logo

28 July 2017

Calling your husband by name for the first time

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionWomen practise saying their husband’s name (courtesy of Video Volunteers)

Millions of Indian women have never used their husband’s name – it’s a way of showing their respect for him. The tradition is strictly observed in rural areas, though much less so in cities. Now, however, some campaigners are urging women in villages to give it up too.

What’s in a name? A lot, if you’re an Indian wife and the name in question is your husband’s. I learned this early on in life.

My parents were married for 73 years until my father died last year. At the time of their wedding, my mother was less than 11 and he had just turned 15.

In the decades they were together, first in a tiny village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and later in Kolkata (then Calcutta), she never called him by his name.

When speaking to us children, she always referred to him as “babuji” – the Hindi word for “father” that we used. When addressing him directly, she always said “Hey ho”, which means roughly “Hey you”.

As teenagers when we became aware of the fact, we made fun of her. We tried to trick her into saying his name just once. But she never did.

All the other women in my home and neighbourhood also avoided saying their husband’s name. So did tens of millions of women across India, regardless of their religion or caste.

That’s because in traditional Indian society, the husband is equated with god and a woman is taught from a young age that she must respect him.

She is told that naming her husband could invite bad luck and shorten his life. Often the ban extends to other members of his family too – and the consequences of breaking it can be serious.

One woman in the eastern state of Orissa faced retribution that was swift and harsh.

“One day my sister-in-law asked who was sitting outside. I named all the men who were there, including my husband’s uncle,” Malati Mahato says in a film produced by Video Volunteers, a pressure group.

Image copyright
Video Volunteers

The sister-in-law complained to the village council, which ruled Mahato’s words “reprehensible” and she was banished, with her children, to a home on the edge of the village. For the past 18 months she has been ostracised by the other villagers.

“The patriarchal hierarchy is enforced at many levels,” says social anthropologist, Prof A R Vasavi.

“The husband is considered equal to god so he has to be worshipped. In traditional matches he’s generally from a higher caste and economically supports the wife so he’s the yajman – the owner. And he’s generally older, so has to be respected on that count too.”


How Indian wives address their husbands (without using his name)

  • Women may use “father of so-and-so” or refer to their husband’s profession, eg “doctor sahib” or “vakil (lawyer) sahib”
  • They may just say “hey you”, or “you”, “will you please listen”, or “are you listening?”
  • In some Indian languages it is common to say “brother”, “elder brother”, “hello” or “owner”

Video Volunteers has now begun a campaign in some rural communities in an attempt to change patriarchal traditions.

Last October, Rohini Pawar, a volunteer in a village near the western city of Pune decided to raise the issue of naming husbands at a women’s discussion group in her village.

But before doing so, she decided she had better try it herself.

Pawar told the BBC that she was married at 15 and that in 16 years of marriage had never called her husband Prakash by his name.

“Earlier I’d call him ‘baba’, because his nephews called him that. Or I’d just say ‘aaho’ (‘you’ in the local Marathi language) to grab his attention.”

Prakash was relaxed about it but most other villagers weren’t happy. Some ridiculed the couple.

Image copyright
Video Volunteers

Image caption

Rohini Pawar: People ask us why is it so important for us to use their names

The women in the discussion group, however, were delighted with the idea.

“We had great fun. We laughed a lot that day. For the first time in our life, we were shouting out our husbands’ names,” says Pawar, laughing.

“We decided to make a video and asked the women to say it in three different ways – happily, with anger, and with love.

“One of the women got carried away. She went home giddy with excitement and as soon as she saw her husband, she screamed out his name – and he slapped her.

“He told her that if she ever dared to say his name again, he would give her a solid beating.”

Image copyright
Video Volunteers

In Indian cities, over time, it has become common for wives to name their husbands. With growing female literacy, more and more women joining the workforce, and love marriages often replacing arranged ones, the tradition began to seem out-of-date.

When I married, my husband was a work colleague. I had called him by his name for years, so it would have made no sense to stop after the wedding.

But A R Vasavi says this still only applies to a “very small segment” of Indian households.

“It’s the educated, assertive woman in big cities who calls her husband by name,” she says.

“It’s unthinkable for tens of millions of women in rural India and even in conservative urban homes. If a new bride tries to go against the tide, she’s swiftly admonished by her mum-in-law or other elderly women.”

Rohini Pawar says the hostile response from many in her village has only strengthened the resolve of the women in her group to continue challenging patriarchal traditions.

“You see, change is not easy. People ask us why is it so important for us to use their names – what’s the big deal?” she says.

“I think, until you confront the small issue, how will you challenge the larger, more important issues?”

It may seem like a small step, but it’s the first step, she says, and the first step is always a big one.

Join the conversation – find us on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

Please follow and like us:

Share
#

Write a comment

10+1 = ?