She is a goddess. She is a nurturer, the caretaker, the linchpin that enables the family to run like a smooth, well-oiled machine. The family that she adopted along with her husband is not old fashioned. They will allow her to work. As long as she does not let it get in the way of her household chores. After all, family comes first. Her husband is earning anyway. And, if she forgets that family comes first, a little beating once in a while will jog her memory right back. After all, it is just like rebuking a child, for the child does not know any better.
That is not my story. But, it is frighteningly familiar for many women forced into marrying a stranger and guilt-tripped into staying in the marriage regardless of the physical and psychological abuse that ensues. My story is slightly different. To start with, it wasn’t a typical strangers-meet-for-the-first-time-on-their-wedding-day kind of deal. I knew the guy. We were friends for a brief while, and started dating shortly thereafter.
At the time, my family was staunchly conservative so they refused the union outright because of religious differences. Like a bollywood movie, we endured and married against everyone’s will. A typical romance-movie ending. The guy gets the girl. They live happily ever after. But what the movies don’t tell you, is what happens in the ‘ever after’. What the movies and romance novels do not tell you is that it’s not the end of the story. That the “hanging out” at the movies and the beach is not the same as living with another individual under the same roof, and that we see aspects of them we could have never imagined.
Now I know what you’re thinking. It is a love marriage. I chose the guy. Hence it is my responsibility to somehow make it work. It is common to blame the choice that was made, and to turn every (in)action into a consequence of that one choice. But isn’t that consistent with the society’s tendency to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator?
I was never one to keep my concerns to myself. This led to some heated arguments. One day one such heated argument led to a slap. I could see it in his face. The realization that he had just discovered a new outlet; a way to win our arguments. Slaps turned into punches, broken bones, black and blue eyes, systematically over the course of three years.
Why did I stay on? Because, I was led to believe that I was at fault, and that he acted out because I made him angry. In the days following each episode of violence, he would shower me with love, attention and affection. He would tell me he loves me and was afraid that I would leave him, and that’s why he acted out. I believed it. Until one day he started threatening our child. For a while, I wished and prayed (I was a theist then) that he would somehow meet with an accident and die. What was keeping me there in that house, wishing someone else would take care of my problem for me, was fear. I was afraid to step out, afraid of how I would bring up my then one-year-old child.
I wish someone had told me right then that it would be ok for me and my child to move. That I would survive it. That it wasn’t the end of my life. The funny thing is, the same fear that they think keeps you chained suddenly gives you courage to one day do what you had always dreaded. To put an end to the misery, I knew there was no way I would get out of it unless I took legal help.
It is strangely very difficult to open up about such experiences, while you are still experiencing them. None of my family or friends knew this was happening to me at the time. While I still held onto hope, I kept protecting him, my husband, from the ‘backlash’ from everyone around. I covered up the wounds as best as I could and made excuses for the ones I couldn’t. When my family finally knew, when I finally decided to step out of it, they stood by my side for which I am eternally grateful.
With great difficulty, I made reluctant police officers arrest him, by appealing to the Commissioner’s Office. We finally ended it with a divorce, and I taking the case back. I guess my case would count as a blip in the pile of countless cases that never saw a conviction. As much as I would have liked it to be otherwise, I was more concerned about my peace of mind and the wellbeing of my child than seeing justice served. Looking back now, I do not think I would have acted any differently at any point of time. Survival mattered at that time as much as it does now.
This brings me to my point of not feeling guilty. It is too tempting to allow oneself to be guilt-tripped into somehow thinking it is the woman’s fault. That, as a woman, I could have somehow avoided the situation or changed the outcome. Victim-blaming is something society excels in. Our twisted misogynistic society loves to blame the victim, rather than persecute the perpetrator and loves to find excuses for the atrocities, simply because it is easier than to admit to the larger issue at stake. It is easier to brand this as ‘women’s issues’ rather than see it as a human rights’ violation, specifically against women.
But it is not my fault, just like it is not the fault of the countless women who are fighting to survive. It is always the abuser’s fault, never the victim’s. It is not her fault, it is not your fault.
What keeps us tied down to such a toxic and dangerous relationship is fear. For some, it is fear for life and physical safety. But for others, it is fear of facing the society as someone who is no longer married. There is no denying the stigma attached to a woman who has either never married, or has stepped out of marriage. The apprehension is easy to understand. But eventually, we realize that the society is nothing but a collective bunch of individuals, and that they only affect and define our lives as much as we allow them to.
According to hetv.org, one-third of women between the ages of 15-49 have experienced physical violence..The study also stated that “married women are more likely to experience some form of physical or sexual violence by their husband.” Of course, we live in a country where marital rape is not even considered a crime.
