My doctoral research explored South Asian women’s experiences of abuse in families (Mirza 2015). I found that as well as partner abuse, abuse by the husband’s mother was also a huge issue. However, this is a dimension of South Asian women’s experiences that is overlooked, with much work on domestic abuse focusing on abuse between partners (Scottish Executive, 2003). Little is known about the nature of the mother and daughter-in-law relationship, and how it can add to women’s abuse and oppression in a family abuse context.
During my fieldwork, I spoke with 11 Pakistani Muslim women in Scotland who were subjected to simultaneous physical abuse and threats from both their mother-in-law and spouse. By focusing on the interviewees’ experiences of mother-in-law abuse, this article aims to highlight the intensity and specificity of abuse South Asian women can experience within an extended family structure. To overlook this, state policy and practice run the risk of not only obscuring these experiences, but also jeopardizing women’s safety and wellbeing. I focused on Pakistani women specifically as this is the largest category within the South Asian population in Scotland (Statistical Bulletin, 2013). Also, before beginning my doctoral research I worked in the voluntary sector for three years, supporting mostly Pakistani women who had left, or were still in, abusive relationships. However, it is vital to steer clear of generalisations and stereotyping, as not all Pakistani women experience family abuse, and not all mothers-in-law are abusive.
The traditional South Asian household is viewed as a joint, extended patrilocal social unit where two or more generations or close relatives, who are affiliated by blood and/or relationship live together. It is perceived that women derive value and status only as mothers of sons, and so their happiness and (minimal) power within the conjugal household is dependent on this. With the birth of a son, a daughter-in-law lives in hope of one day becoming a powerful mother-in-law, ultimately superseding the power and control of her mother-in-law. From this standpoint, various clashes and tensions can emerge within the mother- and daughter-in-law relationship. For example, the mother-in-law, having suffered the trials and tribulations of being a submissive daughter-in-law herself, comes to identify with the same traditions that proved so oppressive during her own youth now that she is a ‘beneficiary of these practices’ (Rew et al., 2013: 153).
For reasons such as these, South Asian mothers tend to develop very close relationships with their sons, making it difficult to share their sons with another woman. A new bride is often viewed as a potential threat to a mother-in-law’s long-term plans and security. The bride may convince her husband to break the traditional joint household by moving into their own home and forming a nuclear household. This can leave the mother-in-law alone in old age, particularly if there is only one son, and potentially with no economic security. Thus, it falls to the mother-in-law to preserve the joint family structure, and ultimately to ensure her daughter-in-law does not develop the confidence or gain the loyalty of her son sufficient to encourage him to break the joint family.
The interviewees described living within similar extended family structures characterised by gender hierarchies, and it is within these structures that the interviewees described experiencing ‘indirect involvement’ and ‘direct involvement’ by the mother-in-law of family abuse.
Indirect involvement is characterised by subtle tactics that control and regulate certain aspects of a daughter-in-law’s life. The interviewees explained that their mothers-in-law intended to control and dominate them as a means to maintain the joint household, and to sustain their exploitation (economic and domestic labour). The subtlety and specificity of these tactics makes it difficult to recognise and identify them as abusive (by service providers and by the women experiencing it). Tactics revealed in the interviews included:
Domestic despotism is one of the most common forms of abuse perpetrated by some of the interviewees’ mothers-in-law. This included the daughters-in-law feeling constant pressure to cook and clean for everyone in the household, and being forced and cook and clean.
It was shocking for me, suddenly all at once, so much. ‘These clothes you put in like this … You have to wash all of these. This is the cooker, put it on like this. We make food like this. You have to clean the washroom, you have to hoover’ … And she would also say, ‘Come down for 7am and you cannot go upstairs to your room before 2am’ (Fatima)
Control of marital relations
Attempts to prevent marital relations and limit time spent with their husbands were common themes in some of the interviews:
So he wouldn’t come near me [for sex], she [mother-in-law] would make him sleep in the same room as her, or she would make him sleep in another room saying ‘the baby will keep you awake and you have to go to work in the morning’ (Fatima)
Constant ear filling
Some of the interviewees refer to this as the mother-in-law’s incitement of spousal abuse by making complaints about a daughter-in-law:
They [husband and husband’s mother] would sit together, I could hear them, as she would say to him, ‘she doesn’t cook properly, [and] she is rude’. I could hear it in his voice, he would get angry (Naseem)
As a result of these tactics, the interviewees felt ‘low self-worth’, ‘depression’, ‘physical and mental exhaustion’ and ‘anxiety’. It also contributed to marital discord for example, when a mother-in-aw overwhelms her daughter-in-law with housework so that she is too physically exhausted to spend time with her husband this can, as perceived by the interviewees, become a cause of marital discord.
