is
often been considered a form of resistance especially
among populations and peoples that are disenfranchised,
colonized, and marginalized (Geiger, 1986; Gluck &
Patai, 1991; Riessman, 1993; Romero & Stewart, 1999).
So, on a meta-level the life-histories shared with me can
be considered 'resistances' in the very act of being
My interviews followed the format of 'life-history'
narratives, an approach to interviewing women that is
increasingly being discussed by feminist researchers and
anthropologists as, "a feminist method for the broader and
deeper understanding of women's consciousness,
historically and in the present" (Geiger, 1986, p. 35; see
also Gluck & Patai, 1991; Menon & Bhasin, 1998;
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. I, Pg. 9
Personal Narratives Group, 1989). This approach to
interviewing facilitates detailed descriptions and
narratives about individual life experiences and enables
both individual and group analysis (Bengston & Allen,
1993). A unique characteristic of this practice lies in its
foregrounding of the experiences and requirements of
individuals. In other words, the focus is on how the
individual copes with society rather than how society
copes with groups of individuals, particularly women
(Geiger, 1986; Menon & Bhasin, 1998).
In the study of women's lives, life-histories are
considered exceptional resources because they allow
access to, "women's lives at different points in their life
cycles in specific cultural and historical settings" (Geiger,
1986, p. 338). Life-histories "illuminate the course of a
life over time and allow for its interpretation in its
historical and cultural context" (Personal Narratives
Group, 1989, p. 4). Giving form to a life, or a portion of
it, requires looking into the meaning of individual and
social dynamics that may have been most significant in
shaping a life. In the stories they told me, my participants
presented me with ways and forms in which they were
negotiating their filial and marital relationships.
Emergent in these life-histories were forms of
resistances against filial structures that my participants
were narratively negotiating as they talked. Two of these
- Marital Self-Definitions and Addressing the Mother-in-
law - were interpreted by me inductively as a result of a
layered thematic analysis of my field notes and
transcripts. The first form of resistance - Marital Self-
Definitions - was intertwined with a traditional
understanding of the Hindu marriage. 1 discuss it in the
following section relying primarily upon the words of my
Marital Self-Dermitions: Comfort, Playing Wife,
Comfort, Play, and Romance are certainly not words
that one associates with arranged marriages (Nussbaum,
2000). Rather, for non-Indians and indeed many young
Indians, the arranged marriage invokes ideas of
imposition and constraint. On my own end, at the start of
my fieldwork, 1 broadly explored two understandings of
marriage - those that were self-arranged (love) by the
bride and the groom, and those that were family-arranged.
My interview protocol included questions that asked my
participants to describe how they were experiencing their
marriages. I encouraged them to remember pre-marital
days, specifically the period preceding their marriage
because I wanted to get a sense of their life before they
were married (Chawla, 2004).
In recollecting these experiences, my participants
articulated an understanding of marriage that was rooted
neither in arranged or self-arranged marriages. I found
that all of them had defined marriage for themselves by
outhning for their parents, distinct criteria for a groom.
Each woman had agreed to have an arranged marriage,
and was aware of the reality she would enter - a marital
system which necessarily located her as an outsider in the
interior circle of home-life. Despite this, each woman had
put conditions to her consent to the arranged marriage.
As an interpreter, 1 experienced the process of self-
defining marriage as a form of resistance, albeit a local
and everyday one. That is, even though these women
were aware that 'taking charge' of their marital life was
restricted, by outlining criteria for a husband they were
transforming this constrained reality. This, in my view,
was agentic, and therefore a resistant act. By defining
marriage as Comfort, by placing themselves in the role of
Playing Wife, and by associating marriage with Romance,
my participants had reframed their view of their
marriages, and their roles within it.
Comfort and Playing Wife emerged at a point in my
protocol when I urged my participants to describe if they
had envisioned any criteria for a husband before their
marriages. Interestingly, yet not surprisingly, material
wealth, good jobs, and higher education emerged as
prerequisites for their future husbands. Each woman
expressed a desire to be comfortable. In fact, I have used
their own words — Comfort and Playing Wife - because
these were semantic and symbolic redundancies in the
transcripts and my field experiences.
My own response to these desires is important
because it sheds light on the process of interpretation and
my own engagement with the stories. 1 experienced
annoyance when my participants listed overt 'material'
demands. This emotional response was rooted in my own
subjectivity and, perhaps. Western trained academic
status. As a researcher from India who is now situated in
the West, a middle-class Indian women who is
economically independent, and woman who has by-
passed such a form of marriage, these criteria seemed too
manipulative. I became reacquainted with my outsider
status in the study. I began by acknowledging my anger,
knowing that while I could not move into my participants'
frames, I had to examine the locations from which they
were speaking. Belonging to a similar community, 1
wondered why some of these women were uninterested in
becoming financially independent on their own.
Geographic distance from the field upon the completion
of my field work and a temporal distance from the
narratives, accorded me time and space to reflect upon
and re-frame my annoyance.
