Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why women are not allowed to lit pyre during cremation?

I think very few people are comfortable to talk about death and issues related with it but this topic is not only related with death but mainly it's related with gender discrimination. It’s not that I am trying to link almost all topics on my blog with gender discrimination but many of these things are really closely related and understanding them in more detail might explain society's heavy prejudice towards women. 

Cremation is an extremely important ritual for Hindus and people belonging to most of other religions. It is an ancient custom among Hindus to cremate their dead. Hindus believe it releases an individual’s soul from its temporary physical body so it can be reborn. If this process is not done properly, then it is thought that the soul will be disturbed and won’t find its way to its proper place in the afterlife and come back to haunt living relatives, so it has huge significance. After a person dies (male or female doesn't matter), it is understood that the lighting of the funeral pyre will be led by the eldest son of the deceased, if he/she don’t have a son then grandson, and so on but it has to be some male adult or child from their family. 

One of the primary reasons that Hindus wish for a son is that only sons can carry out funeral rites which can give them mukti or moksha. It is possible to substitute another relative for a son but this is generally regarded as much less effective. Traditionally women have not been allowed at cremations because it is believed that they are emotionally not as strong as men and they might cry and can not handle the emotional trauma associated with this act. Women are not even supposed to enter the cremation area or even watch what goes on inside it. This includes close women relatives and family members of diseased person. They are allowed to help to lay out the body at home and some other rituals but carrying the body, gathering the wood and lighting the fire are all considered as man's work. One might wonder why was so, and is there any explanation for this or it is again example of gender discrimination? It seems there is some explanation for this, we all know that during early days of our civilization, fire used to be started by rubbing sticks or stones against each other. Therefore lighting any fire afresh used to be a difficult, time-consuming and laborious task and required a lot of physical effort and energy. May be that is why women were not allowed to do this job because physically there are weaker than men. This practice of a strong male (usually the eldest son) lighting the funeral pyre slowly grew into a custom, which over time became quite rigid almost like a law along with time too many superstitions also got attached with it. I think this is what led to the belief that the last rites for a parent or any person would not be acceptable to almighty God religiously unless the deceased's son or any other legal male heir had carried them out. This thinking put more pressure on the families to have sons while undermining the importance of daughters, even many Hindi movies used to have this emotional dialogue where person used to say to his/her son 'my son if you won’t be there then who will lit my pyre?' (बेटाअगर तू नहीं रहेगा तो मेरी चिता को आग कौन लगाएगा?), and even by mistake also they don't say this to their daughters, so the prejudice remains even in movies and this belief is very strong.

So one can almost see a pattern in all these issues, most of these customs, rituals or some superstitions are something which started because of unique situation (social and economical) and requirement at that time (some thousands of years ago), empowering particular gender with certain status and responsibility and slowly it became rigid rule and a way to suppress other gender (females), it needs to stop somewhere and I think our generation has power and capability to do that. I am not saying that now make women to lit pyre and kick men out, this not my definition of women liberalization but what I am saying is give them an option, give them equal treatment, remove that prejudice and bias against them and then it will be women's choice what to do but at least let them choose, allow them to say no, but let it be their choice.
  
Thanks for reading and please share your views on this topic. 

(Copyright: Vinay Thakur. Please contact the author for re-posting or publishing) 

35 comments:

  1. Women are not included in the Hindu cremation not because of any gender discrimination but because they are considered emotionally more sensitive then men & there is a tendency that they will weep at the place of cremation. Tears are considered as pollutant during the cremation according to Hindu Vedas plus there are other issues attached with females which are considered to be polluting in the Vedas,
    So women are not included in the Cremation but they have their rites to perform while the deceased body is being taken out of the house for cremation.
    There is no such issue as discrimination as I see. Even in other religions, some tasks are strictly to be done by men. This is how the religions are. A women can't dig your grave Sir! There has to be an undertaker & undertaker by virtue of nature are not women.

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    1. Thanks a lot for your comment and initiating the discussion. If you read the post carefully, I already offered this explanation as a reason how this custom originated. Woen are considered as "emotionally more sensitive" but that doesnt mean all of them are, I have seem many women who are emotionally very strong and many men who are emotionally very sensitive or weak, one can not generalize this behavior, it varies from person to person.

      This whole concept of male lighting pyre to get moksha has created heavy bias towards desire of having male child in Indian society and this is how discrimination creeps in, slowly traditions like these develop people's mindset and before we know they turn into heavy bias against particular gender or section of society, there are many examples like this.

