CultureBooks Gender-based Violence: 5 Books & Literature As Witnesses

Gender-based Violence: 5 Books & Literature As Witnesses

Literature can zoom out what lies in the background - one of them being gender-based violence. 

This article is part of the #GBVInMedia campaign for the 16 Days Of Activism global campaign to end gender-based violence. #GBVInMedia campaign analysis how different kind of mainstream media (mis)represents/reports gender-based violence and broadens the conversation from violence against women to violence against people from the queer community, caste-based violence and violence against people with disabilities. Join the campaign here.

Gender-based violence is a practice that evolved from patriarchy. Literally speaking, gender-based violence refers to the violence propagated on an individual owing to the abjection of their gender. Portraying from the common lens, gender-based violence speaks of the discrimination faced by women on grounds of physical, sexual, psychological or economical suffering.

But on the larger sphere of torment, gender-based violence has it impacts on the entire human race, irrespective of sex, class or gender. Being a fiction freak myself, I attribute books as one of the most relevant sources of media that educate us of what is happening around us. The pages offer us vivid images of reality depicting the closest scenario of an incident or even a catastrophe. Literature can zoom out what lies in the background – one of them being gender-based violence.

1. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

From the many books I have gulped into my memory, one novel to begin with is the Pulitzer Prize winner, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The novel portrays the lives of characters who are socially drowned by two curses: being “colored” and not white, and being “women” and not men, both being inferior in the African-American hierarchy. The story revolves round the life of the protagonist Celie who is a poor, uneducated, “ugly”, black girl. Raped repeatedly by the man she calls her “father”, Celie’s two children were stolen away from her. Later, Celie enters into an ugly marriage with a man of verbal and physical abuses. The novel portrays several women characters like Nettie, Sophia, Squeak who have all been victims of gender-based violence. But eventually with the running chapters, these subjugated women stand up and fight back, taking charge of their own destiny.

On the other hand, almost none of the abusers in Walker’s novel are stereotypical, one-dimensional monsters whom we can dismiss as purely evil. Those who perpetuate violence are themselves victims, often of sexism, racism, or paternalism. And perpetrators are usually known to the victims. The story also portrays the power of strong female relationships, especially the presence of Shug Avery, which allow women to resist oppression and dominance. Relationships among women form a refuge, providing reciprocal love in a world filled with male violence.

2. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

Next in the list is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea which is a postcolonial novel that gives a voice to Antoinette, a white Creole woman described or left out as the “mad woman in the attic” in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. An exile within her own family – Antoinette was not lucky to be emotionally close to her mother, long-lost father or even her rich step-father. Antoinette was a “white nigger” who belonged neither to the English nor to the Jamaican race, but was suppressed between the two and abused as a “white cockroach” by her disdainful servants.

A marriage that solely took place for the dowry permitted by the then English Marriage Laws, Antoinette lost the ownership of her ascribed property and became an oddity in the eyes of her husband. Verbally abused and psychologically devastated, Antoinette frees herself from the darkness by jumping down the roof setting the house on fire. The book, thus, brings out the oppression and domination of a colonial and patriarchal society under which Antoinette lived. The novel portrays how the female character, under the pressure of her gender and race, is forced to abject her own identity, and suffer the irrational switching of her name from Antoinette to Bertha. Antoinette as a victim of racial discrimination and sexual castration, has been justly pen-pictured by Jean Rhys, socially discussing the issues of gender and identity in the postcolonial era.

3. Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

Moving on, to the arid topography of Afghanistan, gender-based violence thrives strong in the pages of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. The book begins with the story of Mariam, an illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, who resents least space in her father’s life and is forced to marry a widower. Suffering miscarriage after miscarriage, Mariam is abused by her husband, both verbally and physically. It becomes clear that Mariam’s only use is in her ability to produce an heir.

The story then intertwines with a younger woman Laila who gets pregnant by her lover. Tricked by Mariam’s husband as her lover being dead, Laila decides to marry him to secure her unborn child’s identity. There the role of virginity and first sex has been poignantly described by Hosseini. Giving birth to a daughter, Laila faces the worst of her husband. Eventually, the two women in the house find themselves as allies against their abusive husband. The two women live through a rough period for women’s rights in Afghanistan. They are controlled by the government, being treated as property by their husband, and forbidden from taking part in society. Yet through their strength and resilience, the women are able to overcome the obstacles to a much considerable extent.

4. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions

Next in the row, leads to a reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharata, told from the point of view of an amazing woman. Penned by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, narrated by the protagonist Panchali, The Palace of Illusions is a book that deconstructs the character and revolving events of “Draupadi”. Beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a wife of five husbands – the Pandavas, the readers never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated relationship with the enigmatic Krishna and her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. The book also points to the event of “Swayamvar” where Panchali ends up marrying Arjun, among the many invited princes and kings of Bharat. Marked with prophecy to change the course of history, Panchali declares early not to spend her life merely supporting the men around her. Panchalai is a fiery female, subjugated by sexism and male dominance, yet constructs feminism collared with myth and magic, and redefines for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate. Spiritual remarks from the divine Krishna and the heavy-handed feminism tackled by Divakaruni’s rich narrative, the book is a strong blow to gender-based violence practiced in the past.

5. Living Smile Vidya’s I Am Vidya

The book I Am Vidya is an autobiography which presents the life-sketch of a trans woman who fought against traditional norms, suffered a lot of pain and disdain, but finally acquired her own-ness i.e. womanhood. Sarvanan (birth-name of Vidya) is a boy who always believed he is a female soul dwelling in a male body. As the time passes, his self renounces him to survive as a male, and finally Sarvanan transitions to Vidya. During the course of her transformation, she is tortured by most people she came across. Although some kind-hearted people love her, express sympathy and boost her courage to do so, the book vividly depicts the big clan of conservative minds who are shocked to learn about her sex change.

The book also describes Vidya’s relationship with her father, his whimsical nature and his merciless beating of Vidya. In an interview, Chennai-based Vidya has widely talked about her struggling phase in life, her being at the receiving end of violence and her running fight for the benefit of all trans* people. While presenting her life in this book, Vidya has raised some significant issues related to trans* people. Being a citizen of democratic country, trans* people are chained from enjoying their fundamental rights, laws are not sufficient for their protection, and common people share least empathy with them.

Pages and pages have been published to educate the world about what lies beneath the issues of gender and the violence associated with it. Be it a piece of fiction splashing out of a creative mind or the narrative of a victim of gender-based violence or a blend of both, books serve as an omniscient medium that captures the malice of gender-based violence. Giving voices to the people or spreading the words of a sufferer, books stand strong in the mainstream media to portray the naked truth of gender associated crimes. As a shiny wrapper, I would like to conclude with a quotation by Virginia Woolf :

“I want to write a novel about Silence,” he said, “the things people don’t say”.


Featured Image Credit: Leonid Afremov

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