A shift occurred in my own interpretations because I
began to perceive Comfort as not a shying away from
work, but as a striving to own a marital story. My
participants were using the need for Comfort to redefine
the meaning of marriage from 'work' to 'play.'
Incidently, marriage and family as 'work' is a cross-
cultural concept that has been explored elsewhere among
different people and societies (see Bateson, 1990; Gluck
& Patai, 1991; Lorber, 1994; Risman, 1998; Williams,
So, for instance, Jhumpa', a 28 year old journalist
told me that she had insisted on marrying someone with a
professional degree. Expanding this further, she claimed
that in her profession there were very few men in her age
Women and Langitage, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 10
range who eamed handsome salaries. Given this, through
her parents, she chose a man who was her age, but in a
higher position in the corporate world. His salary would
allow her to live in the manner to which she was
accustomed in her natal home. Other women told similar
1 wanted to marry someone from a good
background. It did not matter whether the family
was very wealthy or not, but the guy should have
a good education and should be holding a good
post. (Jhumpa)
1 wanted a comfortable house, a room of my
own, you know? And I mean if 1 am cooking
then 1 should not be the only one cooking. Work
in the moming and cook in the evening then
back to office, back to cooking, back to cleaning
- that was not something that I could have done.
So, I expected all these things when 1 married.
If someone used to ask me what kind of a boy I
wanted, I would say, "Someone who had a nice
kitchen, who had a good bathroom, who was
smart and handsome." My husband's salary did
matter to me. It had to be good, so that 1 could
have a luxurious and comfortable life. And he
had to be educated — this was my first
preference. Education is very important. I
thought even if he lost his job, if he has good
qualifications, he could always look for
something. That is what I liked about my
husband - he had studied in a very good institute
and his salary was also very good at that time.
Jhumpa, Geeta, and Meena negotiated the terms and
conditions of the matchmaking to make sure that they
would not find themselves in 'discomfort' and this
bargaining occurred much before their marriages. Having
succeeded in this negotiation with their parents, they
performed their marital stories as women who were
Playing Wife because bargaining out of the work
elements of marriage made wifely chores seem more
playful. Through this narrative maneuver they were
showing me how they had skipped themselves
perceptively (and literally) out of the structural constraints
of marriage. Defining Comfort as a condition to marriage
'bought' them out of the role of the being the traditional
'householder' - a structural reality in the Hindu marriage.
Playing Wife as play state was keenly evident in 30
year old Radhika's story. A practicing anesthesiologist,
upon marriage Radhika had quit professional work for
some time because her husband's medical education was
in process in another town. Radhika laughingly described
those times:
He had long hours of working, but I just loved
being the housewife. Generally, you know? 1
picked up a lot of cooking and I used to try out
my cooking on him.
Similarly, Jhumpa explored her own 'wifely' role in
1 had a very good time in Chennai. 1 had a
cookbook and all and 1 used to, (I was not
working at the time), experiment in the kitchen
and stuff like that. I used to play housewife. I
used to go out and buy potatoes and things like
that. There was also help at home - a cook and a
person who could also chop vegetables.
Comfort and Playing Wife were intertwined as
resistance because requiring Comfort allowed my
participants to re-name their wifely status as playful. In
short. Comfort allowed my participants to play wife.
Comfort was a desired permanent state, and Playing Wife
a temporary state occasioned by Comfort.
Additionally, Comfort and Playing wife were
intertwined with defining marriage as Romance. Romance
was a particularly intriguing way to define marriage,
especially since Hindu marriages have almost negligible
associations with romantic emotions*. Historically, there
were eight forms of Hindu marriage of which four that
were considered dharma or holy were necessarily
arranged by kin; the other four, considered unholy were
self-arranged by the bride and groom and involved love,
elopement, and abduction. It is speculated that what has
evolved into the arranged marriage are the four types of
'holy' unions negotiated by family (Kapur, 1970; Sastri,
1972, 1974).
Contemporary writings and studies have reinforced
the non-romantic nature of these marriages. For instance,
Bumiller (1990) explains that for middle-class
contemporary Indian women 'falling' in love is a concept
entertained by teenagers and Hindi romance films.
Echoing this understanding in Women and Human
Development: A Capabilities Approach, Martha
Nussbaum (2000) writes that marriages are more of a
norm in middle-class India and that "love is potentially
understood as a threat to rather than a goal of marriage"
(p. 259). While a majority of women in the contemporary
West are socialized with the idea that the meaning of their
life is to be found primarily in a relationship of romantic
love, such a goal is uncommon among Indian women.
Nussbaum writes that, "even though marriage is prized,
its raison d'etre is not taken to be romance" (p. 259). In
fact, closely aligned with historical understandings of
Hindu marriage, middle-class India defines love as
commitment and devotion to family.
