His demand had nothing extraordinary about it.
'You ought to change her. To bring her back on the track.'
Usually, counsellors are expected to mend the ways of their problem case. Like detectives, they ought to search for the clue which leads them to the villainous element of behaviour which prevents the problem case from being normal. Track is the accepted normalcy to which the subject needs to be brought back. This track is usually subjective.
'What do you mean by 'track?’ I asked him.
'You ought to make her an obedient wife, true to her husband and true to her religion.'
'But that is not my job,' I was categorical.
He appeared not to have got it.
'I am not supposed to make somebody religious or an atheist.'
'But look,' he smiled, 'how abnormal she has turned by ceasing to be obedient to me. And that is what her religion does not allow her to be. If religion is her norm you can't make her normal unless you make her equally more and more religious.
Religion has always been his norm. He was born and brought up as a scrupulous Muslim. He read the Quran and other authentic sources of religion from widely accepted interpretations. He turned to books that would help him identify himself as a pious, scrupulous Muslim for whom religion is not merely something personal. When he married, he insisted on his wife being an embodiment of his vision of true Islamic womanhood. When he saw his ideals crumbling away, he found in a headscarf-wearing counsellor a saviour who would transform his wife into a 'normal' Islamic woman.
'I have to talk to her to know if she has this perceived abnormality, though I say once again that I am not supposed to make her what you want her to be. What I can do is to search for ways for you two to cope with your marital difficulties,' I told him and he seemed to be assured.
She was one of the three girls in her family which found it hard to feed its members well. But she fed her curiosity well and learning was the only way for her to save her parents and sisters from the rot. It was not in vain. She completed her post-graduation and B. Ed and earned job in a school. But she could not realise her dream of becoming one of the breadwinners for her dear ones. She became a wife. And, later, a mother.
It took her not much time for her transition into that ideal Islamic woman her husband cut out for her. In that respect, he was fairly prescriptive. He prescribed how she should pray, how she should breast-feed her children, how she should live and behave in the school, how scrupulously he should be devoted to him..the how's were much too long. To obey him was the only way up for salvation. She bore him no grudge.
Of these endless prescriptions, there was one that she should hand over her salary to him. She did not hesitate to part with the fresh currency notes, either. But disruptions somehow set in. When she implored him to give her money to buy what she needed for her and her children, her demands fell on a deaf ear. When she wanted to visit and help her parents, her request was overturned. Does Islam not allow a woman to earn her income, purchase whatever is permitted to her and help her parents? She found in the books her husband asked her to read a 'no.' That was when she found herself worthless and helpless. She got suffocated in the very ideal he was imposing on her.
She started to overcome this sense of worthlessness with rebellion. She became stubborn. And started to say 'no' to some of his prescriptions. That was, for him, the early signs of her abnormality.
There was another one. He was her colleague at school. Pleasant and gentle, he listened to her. Her grief made her get heavy. And she did not hesitate to share it with him. But both of them were aware of the invisible line of sanctity that marked out smooth transactions between friends from something beyond. What she wanted was a non-sexual companionship which would help her bridge the yawning gap between herself and her husband. And his consoling words were enough to make her confront and tame her grief.
Her man found himself more grievous than her and each day he found her more self-assuring and confident. During one of their altercations, she told him about this friend of hers and that with him she was sharing her grief.
'Quit your job,' he slammed the door shut.
Later, she tried to explain to him what non-sexual friendship means and there is nothing un-Islamic about it. She told him that there is so much difference between a friend and husband that especially when the latter ceases to be the former to a great extent, a woman naturally seeks the former in someone else. But her religion and convictions are so strong as to prevent her friend from exploiting this intimacy to take advantage of her.
But he was not convinced, especially on what she said about religion. As for him, religion is not something to be interpreted or dictated by a non-scholar, especially a woman. She took her to a scholar in the town and the argument was held in his presence. What the scholar learned from traditions and jurisprudential texts did not make him judge the issue in her favour. To talk to a stranger and befriend him much to the displeasure of her husband is something he religiously disapproved of. Though she tried to raise her doubt that the Prophet himself has talked to many women and shared their grieves in a friendly manner, the scholar's authoritarian voice was so much as to make her believe that she sinned.
And quitting the job was her act of penance.
She went mute and bore with silence each moment after she quit the job. Obedience to him seemed to be the best option for her. But silence and obedience sometimes took on the aspect of protest to him. Especially in kitchen and bedroom, where this morbid muteness matters the most.
To save this sinking marital ship I had three solutions for them; one for him and two for her.
1. He should understand her as she really is and not in the way he imagines her to be. For this he will have to trust her and have to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer a child who always needs his dictates. The same realisation and trust should be there on her part, as their life together is predicated upon mutual love and understanding.
But he was not ready accept this proposition, because it means his admission of the fact that he, not she, had been the 'abnormal one'
2. She should part company with him and live a life of her choice.
She was not up for this proposition either.
It was a hard decision to make. Separation entails her going back to her parents who will have to additionally take up her problem too. The conservative, patriarchal Kerala society has certain norms and perceptions about the identity of women. These norms often clash with the norms and values that a woman's belief and ideological convictions safeguard her with. The societal ethos related to the geographical region in which she inhabits have much too long covered layer upon layer the egalitarian outlook she must have internalised from her religion and other influences. One of the simple examples for this is the dowry system which Muslims practice despite its discord with the ethos of the Quran, which rather insists on the system of mahr.
For her, the prospective dowry was not the only issue, should this divorce really comes about. A divorced woman, especially the one who is believed by society to have parted ways with her scrupulous husband for her rather conceited and indulgent behaviour will be received with so much taboo that it will only add to her loneliness and worthlessness. It will further dwarf her attempts to get remarried to someone else and live together, if at all that is her and her parents' priority.
3. To make her understand her individuality and separate identity in which he has a part, but which is not subservient to his individuality and identity. This entails his as well as her coming to realise that there is nothing wrong in her having individuality.
The method was tactics. After he was made sure that the happiness out a life together relies on her job and growing up their children, his objection got tempered. Now it remains for her to have the income. He agreed to her having an account and enjoying half the payment she receives. That was the resolution.
Paranoid adaptation is the form of maladjustment in which a closely fortified individual self sees threat to his/her personality from surroundings. All adaptations are defence mechanisms through which the Id encounters and deals with the threat to its existence. Humour is a positive adaptation of the kind, while paranoia is one of the negative forms.
The man considers himself to be threatened by the significance and attention his wife receives from her professional life. His paranoia places her on the other side of his personality and makes him think that the freedom she enjoys will give her an identity which eventually will endanger his. He uses Islam as a tool to hide the paranoid adaptation.
In this case, the way ahead of a professional councillor was to facilitate ways in which the two can normalize their relationships much more than resolving the problem, especially as the problem case does not realise him as such.
Some months later, she dialled me to say that they are going on.......
Haseena Fathima is practising at Calicut. Mail her at hasina.manipal(at)gmail(.)com to fix her appointment