Injustice & Women in Families: Why Christian Ministries Must Fight for Change

by Beulah Wood

The author looks at families in Asian cultures and
offers a biblical view of marriage and the generations.

William Carey helped push British officials into legislating against female infanticide and ritual burning of widows two hundred years ago. My own mission, Interserve, commenced in 1852 with literacy and the gospel in the women’s quarters of Indian homes to counter forced ignorance and disempowerment.

In some places, women are better off than they were, and many Christians do care. Still, we as mission and compassion ministries fall far behind the justice God wants us to work for. Jeremiah 22:3 says, “Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed,” but widows are regularly deprived of marital property and their children disinherited. Proverbs 31:8 reads, “Open your mouth for the speechless,” yet millions of daughters are made speechless concerning things as basic as education, health, personal life, and work.

Oppressed within their own family, they are part of “normal” society, not those in famine, flood, or earthquake. They are not even trafficked or forced into prostitution—although the system leaves them exposed to these. The culture of family does not offer justice to many women, and few recognize it.

With names altered, I share stories of shockingly twisted values. Nirmala, 22, has an MA in literature. She is also forced by her parents to marry against her wishes. Lian beats his adopted daughter over the head and hammers her fingers. He and his wife made her a slave; at 19, she cannot write her name.

Kumar and Usha do not allow their son, a commercial pilot, to move out with his new wife. She sleeps on the sofa and serves Usha, until in despair she leaves her six-month marriage. Rajesh’s wife, living in a Bible school, never tells anyone that Rajesh beats her without mercy. These are Christians. What of non-believers?

Indian writers confirm the oppression within families. “Life for a woman in a joint family is a grim struggle” Suka Joshua once said (Jeyaraj 2001, 74-75). Out of forty highly-educated lecturers in a Christian women’s college, only eight had the freedom to choose their spouse. Seventy percent of families paid dowry to get their daughters a husband (Sekar 2001, 74-75). Male theologians confirm the partiality. PD Devanandam and MM Thomas explain, “For the most part, however, the moral demands of wedded life, namely for faithfulness, loyalty, obedience and service, are made more on the wife than on the husband, thus setting separate standards of morality, one for man and another for woman” (2007, 39).

Missions and the Culture of Family
Does this concern us in missions? Yes, because of the missio Dei. “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble,” says Psalm 9:9.

Missions and education have worked together since Carey’s time. We thought education would bring change. Yes, there is progress, especially in middle-class homes; but even the trained Officers for Women and Children of a large Christian development organization say that if they enter the room when their husband or father-in-law is discussing family business, the men stop talking until she leaves the room. They are invalidated in their own homes.

Development and compassion organizations include women in target group committees, micro-finance, and savings schemes. The same women may control to disadvantage their own daughters and daughters-in-law. This is not men oppressing women. That is only part of the truth. This is also women oppressing women to control the passing of wealth to the advantage of herself, her husband, and her sons. If we care to know anything of intercultural understanding, we must include this deeply-held, yet largely unrecognized cultural view. Not patriarchy, but the patrilineal worldview (bias in favor of the male for inheritance) controls many decisions made inside the four walls of a home.

In this view, sons are essential and have rights to inclusion and inheritance. Their sisters are temporary members, even a curse, eventually excluded, sent out to marry into another family. A proverb says, “Educating a girl is like watering your neighbor’s garden.” The girl becomes a conditional member of her marital family. How sad to never belong! Yet, sadder still, this woman then may ill-treat her daughters and daughters-in-law. This is her only self-protection for the future in a discriminatory system.

The reason? Since girls are regularly seen as temporary members, and daughters-in-law/wives as only conditionally welcome (dependent of giving birth to a son), the family is viewed as the male members who will benefit this (male) family, care for senior members, and inherit from them.

In order to become a full member of a family, a woman must give birth to a son, which not all can do. (Even having a son is precarious, since some women are still thrown out if their husband dies.) Many daughters-in-law are seen as necessary evils. Many are unwelcome. This leads to female abortion even in wealthy families, lack of welcome in too many families, and less schooling and medical care and arranged early marriage in poorer families.

Further down the same road it may even lead to abuse, female suicide, forced prostitution, exposure to AIDS, and trafficking—issues against which Christian missions and organizations fight a sometimes losing battle due to the internalized attitudes of family members. In another manipulation, parents of a son may require his obedience and view his work as their insurance policy and his wife’s dowry as their rightful windfall.

These are betrayals of justice, contrary to God’s definition of who he is. “The Lord is known by his acts of justice” (Ps. 9:16), and “I, the Lord, love justice” (Isa. 61:8).

