Paromita Adhikary & Pranjal Rawat
“As a young under grad studying History in Presidency University, Kolkata. I have dream of making this world a safer place for everyone to live in. Growing up in a suburb and studying in a convent school provided me with just the ration of will and will power to pursue my dreams. The women in my family and the stories of their selves and other women they spoke of, give me a glimpse of a world of individuals who wish to live a life different from the one conferred upon them by society. Hence my fight to voice stories of such individuals.” – Paromita
“This survey was conducted by Paromita and me, along with other students from Presidency University: Trisha Chanda, Priyanka Garodia, Brishti Modak, Ankita Bose, Aishwarya Kazi. It took us 15 days in December to collect the data from 3 locations – Kolkata, Khardah and Shilai (village in Katwa). I learnt a lot during critical discussions with my co-learners, and the earth shattering narratives of the respondents. I thank Sayan Kundu from Princeton for the funding. There are others, but I would single out Prof. Upal Chakraborty, who reminds me always to be both critical in thought and in practice.” – Pranjal
“Riya and Manas were happily married. Three months into their marriage, Riya noticed some unusual behavior from her husband. She began to find her husband coming home late in the evenings and he was sometimes missing at night. She began to suspect, and soon did investigate. To her utter shock she found him in bed with his brother’s wife! When she tried to protest, she was beaten up and faced cigarette burns all over her body.”
This story is not some sick horror story pulled out of some third rate movie. This story is a living, breathing reality. And it is but only a figment of the entire reality of domestic violence.
This essay will try remind the reader that domestic violence is a burning issue. It is a complex issue, no doubt, but one that can be addressed from various angles. It will draw from the testimonies of 17 subjects, mostly women who were willing to speak out, to throw some light upon this sorely unaddressed issue. Our 17 “subjects” were from very different strata of society in terms of caste and class. While some lived in parts of Kolkata city, others stayed in the suburban town of Khardah, and the rest were from Katwa.
But first, a brief overview. Domestic violence is a rampant issue, and cuts across class, caste and nationality. Surveys show that anywhere between 10% to 50% of women in a given area will attest to this. The negative effects of domestic violence upon the woman’s physiology and psychology has been documented widely. Apart from causing serious physical injury, domestic violence has serious implications for mental health as well. It also has an adverse effect on the behaviour of children who routinely observe it. In addition, it hampers public participation and engagement of those affected. Some researchers have explained wife beating by linking it to alcoholism, while others have claimed that it exists due to unequal access to resources, namely ‘money’ and ‘education’. Some studies have shown that with increasing formal employment and job opportunities for women, domestic violence can be greatly reduced.
The gender-blind perspective of the Indian state is hardly encouraging to this discussion; it was as recent as 2011 when the Census reports began to include a special section for statistics concerning women exclusively. Also, it was only in 2005 that the Indian judiciary undertook a major review of laws concerning domestic violence, which concluded in the Domestic Violence Act (DVA). The DVA does extend the definition of domestic violence to cover its physical, sexual, economic and psychological aspects. But the DVA is not short of problems: (i) it does not adequately recognize ‘marital rape’ (ii) it overlooks potential harassment by the in-laws (iii) it leaves unresolved an internal conflict with the personal laws (Hindu, Muslim, Christian) concerning maintenance (iv) it is concerned mainly with ‘married’ woman only (v) it failed to implement public campaign to dispel legal illiteracy on the issue. In overall, the DVA does provide relief, but only commits a temporary solution. Thus more permanent solutions to conflicts within the home continue to be sought in the personal laws.
With this brief overview underway, we will now present the narratives of our 17 subjects. The names of the subjects have been changed to protect their privacy. A note of caution, the reader is not advised to trust our generalizations so easily. The best way to check our arguments is to actually talk to married and unmarried women (and men) about these issues.