However, my participants repeatedly expressed a
desire for romance. This longing was well illustrated in
the descriptions of their 'first meetings' with their
husbands. Within the middle class Punjabi community, a
'first meeting,' in general, involves a meeting between
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 11
two sets of parents and the potential bride and groom in a
public area such as a restaurant, country club, or a
common fi-iend's home. This meeting is not a 'date'
between prospective bride and groom rather, it is the first
time the two families meet each other.
Given the significance of the 'first meeting' as a
punctuated event in one's life-cycle, it was not
unsurprising that all my participants recollected it with an
intimacy of detail. These details were embellished by
romantic overtones suggesting that they were re-storying
this meeting for their own as well as my benefit. Owing to
the obvious asymmetry of our positions, I have wondered
if this romantic detail was exaggerated. 1 am left feeling
that these detailed descriptions functioned as resistance
against their own stories and my own outsider status. This
speculation notwithstanding, romance remained a key
element in all stories. Geeta described the first meeting in
curiously romantic detail:
So, I went to this Avon office (my sister-in-law)
works there, and I entered the office and there
was this sweet little thing I saw and she was so
sweet to us. It was apparent to me that she is a
very nice person. I really fell in love with the
girl, so the next day when the brother walked in.
It's unbelievable even after three years that it
was "love at first sight." I peeped from the
window for something and they were walking in
and my nephew came in and said, "My God, he
is so good-looking." I said, "Shut up, your expert
comments are not required." I saw my husband
and I was like completely floored. He's not very
good-looking, but he has a very honest face.
He's got big and beautiful eyes. So 1 think I was
completely head over heels in love with him. I
could see that. So, I tried not to show it.
Geeta's story re-narrativized a family-arranged event
into a romantic event, by re-plotting the 'first meeting'
story into a 'love at first sight story.' Such shifts were
expressed in various ways in other narratives. Thirty-
seven-year old Reema's entire marital narrative was
centered on romance. She explored this by describing to
me what was important to her in a husband:
See first time you see only physically. You want
a loving, caring and smart boy. Mainly, he
should be caring, he should listen to you, and he
should be loving. He should understand you. It
used to feel good that not only will I have so
many clothes to wear and jewelry, but that we
will go out and there will be someone to love me
and care for me.
Reema recalled with fondness the one month of
courtship preceding her marriage. Her memories were
mostly of romantic moments shared with her fiance. As
their marriage progressed, this romance diminished
because her husband was too loyal to his mother who
lived with them. Describing this tug and pull, Reema said:
Oh, that was very bad. Then you see these
actions (him siding with his mother) and you
can't love the person. And the wife's thing is that
she wants him to be hers alone and nobody
should share your husband. That he should be
listening to you alone.
This strain took a toll on Reema's marriage, but she and
her husband were trying to salvage it by taking one
vacation every year as a couple:
We go out every year on our anniversary. We
don't take our kids. We go out and that is a good
change and we can discuss all our problems. You
have all the time. It gives you a break from work
and household tensions. You can discuss
problems and say what things should not happen.
Like I tell him, 'you should not scold me, you
should not say this in front of everybody.'
Romance in Reema's story migrated from a longing, to a
loss, and then a replenishment. It remained centrifugal
and intricately linked with her experience and definition
of her marriage.
I believe Romance provided my participants with
'altemative' understandings of the arranged marriage by
helping them cope with structural controls and, in some
cases, an interfering mother-in-law who invariably
emerged as a pivotal character in all the marital
narratives. So much so that in addressing her as a site of
confiict my participants perfonned what 1 have
interpreted as the second form of narrative resistance -
Addressing the Mother-in-law.
Addressing the Mother-in-Law: Material Embodied
Resistance and Silence
As explored in the previous section, Reema's desire
for Romance in her marriage was curtailed because of
interference from her mother-in-law. Seventeen of my
twenty participants emphasized the mother-in-law's
persisting presence in their marital lives. They placed her
as a focal point in the interior world, and positioned her as
the first power-authority figure that they encountered
upon marriage. The first signs of marital conflict
originated in their interactions with this figure.
Addressing the Mother-in-Law as a confiict figure was a
form of narrative resistance which my participants
enacted via the strategies of Silence and Material
Embodied Resistance.
Twenty-nine-year-old Anita's narrative well captured
this strain. Anita was married into a traditional joint
family comprising 15 members. From the very beginning,
Anita's parents-in-law had disapproved of her preference
for wearing westem clothes. While her mother-in-law
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 12
never verbalized her disapproval, Anita sensed it in her
She doesn't say anything, but you can make out.
Because my mom-in-law is like that, no? She
doesn't say anything. 1 don't know sometimes I
feel that she doesn't say anything, because 1 feel
that she knows that I will not take any nonsense.
That's why she doesn't speak up. But, it's okay
because I don't like to cross her. If 1 cross her I
cross him (husband) and I don't want to do that.
Because his whole happiness is connected with
the parents. If 1 keep his parents happy he is very
happy, you know?