The problem appears in West Asia as the extreme control and manipulation of females. In African countries where a bride-price reverses dowry, a woman is still second rate. Her husband feels he has bought her and can do with her as he wishes. In East Asia, the distaste for females surfaces in female abortions and son preference.

Is there biblical teaching to counter the actions of women against their own daughters and daughters-in-law? I propose there is.

Analyzing the Family Culture
While teaching in India, Nepal, or Bangladesh, I sometimes make a whiteboard list with “Some Wrong Reasons for Getting Married.” Answers often include:

• To please or to obey parents because he or she may become too old, and everyone must get married
• To obtain dowry from the young woman’s family (Dowry has risen in recent years to many thousands of rupees, kilograms of gold, cars, and apartments.)
• To get the daughter “settled” and off the parent’s hands
• To have sex
• For the couple to provide care and finance for the man’s elderly parents
• For the couple to have a son to carry on the man’s family and receive the inheritance
• So the mother-in-law can sit back and control a daughter-in-law
• For the wife to serve her husband’s family
• For the wife to bring another salary

This is hardly the foundation for happy marriages with the necessary strong bonding of respect, mutual love, and mutual self-sacrifice between husband and wife. One hears of marriages that run like parallel railway lines—the husband and wife each carry out their prescribed “role” with very little communication. Often, husbands obey their parents with no discussion with their wife.

Psychiatrist Jamila Koshy describes the results:

Women often have poor self-esteem and self-confidence. After feeling rejected and unwanted in the parental home, taken for granted, often abused and given little freedom in the marital home, disadvantaged at the workplace, and put down in religious life, it’s not surprising that very few women are self-confident or have a healthy idea of themselves. Self doubt, depression, and anxiety are common. Some women develop traits of dependence, wanting to please others at any cost, to cope with the world. Others over-compensate by being aggressive and angry all the time, or escape into fantasy worlds of TV serials, romantic novels or movies. (Koshy 2010)

Yet, missionaries and pastors are afraid to question families, for people say, “We must not interfere in the home. The relationship between husband and wife is sacred.” Sacred, set apart. Praise God that some homes are set apart for love and justice. Unfortunately, others are set apart for manipulation, deceit, and abuse, both psychological and physical.

I also ask each class, “What is the biblical reason for marrying?” Some Christians give a great answer—companionship—and back that up with, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him”’ (Gen. 2:18; note: “helper” is used many times in scripture for the Holy Spirit, consultant, assistant, or companion in the task). In the biblical view, husband and wife respect each other, for God made us all in his image (Gen. 1:27), equally gifted and accountable for his creation. However, families are complex and culture influences deeply.

Biblical Answers to Cultural Objections
Money and inheritance is at the root of much of Asian thinking on marriage, sons and daughters, who inherits, and dowry—and therefore on the lives of boys and girls. This is cultural, contributing to the thinking of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Christians. Does this concern missions? Christ tells us to build the Kingdom of God. We pray, “Thy will be done.” If there are unjust practices, God wants them to cease.

The traditional Indian view does not leave property to wives or daughters, believing them incompetent and inappropriate for decision-making concerning assets. Although Indian law now says daughters and sons should inherit equally, it is not the custom. While dowry was originally the young woman’s inheritance from her parents, today’s parents routinely pass the money and goods to their daughter’s new husband’s parents. Their daughter never sees it.

However, in the New Testament women are equal heirs of God. Jesus’ parable welcomed all to inherit from God: “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). Paul expected his whole congregation, not just the men, to inherit from God: “His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). He wrote to a whole Church of, “The Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light” (Col. 1:12; see also Eph. 1:14 and Col. 3:24).  

Peter reminded husbands that their wives were also heirs: “Your wives [are] heirs with you of the gracious gift of life” (1 Pet. 3: 7). This is an important point. If women are competent to inherit from God, surely they are competent to inherit from their own father and mother. We can rest assured that it is biblical for both sons and daughters to inherit family property.

Does a rule from heaven say sons (instead of daughters) must take care of their parents? Daughters are sometimes better at caring, but people think the daughter will belong to her husband’s family and will no longer be of use. Parents even resent being cared for by a daughter’s family. There is something wrong here.

We must move away from the culture if it does not reach God’s standards. Cultural behaviors are fine when they have no moral implications. This includes eating with hands vs. with a spoon; love marriages vs. arranged marriages when the young people are happy with the decision; eating dinner at 7 p.m. vs. 10 p.m.; etc. However, if cultural mores lead to morally unacceptable outcomes (e.g., aborting daughters, treating daughters as unwanted; discriminating against daughters by withholding food, health, education, value, and love), then they need to change. Neither sons nor daughters should be things, either to benefit parents or to do away with.

