The Phuppo Paradigm: Navigating family dynamics in a patriarchal society

“In patriarchal societies a woman’s autonomy primarily depends on the male members of her house.”

“In patriarchal societies a woman’s autonomy primarily depends on the male members of her house.”

“You’ve been promoted from phuppo to khala, (fraternal aunt to maternal aunt)” my sister-in-law joked after Vali, my too-cute-for-words nephew, urinated on me. Perhaps it was a feline-like affirmation of the special bond that him and I shared. The affection I felt for this little human being was organic and unconditional and I couldn’t fathom how and why the role of phuppo (fraternal aunt) was attached with such infamy. Or why so many phuppos were truly terrible and why they’re seemingly improving by the generation. You may argue my statements to be an over-generalization, but I had enough friends telling me about their phuppo woes, enough memes on the Internet mocking phupiyan (fraternal aunts, plural form) and enough personal experience to provide material.

My dad’s mother was widowed as a teenager. The wedding was never consummated but that didn’t stop people from commenting on her misfortune. The years passed until one afternoon she hung laundry out to dry on her roof and my grandfather saw her. It was love at first sight or at least that’s what she said and so Khurshid married Tehzeeb, much to the annoyance of his sisters who couldn’t accept a widow for their brother. Subjected to a frequent barrage of snide remarks and hostility by her sisters-in-law, my dadi fell so ill that my dada moved her back to her maternal home where they both lived until her passing. His decision to put his wife’s needs first largely contradicted the regressive values he was surrounded by.

The following generation improved slightly, though I primarily credit my mother’s no-nonsense approach towards kitchen politics for that. But growing up I also witnessed my share of subtle verbal jabs, dramatic oath-takings, and an array of manipulating tactics. I never thought I would make it that far, but I was also deliberately uninvited to a couple events. The lack of both direct confrontation and explicit disliking makes it clear that it was never personal. This was beyond the “I just don’t like you” rationale. It was collateral damage resulting from years of a power struggle between women that spent their lives navigating the constraints of patriarchy.

In patriarchal societies a woman’s autonomy primarily depends on the male members of her house. She is born under her father’s control and as she starts to blossom her brother becomes her guardian. The guardianship isn’t limited to care and concern, but it extends to her independence, her financial freedom and her decisions. That does not discredit the love they feel towards her and she piggybacks on that affection to have her opinion heard and her material needs met. The window for power is small and tight so when a new woman joins her family by marriage to her brother, she’s automatically assumed to be a threat.

The tug-of-war of a bhabi (brother’s wife) and a nand (husband’s sister) is more or less a blatant display of a power struggle. There is an obvious division of resources, finances, attention and whatever little bit of control the women have achieved. To protect her own interests and to satisfy her insecurities she relies mainly on the tactics she learned growing up: manipulating her family members to dismiss her bhabi’s opinions, wrongly accusing her of actions she did not commit, and interfering in her brother’s marriage. This is rarely ever personal; in fact she may even appreciate her bhabi as an individual but in the context of her home she’s a competitor in this race for control.

This cycle continues when she departs to her martial home. Now she’s under the control of her husband. When her husband oppresses her she finds solace in knowing her brother will come to her rescue. If her husband fails to provide her finances, she turns to her brother.  It becomes a vicious cycle of comparison – what does my bhabi have that I do not? What she fails to see is that her bhabi is also trying to navigate through traditional patriarchy.

When children are added to the equation, the nand adopts the role of phuppo to her brother’s offspring. A woman’s childbearing ability increases her leverage in the family and so bhateejas (nephews, born to brothers) and bhateejis (nieces, born to brothers) are a climbing stone – a direct by-product of bhabi.  In an attempt to re-assert her power and place as a female member of the household, the phuppo subjects the children to criticism, intimidation or hurtful behaviour. A kind of low blow directed to affect the opponent. She probably loves the kids to some extent but her feelings of powerlessness give way. Often the children that witness this behaviour develop an obvious aversion towards their phuppo – unable to comprehend the underlying cause for her actions. She spends her life struggling to make her place and the chain persists when she becomes a mother-in-law.

Exceptions exist of course, my nani and Razia, my dad’s cousin, are both incredibly loving phuppos. They have two main things in common: 1) no insecurities regarding their hierarchal placement 2) unrestricted access to finances. This is the reason we see a decline in phuppo-related infamy today and the reason so many phuppos were awful in the past. The increase in access to opportunities that provide financial freedom and independence removes the necessity to battle for autonomy. Women developing lives outside of the family home and couples choosing to live in nuclear units are all contributing factors. The fall of the phuppo stereotype is imminent but its complete eradication relies on the very women that initiated it. Farwah reminds me everyday that it’s possible to build a trusting relationship with your sister-in-law independent of your brother; that the phuppo paradigm lies in the tagline of a StarPlus series, “Ek nanad ki khushiyon ki chabhi, meri bhabi (the key to a sister-in-law’s happiness lies within my brother’s wife.”

by Fatima Kazmi

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