Everything Over Dinner: Violence, Politics And The Art Of Being Female

Posted on April 7, 2014 in Domestic Violence, Society, Staff Picks, Taboos

By Ishita Chaudhry:

‘NEW YORK (28 March 2014) – A new study has found that women in India who have more education than their husbands, who earn more, or who are the sole earners in their families have a higher likelihood of experiencing frequent and severe intimate partner violence (IPV) than women who are not employed or who are less educated than their spouse. The article is included in the latest issue of Population and Development Review, a journal published by the Population Council. The article is available free of charge for download for a limited time here.’

I started the weekend with reading Population Council’s newsletter, the first few paragraphs accurately summing what I’d like to share. ‘There are two existing theories that aim to predict what happens when a woman has status and resources that are equal to or greater than her husband’s. One theory, called bargaining theory, posits that a woman who has more relative resources in a relationship should be at a lower risk for IPV[1] . A man in such a relationship would worry that his wife would withhold resources if he behaved violently toward her. The other theory, known as gender deviance neutralization, suggests that a woman’s superior resources would be viewed as gender deviant and a man would use violence to gain power or maintain control in the relationship. This study supports the latter theory.’


The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women states that violence against women takes place in three domains: the family, the community, and (perpetrated or condoned by) the state[2] . When the perpetrators involved are family members of the victims, both of these acts fall under the category of domestic violence against women. Intimate partner violence refers to any act or omission by a current or former intimate partner which negatively effects the well-being, physical or psychological integrity, freedom, or right to full development of a woman/ actual or threatened physical, psychological, or sexual abuse of women perpetrated by intimate partners. It is recognized to be across different forms, i.e., physical: beating, kicking, assaults with a weapon, homicide, sexual: coercive sex, unwanted touching, sex without protection despite requests, forced engagement in humiliating/degrading actions, withdrawal of sex and psychological belittling, threatening, restricting mobility and social contact, withholding resource[3], amongst others.

The article went on to read, ‘Abigail Weitzman, a graduate student at New York University, looked at data from the female-only module of India’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS) collected between 2005 and 2006. This module contains data from a nationally representative sample of women aged 15 to 49 and includes nine variables pertaining to IPV. It also asks a number of questions about women’s current employment, relative earnings, and access to other money. Weitzman looked only at data from married women and explored the occurrence, frequency, and severity of violence. Weitzman found that compared to women with less education than their husbands, women with more education face 1.4 times the risk of IPV, 1.54 times the risk of frequent violence, and 1.36 times the risk of severe violence. She found a similar pattern for women who were better employed than their spouse. And women who were the sole breadwinners in their family faced 2.44 times the risk of frequent violence and 1.51 times the risk of severe violence as unemployed women whose husbands were employed.’

I shared the article with a few family members, an uncle of mine wrote back talking about how he was reading a book where the definition of love is defined as follows. ‘Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it; even at the risk of separation or loss… genuine love ‘sacrifices’ on behalf of the growth of the other (and can) result in equal or greater growth of the self.‘ The general thought that crossed my mind was, ‘hmm so true’. With social conditioning dictating marriage as an essential part of the human life cycle, so many relationships (especially those within marriage) are often viewed functionally in so many of our societies. A perspective such as this one seems like a luxury, you hear thoughts like this few and far between. The gender stereotype entrenches wide and deep in our belief systems — masculine, rich husbands who bring economic security and discuss worldly affairs, gorgeous well-groomed wives who coordinate and take care of household needs. I celebrate and am inspired each time, I see partners (married or not) support each other to cultivate individuality and like many others am no stranger to the fact that in my patriarchal country, women are rarely encouraged if it means creating discomfort to the lives of men in their households. Whilst my post focuses specifically on women, socialization cuts all genders a raw deal here, with men also having to deal with the burden of the masculine stereotype and leaves little to no room, for any gender binary. Equally worrying, is when one of my trans friends talks about how important it is to ‘act feminine’, to be considered a woman. And implicit in that definition of being feminine is the normalization of violence and the role it must play in a woman’s life.

On the eve of turning 30, a question I’m often asked, is why I’m not looking to get married. Is it that I haven’t met someone? Or maybe because of my body size? Maybe I work too hard? Don’t have time to meet someone? Am not experimental enough? Am I not worried about ‘missing the boat’ (what is that really, but that’s a conversation for another blog post)? I took the decision two years ago to move out of my parent’s home, we are now neighbours by less than 5 minutes in the same city. I did it, sheer and simple, because I wanted to. And was amused by the questions that came my way. Did I not get along with my family? Was it because they tried to control me? But I didn’t need to leave my home, it’s not as if my job is another city, or the commute is too far to work? Why was I living alone? Didn’t I know how (and this reason I love the best) unsafe Delhi is? (Only for the 30 years I have lived here, but thank you for your concern, aunty-next door.) What kind of example was I setting for my other cousins?

