Trigger Warning: Violence, mentions of suicide
I was in the third grade when I contemplated murder for the first time.
A scene from some forgotten film played on a loop in my head as I heard my father beat my mother down to a pulp. I visualised myself, in my yellow cotton frock, knife in hand, walking up to those entangled bodies and stabbing the overpowering figure in the back. Over, and over, and over again. It would be easy and be done within a second – piercing a kitchen knife through flesh and bones – it would be an act of rage; a justified vengeance; a celebratory dark violence.
I cannot recall the number of times I tried to manifest the courage of that little boy in the movie. I kept wishing I was as strong, as willed, as selfless. I’d tell myself I would be tried as a juvenile and kept counting down years till I turned 18 – my window of getting away with murder. Even now, at times, I find myself envious of the boy who took matters into his own hands.
Children and adolescents who grew up in abusive homes are more likely to attempt suicide; more likely to use drugs; more likely to commit crimes; more likely to suffer from mental disorders; more likely to use violence as response to perceived threats; and more likely to become abusers later in life.
Violence against women in homes is a social phenomenon, not an isolated incident. It is embedded in gendered expectations. It is carried through memory, subconsciously or consciously, generation after generation until an abuser takes accountability and breaks the cycle.
A naive and hopeful child, I never could wrap my head around how no one intervened, yet I kept waiting for a saviour. The collective public apathy does not surprise me now. We as a nation are that neighbour who turns a blind eye because the matter does not affect them personally. Each time a state sponsored attack or a mob lynching takes place, we sit uncomfortably in our comfort zones feeling helpless to do anything of substance.
Violence in the private sphere
While a home is supposedly a place of love, trust, and support, it is increasingly evident that a number of homes have been sites of chronic violent human relations both between the couple, between the parent and offspring, and even involving in-laws.
Violence in the private sphere has been invisibilised. If visible, it is normalised and accepted. The brunt of it is almost always faced by women, and at times, children. If scrutinised, it is handled internally. The concern is to keep the family together, not the safety of a woman.
Much like the state shines the torch of ‘security’ to silence and oppress those who raise a voice, the family too uses the same guise to keep tabs on, discipline, and control the woman. Through this, the gendered structure of family is maintained and passed on.
The Indian family in popular discourse is always patriarchal and heteronormative. In the name of protecting this precious traditional institution, women and queer folks are subjugated.
In one of the various ‘interventions’ my family faced over the years, Mrs. Flag Bearer of Patriarchy, an older widowed woman who herself faced abuse in her own marriage, scoffed at me when I voiced I want my mother and father to divorce. Mr. Bado Ki Suno swooped in to comment how if that were the case, every marriage ever would end, and Miss. Bacho Ka Kya Hoga added that I was too young to make sense of these matters. Mr. Causal Islamophobia and Mr. Jaat Pride too had important points to make – how could one forget to compare or point fingers at others when our dirty laundry is the one being dished out? The ever so helpful policemen instructed a policewoman to talk to my mother in private and ask madam to ‘adjust’ a little.
At every step, there exists a systemic obstacle making it extremely difficult for a woman to leave an abusive household – be it lack of financial independence, lack of family or state support, or the stigma and shame associated with domestic violence.
Unable to sustain themselves for too long, financial dependency is the central reason that a woman might keep coming back to her husband. Pressure from the natal home too, is significant. The perception of a divorced or single woman in society is also a major factor – one has to justify why their marriage failed, and most women don’t want to be labelled as a battered helpless lamb. Women also might fear repercussions for speaking out or in some cases feel that the abuse was necessary and justified.
Only within the last couple of decades, owing to women’s rights groups and activists, violence within the private sphere is being analysed as a social and public health issue and not being looked over as a private affair tucked away from criticism and intervention.
A number of factors contribute to domestic violence and the most promising analytical model seems to be the ecological model which combines both individual (biological and family history) and social (cultural norms and perception) factors.
Domestic violence in the marital home is not a matter tucked within four walls simply – but disturbingly, its presence is well-known and accepted. It is not an argument turned ugly. It is not black and white, but swims in various shades of grey – a pattern of coercive control that the dominating individual exercises over the submissive one. Abusers employ insults, threaten to harm you or your loved ones, use demeaning language, and instill fear. It results in the psychological breaking of the victim and the feeding of the abuser’s ego when they get their way. It affects the social, economic, and emotional well-being of not only the victim, but the perpetrator and the society as a whole.
Private violence is carried within generations, within communities, and one cannot put a number on the pain and loss suffered during violent bouts. It has long term psychological implications and cannot be brushed aside as ‘not that big of an issue’.
Violence is frustration. My boss ridiculed me, now you must bear my wrath.
Violence is entitlement. The dowry wasn’t enough, you must burn.
Violence is insecurity. You smiled at the sabjiwaala, open your legs, let me show you who’s boss.
Violence is fear. If you tell anyone, I will kill you and the children and then myself.
Violence is a threat. You won’t be able to survive without me, you need me.
Violence is simply, violence. It is enacted by people unable to process or explain their emotions; by individuals with psychological challenges who feel entitled, because they never learned otherwise. It is prevalent across borders, class, and caste. It ranges from female foeticide, to forced suicide, to long term psychological abuse and, is evident, to some degree, in every corner of the world.
Husbands who batter, berate, and belittle their wives typically feel they are fulfilling their moral duty by punishing their wives’ delinquency and helping to maintain social order. They fail to even acknowledge their behaviour as a form of abuse. Contrarily, some studies have also found that some husbands express shame and remorse over their actions and a helplessness to stop their behaviour and control their anger despite various attempts.
Violence towards women in the private sphere is both a consequence and cause of gender inequality. More women die or end up disabled in our country because of domestic violence than of cancer or traffic accidents. Most women are killed by someone they know, rather than a stranger they encounter on a barren patch of land.
I firmly believe that if women are respected and safe within their homes, they will be outside as well. A restructuring of the family institute is imperative. More and more studies point towards gender-sensitive approaches which emphasize gendered expectations of both men and women as crucial to understanding family violence. Men and boys should be engaged in gender transformative interventions with male role models to alter men’s attitudes of acceptability of and justification for marital violence and consequently their actual abusive behaviours. A simple policy introduction is too little and too late when a woman has to factor in all the other obstacles she will face. Proper rehabilitation, and counselling are required. Till the perception of women and their place in family is challenged, no act or bill will allow her to flourish.
- Personal experience and observations
- Domestic Violence in India: A Summary Report of a Multi-Site Household Survey Dr. R.C. Ahuja King’s Medical College Dr. Shrikant Bangdiwala University of North Carolina
- Public Health Impact Of Marital Violence Against Women In India Anita Raj
Addressing Domestic Violence: An Unfinished Agenda Ravneet Kaur, Suneela Garg
Muskan/empty (she/they) is a 22-year-old queer disabled visual artist and writer, currently a student at Ambedkar University Delhi. Their art practise ranges from video essays to murals to zines. You can find their work on Instagram.
Featured image source: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India