Direct involvement is when the mother-in-law carried out abuse against her daughter-in-law herself; this could be in front of, or in isolation from, other family members. It included the following:
Some of the interviewees recount their mother-in-law either attempting to, or actually, physically abusing them:
My mother-in-law pushed me because I phone [phoned] my parents … Everyone was sitting there, her daughters too, they were laughing … She came near me to hit me. I moved back (Aliyah)
This entailed the mother-in-law exerting control over the daughter-in-law’s clothes and appearance by belittling her; verbally abusing her and belittling her family; and questioning her character and her contributions to the family household.
She (mother-in-law) was always saying to me, ‘you’re so fat’, saying things like that to me all the time, giving me a complex (Meryam)
A common theme from the interviews was controlling contact with their family as the most effective form of isolation.
She (mother-in-law) said that, ‘well you won’t be speaking to your family as much we take it, we are like your family now’ (Khadija)
The experiences of the interviewees who had migrated from Pakistan for marriage were more distinct and intense in relation to isolation:
They (husband and mother-in-law) wouldn’t give me a [phone] card. The one time they gave me a card, they never gave me one for another six months and that card was only for thirty minutes. If is said, ‘I need another phone card’ they would say, ‘we gave you one, why do you need one again?’ (Aliyah)
The findings of my doctoral research highlight some crucial questions: do mainstream feminist understandings of abuse still hold true for all women, particularly south Asian women Is there a need for a more nuanced understanding of kinship relationships, structures and powers? South Asian women’s experiences of family abuse, which stems from kinship structures and relationships, are largely not represented in the wider literature on domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is typically understood through a feminist perspective which holds gender inequality as its root cause, demonstrating the manner in which men use control in intimate relationships. This gendered perspective has greatly informed this research, providing an opportunity to highlight the similarities between women’s experiences of abuse based on their gender. It also reveals how practices of gender inequality can be perpetuated by women as well as by men.
Mainstream conceptualizations of domestic abuse deal in stereotyped household structures and relationships, and the extent to which such flawed conceptualizations have influenced policy and practice mean that they run the danger of being wide of the mark of some women’s experiences of abuse. The specificity and differentiation of South Asian women’s experiences of family abuse, which the aforementioned perspective fails to represent, is the role of the mother-in-law in the instigation and perpetration of family abuse against the daughter-in-law. Additionally, due to the nature of this relationship, and the extended family structures and relationships within which women are rooted, the power dynamics are far more complex with abuse by the mother-in-law.
Rew et al. (2013) argue that abuse by the mother-in-law must be explored and understood within Stark’s (2013) ‘coercive control model’. They argue that many of Stark’s (2013) findings and arguments on domestic abuse – that the structural roots of women’s inequality and their vulnerability to abuse needs to be taken into account – hold true regarding women’s violence against other women. Stark’s model was developed to explore ‘women’s entrapment’ by men within an intimate relationship from a feminist perspective of gender inequality. In order for this model to be representative of South Asian women’s experiences of family abuse, it needs to be developed to include family structures and relationships. Without losing sight of the pertinent reality that perpetrators of abuse are predominantly male while the abused are female, state policy and practice must also acquire a deeper understanding of how women can be actively complicit in the violence and oppression of other women.
Mirza N (2015) ‘Family Abuse in Scotland: Contesting Universalisations and Reconceptualising Agency’, PhD Thesis, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.
Rew, Martin; Gangoli, Geetanjali; and Gill, Aisha K. (2013). ‘Violence between Female In-laws in India’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 14(1), 147-160.
Stark, E. 2013. ‘Coercive Control.’ In Violence Against Women: Current Theory and Practice in Domestic Abuse, Sexual Violence and Exploitation, edited by Nancy Lombard and Lesley McMillan, 17–34. Research Highlights in Social Work Series, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Nughmana Mirza is a lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social and Political Sciences, based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, Glasgow University. The arguments presented in this essay are developed further in her forthcoming paper, ‘South Asian women’s experience of family abuse by female affinal kin: a critique of mainstream conceptualisations of domestic abuse’, in the journal Families, Relationships and Societies.