I don’t think I even thought of half of these questions when I moved out. I realized that apart from my own fears of not knowing how to change the gas cylinder (you live, you learn), most of the fear that I felt about living alone came from the fear that was instilled in me. It isn’t normal apparently, to live in the one of the un-safest cities in the world, feeling secure or happy. I’m not being very realistic apparently about the reality of women’s safety in this country unless I don’t live in fear, feeling persecuted, scared and giving all my power away, to the big scary (and this stereotype is unfortunate) man, who is out to get me. It took 2 months of asking my mother to come over every night to sleep with me, before reality struck when she walked out one morning and told me to stop giving my power away, find my courage, figure my shit out and learn to be independent. Bless ma, bless.

I was brought up to believe that whilst conservative exists everywhere, that if I knew I was ‘a little different’ from the norm, then I should dig deep and search until I found someone who was ‘my type’. The hetero-normative stereotype has been deliciously fun, everyone always assumes I’m straight, and for those who aren’t aware of the intimate details of my sex life the assumption is I’m lesbian. (Works in an NGO, the feminist type, rabid about patriarchy etc., how could I not be?) The binary either way, has to be absolute and all my light-bulb moments have been around looking at the reactions you get, when you don’t want to sit in any one slot for too long and the lack of binary begins making others feel uncomfortable.


I went for a dinner last night, a friend’s engagement, and a friend (we all have or know this kind, ex-well known B School, corporate job, works 40+ hours weeks) and I and a few others got into an argument about Modi versus alternatives and whether India can afford the cost of saying that human rights are unimportant in the face of economic growth. As a friend said to on the table, picking a mass murderer because he is a good administrator is like marrying a rapist because he files his taxes on time. The analogy was sharp, and has been circulating on a poster on Facebook for a while. It was a subject everyone felt strongly about, with some of us having experienced 2002 personally in different ways, others talking about alternatives or the lack thereof, and my friend in question talking about how most people didn’t read party manifesto’s and especially us socialist types, didn’t quite understand macroeconomic theory and didn’t know what we were talking about. It was a lively discussion (as these usually are), with different people believing different things. Which in my mind is fine, because we are all entitled to different beliefs and we have the right to believe in supporting different candidates. Otherwise, why have an election at all?

At some point in the conversation, as I imagine often happens in many such conversations of this nature, nothing was heading anywhere. He kept asking if we could mention two things from BJP’s Manifesto and I kept trying to answer and being cut off with him repeating the question again and again. It was becoming difficult to be heard and it became apparent that there was limited interest from my friend in listening calmly to differing opinions. At some point, with a few mediations from others at the table asking everyone to calm down and my friend to just listen to what others were saying, my pro-Modi friend became a bit rabid, and the discussion turned ugly and insults got offensive. We were a bit bewildered; he kept talking about how none of us understood the reality of India because we had never worked here (I was particularly amused, given both his and my professional careers) and how our INA brand of kurta, jhola wearing fashion statements weren’t realistic understanding of what India needs. But when he could no longer get his point across, he began screaming at my friend and chose of all things, to pick on the fact that she was female. Out came a slew of things – she was a whore because when we were growing up she’d had many boyfriends in school, she had a small mind, she lived a glass bubble lifestyle, she was far removed from reality etc. Apart from the appalling inability to agree to disagree, it was fascinating that his rationale behind belittling her opinions on choice of candidate was by picking on the fact that she was female. He kept reinforcing that her lifestyle far removed her from the macroeconomic world where you cannot apparently hold a critical opinion if you aren’t from a good B-School, because you don’t live in the real world.

Off came the gloves, the fancy education, the charming wit and the usual humour and dressed sophistication, and my school friend of 20+ years came down to what I find so often with most men I have met in the last 15 years working in this country, when they are crossed, or disagreed with. These are the same men who will stand up for violence against women, who don’t believe in domestic violence, who find rape appalling, but will perpetuate precisely the same thinking, if you scratch beneath the surface. Women are promiscuous if they date, because there is apparently something immoral in acknowledging that you are a human being with sexual desire, just like men. He kept shouting, whore, whore, whore, louder as if apparently that was criteria enough to not be able to pick an appropriate candidate for elections or that we should be ashamed as women, for being exercising our right to choice. Irrespective of the nature of their personal argument, it was offensive to hear.

It isn’t the first time I’ve witnessed conversations about politicians go sour, or people get frustrated that the inability to hold the upper hand leads to female-bashing. There are loud hoardings always up somewhere in this city, asking women to be waxed, threaded, thin, looking pretty, being virginal until we are married when our agency can be owed by a husband, sitting in glass houses constructed by our partners, to cook, clean and take care of them and we shouldn’t have any real opinions. Especially if we stand a chance at challenging or god forbid, changing status quo. It made me really sad, that time and time again in Delhi, and in India, when men are threatened or challenged, by women, their frustration shows in patriarchy rearing its ugly head and you realize, that the cover may have become more sophisticated, but mostly, the quality of thinking has not really advanced and men remain small minded (broadly). There are of course many exceptions, but they rarely are enough to make the rule.