The Shape of the Generations at Marriage: A Biblical View

Let’s look at the meaning of the passing generations of a family.

1. Traditional view. The girl leaves her birth family and enters her husband’s family. This exists even in many Western marriage ceremonies. “Who gives this woman to this man?” the marriage celebrant asks. “I do,” responds the father.

2. More balanced view. The new husband and wife are each welcomed into the other’s family.
3. Biblical view. The new husband and wife each join the other’s family, and they start a new family. Now there are three families. Inside the circle of extended family are the wife’s birth family, the husband’s birth family, and their new family, plus too many other family connections to show.

A marriage starts a new family with its own decisions, inheritances, and finances. Genesis 2:24-25, repeated in Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:8, and Ephesians 5:31, gives the theological backing we need for the problems faced in hundreds of contexts where missionaries face injustice in families. “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24-25).

Both Old and New Testaments assume that marriage starts a new family in which husbands and wives act as their own unit, making decisions together, not controlled by previous generations. Abraham and Sarah (Genesis) and Elimelech and Naomi (Ruth) made their own decision to move elsewhere. We can see independent decisions made by Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph after their marriage, Ananias and Sapphira, and Priscilla and Aquila. First Corinthians 7 shows husbands and wives making decisions together as a unit without reference to the husband’s parents, which would be required in a strongly patrilineal worldview.

When it comes to women managing assets, Proverbs 31 tells us a wife had money to buy a field or give to the poor. The Shunnamite wife was wealthy (2 Kings 4:8-37), Dorcas gave to the poor, Lydia ran her own business, and Phoebe traveled independently hundreds of miles from Corinth to Rome. Joanna, the wife of Cuza, joined other women in supporting Jesus and the disciples from their own means. She had money and could spend it as she chose.

Concerning wives having personal decision-making power, two separate married women were prophets to the nation in their own right—Deborah and Huldah. In the New Testament, Mary made the decision to be the mother of the Christ child without being controlled by her husband-to-be, her father, or her father-in-law. Concerning care for the elderly, we notice it was Peter’s wife’s mother who lived in their house (Mark 1:30-31). The Bible does not tie families to a patrilineal view.

Replacing Parent/Son Worldview with Husband/Wife Commitment
Changes are occurring. But where they are not, missions and churches could teach and practice that each couple starts their own family, committed first to each other, but still having cordial relations with their birth families. Then they could model a family life of greater justice for all—men and women, boys and girls. Here are some further changes that would happen.

• Violence against daughters and daughters-in-law would diminish in a worldview in which they became desirable members of a family. Malachi 2:16 reminds us that God hates violence.

• Control by previous generations could dissipate when husbands and wives together plan for themselves, their children, money, jobs, and responsibilities in their extended families.

• Husbands and wives would build unity, becoming one flesh, thus diminishing spousal abuse.

• Parents would not prefer sons or abort unborn baby daughters, for they too would be valued as heirs.

• Nobody would ask or give dowry. Parents of both bride and groom would give gifts to the new family, not to the young man’s parents. Young men would decline dowry. Pastors would refuse to perform the marriage if any dowry changed hands.

• No mother would discriminate against her daughters by withholding food, education, or health care, and none would marry off their daughters under 18 years of age.

• Sons would not grow up believing men have privileges that women do not.

• Brothers and sisters would inherit equally from their parents, and elderly parents would be cared for by daughters, sons, or both.

• Widows would not be deprived of their marital property. Even the Old Testament spoke against men who “devour widow’s houses.”

In the justice issues that concern all of us in mission, a biblical theology of family generations would treasure all members, so none would experience discrimination. This much is clear. We have not taught the whole will of God in any culture until we teach God’s justice for every member of every family.

Devanandam, PD and MM Thomas, renewed by Joseph George. 2007 [1959]. The Changing Pattern of the Family in India. Bangalore: Christian Institute of the Study of Religion and Society.

Jeyaraj, Nirmala, ed. 2001. Women and Society. Tamil Nadu, India: Lady Doak College.

Koshy, Jamila. 2010. “Successful Women—Against the Odds.” Campus Link. Chennai, March-April.

Sekar, Kasturi. “Educated Working Women: Marriage and Fertility.” In Women and Society. Ed. Nirmala Jeyaraj, 411. Tamil Nadu, India: Lady Doak College.

Beulah Wood (DMin, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary) has worked and lectured in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka since she first reached India in 1968. A New Zealand mother and grandmother, Beulah hurts for women and men, boys and girls who face injustice inside families in discriminatory cultures. Currently, Beulah writes and teaches at South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 450-456. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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