India: IWD in the shadow of violence against women Print E-mail

Sunday Magazine ~ March 6 2005


In the shadow of violence

Despite the celebrations on March 8, the incidence of violence against women is rising. A look at what can be done to change attitudes. 

Can a law alone change attitudes? A street play on violence against women (M. MOORTHY)

"KERALA may be the most literate state in the country but it's going to the dogs. And let me tell you the women of Kerala are equally to blame. All they want is gold ornaments, a posh house, good food and rich boys for their daughters. Let us not have any pretence about it."

The statement, in a roomful of South Asian feminist women writers last year, was greeted with a shocked silence. No one knew how to respond.

And it was only Sugata Kumari's stature as Kerala's most admired, respected woman activist and writer, that prevented her from being verbally mauled.

Sugata Kumari also bemoaned the lack of interest in issues like the ruining of rivers by the sand mining mafia and an unbelievable water shortage in the land of rivers, tanks and ponds.

Lackadaisical approach

But literacy does not mean education in the deepest sense of the word. It puzzles me that with such a vibrant media — there is no doubt that the Malayalam newspapers have far more intelligent reading material than the country's highest circulation English ones — there is such a lackadaisical approach to burning issues.

Is this because of the consumerist culture that has taken over Kerala since the Gulf boom and attained obscene levels now? Why else would educated women allow themselves to be paraded before prospective grooms wearing ostentatious silks and adorned with heavy jewellery, which would be considered hideously vulgar in more discriminating circles?

Why would a supposedly politically aware society allow itself to be caught in the self-destructive web of dowry? Or countenance the ongoing humiliation of their women, their daughters and sisters at the hands of insensitive, loutish men? Even after innumerable tragic suicides and public outcry, life after dowry goes on unabated.

I use Kerala figuratively, because it is the most literate, politically aware State. Obviously, the situation is far worse in most other States. I focus on Kerala, because the statistics of rape, pornography scandals, sexual abuse and sexual harassment make it a terrible place for women to live in.

And I continue to try to make sense of this seemingly incomprehensible conundrum.

Why do women of Kerala who are literate, who produce the most number of doctors and engineers in the country, put up with this outrageous set up? Yet they do and nothing changes.

Many young Malayali women said that they felt much safer in Gujarat or Mumbai and hated coming to Kerala because a simple stroll down the street would mean putting up with lewd, obnoxious remarks from roadside Romeos.

Changing behaviour

Yet for every woman who hates it, there are those who have internalised the message from all regional and Hindi mainstream films. A boy meets a girl by chasing her. She may pretend she doesn't like it, but ultimately she will succumb.

Older adivasi women in Gudalur Valley have articulated this, complaining that the behaviour of young girls is changing because of the silly, inane films they watch — in this case Tamil and Malayalam.

Can't women's groups campaign to end "eve teasing"? It's a term I loathe because it trivialises the stronger and more appropriate "sexual harassment". The change will be difficult but not impossible.

Need for change

We need to hold discussions in high schools and colleges, in forums where films are screened and discussed, where good films are juxtaposed with stupid ones and students taught to be discriminating. We need to have women police arrest men who harass women.

We need to have local newspapers and TV channels highlight abuse, to be watchdogs so that the men who perpetrate sexual crimes do not do so with impunity.

We need to change the way our films portray women. Surely we are entering a stage where our audiences are becoming more discriminating?

Women's groups should lobby with actors and directors known for above average work. We need to form an intelligent filmmakers' society to question the stupid portrayal of women, which results in domestic violence, abuse, rape and sexual harassment. Intelligent interpretations of the Draupadi and Sita stories should be part of discussion groups starting among schoolchildren.

If we begin to articulate these ideas, publicly and regularly in educational and social forums, at least the rhetoric changes. That's an incremental change, no doubt.

But if we create an environment where domestic violence, female foeticide, sexual harassment and dowry are viewed by society as shameful, openly condemnable, something no mother would countenance with equanimity in her sons, society would begin to change.

At least, we would have made a beginning towards becoming the civilised society we claim to have once been.


* * *

WEDDING vows are taken with hopes and dreams of a joyful future together. "Till death do us part" does not mean "till my child finds me dead on the kitchen floor". It does not mean "till my soul dies a little each day".