In the preceding exchange, Anita illustrated the
importance of her mother-in-law's presence in her
marriage. As the interview progressed this relationship
began to take more narrative space than Anita's own
marital relationship.
A similar experience was related by Reema who
recollected multiple episodes about her mother-in-law's
interference in her daily life. For Reema, the troubles
seemed to be rooted in the early years of her marriage,
which was now 15 years old:
Maybe because my husband is the only son
(male) as my father-in-law expired very early.
My mother-in-law must have been very attached
to him or something. Then after the marriage the
husband looks after more about the wife, that is
there among newly weds anyway. So she must
be feeling left out. Maybe the problem started
that way.
Describing her verbal altercations with her mother-in-law,
Reema implied that the arguments were associated with
power struggles in the home:
There are many. It's always a little thing, of no
consequence. The fight starts about just
anything. If 1 reply back then it becomes big.
Then she says, "She doesn't listen to anyone, she
doesn't agree with anything." Then they call up
(my parents) and say, "She replied back and she
did this." So they (my parents) would say, "We
will make her understand, we can take her home
for a while." Even now it's still there, but very
less. 1 keep myself very busy. Now 1 don't
involve in these things. I make it a point to go
out, have my kitty parties, and all that. Otherwise
I go to the Avon store. I do this to make myself
busy even though there is not much money in it.
You don't have any eaming, but it keeps you
very occupied.
Reema's mother-in-law was a discipliner in the home, and
if Reema 'behaved badly' her 'misdeeds' were reported to
her parents. Whether the conflict was verbal or non-verbal
there was a sense of foreboding about this matriarchal
presence. While some participants, like Reema, had
carved spaces for themselves - by working part time and
keeping busy - others remained bitter about their
continuing struggles with this figure.
This bittemess shadowed Supama's story. She was
married to her husband for spiritual reasons. Her mother's
spiritual guru had suggested a match with a man who was
one social class lower than Supama's natal family, but
belonged to the Punjabi community. Blindly believing the
spiritual consul, Supama's mother hastily arranged the
marriage not worrying that her daughter was
unaccustomed to working in the home. Supama's mother-
in-law, on the other hand, expected her to manage the
household. Describing her ineptness about such work,
Supama related early altercations with her mother-in-law:
My mother-in-law would say: "Why don't you
work in the kitchen? Did your parents not see
initially that we don't have a servant?" Did they
not prepare you for this? 1 would get up at eight
and 1 would have those scary eyes looking at me.
The whole family focused upon me. 1 had to get
up early in the moming. Like they would get up
at five, so I was expected to do the same. Things
like that, you know? Keep working. My husband
would not say anything, and ours was not a very
pleasant relationship. We used to have a lot of
fights because of my in-laws. That is because he
would not accept his parents' mistakes.
Supama's argued with her mother-in-law over chores,
space, and even her husband's attention. Eventually, this
led to a property split in the family, leading to the literal
emergence of two spatial units as they each moved into
different family homes. Despite this, even now the
mother-in-law would live with them for a part of the year.
As our interview concluded, Supama's narrative
continued to be liberally peppered with more bitter details
about her mother-in-law's behavior towards her.
Anita's, Reema's, and Supama's experiences
illustrate that the mother-in-law functioned as a site of
conflict and as a conduit to the rest of the family. The
ability to 'address' her with much directness is akin to
resistance. However, this was merely the first step in a
more multi-layered form of resistance. In their stories, my
participants addressed and then isolated the strategies of
Material Embodied Resistance and Silence to show how
they countered her presence, and in so doing displaced the
relational symmetry in the home.
Material Embodied Resistance
In my interpretation. Material Embodied Resistance
implies a reliance on extemal objects to perform
resistance. In my participants' narratives these involved
clothes and food. Anita had been discouraged from
wearing westem clothes such as jeans, skirts or dresses.
She was encouraged to wear the North Indian traditional
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 13
dress, such as a sari or the salwar kameez. On occasion,
she would slip outside unnoticed in her jeans - an overt
rebellion that was unfortunately discovered by her father-
in-law who then complained to her mother-in-law and her
husband. Revealing her response to this episode, Anita
forcefully told me:
I didn't say anything, but 1 told my husband,
look 1 am married to you, I'm not married to
them. I will wear what 1 want, what I like. He
said, "Okay agreed." He was agreeable to that.
That a human being should be able to wear
clothes of their choice.
By asserting her right to clothing of her choice, Anita was
resisting her husband's family. Even though this
resistance is truncated, and may seem a small victory, it
was integral to Anita's narrative because she continued to
revisit it all through the interview.
Later on, Anita spoke of other restrictions that had
been imposed upon her by her mother-in-law. In her natal
home, Anita enjoyed dining-out, and had looked forward
to this activity with her husband after she was married.
But, after marriage she found out that she was required to
dine in with the extended family. Anita's response was to
begin a bodily rebellion against this norm by refusing to
eat, thus losing weight, thereby making her husband
notice her distress. She was able to negotiate new rules
for dining-out by doing this. In this rebellion, she was
able to signal her priorities and emphasize to her husband
that 'their' time was more important than family time.