“All men here, talk badly, behave badly with their wives, always”
—Namita Das, Katwa
We find that ‘domestic violence’ held a different meaning even for women and men of the same class and the same locality. Some considered it physical violence such as slapping or beating, while others focused upon its mental or psychological aspects. Some even included “withholding of information” and other such subtle gestures as constituting domestic violence. One village man thought that violence towards domestic animals also counted as ‘domestic’ violence. Verbal abuse against the woman’s family members, was also mentioned. Even within physical violence, some stressed upon the physical pain it caused, while others stressed upon “humiliation”, as they found the pain was more bearable.
“forcing something on someone when the person doesn’t comply to it. Forcing it by physical violence and also [by] mental torture, constant mental torture”
—Kakoli Sen, Kolkata (Shyambazar)
Based on what we have gathered from the rural area, the rural women are more conscious about the social structure and the community around them. It seems more “natural” to them to accept the sanction of violence, and some do so willingly. The Kolkata-educated woman has already attained a certain degree of literacy and political awareness i.e already finds herself at odds with the dominant belief system. Hence it becomes easier for her to “get-out”. Yet, one more affluent Kolkata women claimed that domestic violence has been coming down from the family, “through centuries” and that it seems “natural” for a husband to dominate the wife. The respondents from Katwa would claim that domestic violence involves physical assault along with a larger proportion of mental torture. Yet, they mainly spoke about physical torture. One women from Tarekshwar had claimed to be dragged till the banks of rivers and then beaten ruthlessly. Susmita Bagh from Katwa was beaten up so much, even during pregnancy, that she felt that “her child was born abnormal due to it”.
All the woman from Kolkata and Khardah, seemed to agree that the mental assault is what really hurts. They would constantly put forward the claim that physical assault occurs more so in rural areas, and that they themselves are more troubled by humiliation and mental trauma. Thus we claim that urban women perceive domestic violence as predominantly mental. In the ‘everyday-ness’ of an urban woman’s life, the blows to the ego and emotion, stand out in her memory. But overall, we seem to find no evidence that rural women are assaulted any less than urban women. Kakoli Sen from Shyambazar, Kolkata claimed that because she did not cook the omelette well enough, her husband threw the plate at her face. She also said that she would be beaten for not chopping the ginger or onion adequately. Women from Kolkata do suffer their fair share of violence.
“[the] physical scars will go after a few years, but the memories don’t”
—Lopamudra Ghoshroy, Kolkata (Behala)
Everyone seemed to agree that domestic violence occurs more in rural and lower strata of society. Sharmili Saha from one of the top ranking colleges of Kolkata believes that it occurs “pretty often” in rural areas. Kaushiki Banerjee from Jadavpur, Kolkata also claimed that “rural men beat women for entertainment”. Ritika Chaterjee, from Salt Lake claims that wife-beating is more prevalent amongst the poor. However, these women let slip, in the course of their interviews that it does occurs just as frequently in urban areas. A working woman, Mousumi Sengupta admits that it is quite frequent even in urban areas. She even goes on to state that it occurs “70% of the time”. Other urban women have also confessed to being “regularly beaten up”. Inspecting the responses of the urban or richer women in our sample, we did not feel that region or class was not a key determinant in this case. The women from Katwa, however also seem to echo the Kolkata women, and are convinced that in the metropolis women do not face such problems. Namita Das from Katwa, also said that she “loves Kolkata” and that did not perceive any violence in there. She stresses on the fact that if she had married a man from the “town”, she would not have been in the predicament that she is now in.
One overarching idea, that emerges from these various narratives, with coherence: child-birth remains the strongest binding force that holds the woman within the ‘domestic’. From the perspective of Raashi “once you have a child, you are firstly a mother and only then a wife”. Even if a woman is contemplating to leave, post-marriage she will put these notions on hold, until the child has secured a stable home. The ties of motherhood, seem to make an enormous difference for the household. Some mothers seem to savagely attack those who “give up” on their responsibilities and move on “selfishly”. It is predominantly the vulnerability of the child, and the looming prospects of a grim future that keep the mother in her place.
