By Pranjal Rawat:
A few days ago, many of us logged into Facebook only to find that our news feeds were in a fury that was rarely witnessed before. The documentary titled, ‘India’s Daughter’ on the Nirbhaya Rape case had not been allowed to air on national television. Not only did this film remind us about the ongoing legal proceedings, it also inquired into the status of the mental proceedings that were taking place alongside the law, in the minds of the Indian Public. While Javed Akhtar’s thundering comments have certainly shaken tradition by the collar, I wonder if the attention of the media ever turned to the other areas where women face violence.
These happenings have led some of us, concerned students at Presidency University, to undertake a small qualitative study to try and understand some other forms of violence that women face in their daily lives. We spoke to sixteen women and one man, who were kind enough to let us into their lives and talk to us at length. At the time of the survey, in early December, the respondents were spread over Kolkata city, Khadhah town and Shilai village (Katwa Bloc, Bardhamann). Our ‘descriptive’ findings on domestic violence on women that are presented here are largely consistent with the results of larger quantitative surveys (e.g. National Family Health Survey II, III). This is in no way suggesting that violence is only inflicted upon women, even men face violence, but that is for another post.
The first thing we need to understand is that a large part of domestic violence can never be seen. Not only because one cannot have eyes and ears inside people’s homes but also for the large part, domestic violence is actually invisible. Most women claimed that while there were times when their husbands beat them physically, the real and lasting pain came from mental torture. Making fun or abusing the members of the woman’s family, taunting physical appearance, repeated humiliation before community or guests – all have a serious bearing upon the health and wellbeing of the woman.
One woman told us that domestic violence is “forcing something [on the wife] when she doesn’t comply with it. Forcing it by physical violence and also [by] mental torture, constant mental torture”.
Moving on with this definition of domestic violence we could see that it persists in most families: rich or poor, urban or rural, upper or lower caste. We do find that physical violence is more prominent in areas where there is enormous social stress, usually due to unemployment, poverty, crime and/or hunger. Despite this, we also found traces of it in the very posh localities, and in some cases we found that in richer and affluent families, mental abuse stands out prominently. For instance, one very rich woman told us that such violence was coming down in her family “through centuries”. Also despite the largest part of domestic violence being at the hands of the husband, other members such as the mother-in-law or the uncle-in-law also contribute to it.
The second thing about domestic violence is that despite being possibly ‘unreasonable’ or ‘irrational’, it becomes an integral part of the family and persists over generations. Traces of violence can also be found in regular sexual activity.
It is surprising how quickly the children begin to ‘internalise’ and ‘tolerate’ it. One simple example will suffice. In one rural locality, in a particularly nasty case of domestic violence, we found that the woman’s daughter simply refused to take her mother’s side. The daughter would listen to the father’s justifications and did not realise how much of a sacrifice her mother made for her. The daughter did not just tolerate violence, she was ready to pass on this culture of violence into the future. There was another similar case but in place of a daughter there was a son. In sociology, this phenomenon is known as ‘internalisation’ of cultural norms and practices.
Our survey findings also suggest a new way in which children can affect violence. When a child is born the mothers turns her attention from herself or her husband to focus entirely on protecting the child. All possible thoughts of divorce or running away are put aside because protecting the child is the first priority for her. Thus, the question then becomes: how much say does a woman have in child-birth?
The answer to this is: surprising low. The evidence for this is threefold. First, we find that often the husband has a strong expectation for a son who will take forward the family name and there is pressure from close relatives and community as well. Second, we found that while conceiving has become safer and simpler, contraceptive use has not found acceptance in mainstream culture. Thus, recreational sex still retains the risks of unwanted pregnancy. Third, sexual activity in the family often does not fully abide by the “consent” of the woman. Especially in the rural context such notions were almost absent. This imbalance is also reflected in the disproportionate use of sterilisation. Most of the time, we found that it is women who undertake surgery, not men.
Thus sexual autonomy is not just a freedom in itself, it also enables women against domestic violence. This is simply because of the fact that child-birth deprives the wife of her individuality, while the process of internalisation leaves no guarantee that the child will come to her defence. While we all love children, we should give birth to them in such a manner that does not leave the mother emotionally and physically hurt.
The third thing about domestic violence is that it is linked to woman’s financial, social and political independence. First, financial independence concerns income and property. Women who have stable and well paying jobs can usually “speak up” within the family. As one woman said, “If the woman is earning then she has the option to leave. Women need to be independent, self identity is needed to move out”. In the countryside, if the land or the house belongs to the woman, the husband cannot say or do much. For city women, owning the apartment, the car and holding some bank balance greatly reduces chances of violence. Wealth brings to a woman social status, esteem and often provides some earning opportunity as well. It also provides a major safety net for the woman, on a rainy day.
A small point must be added here. Although it is clear that women look towards financial independence, education and employment in the job market to break free from the chains of tradition, it does not mean that they have become independent because they now work longer and harder. Household work is equally demanding but the compensation within the household is not in money. And since money gives access to an entire list of goods and services, it is more valuable than compensation in kind e.g. in food.
Second, domestic violence is also linked to education and political consciousness. Education allows women to formulate a reasoned reply to beating and slapping. It also enables women to access the law, contact the media, and register a complaint without depending upon anyone else. It also provides opportunities for better jobs. Political consciousness is instrumental in uniting men and women against domestic violence. One of the lower caste women we interviewed had participated in the andolan for the Domestic Violence Act (2005). She recounted to us many tales where she fearlessly challenged both her husband and the community, until they conceded to her demands.
Other advice pertains to offering technical skill development programs exclusively for women so that they might find better jobs and have higher incomes. Microcredit, access to small capital and encouraging the entrepreneurial abilities in women would also go a long way. Although the Domestic Violence Act (2005) does define violence broadly, it fails to define marital rape as a crime on par with ‘normal’ rape, that occurs in the public sphere. Thus reassessment and better implementation of existing laws is also recommended. Most importantly, the “private” should be opened to public discourse. Civil rights must fully extend into the “private”.
This study was an emotional experience for all of us. The respondents had bottled many feelings and thoughts for years. While some cried while speaking to us, all wanted to talk about these issues. If they are wanting to speak out about it, we must engage with them. Together we must raise our voices against the patriarchal home.