Updated: Jun 17
"The fortune of being born in a joint family system ruined my childhood to the core. I got bullied, mentally tortured, and physically abused while living around those who were supposed to protect and nurture me for my good."
"I had never thought that living in a joint family system after marriage was going to be so challenging for my mental peace. I am not even allowed to plan a single dine-out alone with my husband. They criticize me for staying in the room alone when everybody else is home. My personal space is restricted in the vicinity of a small room, that too under the scrutiny of in-laws."
"Just because my cousins are all doctors and engineers, I had to give up on my dream of becoming an airforce officer. I was abandoned, but no one cares as long as I retain their family honour."
Did any of the above stories sound familiar to you? These are a few of the real-life experiences of people who are the victims of the culture of a toxic joint family system. While choosing this subject to write on, I was aware of the criticism for correlating the joint family system with such unfortunate personal scenarios. In Pakistan, one of the main cultural pillars of our social system lies in the inherent legacy of the joint family system followed religiously for ages. Therefore, it has become such a blindly followed and accepted tradition that people refuse to discuss its dark side.
In our culture, the joint family system is seen as the ultimate way of having a successful family status in society. We grew up listening to the repetitive statement that the joint family system is the beauty of eastern culture that brings harmony, love, and peace among a family, but the truth seems to be otherwise. A joint family system was always believed to come with the benefit where both men and women got emotional, financial, and moral support from other family members, but do we ever consider the cost these favours come with? Call it irony or Cultural Revolution, today's youth shows more inclination towards an independent living system where they get to enjoy their personal space and freedom to live on their own terms.
However, neither am I trying to invalidate the goodness of a joint family system nor advocate the privileges of a separate family system because each has its own pros and cons. But where the problem lies is that people are blindfolded, imposing this family setup on the next generation without amending or even accepting its flaws.
Whether it's Pakistan or any other Asian country, the joint family system comes from the background of a patriarchal mindset. This family concept is often based on male supremacy who is the only decision-maker for even the tiniest matter of the family. And as I discussed earlier, the joint family system possesses great aspects of social and financial benefits for its people; this one-man supreme monarchy often comes at the cost of undermining the individuality of others, which is what makes the joint family system difficult when people are denied their individual rights, freedom of expression, and personal space for decision-making.
With the increase in urban expansion, societal pressure, and economic instability, young people are inclined more towards segregated family units. However, in this revolutionary age, the youth has developed new ways of living rather than sticking to the traditional ones. And while change always looks good, such things are not thoroughly welcomed in the joint family system.
In a joint family setup, everyone comes from a different mindset. And when one has to consider everyone's opinion on personal matters, it certainly becomes a challenge to find that perfect balance to get one's own choices approved. Respecting or prioritizing elders' opinions is one thing, but following them blindfolded or getting emotional blackmailed is an irrational cultural approach. Unfortunately, decisions are not made comprehensively, and when anyone dares to even question the final call, they are called disrespectful or disobedient towards their elders.
Irrespective of their experience and wisdom, elders are also vulnerable to making bad decisions; they are humans too. How can one expect others to flourish and grow with time in a system that makes others voiceless goats? How can they survive on their own when they are left alone in any unusual circumstances? Decisions should not be made on the basis of a dictatorship approach" but on what is legitimately right.
You get two B'selders' in school results; meanwhile, your cousin stands proudly on top with an A-one result, and that initiates the never-ending rat-race between them. I strongly feel that we all can relate to this dilemma of being compared to others. Whether it's a lifestyle, dressing sense, school grades, eating behaviour, personal choices, and whatnot, one's comparison to another goes to a level that dooms their self-respect and confidence. Such judgmental behaviour causes childhood traumas that take years to cope up with.
Another humiliating element of the joint family system is the traditional yet toxic family politics that mostly occurs among family members. Such villainous characters have the sole purpose of bringing others down through evil plots. Remember that classical StarPlus era and its iconic "Saas-Bahu" based dramas? I always thought that such ridiculous saazishein could only be seen in tv dramas, but no, I was proven wrong. We all have witnessed such toxic relationships within or outside our family circle. These are the people who unnecessarily argue about little things making them a big deal, which eventually leads to family disputes. Indulging in such meaningless quarrels only affects one's mental health while simultaneously damaging the peaceful environment within the family.
Another factor for which the joint family system gets criticized is the lack of privacy. In the brown family, the word "privacy" exists only for a married couple and, that too is only given in the boundary of their own room. Others, especially the younger members, find it difficult to get any private space where they are not mocked or criticized. It just takes a minute to start gossiping at the dinner table about someone's personal matters knowing how uncomfortable it could be for them.
Another fiasco while living in a joint family system is the vicious cycle of cousin marriages. It has become a common practice in this culture to let a 10-year older man get married to his younger cousin without her consent, under the tag of, "Ghar ki baat me Ghar me reh jayegi." Here, it is necessary to mention that I am not against the very concept of cousin marriages, providing the mutual consent of both, but forcing them into such a relationship just for the sake of family honour is just not acceptable in any case.
On the other hand, from the financial perspective, the joint family system looks good with the monthly budget, given that expenses are divided among many bread earners. However, in some cases, when one is more financially stable than the other, the former eventually have to share more of their income, hence resulting in an unfair distribution of expenses.
To recapitulate everything said, I am not trying to invalidate the prestigious concept of a joint family because there are some great examples of families living their best being grown in such a system. Be it from a religious, cultural, or social perspective, everyone should have the freedom to opt for whatever family system they prefer. Such problematic social issues could be occurring in the nuclear family system too. And when this false cultural norm gets manipulated in the name of religion, it makes it even hard for people to stand against it. It is disheartening to see people being morally schooled or considered rebellious if they choose to live alone than being surrounded by their extended family members. It has become the need of the hour to reassess our cultural norms and this obsession with the joint family system.
Aatqa Ali is an in-house writer at Perspective.