With the help of the Male Reproductive Health Survey carried out in Uttar Pradesh in 1995, the authors of a study show that, “a significant percentage of husbands reported having committed one or more episodes of physical violence (25.1%) or sexual violence (30.1%) against their wives during the preceding year. Lifetime reports of physical violence and coercive sexual intercourse were 34.1% and 31.8%, respectively.” While studying the determinants of sexual violence, the authors found that “women married to more educated husbands (7 or more years of schooling) experienced significantly higher risks of coercive sexual intercourse.”
This confirms the belief that when it comes to sexual relations, women have to toe the line, and even cow down to men’s desires and demands. This also effectively smashes the stereotypical notion that domestic violence occurs only in the ‘lower’ and uneducated strata of society.
As for me, I was still holding on to some semblance of hope that the relationship would still work out. I thought I was doing it for my child. I did not want my son to grow up in a family without a father. I thought we would be ‘incomplete’. It took me a while to realize what I was doing to my child as a result of my misconceptions. I was letting him grow up in an abusive home. I was letting him witness my suffering.
We often forget how perceptive children are. We forget that as much as such traumatic experiences affect us, they affect the children too. Such children who have witnessed abusive environments grow up in constant fear. It is far from the nurturing environment that we should ideally be giving our children. We live in a screwed up world as it is, without making our children start living it too early on. Added to this, there is strong evidence to suggest that children who grow up in environments where such abuse is treated as a matter-of-fact, grow up to be abusers themselves.
When it was all over, when I was out of it, I only felt relief. It is funny how safe you feel when you are away from someone you thought would be your partner. I realized it was ok to step out. It was ok to take a stand for oneself, for our own safety and that of our children.
As serious as this issue is, it is still trivialized by society, even making a virtue out of staying in an abusive marriage. Like, this post I came across on a popular facebook page, The Anonymous Writer. The post was a short story. More of a tiny story:
Needless to say, it talks about victims of abuse tolerating their situation quietly. It is depicted as sacrifice, nobility and heroism. That, somehow, it is the mark of a “sanskaari woman” to be tolerant of abuse. Not only is it sexist, it is harmful. It perpetuates the view that is completely normal for a woman to accept abuse and that by tolerating it she is some ideal ‘sanskari’ wife, affecting the present and future generations. It is a snowball rolling down the mountain and it only gets bigger and worse.
Amidst all of this, what The Anonymous Writer did was a reflection of how the society has treated the issue at large. As someone who has been through it personally, I could not simply read what they wrote about victims not being able to stand up for themselves, and calling it tolerance. I and a few like minded friends chose to express exactly what I have talked about in this article. What ensued was completely uncalled for, although, not unexpected. Here are a few of the comments made on the post to offer some perspective.
I had also commented on the post. The response I received from the page left me astounded as to the amount of apologetic mansplaining that such individuals resort to when called out.
After this, the entire post was taken down to hide all the negative feedback. If only it ended at that. The author felt the need to share a follow up post completely distorting the facts with a postscript and a plea to let him write. He argued that he had the creative freedom to write what he wanted. His explanation went like this: “I am a writer, and I wrote about a circumstance that was unfortunate. Does that mean I support that circumstance? Not at all. but is that circumstance a reality? Unfortunately, yes. My job is to depict situations in words… Others do it through paintings, movies, music and other forms of art. Please, let me write.” We commented on that too. Tried to reason with the author. Tried to explain that it is an issue far more serious than a short story of 4 lines could ever hope to fathom.
Some comments that ensued are as follows:
The result? This:
After this, I was banned from the page. So were my friends. What was despicable was the way that such traumatic experiences were trivialized. Romanticized, even! And to so authoritatively deny that you have touched upon a sensitive issue and need to tread with caution and empathy. To think that domestic violence is equal to breaking up with a girlfriend or failing an exam. Each is traumatic in its own right, but the complex impacts that domestic abuse has on victims, cannot be equated.
We are so mistaken to think that we are tolerating all of this for our children. According to research by Seetha Menon “nearly one in ten child deaths under the age of one in India can be attributed to domestic violence against the mother during the marriage.” If I was under the impression that I was staying on in an abusive marriage for the sake of my child, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was making it worse. Here’s an insight from a child’s perspective:
Yes, it is not easy. Yes, it is scary in the beginning. But it is ok. And, it gets better. The scars fade, the pain lessens. The trauma becomes a memory that nudges us once in a while. But in the end, it is worth it. To take that stand for ourselves. To feel that sense of safety. That’s what it is all about – Hope for the future.
Note: This is the first part of a 2-part series on living through domestic violence.
The second part, “Domestic violence through a child’s eyes”, has been added.
If you have any experience to share, please share in the comments below or mail at email@example.com (we will ensure anonymity)
- Koenig MA, Stephenson R, Ahmed S, Jejeebhoy SJ, Campbell J. Individual and contextual determinants of domestic violence in North India. Am J Public Health. 2006;96(1):132–138. [PMC free article] [PubMed]