      And why women can't dig grave? What is problem, they are capable of doing all jobs which men can do, so why not in this case if they want to do it? May be you can not see discrimination here but I can see it clearly.

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    2. Me and my sister being the only daughter in the family when my father died my son and my husband being the only male in the family did the cremation.since my son was only 4 years old then he was uncomfortable to go since he is more attached to me and when i urged to go along with him people never said anything i was allowed in the cremation ground. People openly accept it these days may be not in villages.

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    3. Thanks for sharing your experience. Good to see that things are changing, if women continue to fight for their rights, society has to do away with all discriminatory practices, it will take some time, but I am sure one day, it will happen.

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    4. I'm from Trinidad and last December I performed the last rites for my deceased mother. I'm her only daughter and I just turned 28 at the time. My mother had two brothers and one nephew however she hadn't lived well with them & that basically flat out refused to perform any rites for her. They opted to just attend the funeral. My mother was a practicing Hindu, born a bramhin I remember last year when she died, feeling very alone. I'm a very strong female, my father was never in the picture ever since I was born, so I grew up never relying on a man, so placing the kind of importance on a man to perform certain functions for the funeral seemed like an embarrassing burden /request on my male family members, though, due to tradition I did ask anyway & was declined. So basically from the moment my mother died at the hospital, I was with her body,I signed all of her documents, I, alongside my 26yr old female cousin went to the morgue with the local Hindu funeral company personnel to identify & release her to them. It took one day to organize her funeral, which I paid for, chose wooden casket, cosmetics, clothes & whatever else the funeral home required, plus I had to register the death, get the relevant death certificate and cremation license, and purchase all of the funeral/puja requirements (no man involved yet)
      I remember my pundit being so immensely conflicted as he was a very "by the book" man, so allowing me to perform her final rites was basically unprecedented over here, and I would've been his first ever. he pleaded with the male relatives & when he met no success, on the day of the funeral he told me to wear something white, I'm going to perform it. So I had to offer pinders, I traveled in the hearse with her body to the cremation site, I walked barefooted At the cremation site (that was insane to me but I guess men do it) I did everything a man was supposed to do that day. I walked around the funeral pyre, I recited chants, I lit my mother's body on fire. Literally, the process here is to place a flaming stick on the deceased's Face/mouth as the body is encased in a 6ft rectangular wooden funeral pyre.It was kind of morbid,but I did as instructed. At one point during the funeral I think my eyes welled up with tears but because so many eyes were on my I just held them back, so the bit about females being emotional, I honestly wasn't a teary mess even though I was sad, I was just numb or something I can't say.

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    5. I waited till she was properly cremated with my aunts & uncles. Oh, I remember the pundit telling me that I had to personally shovel her ashes before dawn the next morning. Can you imagine, me driving to this dark desolate cremation site and shoveling up her ashes by myself & pushing a wheelbarrow into a bushy creepy lonely shadowy jetty & throwing her ashes into a river? Maybe you could but I couldn't lol....I sort of disobeyed the pundit in this regard & organized with the funeral home to provide me with a "cleanup team" so that I could have a little help while I performed the rituals. Plus the pundit required me to pick out a few bones from her chest & perform rituals over it. Looking at the ashy debris, it was really hard for me to tell what was what, let alone specifically pick out chest bones! Luckily for me, my two uncles & my aunt decided to accompany me the following morning to the cremation site, honestly it was a welcome surprise as my uncles had done those rites before, so I ended up with a lot of help! About 6 wheelbarrow trips to the river and back,i had completed that aspect of the cremation process.i basically fasted for the entire 2 week period, I think the pundit wanted me to live on sweet rice & fruits but I am an insulin-dependant diabetic and that wasn't a feasible diet for me to be on health-wise. This isn't a gender related issues though, as men can suffer from the same lol....I remember on the 11th day of the "shaving", I had to cut my hair, but thankfully I didn't have to shave it off lol....I think my pundits were concerned that as a female, I would be "impure" if I somehow had to menstruate during the mourning period, as this would be considered unclean & would potentially derail the whole process but I also have pcos, therefore in my case I hadn't seen a period for months, if not, a year lol
      I know this was a long story but this was definitely a defining experience in my life as I'm honoured to perform something so sacred for my mother as truly, being the only child to a single parent,it felt right in my heart to perform those last rites, the only problem according to Hinduism was that I wasn't a male

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    6. Thanks a lot for sharing your story. I salute to your courage and conviction. I am really proud of the courage you showed to perform last rites of your mother. People like you are the torch bearers of social change. You are a social reformer and I applaud your actions. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

