I was speaking with some friends of mine who have never experienced joint family set ups and of course you can imagine! It was like a heavy Q&A about a custom that I don’t like just because there’s a lot of potential for complication but also understand that it’s probably one of the more economical and just culturally a common way to live.
I wrote a story about a girl who gets married into a joint family set up. While she has much else to reckon, the fact that she is sharing quarters with mother-in-law and sister-in-law is probably the bane of her existence the most.
As I was chatting with my friends I realized, yet again, how poorly represented the Pakistani culture is in the world at large and how there are so many stereotypical associations that have been made with the lifestyle that we have come so naturally to us.
But I did wonder, when they asked and reasoned, if the system was set up all wrong and shouldn’t have been implemented in the first place. Mind you, like I’ve mentioned before, joint systems aren’t just personal choices without any stipulations. They do sometimes occur due to financial constraints.
I’ve never seen a happy girl in a joint system. But I’m one person and of course I have not spoken to the millions of girls who are a part of the system and might be happily so. Would I recommend it? No. And my analysis comes from reading many anonymous posts on various women groups and knowing personally lives of women who couldn’t survive (metaphorically) in a system where they had other things to attend to besides their immediate family, that is, husband and kids.
1. The system doesn’t allow for breathing space: there is little privacy or solitude in this type of living. There are usually more people than the house can contain and they usually get in each other’s faces frequently. There is literally and figuratively little space to breathe and expand. You’re followed by the noise everywhere. There are always your kids or someone else’s who ask for your time and attention. It is true that you get used to it but this does come at the cost of at least some compromise of mental health.
2. Finances are weirdly managed:
People aren’t usually directly in charge of their money and expenses are either assigned or money is pooled at a central place, like with the elders of the family. From here the funds are allocated to various needs. This is a form of bad banking, in my opinion. This makes some people be accountable for a lot more than others and can cause some mistrust and skewed participation. A potential solution could be pooling money only for major expenses like health. Food and education should be up to individual families to afford as they can as they would if they were on their own. Now some might argue that this would cause the whole system to be meaningless but if the meaningfulness of this system comes from financial oppression of one party in favor of the other then this system is really crumbling on itself.
3. Prolonged adolescence:
There is something like a prolonged adolescence that can come over the residents of such houses. They can be less accountable for their money and responsibilities. Because usually the parents of adult married kids manage finances, these kids don’t step into their designated “head of the family” role until much later in life. A role that they should have grown into becomes a heavy duty task when they have to suddenly assume it when one of their parents passes away. For this reason alone, I think the system is set up to create less leaders than we need.
4. The system is based in social hierarchy that has no clear recommendation behind it:
Usually joint family systems are heavily matriarchal with patriarchy still dictating most important decisions. This is a very suffocating setup for women. Not every woman wants all her decisions made by a superior authority. This system takes away from autonomy and sometimes even the sense of self. Now some might argue that our sense of self comes from within but our self worth is heavily influenced by how we are valued. In a system where we work as cogs in a machine it’s hard to have a well-defined sense of self or self-worth. When a woman can’t make even small decisions on her own, she basically spends a life dreaming of a life when she’ll be the matriarch. See the problem? She idolizes her oppressor. So instead of empowering others, she now has more potential to perpetuate the cycle.
I believe this system works for some. However, when we say it works for some we do accept that it’s a system which has more roots in other factors than personal choice. Many people might want to live separately but don’t have the means for it. I can understand that. But if people live in this system just to be less confrontational and more compliant with the system, then I’d say “step out”.