Last year, a kangaroo court banished Malati Mahato from her family home in the Indian district of Odisha. Her crime? She dared to address one of her male in-laws by name.
In many parts of India, it is strictly forbidden for a wife to speak her husband's name or even the names of any of the elder men in his family. The roots for this custom stems from the traditional practice of arranged marriages of younger women to older males as well as the patriarchal nature of Indian society. Instead, they are required to use alternative terms such as "father of my child" to convey the respect they are obliged to show to their spouses. While the opposite is true in theory with husbands not speaking the names of their wives, this is rarely enforced and the penalty is mild by comparison.
But a new campaign organized by Video Volunteers is working to change all of that. Along with publicizing stories about ostracized women such as Malati Mahato, a network of clubs have sprung across India as part of the #KhelBadal campaign, These clubs provide safe spaces for women to challenge local patriarchy and to provide real alternatives to traditional male rule. Videographer Rohini Pawar has established the clubs and documented the meetings in a series of videos which are being shared across the Internet. The first of these videos address the restriction wives face over being unable to name their husbands.
This particular topic hit home for Rohini since she had also followed the custom. After showing the discussion club video to her husband and mother-in-law, she reports "My mother-in-law and husband were quiet for a long time after the video ended. Prakash, my husband, turned around and told me to call him by his name from then on." It was the confidence she gained this way that inspired her to share her experiences with other women.
"This custom indicates that a woman respects her husband and wants him to live a long life," Rohini says. "A woman who doesn’t follow it will be seen as cunning, a woman with no morals. The tradition is so deeply rooted that we hadn’t given it thought until this discussion club." She also describes the reaction of the women in a typical discussion group in discussing Indian patriarchy, something many of them had never contemplated before. After showing them a video she had done for a previous group, and then asked each woman to say her husband's name in a variety of different emotional tones to give them greater confidence. She then asked them all, "“If we can’t say our husbands’ names, and they can call us whatever they like, does that mean they don’t respect us? Shouldn’t it be equal?”
But the practice may be hard to fight given how deeply entrenched it is in Indian traditions. Some of the women in the club had been married for thirty years or more without ever once naming their husbands. And this is just the beginning for Rohini and Video Volunteers. Other taboo topics they plan to explore in the discussion clubs include child marriages and the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Providing women with a safe space may yield important results in the years to come.