Describing the bodily rebellion, Anita said:
1 just kept losing weight. There was a time when
1 was 38 kilograms (84 lbs) because I stopped
eating at home. One thing, I don't like eating at
home, on top of it, it was a sort of rebellion
which I was trying to show him (her husband)
that 1 will not eat at all.
Resistance as a material act was also evident in
Meena, a 27-year-old doctor's marital narrative. When
Meena was married, she lived in a semi-joint family
which included her in-laws, a sister-in-law, and her
husband. At the time of the interview, she was living
alone with her husband, but her in-laws lived with them
for part of the year. Meena's mother-in-law disapproved
of her wearing sleeveless blouses, which showed off her
bare arms. For a while Meena had adhered to these rules,
but later began wearing what she wanted in her home. She
had, however, made some concessions:
My own father never stopped me from wearing
any type of dresses, even without sleeves. My
mother-in-law had this thing in mind that girls
shouldn't wear, you know, jeans and sleeveless.
Once I shifted to my own home, 1 started
wearing my normal clothes. 1 also love wearing
shorts, but when they are here - to not make
them unhappy - I wear a nightgown over it.
Initially when they asked me not to wear these
clothes, I asked my husband, "So what should I
do?" He said, "You wear whatever you want,
don't worry, I'll talk to them." So this was a very
supportive of him. He could have said, "No, my
parents don't like it, so you shouldn't wear it."
But he was saying, "No 1 like it and you should
wear what everyone is wearing nowadays."
There were two factors that influenced Meena's
resistance. The first was gaining support from her
husband, and the second was her decision to live away
from her in-laws. Therefore, while the first factor was an
interactional achievement, the second was a material
move outside of the family home. While Anita did not
move away, she 'shifted' her 'body' to bring about a
change. Both Anita and Meena consciously involved their
husbands in their resistant acts. Ironically, it was conflict
that brought them closer to their husbands. Their stories
can be seen as 'victory tales' in which a protagonist
encounters and names hurdles, takes the listener (us)
through their struggles, and eventually achieves success.
The other form of addressing the mother-in-law emerged
through Silence.
Neeta's, a 44-year-old woman entrepreneur was
married into a joint family in which she was required to
live not only with a mother-in-law, but also a
grandmother-in-law. Her personal history of her
unmarried life was a source of conflict with her mother-
in-law. As an unmarried woman, Neeta had been fussy
about whom she would marry. Word of this had reached
her husband's home. Her grandmother-in-law and
mother-in-law were aware that she was 'outspoken,'
because they knew that she had rejected many men before
she chose to marry their son. When Neeta began living
with them after marriage they proceeded to discipline her
by imposing rules which required her to cook, not answer
back, and learn other household chores. Neeta followed
these rules in Silence:
I already knew that my reputation was that 'she
is very outspoken.' I did not want to do anything
that would aggravate that. I did not know what to
do. I was not happy, so I went home for a little
while. When I returned my grandmother-in-law
came to stay with us and this became a major
adjustment point because she was very clever.
She had heard that I was sharp, so from the
beginning she knew that if they don't keep me
suppressed then / will speak ouf (italics mine).
The initial years were very difficult. 1 would cry
sometimes, in hiding.
For one year, Neeta spent her time in her new home in
Silence. Ironically, this moved her closer to her husband
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 14
thus shifting the focus of her relationship from the family
to her marriage. Neeta began helping her husband out in
his business, which was undergoing a rough patch. During
all this time, she carried on working in the household and
also took over the reins of the business. Alongside, she
continued her household work. Silence worked as her
resistance in a twofold ways - it pushed her to learn to
work inside as well as outside her home, all along
allowing her to create a closer marital relationship with
her husband. Exploring this self and marital
transformation, she told me:
I think after marriage for a few years I really
tried hard to be like a typical wife, be everything
that was acceptable. I tried to be that. And later I
was just trying to survive. You know, survive in
the sense that I had no time to think. I was busy
with my house, my work, my children and 1 was
trying to run the whole show. Today I think I
was trying to be a superwoman, but then that
time I was trying to be the best at whatever I was
doing. My children had to be the best. In my
work whatever I could do, even at home I tried
you know that do all the work that I can do, you
know. 1 can wash clothes, I can cook food.
Along similar lines, 44-year-old Naina, an economically
independent corporate executive married into a joint
family. Her mother-in-law too tried to discipline her.
Unlike Neeta for whom Silence was imposed, Naina
accessed Silence as a narrative strategy in dealing with
the mother-in-law.
Naina story focused on her self-transformations and
she began by telling me that she started in her marriage as
a confident and fmancially independent woman.
However, she soon began to be harassed by her husband's
family because they expected her to be a housekeeper. At
first, she had argued with them, and when this proved
futile she turned to her husband for support seeking help
from him against his family thus shifting the locus of her
life from family to her marriage. She handed over the
confiict to her husband and embraced Silence:
He took over and that was the only way I think
we saved our sanity because whenever I tried
doing things on my own it never used to work.