And that when several of us (women) challenge Modi as a choice of Prime Ministerial Candidate, because we believe that secularism and human rights are important measures of well being and that just GDP is a poor indicator of growth, we are considering invalid and weak for having this opinion. Because of course, we are soft and fluffy and born for motherhood and it is our gender’s job to care whilst the masculine man will go out, beat his chest, earn and decide what’s good for the country. So why should we care about human rights? Or a candidate and his party who believe in using violence against women as a strategy to administrate and govern? Who will pit people against each other based on their religious beliefs? Because clearly, all that really matters, is how much money corporate India gets to take home at the end of the day. Or better yet, vote for Modi, because if you challenge him, you obviously support the Congress and then don’t acknowledge their role in the 1984 riots and if we are all in the situation where all parties are equally corrupt, what can we, the helpless do?

The short cut clearly advocated to us all, is that we should accept violence as a baseline of governance, or political ruling, and then pick the best administrator. We are fools if we look at AAP (because one term in Delhi has apparently proved their inability to govern forever and no other political party has ever overseen or created administrative instability). We are also idiots if we pick NOTA or None of the Above, because then we’ll have a party chosen by default and how are you really engaging in the system if you happen to express to the electoral system that the candidates being put forward aren’t good enough. By now, I feel like I’ve heard all the rhetoric possible. When did politics become so black and white?

In the meantime, in trickle-down pyramid hierarchy, adolescent girls are still getting married at the age of 9, having children at 12, and dying in childbirth every year. Violence continues, both in the home and outside of it and we keep asking women to stay indoors and keep increasing curfew hours and it conveniently also helps us control them. We criminalize and jail people on the basis of whom they love citing ‘Indian’ (read Hindutva) values, pit Hindu and Muslim communities against each other and ask minority communities to prove their Hindu-dominant origins. Marital rape is still legal in India, caste based discrimination is rampant and we continue to exploit natural resources, persecute internally displaced people with a government who refuses to recognize their existence.

Despite being the 11th largest economy in the world, we commit 2.24 trillion rupees on defence with an annual increase of 10% per year, and a simultaneous 9.7% decrease in funding for healthcare, as compared to 2013-2014 estimates. This is attributed by the government to the failure of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to spend its budget allocated fully instead of addressing timely expenditure mechanisms, de-centralized decision-making and red-tapism. And is, despite our healthcare system falling apart with increasing unmet need, continued poor access to services and high out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare. Our only hope is a budget revision when the new government is sworn in around June/July, but with candidates who do not care for these issues and are not concerned with AAAQ[4] standards of healthcare, we perhaps need to ask which party will genuinely be moved to take action? We have a history of only caring about our healthcare system when we are pressured to do so. Our political parties are only moved to care about the number of people dying when we are denied a seat on the Security Council at the United Nations. With more people living below the poverty line in India than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, we continue to elect candidates with criminal records and call those who would like to change the status quo, naïve.

Despite being a country that is well known for having enough resources (we are one of the countries in Global South that being developing, gives foreign aid to other countries), we accept that it is okay if food security isn’t a priority, if 40% of our grains go wasted because of corruption, as long as the government creates jobs for 50 million people in the next 20 years. Because as one of the Board Members of Infosys Technologies puts it, the lack of an adequately educated and skilled population would be a drag preventing the country from achieving its potential’. Because employment without equity, is what is important; growth without wellbeing is what’s important. And an administrator who promises a brand of leadership that dictates no room for diversity, of any kind, that believes in violence with an iron fist, and has no qualms sacrificing the rights and freedom of women, girls, and others in the minority, whose collective capital isn’t economically or politically strong enough to make them count, is only doing what’s necessary, what choice does he have?

And in all of this, if women are independent, dare to be liberated, express our sexuality in anyway, of course, as my well-educated friend put it, are whores with the inability to be well informed.

But hopefully in another 50 years, equality will trickle down to include and address everyone and attitudes will change. This rhetoric asks that we stand and do nothing (or go waste time in candlelight marches and armchair politics as my friend rather kindly put it), but fear not, sensitization will happen with good administration and economic growth. And things will change, just do your bit, push the button for the lotus-eater, rest back and like a woman is asked to always, wait for the country and for you to be rescued. In the meantime, if you were lucky enough to be born on the right side of economics, you should be fine. Until of course, you choose to challenge the men in your life, in which case, watch out. Your political opinions are measured by your sense of chastity, your gender and all the well-informed expensive education in the world, doesn’t seem to make a difference to how you are treated, perceived or respected.

[1] Intimate Partner Violence. (For more information on the status of Domestic Violence in India, read here.)
[2] UN General Assembly 1993
[3] World Health Organization Multi-Country Study of Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women
[4] Access to Acceptable, Affordable and Available Quality of services refers to human rights norms and standards of healthcare that every person should have the right to. Read Adrienne Germaine’s paper on its current context here.