“if my daughter can stand on her own feet, I won’t stay back”
—Anushree Banerjee, Khardah (North 24,Parganas)
“they should not [be] called mothers. Those who don’t think of the children’s future but only think about their own. A child wants a mother and a father, when the child gets only one, then this sorrow may lead him to a bad direction”
— Srimati Chakraborty, Khardah (North 24,Parganas)
“once you have a child, you are firstly a mother and only then a wife”
— Anushree Banerjee, Khardah (North 24,Parganas)
Yet, the child itself may not realize this any time soon. In Katwa for example, we found that the daughter refused to acknowledge the respondent as her mother. The mother ruefully said that she was not acknowledged and that “the aunt is everything” to her daughter. This mother also tries to persuade her daughter to protest for her, which the daughter does not. She says that she does not move out because the community outside would brand her as a “selfish woman” who left daughters unmarried and unsettled. At the same time, there have been cases where the child has been sympathetic towards the mother and becomes emotionally hurt whilst watching domestic violence. A woman from Katwa says that her “child cries” while she is beaten up. Kakoli Sen from Kolkata claims that it took her children time to fully understand what was going on. Initially the children did not take her side, but when they grew up and began to see that the mother was the main source of economic and emotional resource for the home, they began to take her side. She says that her son is “protesting for the last two years” and that “he knows who is right and who is wrong”. Despite all this, the woman says that the “daughter loves the father more than the mother” and “believes whatever the father says”. Hence we find that, there is no guarantee that the child will take up the side of the mother. The professor Nirmalkanta, also pointed out that when the father passes away or move on, after years of indulging in domestic violence, the response of the woman can re-make or break this chain of inter-generational violence.
Domestic violence will not slow down unless the women is financially independent of the husband. Unless she has the ability to muster resources to her disposal, neither will she have an “exit option” nor will her worth within the household be realized. If we go by how our subjects described their daily schedules, we must concede that women work harder and longer than their husbands. Unfortunately, despite this fact men and women have differentiated access to resources. For the urban women who are housewives, ‘financial independence’ means a lot. If given a chance to work outside, they feel they could seriously challenge the power structure within the home. The woman from Khardah claims that her husband would instantly be enraged at the sight of her working outside, and took steps to end it. Ritika Chaterjee from Salt Lake claims that it is only financial independence that can liberate a woman. She also places immense value upon education that opens job opportunities. However, on close observation, both the woman from Khardah and the woman from Salt Lake both speak on parallel lines when they say that becoming independent from the husband would challenge the hierarchy within the domestic. However for the women from Katwa, this notion of obtaining ‘financial independence’ is almost strange. They already are working outside, either self-employed or performing agricultural labour for a large part of the day. For them the opportunities are fewer and the incomes dearer.
“If the woman is earning then she has the option to leave. Women need to be independent, self identity is needed to move out”
—Raashi, Joka (Kolkata)
“If I had worked the violence would have been much more”
—Anushree Banerjee, Khardah (North 24, Parganas)
Alongside, the capture of the woman’s labour, we also need to bring the critical role of dowry into our framework. All the women from Katwa accepted that inadequate dowry payment way seemed to be the root of the problem. It is not a problem, when the woman’s family has paid a full dowry, for then there is no further pressure, except the occasional request. However, there may arise cases where even a slightly unsatisfactory payment may lead to bursts of violence. As Shaila Majhi recounts that she covered every thing except a mere “gold chain”, which triggered problems in her daughters household. Both the man and the woman believe that dowry is necessary, and is quite reasonable. Also, the asking of dowry may not come from the husband, but rather from the other members of the household such as the aunt or the grandfather. In Khardah for instance, we documented a case where dowry was not asked for by the husband, but it was on the “insistence of the mother-in-law” that regular payments were made. The women from Katwa stress more upon this point, while women from Kolkata tend to downplay it. The women from Katwa fully believe in it, while women from Kolkata claim not to, and may only accept the practice of dowry reluctantly. In any case most of the Kolkata women we interviewed, were performing in stable jobs and were financially as secure as their husbands, if not more.