His family used to outplay me completely, they
are much sharper, more politically minded, I
think and more wiser. These silly games that
women can play. I think he latched on to the fact
that 1 was cracking up. That's this was beyond
me and I couldn't handle it and he told me, "You
may be a communications expert, but you don't
know how to communicate with this clan and I
know how to communicate with them, so now
you stay out, if they ask you anything just keep
quiet and either you say we'll talk in front of
Mahesh or don't say anything, just keep quiet."
In the stories they told Anita, Meena, Neeta and Naina
spoke of using Material Embodied Resistance and Silence
with the goal of addressing confiict with the mother-in-
law. These strategies allowed them to redirect their
marital focus from family to the relationship with their
husbands. Their narratives show that they were able to
navigate and then convert conflict to their advantage by
accessing whatever resistance that they found available in
their everyday lives.
Probiematizing Resistance
Even though I have closely bound resistance to two
broad forms, they are certainly open to further
interpretation by readers. I believe that my interpretations
are ultimately 'constricting' because there may be many
forms of resistances that are beyond my own reading,
capability, experience, or imagination. Therefore, the
narrative forms of resistance discussed in this paper
present themselves as a challenge to be theorized because
problematic questions such as the following persist: Who
resists? Who decides (the participant or the researcher)
what constitutes resistance? And then who goes about
naming it? Moreover, is it possible or even desirable to
frame resistance?
Interpretive and representative dilemmas such as
these questions have been at the heart of ethnographic,
postmodern, post-colonial/transnational feminist research
for numerous years. Within feminist research, even
though the goals are to empower and bring about social
change, feminists have been intensely self-refiexive about
the privilege and authorial power that we bring into our
fields. The problematics of interpretation and
representation are continuously debated by scholars who
critique the inherent 'colonial' nature of the ethnographic
process whether it be conducted by insiders, partial-
insiders, or outsiders (Agar, 1996; Clifford & Marcus,
1986; Clair, 2003; Van Maanen, 1988). Along these lines,
feminist scholarship has continuously problematized
ethnographic representation as a necessarily intrusive
process in which the relationship of the researcher to the
researched is inevitably unequal. In her 1988 lecture to
the New York Academy of Sciences, "Can There Be a
Feminist Ethnography?" Lila Abu-Lughod asserts that
feminist ethnographies must take the commonalities and
differences between researcher and subjects into account,
and that such an acknowledgement itself is feminist praxis
(as summarized in Menon & Bhasin, 1998; also see a
similarly titled essay by Judith Stacey entitled, "Can there
be a feminist Ethnography?" in Women's Words: The
Feminist Practice of Oral History, 1991).
Speaking to similar matters in their essay,
"Interviewing Women," Reinharz and Chase (2001) point
out, "Interpreting any woman's silence or speech is a
complex task that requires a strong understanding of her
social location, including her place within her community
and society, the cultural constraints and resources shaping
her everyday life, and her particular circumstances" (p.
225). Thus, my tentativeness with claiming resistance in
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 15
these narratives is deeply embedded in feminist concems
with representation and theorizing about women's lives*.
Even though, I was a 'partial-insider' in this life-history
study, my locations and those of every participant were
various and distinct. Although we shared class and
community, I was privileged (in my eyes) because I had
chosen to by-pass the arranged marriage. So, perhaps 1
was seeking to find some resistance to a marital
institution that I had myself resisted. Without doubt, the
interpretations are very much subject to my own position
in the study. Were I married at the time of this study, were
1 living in India, and were I non-Indian, the narrative
interpretations would be remarkably different from those
presented here. For example, the theme of Silence which 1
speak of as an empowering resistant frame could very
well be construed as a compromising and acquiescing
stance taken by women in my study, a convergence so to
speak with Hindu marriage. Silence, has been defined in
various ways by women who are involved in the study of
Third world women's lives. Hegde (1996), in a study
entitled, "Narratives of Silence: Rethinking Gender,
Agency, and Power from the Communication Experiences
of Battered Women in Southem India," shows us how
silence is imposed on battered women and how it leads
women to an "existential impasse - a total
disenchantment with self (p. 312). In Hegde's
understanding, silence is a tool that controls, reprimands,
and makes invisible (i.e. her analysis is concerned with
exploring silence as power). My understanding of Silence
as resistance in this study is very different from these
conclusions - it reinvents, reconfigures, and empowers,
when co-opted by the subject.
