We have all heard the stories of ‘monsters-in-law’ when a group of women get talking about their husbands’ mothers. Some women are blessed with mothers-in-law who treat them as respected family members, while others struggle with finding balance between two of the most important women in a man’s life.
In Lesotho (southern Africa), this same dichotomy exists, but the ‘monsters-in-law’ are creating consequences far more severe than whose lasagna is preferred, or who will host Christmas dinner.
When we think about achieving gender equity, many of us assume that men are holding girls and women back through patriarchal norms. But mothers-in-law are women – and they have traditionally been one of the greatest hindrances to empowering women in Lesotho.
When a man and woman get married in Lesotho, it is traditional for the newlywed couple to live with the husband’s family for six months with no contact with the brides’ family. If she fails to meet her mother-in-law’s expectations, she will often be mocked and sometimes even abused. For many young women who enter into marriage with low self-esteem due to poverty, trauma and limited education, being verbally, emotionally, or physically abused by an older woman can give them the lowest sense of worth imaginable.
Mothers-in-law in Lesotho hold a tremendous amount of power that can be transferred to empower their daughters-in-law, or to abuse them. On the abusive end of the spectrum, the following are three of the most overt examples:
- Naming rights: Mothers-in-law can significantly change the identity of their daughters-in-law. When a girl gets married, her mother-in-law has the right, under customary law, to rename her anything she wants. Mothers-in-law who do not approve of their new daughter-in-law may give her a rude name that will make her feel ashamed to leave home. Mothers-in-law also get to name the couples’ first child, and the new mother’s identity is changed once again as she takes on the name ‘Ma-child’s name’.
- Doubt: Daughters-in-law live in scrutiny over every action they take; if they wear something that makes them look beautiful when they go to town, their mother-in-law might assume they are meeting another man. This level of mistrust manifests itself in relationships beyond mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, often leading to the wife being abused for something that her mother-in-law fabricated or exaggerated.
- Abuse: The way a mother raises her son plays a significant role in the extent to which a man respects and values women. For some mothers, they are so tragically accustomed to violence that they actually encourage their sons to perpetuate this deeply harmful behaviour. When mothers are threatened by their daughters-in-law, in terms of influence, money, or opportunity, some mothers-in-law will go as far as to instruct their son to ‘put the wife in her place’.
While there are no official statistics on the prevalence of mother-in-law conflict in Lesotho, it is clear that the issue is very common. There are at least as many women who share stories of conflict with their mothers-in-law as there are women who have been embraced by their mothers-in-law.
So, why are so many mothers-in-law limiting the freedom and confidence of their daughters-in-law? It’s certainly not that all mothers-in-law are inherently bad women. In fact, it’s not even all that difficult to understand things from the ‘monster-in-law’ perspective. If you were receiving financial support from your son, which would be typical in Lesotho where the majority of families live in poverty, and suddenly that support ended, you might also let feelings of jealousy and desperation affect your behaviour.
Perhaps the biggest reason for daughter-in-law mistreatment is the normalcy of it. Teliso Nchabeng, a Program Officer with Help Lesotho, explains that mothers-in-law face a high degree of peer pressure. Teliso says, “other mothers in law treat their daughter in laws poorly, so it’s like ‘keeping up with the neighbours’ to also follow suit”. Much of this mentality comes from mothers-in-law treating their daughters-in-law the way they were treated by their own mothers-in-law.
Mothers-in-law have the potential to significantly change the power dynamics within families at many levels – and if they use their influence for good – thereby foregoing the years of mistreatment and abuse – we will see daughters-in-law with stronger marriages, healthier children, and higher confidence fueled by the respect of their husbands and family members. ‘Monsters-in-law’ will be a myth of the past, or at least relegated to discussions about what colour of shirt the husband/son should wear for the family photo.
Cover photo credit: Help Lesotho