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    7. sir.
      petforming of last rites of a dead person is one of the most noble work (performing karma) a person can ever do.
      As long as my elder brother was alive (died on june 2013) he performed the last rites of our mother and father.
      When my 3rd elder died at age of 62 (she being unmarried) i took the initiate to perform her last rites (which has given me imense satisfation then anything in the world.My stupid other 2 elder sisters thought of giving me some money for this valueable yeomen service the next day thru my elder sisters son which i felt very angry and did not comment being just 5th day.i thought and told my wife are they trying to pay for her hasthi )i did it as love and effection and so no amount on earth can balance this noble act.
      So one should be afraid to perform such a noble service.
      in war and other remote places i think were the dead persons corpse cannot be for sone reason be sent to their home its the co soldiers who does these noble cause

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  2. A similar blog like this I have read few years back. Commented their also.
    There is two reasons as per me: women r too sensitive n women may be having period.

    Now, not all women r too sensitive. So many women r headstrong. Second, earlier sanitary napkins were not there. Also general weakness. So woman were given rest time. Many kept outside house. But now sanitary napkins r there...person can still be clean even if blood is oozing. But many people will say no. So it is ultimately upon woman. Many woman in my life r against doing prayer when in period. Cremation is far off thing.

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    1. Thanks a lot for visiting the blog and sharing your thoughts. I already wrote in post that there might have been some valid reason when this rule was introduced but this doesn't make any sense now so it should be abandoned. I wrote separate post about worshiping during menstruation have a look at it,

      http://selfrealization-vinay.blogspot.com/2012/12/worshiping-while-menstruating-whats.html

      please go through comments section also to see what people think about this problem.

      I don't think its entirely up to women, because we still live in male dominated society and so unless they get support from society it will not be easy to break these traditions or unwritten rules. I hope slowly they (women) will be aware of their rights and will demand total equality not a pseudo-equality.

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    2. Support is something everyone should stop begging for... There's enough support if you dig around, but people, in this case woman, have habit of complaining.... It's like murgi pahele ki anda... Instead of abandoning this practice, women should just start following what is right... Enough of spoon feeding

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    3. I agree Vishnu that they need to fight for their won rights and learn to stand up for what they believe is right. But from my personal experience I know that there are many who don't even know that there can be alternative to the life which they are living, they all think that as a woman (or as a man) they are destined to live particular type of life and no one can change that. Some times they need support to stand firm in environment totally hostile to them, this can be because of so many reasons, lack of education, awareness or patriarchal culture, social pressure, etc. There is enough support in some societies but not everywhere that's why we cant generalize to say that there is enough support everywhere. We need to do our job after all its all up to women whether they want to fight their own battle or not, and lets hope that they decide to fight it one their own with little or no help.

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  3. I too strongly feel there is a discrimination associated with this custom. Think of a person who doesnt have a son and even grandson. In such a situation, people prefer relying on an outsider to do this ritual instead of the daugther being allowed to. I feel its a shame. Daughters are no less than sons, and I feel they can be emotionally strong too. It should be a matter of personal choice rather than a hard n fast rule. Time for changing mindsets please and not letting daughters be a burden always.

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    1. Thanks a lot Neha for visiting the blog and sharing your views, once more and more people like us will start raising objections to such discriminatory practices then only these customs will change. You are absolutely right when you say that 'daughters are no less than son, and such discriminatory traditions need to go so that people can really see this. I am glad that people are becoming aware about their rights and raising objection to discriminatory traditions like this, slowly we will eradicate discrimination from society (or at least minimize it). Thanks.

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  4. I am a girl and I have lit the funeral pyre after my father passed away. All the religious rites done on the 10th day, 12th day and on one year completion (Shraaddh) were also done by me. I was 22 years old at that time. Being an only daughter with no close male cousins, I and my mother took this decision. All the responsibilities of my family after his death have come upon on my shoulders. I feel conducting his last rites were just a beginning of my responsibilities. And I am proud that I did not rely on any other male family member for the same. There were people applauding me for this decision and there were also some criticizing it. I neither care about the criticism nor the praises. It was my duty as a daughter towards my father. I am sure he would be proud of me. If a daughter can be a legal heir to the familial property, she can also share the duties expected only from a son. Emotional strength is the only requirement for doing this. Societal pressure against women participating in these rites was, is and will always be there. But it is up to the woman to not let the society dictate what is right and wrong. I believe if she has the emotional strength to carry out the last rites of her loved one then she is courageous enough to stand up against such prejudices.

