It’s still tradition for newly-married British Asian women to live with their in-laws. For many this rite of passage can be tough.
I’ve been living with my in-laws ever since I got married. Now, after 15 years, my husband and I have finally bought our own home.
For many Asian women in the UK, living with their husband’s family leads to arguments, from petty squabbles over not washing the dishes, to more serious disagreements which can turn nasty.
British Asians make up 6.5% of the UK’s population (there are 4.2m British Asians according to official estimates) and these households tend to be, on average, larger than other ethnic groups.
Traditionally, Asians live with large extended families, with many wives, husbands, husband’s parents, siblings, and often grandparents, all living under one roof.
It’s a domestic situation that is as prevalent today in the UK as it is in India and Pakistan.
Sandeep, 27, from Birmingham, got married in March this year. She met her husband through work and fell in love.
But she did two of the most stressful things in life in quick succession - she got married and she moved house.
And not only that, she moved in with her in-laws and her husband’s younger sister. She says it was very stressful.
“It was constant nerves, ‘shall I do this, shall I do that?’. You don’t know how to behave.”
That feeling is one I know only too well. I remember my first morning at my in-laws’ home.
I sat on my bed and spent ages wondering what to wear. Would it be OK to go down in my pyjamas? Should I put my jeans on or should I wear traditional Indian dress?
In the end I opted for traditional attire as I wanted to create a good impression, only to find my mother-in-law in her nightie and a dressing gown.
But going to live in a ready-made home, having free childcare and sharing the mortgage and household bills does make financial sense for those trying to get on the property ladder.
But it can be difficult. In British Asian households, there is an expectation upon you to fit in with the way your “new family” does things. You almost have to forget how you did things previously.
Everything revolves around you being the perfect daughter-in-law. The biggest compliment that can be bestowed in Asian communities is for a mother and father be told how good and well brought up their daughter is.
Fight for territory
Women brought up more traditionally in India and Pakistan were often encouraged to believe they were just “visitors” in their parents’ home. They were taught their real home would be their in-laws’ house and they were to regard their in-laws as their “real” parents.
Rani, now in her mid-50s, has been married for more than 30 years, and has spent her entire married life living with extended family.
She said the most painful moment was when she had to get permission to visit her own parents.
“I’d cry on the phone to my mum and say it was ridiculous… and she’d say ‘that’s just the way it is, you’ve to ask your in-laws’.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Humera, a teacher from Walsall in the West Midlands, had an arranged marriage 10 years ago and moved to Leicester.
It soon became apparent that living with her husband’s parents and sister was not going to work out.
“I remember standing in the bathroom and thinking ‘what have I done’,” she says.
She made the mistake of thinking she could change things around and display her own ornaments and pictures, she says. But, like many other daughters-in-law have found, this simply started a fight for territory in the house.
I’ve fought this battle in my own way. For the past 15 years, I’ve got home every night and rolled down the kitchen blind a little - my mother-in-law likes it up.
I push the sofa slightly forward, as she has it right up against the wall. And when I put cushions back on the sofa, she takes them off.
The daughter-in-law is expected to cook, clean, do all the washing and ironing, and hold down a full-time job. Humera found this unacceptable, especially as her mother-in-law stayed at home and her sister-in-law also expected to be waited on.
Four years into the marriage Humera persuaded her husband there would not be enough room with his family once the baby she was carrying arrived. She managed to save enough money to buy a house and they moved out.
It took me a few years to realise there was no point in trying to “win” an argument with my father-in-law. With my mother-in-law I can recall days and days of not speaking.
The reality is now I only speak to both of them if I really need to. My husband has taken on the role of “middle-man”, conveying messages to and fro.
Saleema, originally from London, married into a traditional Pakistani family and moved to Leeds. Her father-in-law was the one she clashed with. She found she was battling with him for her husband’s attention. Things came to a head for Saleema when she was pregnant.
“I sat there with a load of tablets,” she says. “I wasn’t going to take them because I knew I was pregnant and I loved my husband, but I knew that was my breaking point.
“That’s when I decided I had to leave. I couldn’t live in this situation and my husband then said ‘yes, let’s leave’.”
For those who do stick it out, it can eventually be rewarding and the situation can change. Rani herself is about to become a mother-in-law and she’s learnt some lessons.
“I will do it differently and I’m little bit scared. But I hope [my daughter-in-law] fits in well with the family.”