Trigger warning: Graphic details of abuse, domestic violence, suicide
A few days earlier, in the morning, when I was trying to steal a few more minutes of sleep, after snoozing my cell phone’s alarm for the second time, my husband, who was scrolling through his cell phone while lying next to me, suddenly hugged me tightly and desperately. I could feel a few drops of tears on my neck while he tucked his face beneath my chin. On seeing his unusual behaviour, I asked him, “Arey! Kya hua?” (Hey! What happened?).
He shook his head; held me a bit more tightly; and then after a second, he lifted his head, looked into my eyes, and said, “A girl in Kerala died by suicide because she was tortured and harassed by her husband for dowry since their marriage.”
I asked him, “When?” “Yesterday!,” he said. “I just read the news on my phone.” Then hugging me again, he said, “I am scared to imagine how you too went through a similar situation once in your life . . . What if you would have suffered the same fate?. . I would not have gotten you . . . I love you!” I replied, “See, I am fine now. Don’t worry! But what happened to that girl and, in fact, happens to many other girls, in the name of marriage, in our society is tragic.”
The news was of the death by suicide of a 22-year-old BAMS student, Vismaya, from Kollam, in Kerala, by her husband, Kiran, for dowry-related reasons. The details of the trauma she suffered in her abusive one-year-old marriage are horrifying. She even shared a few photos of the injuries on her face, shoulders, and hands with her cousin. Even after giving a whopping 100 sovereigns, one acre of land, and a Toyota Yaris car as dowry, her parents couldn’t satisfy their son-in-law’s greed, and it finally engulfed the life of their young daughter.
This is not something new.
In March 2019, Thushara, a 27-year-old woman from Karunagapally, near Kollam, in Kerala, was found dead after being tortured and harassed by her husband and in-laws for dowry. As per various media reports, she weighed just 20 kilos at the time of her demise.
In a more recent incident, in February 2021, Ayesha, a 23-year-old woman from Gujarat ended her life by jumping into the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad after recording a painful confessional video about her failing marriage and her husband’s indifference toward her. This list of women being tortured and then succumbing to their deaths due to the pressure in their respective husbands’ homes seems to be perpetual because our society empathizes with women only once they are dead and not if they manage to leave this swamp of pain and abuse alive.
I put the blame of Vismaya’s tragic suicide on our hypocritical society for its double standards, which empathizes with the victim of domestic violence and abuse only if she is dead and not if she is directly known or related to us.
Our society judges, maligns, corners, and bullies the same woman if she comes back alive to her parents’ home and stays next door. I am saying all this from my personal experience of once being trapped in an abusive marriage and having experienced a life impacted by separation and divorce and the stigma attached to them.
Some eight years ago, I too had gone through a plight similar to that of Vismaya, though not for not paying the dowry but for being spared from paying dowry. I was often taunted by my former husband and in-laws about how privileged I was for not having paid any dowry.
I was harassed, taunted, and beaten; I was pulled by my hair and dragged across the floor; I was beaten and kicked in my belly when I was two months pregnant; I was put through a miscarriage and stillbirth, robbed of all my money and savings and finally deserted and dumped in my parents’ home.
Luckily, I was finally able to divorce my former husband after one and a half years of marriage. I was fortunate to have a supportive and progressive family, some kind friends, a professional degree, and a job. Even though delivering a stillborn child was traumatic, I nursed hopes of a better life after divorce. I was then blessed to find love in my second marriage and become part of a lovely family.
Most women in our society don’t have the privilege to even think of divorce. Many are deliberately kept away from proper education so that they can take on their roles as submissive wives once they attain puberty. Some are kicked out and cut off by families or parents for either marrying a boy of their own choice or for filing for a divorce. Some others are not financially independent to look after their children and prefer to stay on with their perpetrators, fearing the vultures waiting outside the threshold of their homes.
And if there are no other hurdles, then most of them are scared of the taboo, stigma, and inquisitive glares and questions that society is waiting to hurl their way once they decide to leave their husband’s home. Vismaya, unlike many other girls, had a supportive family, but she was scared of the taboo.
According to a media report, her mother had shared that when she asked Vismaya to come back, she refused, saying, “what people will say” and that she will somehow endure it. Upon Vismaya’s tragic death, I saw many of my so-called Facebook friends posting messages on how she should have not taken this drastic step and how she was an educated and independent girl and could have rather left her husband and filed for divorce and asking why her parents had let her stay on in that marriage despite knowing that she was being tortured.
On seeing their enthusiasm for online activism, I wanted to ask them, “If she would have chosen to leave her husband’s home and come back, wouldn’t you have driven her to die by suicide by asking her millions of uncomfortable and mean questions about her decision, her morals, and her character, which, to be frank, is none of your business?”
I wanted to tell them, “Remember when you made me uncomfortable with your brazen attempts to dig up my past and your unsolicited advice on how I should try to adjust rather than contemplate a divorce?” Well, I have not forgotten, and Vismaya’s death has refreshed my old wounds.
Society will react, cry and whine for Vismaya on social media for a few days until people find a new person, topic, or issue to busy themselves with. But I doubt if society will ever accept a Vismaya who will willingly come back to her parents’ home and prefer to wear the badge of a separated woman or a divorcee to safeguard her life and self-respect rather than become a victim of domestic violence?
It seems a cruel joke to me that we live in an era where we prefer a dead woman over a divorcee and expect our society to understand and accept that even a “thappad” (slap) is enough to end a marriage.