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    1. First of all huge thanks for sharing your experience on blog. I salute you for your courage and ability to stand for your beliefs, you can see that very few have this ability. It is people like you who initiate the positive change, it's people like you who challenge discrimination and fight against it. It is not easy to take such decisions which go against conventional social norm at such emotionally delicate situation, you definitely deserve all the praise which you are getting. As you said there will be some who might criticize but these people criticize anything which doesn't suit their taste so better to ignore them.

      I wish all females think the way you think, as you said they need to become emotionally strong and not to let society dictate what is right and wrong for them. Once again I applaud for your courage and determination and thanks you for sharing your experience on blog, comments like this give me immense courage to continue this fight against discrimination. Thanks a lot.

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    2. Hi,

      All females are bold. It is just that who has courage to fight and who doesn't. When my Nana and Nani passed away, my mom did the cremation and other rituals, me and my younger sister were with her. It is a matter of being speaking for yourself.

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  5. Women have to encourage and laud other women who gather the courage to carry out the cremation and carry out shraddh ceremonies. My only daughter will be our legal heir and i really hope that she will be carrying out the cremation and all the procedures for us after our death. I am unsure about the pandits available in society who will support this. A list of such pandits or purohits if added to the blog will be a good resource.

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    1. I agree with you that women rather entire society needs to support women to challenge such gender discriminatory practices. Recently Pankaja Munde took this bold step and it was highlighted in media, I hope this helps many other females who are willing to take this step.

      http://selfrealization-vinay.blogspot.com/2014/06/significance-of-pankaja-mundes-action.html

      I am sure most pandits wont have any objection to woman doing last rights of any dead person, mostly they care about their honorarium (dakshina) so I don't this it will be an issue. If family (a key factor in this) and society is supportive then we can bring this change.

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    2. i am from Mauritius. i went to the crematorium and i was insulted by the pandit in front of everyone because i attended the funeral of my grandmother. i think we, women we should fight for our rights and remove this kind of injustice.

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  6. I'm the only child and did funeral rights for my parents. I was denied however to do the 1st mth prayer in Shiv temple for my dad. I find it ridiculous.

    The priest argued with me so much extensively though just 11mths ago I did this rites for my mum. I couldn't bother to argue so I let my husband carry out the ceremony instead.

    My question is in which book does it say females shouldn't carry out these rites? I just need written proof. That's all.

    Thank you in advance.


    Selvvee

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  7. Vinay ji thz so much i am very impresses abt this article but one dought abt it as per hindu religion some controverses is their on this issuse,what are they??plz try to conduct some workshops on it.
    I am living in a male dominated family and i have no boy child so facing some problems
    I am just waiting for a day "SOCIETY WITHOUT GENDER DESCRIMINATION"

    PLZ give publicity and send vast whatsapp mesgs on wrong myths on this issuse(vinay ji i am poor in english pardon me if wrote any wrong)

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  8. I'm not denying the consideration given to females in this matter but when there is no option,like in my case (I'm the only child), priests or relatives making a big fuss about not allowing us to do the ceremony is rather absurd.
    Times are changing. Many have only one child. We have to be flexible. Females are strong gender too.
    To assume we are still the same old gentle creatures who can fend for ourselves is very backdated.
    I have one daughter too myself. An only child. And she is a strong girl mentally who understands death is just as wonderful as life itself.
    It's important to teach and train children to be a strong character. It is a female,after all, who brings up her son and make him a MAN. She trains him to be strong and resilient and responsible.
    A woman in many ways are stronger than men emotionally.
    Hindu religion is science basically. And Hindu religion has MAHASHAKTI depicted in the former of a woman.
    Old traditions like this should be revised and updated. I love my tradition and religion but I feel useless when I'm told I cannot do my last rites for my parents.
    It's not fair for me and it's definitely not fair for my parents.

    My soul will NEVER accept anyone else doing my last rites except by my child.

    Would you?

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  9. I was stopped forcefully even to enter the crematorium. So many close relatives were against it. Even women

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    1. This is result of strong hold of patriarchal society, both men and women have become flag holders of that culture. We all need to speak up and claim our rights, no one is going to had it over to us, it won't be easy, but will never happen if we all don't try. So keep trying, don't give up.

