Thursday, July 25, 2013

Hierarchy in Indian families

(Where do I fit in this big huge family dynasty? Hyderabad 2011)

When foreigners are entering an Indian family, many will be shocked to see that there is a definite hierarchy within Indian families. As a foreigner, or as a newest member of the family, you will be at the bottom rung. This is common for even Indian girls who are marrying into their family. You have to earn respect from the family - it is not just simply given. Foreigners are often treated like "a potential divorce that is waiting to happen" until you "prove" your commitment to the family by producing a child, or just by standing the test of time. Even Indian girls have this problem, as when they marry into their husband's family they are seen as their husband's property, and have to ask their husband's parents regarding any important decisions. 

As a foreigner, I didn't mind being on the bottom rung because I was left out of many of the family melodramas (and I was glad to be a spectator and not a participant). However, I was around for over 5 years before we got married, so the respect was earned with so much effort from my side. If you are a foreigner who is introduced to an Indian family as "a girlfriend" - then boy, have you got your work cut out for you. Indians don't date, and it is very awkward for your future inlaws to try to build a relationship with you without a wedding date set. They - and everyone else - are going to be giving you "girlfriend" treatment - which is basically "I don't know how long you'll last" treatment. Trying to build a relationship with your future Indian inlaws before marriage is like climbing a brick wall without any hands and feet. It is very difficult, and it requires a lot of patience...but if you wait it out it CAN be done. For me, it took over 5 years, but luckily I was young and malleable. The main thing I would tell other foreigners just starting out in a Whindian family relationship - is be very patient and go in with zero expectations. Respect is earned.

As I said in a previous post, when a girl marries an Indian boy - they belong to his family. They are the new member to this very complicated dynasty. If it is a joint family (10 people in one house) then it can be really tough. Unlike Western men, who always put their wife first; traditional Indian men (especially the eldest son) have heavy responsibilities to their families. The eldest son of an Indian family is expected to host/ take care of his parents when they get older; and if it is a traditional man, he will put the new wife as equal (or less than equal) importance to his parents. Nowadays things are different - people are not living in joint families so much, so the wife has a chance to be important to her husband. But no matter where he is living, or how modern he is, it will ultimately be the eldest son's responsibility to take care of his parents. Many sisters can also be protective of their brothers, and prone to bickering with the brother's new wife - because the wife is going to be responsible to look after her parents.

In Indian families, the hierarchy (almost like a caste system) is ALL ABOUT AGE. The eldest is respected the most, and the youngest the least (except children). Elders must always be respected, even if what they're saying is wrong. There is no talking back, ever. Having a disagreement is being disrespectful. You basically can't do anything but nod your head and say "yes, sir/ma'am". The more aged a person is, the more you have to keep your mouth shut.

If it is a joint family, the eldest male has the final say on the whole family. He is also responsible for financial decisions, and discipline. The eldest female is responsible for managing the household (using the DIL's as assistants) and keeping all the family problems under control. Then, after that comes the siblings and their wives, from eldest to youngest. If one of the younger people are very intelligent and mature, the family may take advice from them. But usually it is all based on age. It doesn't matter how successful someone is, or how many kids they have, or even if they are uneducated - age trumps it all!!! Elders are to be respected no matter what.

India is a patriarchal society, and the wives must always consult their husbands first, even if they are more dominating. A woman is usually only allowed to express dominance towards a younger woman in the family - hence all the problems between MILs & DILs; and SIL's.

There is also a hierarchy for the order in which everyone is served food. If there is a guest visiting the house, then they will be served first - as Indians believe that "atithi devo bhava": guest is god. Then the young children and the elderly will be fed next. After that is the eldest adult siblings, followed by the youngest adult siblings. The adult women, or whoever is seen as the host, with usually eat last. My observation that women eat after men - is because there are just too many people to serve first!



  1. Joint families are often just non nuclear families, with extended family or multi-generational relatives sharing the same home. Often in Punjab in families where there are two brothers, the younger brother will set out to make his own home reducing the number of people living in a home.
    In India property in cities is ludicrously expensive, meaning many more people choose to stay with their parents to cut costs and reduce stress!!
    (A relative of ours bought a home for $1mil last year and another just sold one for $500k which is probably shocking for many however on par with Australia in many ways. That too was in Amritsar a tier two city, which can never compare to metros like Mumbai and Delhi!!
    They say in India that boys are to take care of their parents and sisters, meaning that extended family will value their new bhabhis immensely and that brother-sister ties are very strong!
    Age is always in relation to husband's age, or father's age more than the age of the woman (Accessory??)...
    I don't buy into the ageist things that go on here, nor the education wars and thankfully my in laws are progressive enough to value my advice!

    1. @Grace - very interesting...I didn't know peoperty in Amritsar is so expensive!!! As I've come to know our city (Hyderabad) in the past 7 years, it has just completely blown up like crazy, everything getting build vertically now.

      In our family, we have very few joint families anymore. Everyone is living separately within Hyderabad, and a good chunk of the family is now scattered around the globe.

      I think part of the reason why I was able to assimilate so well is that I was very close to my grandparents, so seeing an elder person makes me miss them, and therefore I am naturally respectful of the Indian elders.

      However, I only felt respected as hubby's partner only AFTER marriage by the whole extended family. Or it could be maybe they were more comfortable after I was married to express this publicly.

  2. My husband told me to just wiggle my head, Indian style whenever I was being told something that I felt I did not agree with by a person with whom getting into a disagreement would be useless, such as distant, old relatives or random conservative Aunties and Uncles whose "advice" has no bearing on our lives anyway. That is because the head wiggle is somewhat close to the shaking of your head in a "no" in the West and we would both be getting what we want: the Indian person I'd be talking with would think I'm listening and taking in what he/she is saying, while I could myself at least feel relieved that I was openly shaking my head as in "no way in Hell, you're absolutely nuts".


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