How in-laws could save your life

Asha was successful. She had everything. Why then would she try to commit suicide?
Until four years ago, Asha, a 23-year-old Asian woman, seemed to have everything going for her. She was a successful biochemist, with a caring husband and a nice house in north London. Then she tried to commit suicide. Why would this woman, whose name means hope, who is beautiful and spirited with fighting, flashing eyes and a mind of her own try to end it all?

"Because I felt inadequate," she explains. "I wasn't the perfect woman I was expecting myself to be. My job was tough, but I couldn't give it the hours I needed to because people would see me failing in my responsibilities as a wife. My husband gives me a lot of freedom, but he did want the home to be tidy, the food cooked and I couldn't ever ask him to do more. You can't say that to an Asian man. We had other marital problems. I got so depressed. Then my friend, another graduate, who was really maltreated by her in-laws, she killed herself and I sort of wanted to follow her I think. And there are many others like me."

We are all familiar with the stories of Asian families who treat their son's wives like dirt. They are nagged, beaten, or taunted until they kill themselves. But Asha's experiences reflect the findings of a report published this week which paints a more complex picture. It confirms that suicide rates among young Asian women across different classes and religions are twice the national average (although Asian men are less at risk than white men). Veena Soni Raleigh, the author of the report - published by Surrey University - says: "I fear Asian women will again be stereotyped as repressed, destroyed by their families, when in fact they are diverse and many are incredibly powerful. But more important, we also have to see that the Asian family is a strong institution that extracts a price from its members, but it also confers tremendous benefits. At least, we don't have so many children in broken homes like in the rest of society. But the pressures on women are real and will need to be tackled by the families and the community."

Asha feels her problems were exacerbated by several factors. She couldn't talk to white counsellors because they "don't know what makes us tick. They would never understand why I could not just leave, that death was better, less shame." In any case, there is a taboo about talking about problems among Asians and even professional women, who are breadwinners, according to Ms Raleigh, prefer to put up with intolerable situations, even abuse, to let the status quo prevail. Asha found people expected her to cope because she was educated but also thought she would "fail" for the same reason. "We are so mixed up," Asha explained. "We want our girls to get qualifications, but we also expect them to be these obedient, long suffering devis [goddesses]. So if you are educated you have to prove even more that you are still an Indian woman." It is interesting that on Asian radio stations that run marriage introduction services, what most men ask for are (fair-skinned) girls who are educated "but not too much" so they are still "homely".

But as Ms Raleigh argues, the Asian family is also a source of security and support. As, in the end, they were for Asha. Her husband's family, appalled at what Asha had gone through, immediately rallied. Especially her dynamic 65-year-old mother-in-law, Sudha, who describes herself as "modern" and proves this by showing off a coil of lovely long jet black hair she keeps in a green fruitbowl: "I cut my hair. All the people were shocked, but like many other customs it is a silly tradition, it was always giving me headaches."

Although she is from a different generation, Sudha, who suffered herself as a young wife in Delhi, can identify with her daughter-in-law's problems. "My husband's mother completely controlled me. I had to work, cook, be a servant for 20 people in the family. My own family loved me so much and I didn't want to worry my parents. I wanted to kill myself also."

Sudha encouraged her three sons - who jointly run the family's business - to move into their own homes and set up as nuclear units. But after the attempted suicide, the family has regrouped and seven adults, six children (one disabled) now live together as an extended family in three terraced interconnected houses.

Sudha explains the decision: "Asha felt lost, alone, ashamed and unable to manage. So we thought, no more this suffering alone. We women can look after each other. My sons are good husbands, but they can't understand how a wife can feel. They are always so busy." The other two daughters- in-law, Roopa and Nimmi, both Brummies, were not sure at first that they wanted to surrender their independence. But after interminable family discussions they agreed to a year-long experiment. Now they would not have it any other way.

Roopa works for a computer firm. Asha (now pregnant and blooming) is still working and also studying to be a teacher. Nimmi has chosen to stay at home to manage the domestic arrangements. Each wife does the cooking for a week, with the others gathering in the kitchen to help if and when they are needed. Child care is, of course, not a problem. Nimmi, who loves films, goes out more than the others, but then she is the one who takes all the children to school and back every day. Sitting with them in the kitchen, with jibes, stories, laughs flying across the room, and an endless stream of children coming and going, you could feel extraordinarily envious.

Sudha, the benign matriarch, cackles raucously as she talks: "These are my daughters. We understand each other. We give and take and their lives are free, but within limits. We all gain by living like this, it is better for us and for the children. They respect me, and together we are so strong. Ask them now if they want to kill themselves."

Nimmi does have reservations about the arrangement. "I have strong opinions, and sometimes I do find all this too much. And all this interference. You learn to fight with your husband in whispers so they can't hear." But Nimmi would not dream, she says, of breaking away from the extended family, not least because it is her son who was born handicapped and she appreciates how much easier it is now to care for him. "He has three mothers and fathers now." For Asha, the arrangement has saved her life: "I can talk to someone and be understood and it is within our four walls. It's not all in my head. I don't feel I have to be a perfect wife like in all those Hindi films. Or that there is something wrong with me because I am clever and ambitious. Of course it is not all rosy. We women have disagreements, quarrels. Ama [Sudha] favours her sons at times when she shouldn't. And there is no silent corner to escape to. But you know, this is not a recipe for all people."

Asha tells me about some radical changes the young women have instituted: "Before, Sudha used to wait up till midnight and cook fresh chapattis for her sons. Well now, if they are not in for dinner, tough. They can help themselves." The men are not deliriously happy, but they do see the point.

"Making money is easy," laughs Suman, Asha's husband. "Keeping your wife and mother happy is much harder. We used to think that our girls would stay the same. That was not fair and we should make some changes in our community now. We can't expect them to go to university and nothing changes. That is just foolish. But, my dear, change is so hard."