Thus the explorations of resistance that I offer are my
own, registered in my voice, experienced from my
position in the interviews (Stacey, 1991; Patai, 1991). The
danger of such representational control is that research
that wants to transform and reveal inequalities may
reproduce other forms of control and hierarchy, or it may
reproduce hierarchy (such as my 'authoring' resistance in
particular ways in this case). Moreover, the problem of
interpretation and representation becomes more complex
in the portrayal of "subaltem subjectivities from the
perspective of Westem locations" (Hegde, 1996, p. 314;
see also Mohanty, 1988, 2003; Sunder Rajan, 1993)
Recognition of these interpretive and representational
dilemmas and attempts to address them are being robustly
debated among transnational scholars who want to
imagine newer ways of addressing and exploring
resistance as it is enacted by women in their everyday
lives. For a few decades now there has been a 'resistance'
to the knowledge/s we have about resistance, and how we
choose to represent it. As already mentioned issues of
representation are an ongoing conversation in
ethnographic work especially that which is with and about
women. The work of those that identify as post-colonial
and transnational scholars falls in line with a 'resistance'
to the dominant understandings of resistance (Anzaldua;
1987; Gluck & Patai, 1991; Jayawardhane, 1986; Menon
& Bhasin, 1998; Mohanty, 1988, 2003; Narayan, 1997;
Said, 2003; Sunder Rajan, 1993). Dominant post-
structuralist understandings of resistance focus upon an
"undifferentiated" power that is "unremitting and
unstoppable" and is meted out by administrators,
managers and technocrats (Said, 2002, p. 240). In an
attempt to privilege participants, transnational scholars
focus on the everyday practices of resistance in the daily
lives (in this case, family life) of subjects/participants as a
locally emergent phenomenon that cannot be bound to
frameworks. So, while popular imaginations of power and
resistance are concemed with power from the standpoint
of its realization, rather than opposition to it, recent
examinations delve more into the 'subject' who resists
(Said, 2002). This 'new resistance,' both divergent and
multiple, is concemed with the subject who speaks, 'to
whom' one speaks, and 'where' one speaks rather than
merely 'what' is said. In a recent essay that theorizes
resistance, Mumby (2005), a post-strucuturalist scholar
himself, leans on the side of local discursive resistance
because he believes that it is important, "to counteract the
impression that a force from which there is no
escape" (p. 32).
Resistance under such an understanding takes various
forms because the challenge for feminist scholars is to
show how the "the everyday lives of women are
constituted in the interstices between being victims of
oppression and agents of resistance" (Hegde, 1996, p.
310). Across disciplines, there has been an emphases on
resistance as a "routine yet complex, embedded social
process" the meaning of which is largely contingent upon
the relational context that one is enmeshed in (Mumby, p.
32, 2005), and one that emerges out of the "multiple
interpretations of both workplace actors and academic
researchers" (Prasad & Prasad, 1998, p. 251; see also
Prasad & Prasad, 2003). At the same time, researchers
caution against essentializing routine resistance and
treating it as a stable set of behaviors, actions, or
performances. For instance, Jermier et al. (1994) critique
the "tendency of researchers to impose, rather than
investigate" (pp. 10-11) the nuances and meanings of
resistance. Most of these scholars encourage studies
where the spoken and the said of participants is taken into
account to assess and explore the significance of local
There has been an outpouring of studies (across
fields, contexts, and disciplines) that explore localized
resistances in multiple ways. These studies explore
resistance as a socially constituted 'discursive tactic' with
an emphasis on the enactment and embodiment of -
material, corporeal, interactional, narrative - resistant acts
(Mumby 2005). This understanding of resistance aligns
well also with de Certeau's (1984) classic study of
everyday life in which he proposes that individuals
ingenuously create their own responses to power and
constraints imposed upon them in their daily lives. De
Certeau tells us that in order to subvert, cope with, or
challenge constraints, people are able to utilizes 'tactics' —
which are an opportunistic manipulation (temporally
contingent and in the moment) of a constraint at a given
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 16
point of time, one that converts constraint into
A plethora of studies explicate the idea of resistance
as a 'discursive tactic' Tretheway (1997, 1999), for
instance, explored 'irony' as a narrative resistance tactic
used by employees in a human service organization.
Sotirin & Gottfried (1999) explore local resistance in the
form of "bitching" and gossip (see also Sotirin 2000 for a
discussion of women's office talk). Material forms of
resistance such as office graffiti, mimicry, and modes of
dress have been investigated as resistant tactics (see Bell
& Forbes, 1994; Bhabha, 1994; Gottfried, 1994). In her
feminist ethnography of a Japanese confectionary factory,
Kondo (1990) unveils how discourses of resistance are
closely tied to conceptions of work, self, family, and the
public-private relationships that operate in Japanese
In life history work on women's lives, testimonials
have often been treated as 'counter-narratives' that resist
dominant understandings of one's identity. In their essay,
"Millie's Story: Motherhood, Heroine, and Methadone,"
anthropologists Alicea & Friedman (1999) present the
testimonial of a Puerto Rican drug addict and mother,
Millie, and examine how her told story counteracts the
dominant meta-narrative of the drug abuser. In a similar
and more nuanced vein, Schulz, Knoki, & Knoki-Wilson
(1999), examined the personal narratives of two Navajo
women, Faye and Ursula, who, in telling their stories,
discursively create counter-identity/s which challenge the
master-narrative of assimilation and civilization imposed
upon indigenous American women. To take it a step
further, the two Navajo women, Faye Knoki and Ursula
Knoki-Wilson co-authored the essay about themselves
along with the researcher thereby confronting and
embracing the crisis of representation in telling their
story. They are able to make representation a resistant act.