Mala, a doctor, committed suicide after her husband slapped her before his friends. Soni, a model and a former beauty queen, was coerced into `entertaining other men' and locked up in a room without food for several days. Shalini was regularly beaten up before her helpless daughters for not cooking good meals.

Alarming increase

The incidents are endless and figures show an alarming rise in atrocities against women in India. Every 26 minutes a woman is molested. Every 34 minutes a rape takes place. Every 42 minutes an incident of sexual harassment occurs. And every 93 minutes a woman is burnt alive for dowry. The issue is not only of gender abuse, it is to recognise the right of every individual to exist as a human being and not live as `subordinate sex'. Violence against women is the most persuasive human rights violation in the world today.

Opening the door on the issue is like standing on the edge of a deep ravine vibrating with collective anguish. Where there should be outrage, there is denial and largely passive acceptance. A recent survey by the International Institute of Population Studies showed that 56 per cent of Indian women believed that wife beating was justified in certain circumstances like neglecting the house or the children, or going out of the house without permission. The society is obviously in a state of denial. Education, emancipation, empowerment are the mantras that will shake the societal forces out of their stupor.

Men's brutal behaviour stems from their warped understanding of masculinity. They are taught from the beginning to look upon themselves as the superior sex. Anchal (26), a teacher in a government school, has filed for divorce on grounds of physical and mental abuse. She was tortured, left hungry for days, a prisoner in her own house because her father could not satisfy her husband's dowry demands. Her husband, a guide, was arrested four times for illegal extortion from foreign tourists and Anchal's father provided the bail money each time. Anchal has lived in fear of her son being kidnapped and the fear of losing her own life as well for the last three years.

Victims of abuse

"Manliness" is equated with the need to control in the existing dictatorial patriarchal system. This has been proved by the cross-border studies conducted by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Kerala, emphasising that domestic violence cuts through caste, class, religion, age and education. These women are victims of physical, mental, sexual and emotional abuse regardless of their education and economic status. What about the many voiceless, illiterate, economically handicapped women? Can they ever hope for justice?

Twenty per cent of the cases reported in Rajasthan are of working women. In Kerala, 30 per cent of women complained of physical abuse and 69 per cent of psychological torture. Two out of every five women in abusive relationships suffer silently because of shame and family honour. The lack of viable options keeps such women trapped in violent situations. Nearly one-third of the women experiencing abuse have thought of running away but the fear of leaving their children behind and having no place to go restrained them. Social and economic constraints further compound their sense of isolation. Lack of awareness and how to seek help renders these women more vulnerable to continuing and escalating abuse. Devyani Srivastava, who writes on gender issues said, "These women have been brain-washed into believing that they are responsible for the violence inflicted on them. They face so much brutality in the court, at the hands of their families and the police because gender violence is seen as a non-issue — a household affair at best." Domestic violence can't be stopped, she felt, but the women can seek help. Women have to refuse to become a mere statistic.

Priya, 48, married for 18 years has borne physical and emotional abuse by her husband for the most common reason, dowry. She fears her husband will sexually abuse her 12-year-old daughter. She has caught him trying to get into a compromising position with the child. No one can fully understand why the women tolerate the intolerable for so long? Do they hope things will get better? Or do they feel that they are alone responsible for domestic bliss; that their husbands are not equally responsible?

Light amid darkenss

Yet, amid the darkness, there is light. Radha (22) was declared insane by her husband because he loved another woman. Physically battered with no support, she picked up the threads of her life, working as a teacher in a private school. After attending a UNICEF Nurses Training Programme, she works as a nurse and will complete her graduation. With 80 per cent of husbands believing that the use of force is their birthright, the tentacles of this menace are too deep and widespread.

For the women who turn to the law, what are the options? Apart from Section 304(B) IPC, where the death of a woman under unnatural circumstances is a dowry related death, she cannot take a restraining order against her abusive mate. The Domestic Violence Against Women (Prevention and Protection) Act could go a long way in removing insecurities from the minds of women if its policy is TO STOP DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.

But can any law cause a change in mindset? Men have to be sensitised into respecting women as individuals in their own right with the freedom to live on their own terms, earn, be educated and enjoy an existence without fear. Mothers have to teach their sons the lessons of humanity and their daughters the lessons of self-worth and assertion. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen sees development as an expansion of freedoms — from want, hunger, exploitation and political suppression. But then assessment of freedom should include freedom from fear as well. All other freedoms lose their meaning unless all individuals are ensured a life without fear.