We now consider the violence enforced through sexuality and sexual relations. From the evidence that we received, we can safely say that at least in the rural, consensual sex, is not the norm. The risks of pregnancy also lie entirely with the woman. The commonly used contraceptives are: tubal ligation for the woman, the pill, the copper tee (not as popular) and the condom. All of these, except the condom, seem to infiltrate the woman’s body and are in general more risky for the woman. The patriarchal belief system in turn, prioritizes the man’s sexual needs above others. Community pressure for a child may also aggrevate sexual violence. All of this: the non-consensual terms of sex, the asymmetrically harmful contraceptives, the internalized belief that the man’s sexual need is a more urgent and important issue, the asymmetric risks of pregnancy and the gendered pressure for a child (particularly a boy child); all constitute domestic violence. It is of course very hard to actually see these processes in action.
Marital rape i.e bluntly non-consensual sexual intercourse warrants further attention. Marital rape incorporates all forms of violence: physical, sexual, emotional etc. Anushree Banerjee used to refuse her husband’s advances, upon which he would rape her. He would later refrain from any verbally contact. Often women claimed that they were not satisfied, and reluctant to concede to their husband’s demands. Although marital rape did not plague the majority of women, but to those it did, it appeared to be a significant issue. The reasons for martial rape seem to be multifarious. It may erupt as a reaction to sexual denial, or it may simply be an attempt to humiliate or overpower. It is unclear, as to which event might trigger it.
Sexual deviancy and adultry is not seen as uncommon. One woman from Jadavpur narrated an account of a Kolkata woman like herself who is known for maintaining an incestual relationship with her adult son. That woman was middle aged, and currently cohabits with her 18 year old son. Unsatisfied sexual desires can affect women, and these can definitely lead to sexual deviancy. The same woman also narrated an account of a husband who maintained extra-marital affair with his sister-in-law. Kakoli Sen claimed that her husband refrained from making love to her, after she had delivered him a girl-child. She also felt that he also did not participate in sexual contact, because he felt he could not satisfy her needs. When they did end up copulating, much later, they conceived a boy. He husband also made use of certain ‘sex-toys’, to stimulate himself; much to her discontent. Do remember the short account at the beginning of this passage. It was Riya from Katwa who ruefully told to us that story. Her husband’s deviancy was the cause for violence. We see turbulent sexualities as vital in maintaining the bouts of violence within the household.
“Extra-marital affair is necessary, it should be seen as a path to salvation”
— Kakoli Sen, Shyambazar(Kolkata)
“For the male the sexual desire is more, as compared to the female”
—Anima Das, Katwa
We do feel that domestic violence (both physical and mental), as key to maintaining certain power-relations within the household. We feel that it reinforces the patriarchal belief system, and the structure of the modern household. Dowry, children, external employment patterns, and the internal structure of household production (which depends upon property rights, especially on land) seem to distribute power across the household. We have also seen how education, employment, and financial independence may alleviate domestic violence. At the legal end, the overlooking of marital rape remains problematic. The law should consider updating it’s definition of violence to include structural violence, that which is largely invisible. This includes the withholding of key information, discouragement of intellectual and spiritual pursuit and curtailment of imagination. Society should also consider recognizing alternate forms of marraige, since the current one seems to have no cure. We would like to end with a hopeful note: that change is possible. Already women are speaking up on such sensitive issues. Slowly, but surely, the times will change, and we would like to be there when they do.
“We are grateful to Trisha Chanda, Priyanka Garodia, Brishti Modak, Ankita Bose, Aishwarya Kazi, Arkapaul Dutta, Subhecchha Baidya, Ajishnu Roy, Sayan Kundu, Noyonika Bose, Mou Bose, Niladri Chatterjee, Krishnendu Roy, Dipak Kumar Roy for the help and support.” – Paromita, Pranjal