My own interpretation of resistance aligns with the
above discursive understandings of resistance as socially
embedded, temporally and locally emergent, and deeply
contextual (italics mine) and my hope has been to
investigate rather than impose (Jermier et al., 1994). My
concem is with the enactment of resistance and to show
the local, unorganized, relational, material, and even
invisible ways in which women in some communities
might resist filial, work, and institutional relationships
and structures. The stories of my participants illustrate
that not only is it possible to oppose power, it is also
possible to realign power structures, albeit in small
degrees. For instance, the notion of Self-defining the
Marriage may be read as an attempt to create a counter-
narrative. Silence can be seen as a narrative strategy that
may reconfigure intimate relationships. Addressing the
Mother-in-Law is a direct attempt to resist structure in
order to realign it and redefine an intimate relationship.
For transnational feminists like myself, these maneuvers
constitute not only resistance, but also feminist practice at
the level of identity and relational communities. In her
most recent collection of essays. Feminism without
Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity,
Mohanty (2003) emphasizes this point by exploring her
understanding of feminist practice:
Feminist practice as 1 understand it operates at a
number of levels: at the level of everyday life
through the everyday acts that constitute our
identities and relational communities; at the level
of collective action in groups, networks, and
movements constituted around feminist visions
of social transformation; at the level of theory,
pedagogy, and textual creativity in the scholarly
and writing practices of feminists engaged in the
production of knowledge (p. 5).
1 believe that my own empirical contribution fits well into
these conversations as my goal is to emphasize everyday
practices of resistance and not bind the stories of my
participants to preexisting knowledge frames. My hope is
that the narratives represented here expand our idea of
everyday practices of resistance by qualitatively and
descriptively showing embedded complexities. The
analysis here addresses and privileges 'who' speaks and
'to whom' one addresses what is spoken. Instead of
focusing upon power stmctures encountered by my
participants, I show their discursive, material, and
corporeal 'opposition' to it.
1 These seripturcs are said to have been written by male Aryan sages
who inhabited the areas across the Indus river, long before the
word 'Hindu' came to be associated with religion. 'Hindu' was
simply an evolved Persian word for the people who lived across
the river 'Indus' or 'Indu.' One of the most influential interpreters
of these seriptures was the sage Manu (This is documented in the
Manu Smriti said to have been written in 200 B.C.; see Shattuck,
1999). Manu is said to have been instrumental in laying out marital
laws whieh are followed even in contemporary times.
2 Some of this history was transformed with the passing of the
Hindu Marriage Aet by the Government of India in 1955 whieh
allowed for dissolution of marriage via divorce and annulment, and
property for women, widows, and daughter-in-laws. Under this act
(amended in 1964 and 1976) a marriage is considered "Hindu" if
the following requirements are fulfilled: (i) both parties are Hindu;
(ii) both parties were separated from eaeh other by seven
generations; (iii) the marriage is conducted according to Hindu
rites (Derrctt, 1976; Uberoi, 1996 p.327). These were legal
attempts at shifting the understanding of the Hindu marriage from
sacrament to contract. However, in a study of recent judicial
decisions, Uberoi (1996) found that Indian judges still tend to
make decisions about dissolution/conscnt/custody using the pre-
eolonial understanding of'sacrament.'
3 In this study I have used the words 'joint' and 'semi-joint' to refer
to family structure and co-habitation patterns. A semi-joint family
eould mean one in which one son and his family live together with
his parents while the other siblings live elsewhere.
4 The women in this study were interviewed according to cohorts, as
in women who had been married in the 1980s, 1990s and early
2000s ranging in age from their forties to thirties to twenties
respectively. Given this, women aeross and within eohorts,
articulated many differences in how they had experieneed their
marital lives. These differenees were based upon both life-eourse
and life-cycle. The discussion presented in this ehaptcr emerged
from the theme of resistanee which was a Shared Experience
across eohorts.
Women and Language, Vol. 30, No. 1, Pg. 17
5 In this study, following human subject protocol guidelines, all the
women's names have been changed to pseudonyms in order to
protect their privacy.
6 In fact, in her recent study. Marriage, A History: From Obedience
to Intimacy Or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz
(2005) argues — using anthropological, historical, and archival
research — that even in the Westem world marriage was a deeply
economic institution and was separate from love and intimacy,
which was expected to be provided from individual/s outside of the
7 The title of this essay is taken from my eonversation with Nccta.
8 In order to avoid framing/defining resistanee, I have deliberately
ehosen to textually plaee discussions about resistance at the end of
this essay.
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