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  10. Enter your comment...Yes vinay jee u plz start workshops on this topic so many women who are single daughters to parents can gain about all the rituals of last rites of their parents. They can have the knowledge of technical issues about this and open hearted men also can support women than q

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    1. I don't think any workshop will help, we need to spread awareness. Women need to be aware of their own rights, responsibilities and strengths. They need to demand their rightful place in society, they need to control their own destiny and break away from outdated cultural restraint and discriminatory traditions imposed on them. Only women can do it, others can help or assist, but they need to initiate this movement.

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  11. But then i read in the other article that long hair attracts negative energy so if that would happen it can cause harm to us. I mean what actually should be considered just. At points we feel it's okay to allow women to light a pyre but on the other hand this raises a big question on what would happen if negative energy gets attracted to those long black hair.They also say that if girls want to get to the funerals they do have an option but it comes along with a mandatory condition that is get your hair shaved. Is it appropriate??

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    1. Thanks Mitali for sharing your concern. Energy is energy, we perceive it as a negative or a positive. Law of conservation of energy is the only thing we need to know, our hair have nothing to do with what type of energy we attract (if at all we attract any). Shaving one's hair after death in family is a personal choice, many do it, but many don't, so it is not a mandatory ritual. Many other religions allow females during dead body burial, but nothing wrong happens to them. Why? think about it.

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  12. I was born as a Hindu, but not sure if I believe in any one of these ancient formalities including the Death. For one, I believe we should all donate our useful organs including the skull and bones to the Medical Institutions for research and harvest the organs for others including skin graft etc and students to learn anatomy. All regions are invented by men when there was no idea on using organs or blood transfusion etc and following that is simply wasting a body that still some use, but to be burnt and that too polluting river Ganges the most polluted river, called very sacred Now on the issue of equality of women, all religion being male inventions have treated all women as baby making machines and lust or maid services all along sanctified by Religion that Women too consider as Holy without realization their status as maid to clean temples or Mosques or Churches and cooking food and cleaning there? So I feel this whole discussion is beating around the bush or at the symptoms and not the disease? So lighting the pyre should be available to women as well and the thought one goes to Moksha (what is that? Do U believe anything in real world except if its connected to religion?), that too after death (so much affinity for the dead body by the dead? Can not believe? How do we know what is happening to our body after death and why worry about it? Every body wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die:-) How about polluting the air and earth with dead bodies burnt or burred? What annoys me most is that connecting religion to God as if God asked the Men to ill treat women as 3rd rate citizens including female infanticides? That is a symptom generated from Religion, resulting in treating women as inferior specimen but needed for lust, with NO rights? What a charade? How on earth women get equality without eliminating the root cause? Pathetic..... Sambamoorthy

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    1. Thanks for sharing your views. I do agree with most of the points you mentioned in your comment, but issue here is not personal beliefs, but how to introduce concept of equality and remove gender bias from our society one step at a time. Any change takes time; social, political, or nay other. We need to start with the system what we have and work on it. To understand is not to condone, but to explain and try not to make the same mistakes which our ancestors have made. Thanks again for sharing your views, I really appreciate it.

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  13. After reading all your comments, I am moved truly. Last year I lost my mother-in-law and I was the only woman who was standing beside all the male members in the family. During the ceremony I saw my husband and other close members of the family crying and in tears. So I ask this question that doesn't the tears of male pollute the area?
    Secondly,I believe for ages women have given in to the male physical forces. So in this respect if we have to change something then we need female priests who will not support but instead allow women to perform the cremation. Some may laugh at this proposition, but I feel charity begins at home. Even every parent who has a single girl child in their lives and has no male member in the family, they should legally give write it down that their daughters can perform the cremation. That is how we can small changes. I myself being a single girl child in the family, I always think who is going to perform the last rites of my parents,even though they r still alive. I understand it might be emotional and some may become furious but some people in society have to understand that we r not here to fight instead we r here to do the right and equal things for both genders.

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    1. Thanks a lot Alina for sharing your thoughts, your suggestion is very pertinent and should be considered by all who are interested to bring this social change where women will have equal rites to perform last rites of their parents like men. We all can contribute to bring that change by taking one small step at a time. Thanks again for sharing your ideas.

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  14. Today I feel so proud of my parents that they have treated us equal, we have seen our our grandmother cremation, Uncles's cremation.
    And after marriage it is really surprising that people say me & my husband that there is no need to follow the 13 days Ritual... why because this is girl side death so according to that we dont have to follow any ritual, we are just allowed to cry Huh!! Though my family has told us to follow.... But it is really surprising where are we... Does marriage change everything Your relation, your surname, your house!!! Thankfully I have good Parents supporting husband... But what about others....

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