Living by the (in)laws

While the mean mothers-in-laws and small-hearted daughters-in-law still exist, they are on a fast road to extinction!

Ayesha Fazal June 07, 2011
While the dinosaur mean mothers-in-law (MIL) and small-hearted daughters-in-law (DIL) still exist, they are on a fast road to extinction. Look around if you don’t believe me. Saas-bahu alliances are everywhere.

They go shopping together, raise the new generation together, happily dividing work, giving and seeking advice and, most importantly, wishing each other well.

Scope for horror

In-law relations are laden with opportunities to create trouble. Watch any soap opera: one can eavesdrop, make hurtful comments, tell tales and just generally be committed to the (ig)noble objective of marring a marriage for the sheer joy of it.

People (yes both men and women) enjoy these dramas, but they know better than to let this toxin seep into their real lives. They won’t have any of it in real life, they immediately wall it out of their little paradise. The family troublemakers now wilt like cockroaches in a Mortein commercial!

Sacred space

The DIL now gets her own physical space, her own niche that she can dress and design as she wishes. It can be an annex, or the upstairs portion of the house, or just one part of the portion. The size of the space is not the point, the amount of autonomy the DIL has over it is what matters.

Secret space

Like soap operas, there are secrets too. Except these secrets help in emotional healing and well-being; these are secrets that the bahu and the nund share when they vent about something, seek emotional support or just talk about a bad day at work or an argument in the family. These are also bits of gossip that only the saas and bahu are interested in so they keep it to themselves and not share them with the rest of the household. Then of course there are those things that everyone has been told and sworn to secrecy, so nobody lets on that they too know it.

Shared space

No group can have cohesion without a shared space. Today’s good bahu no longer stays closeted in her room, feigning a headache with a dupatta tied around her head. She enjoys her own time and shared family-time, exchanging a joke with the brother-in-law, discussing politics with the father-in-law, watching TV in the family lounge.

She keeps her child’s favourite toys in the family lounge so that becomes the little imp’s pet play area; she shares him and offers co-ownership to any and all willing uncles, aunts and grandparents. Success is a joint effort and a joint family becomes successful by a judicious mix of shared and sacred spaces.

If the serpent of discontent or misunderstanding raises his head in this paradise, there is only one way to beat him: communication. That is how families strengthen their bonds. Not by denying that the serpent is there, but by talking about it, by negotiating, by giving some and taking some.

Partners in crime

Unaiza’s husband was transferred to Karachi, where her mother lives. Previously they were in Lahore, where his family lives. You’d think the girl would be ecstatic to get out of the MIL’s clutches and move closer to mummy dear.

No sir. She shed many a tear over this sad turn of events. Apparently the MIL was more interested in shopping, while the girl’s mother was rather dull. Now that the happy duo of MIL and DIL would be in two different provinces, the mirthful excursions too would come to a sad halt. (Names changed to avoid hurting the poor mother!)

Building alliances

These alliances go a long way. When Samya’s husband separated from her and took a second wife, her parents-in-law stood by her. They told her to continue to stay in the house and threatened to kick out and disown the erring son. Of course that didn’t turn the tide in her favour but the support helped her cope better.

In less extreme cases, it is not uncommon for mothers to coax their sons into being nicer and more accommodating of their wives’ wishes. Alternatively, the in-laws do things to make up for the fact that the girl’s husband is busy at work.

Better than blood-ties

Fatima lived with her in-laws for six years before her husband’s transfer took her back to her hometown, Lahore. The parting turned out to be very temporary as the very next weekend the MIL followed them to Lahore for a short visit, where she was happily hosted by DIL and her mother. Everybody had fun, especially Fatima and Salman’s two-year-old son Mustafa.

It is only through healthy in-law relations that blood-bonds can blossom, such as the ones between Mustafa and his grandmother, and between Salman and his mother. It all hinges on the trust and generosity that MIL and DIL can show to each other.

Little Musafa smiles as his mother and his dadi know better: they happily chat together with their backs to the sun as he plays in the little spot of shade they create for him and for the future of the family.

The author is a Fulbright Fellow (Harvard University), working as an Education Consultant (

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2011.
Ayesha Fazal An Islamabad based education consultant and Fulbright Fellow from Harvard University. Fazal contributes to the Islamabad pages of The Express Tribune.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Mohammad Ali Ibrahim | 12 years ago | Reply good take on one of the most sensitive issue brewing in our society how to live with in-laws. i would agree with Arsal that the financial issue should also be factored in which is a cult in itself !!
Usman | 12 years ago | Reply Maybe all these soap operas a doing a good job by meticulously showing every possible maneuver. Those who'd like to employ them would think... oh wait yeh tou kaal ke episode main howa tha, I can't do that because it would be too obvious :P
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