By Swati Saxena:
What do you say when a woman you met 20 minutes back, tells you, “Maar-pitai to yahan har ghar mein hoti hai. Maine shadi ke pehle ye sab kabhi nahi dekha lekin is mohalle mein roz ka hi hai. Ab ajeeb nahi lagta, aadat pad gayi hai (Violence happens in every home here. I was never exposed to it before getting married but in this locality, it’s an everyday business. It doesn’t seem odd now, I’m used to it).”
Or how do you react when a mother of two confides in you saying how desperate she is to run away but doesn’t know where to go? How she hates her husband as he beats her day and night when he’s home, and how marriage has been the biggest mistake of her life? I was on the verge of crying, witnessing her helplessness, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is, that she didn’t even well-up while narrating instances of abortions she carried out secretly with the help of her mother-in-law because two small boys are already too many to take care of, when your husband doesn’t give a shit about them, or you. She was angry, more than strong.
Many women in India believe that it’s their husband’s right to harass them. I met a few of these women earlier this year, in the villages of east Uttar Pradesh.
As a fellow in a non-profit organization called ‘Chaitanya’, I was a part of a study where we were interviewing women in rural areas of U.P. Our main aim was to understand the relationship between the empowerment level of a woman and her health. Answers turned into conversations and also led to the subject of domestic violence, a term that was alien to me for, thankfully, never having seen or experienced it first-hand. It was horrendous to listen to how casually women talked of the practice. How some of them had accepted it while others were stuck between being a victim and wishing to be a rebel.
But, not everyone accepted what was happening in their homes. Some denied any kind of violence and I hope they were telling the truth. Mamta, age 41, said that men in her family are among the better ones in the locality as they don’t hit women. At the same time, she confessed that she doesn’t care what goes on in the neighbourhood. In her words, “Hum doosron ke maamlo mein nahi padte. Miya biwi ka jhagda unko hi suljhana chahiye. Kuch aadmi log zyada shak karte hain apni aurton par. Hum kya samjhayein? Kyon bekar ki musibat mein padein (We don’t interfere in anyone else’s matter. Husband-Wife should solve their problems themselves. Some men doubt their wives a lot. What do I tell them? Why meddle in their problems unnecessarily).”
On the other hand, Nidhi, age 20, never gave direct replies. Maintaining the pallu on her head, she would start with subtle hints like, “Jab aurat galti karegi to mard maarega hee (If women make mistakes, men will beat them).” On asking what kind of mistakes, she said that women, who have relationships with other men, are bound to be beaten up. She was of the view that women shouldn’t talk to men outside her family and was proud of the fact that she has been brought up with such ideologies and that she abides by them here, at her in-laws’ place, which is why her husband treats her well. On prodding further, Mamta says, “Sasur ladayi jhagda karte hain ghar mein. Roz sham ko aake gaaliyan bakte hain. Budhau hain, sunna padta hai (My father-in-law fights a lot. He becomes abusive every evening after coming home. He is an old man, I have to listen).”
At times, I looked away, not ready to listen to their stories. I had asked the questions, but I wasn’t prepared for the responses. Maya Devi, a middle-aged woman from a village in Rae Bareli, lives with her husband, seven children, father-in-law, her husband’s brother, his wife and their kids. She said that all three men in the family beat women and children almost every day. She showed wounds on her hands.
“Kis cheez se maarte hain aapke pati aapko (What do they beat you with)?” I ask, to which she responds, “Jo bhi haath mein a jaye. Chappal, joota, belt, kursi. Nahi to haath se hi (Whatever is at hand. Slippers, shoes, belts, chairs. If nothing else, then bare fists).”
And she smiled while saying that. Afterwards, she made us a cup of tea each and told stories of how her father-in-law has tortured her more than her husband, both physically and verbally. Since her mother-in-law passed away, he started taking out his anger by beating women and children at home on the smallest of pretexts and for reasons she doesn’t quite understand.
“Kabhi bhaagne ka mann nahi karta (Don’t you feel like running away)?” I asked. Maintaining the smile, she said, “Kahan jayein bhaag ke. Bachhon ka kharcha bhi to pati hi dete hain. Ladkon ki naukri lag jaye bas. Waise bhi saari umar to nikal hi gayi hai. Kuch saal aur kaat lenge. (Where do I go? My husband pays for my kids’ expenses also. I wish my sons get a job as soon as possible. All my life is spent anyway. I’ll manage for a few more years).”
She was only 35 and had accepted violence as a way of life.
During my conversations and interactions with other interviewees, I observed how things like arm-twisting or hair-pulling aren’t even considered violence by these women. They don’t register that they have been hit until they bleed or are visibly wounded. Moreover, violence isn’t limited to homes and it’s not only men who are at fault. There is caste-based violence and honor killing that’s supported by both men and women towards people from lower castes and young couples respectively. Religion, as we all can see, is fast becoming the biggest reason for violence worldwide. More than anything, it’s the ingrained beliefs of these women that lead them to be okay with the situation(s) they’re in. Beliefs like ‘a husband has the right to treat his wife the way he wants’, ‘it’s okay if a newlywed daughter-in-law is abused until she learns how to behave in her new home’, and ‘what can women do, after all, than to wait and patiently tolerate’.
With all the dynamics in consideration, it’s really difficult to say whose fault it is. Men are an easy target but they grow up seeing their mothers and sisters not raising their voice against physical or verbal abuse. They also see their grandmothers supporting their fathers, either silently or vocally. For them, it’s a convenient assumption that women don’t have a voice, an assumption that often gets strengthened. It’s easy to blame women too for not fighting for their rights but I have my doubts if you and I would have acted differently in their place. How many of us have seen our friends and family members abusing for no reason? How many of us have protested that? It may seem like a small, commonplace example but its generality doesn’t make it right. As always, the panchayats, governments and systems can be held responsible but seriously, till when are we going to continue doing that? Whoever accepts that gender violence happens must also know that it’s not limited to rural U.P. or rural India. It happens with our domestic workers, it happens in upmarket areas of Bangalore, it happens in posh residential colonies of South Delhi, it happens with our friends in the United States or Australia, and it happens with men too.
I don’t have a solution if you were looking for one. I only have a piece of advice. Be brave enough to start that conversation. If you think something is wrong, ask what happened and why. If women who I had never met earlier could open up to me within an hour, you already have an advantage with your neighbour, colleague, or your mother, for that matter. Talk without an agenda to help them. Talk to be the sounding board. Talk so that they can help themselves. Talk and you may find a way out that you can tell me about.
For those of you who like facts, here are some from the BBC.