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Why don’t women walk out of abusive relationships? Because society doesn’t let them

Judgement from society, family and apathy from state institutions often trap women in a cycle of violence.

People take part in a protest to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Peru. (Reuters)

Why don’t you divorce your husband, I recently asked my domestic help. Barely 35, married at 15, mother of two and stepmother to a 22-year-old, the woman has been abandoned by her husband of 20 years, who remarried. But before leaving her, he packed all the household items, sold off the land in his name and left her with three children to fend for. The husband was a gambler and also violently abusive. But the question is: Is she ready to leave him? No, she will stay on with the tag of a “married woman”. She is uneducated, maybe that is her problem.

Well, not exactly.

Take the case of another woman, highly educated, independent, self-sufficient, with a standing in society. An abusive, controlling husband – the abuse mostly verbal, sometimes physical, even virtual. Mother, daughter, sister, woman — she stays on in the marriage. She is also hanging on to the tag of a married woman.

Perhaps the former doesn’t know her rights and the latter chooses to ignore them — or is the case the same for both? Are both these women just victims in violent relationships or are both victims of the society, which ignores, overlooks and even facilitates such abuse?

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“Aisa toh, hota hain”, “work it out a bit more”, “have a child and the man will mend his ways”, “lose weight he will come back to you”, “cook good food”, “don’t be children centric”, “don’t go after your career, take a back seat in your husbands’”, or even “oh your father was worse, look at him now”. Just be patient. Be a therapist, rehab counsellor, maid and even maneka for your husband and see how it works”.

These are the kinds of statements both women must have been bombarded with. Psychiatrists say women in abusive relationships tend to blame themselves, thinking they are not good enough, they are not doing enough. Ironically, society reiterates this belief at many levels. One woman took a dual approach to abuse and went to a senior ranking police officer who was her friend and a Sufi seer someone had suggested. Both men gave the same response. The policeman suggested therapy as “kids were involved” and the seer suggested more “physical intimacy” as kids were involved.

However, when a woman – almost as a result of abusive, controlling behaviour — is murdered and chopped into pieces, everyone suddenly wakes up. Talking heads on TV are busy debating “why the woman did not walk out of an abusive relationship” besides belittling the heinous crime and calling it “love jihad”. What everyone fails to ask is: If she failed to take a stand, why didn’t anyone else raise an alarm? The friends and family who now say they suspected abuse — what did they do? Had anyone taken an initiative, called the man out, or lodged a complaint, the young girl might have been alive.

Would her family have stood by her? She may well have feared their judgement. Would they have overlooked the fact that she was living in with a “Muslim”, ignored her “follies” and assured her she could come back to them?

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Talking to a cross-section of people across the country in the run-up to the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25), my idea that society is the larger culprit was confirmed. This is what Shobha Gupta, the lawyer for Bilkis Bano, calls “terrorism on women”. This terrorism is what women across geographies are going through. The names and places change, but their plight remains the same.

Coming back to my argument, imagine a woman coming out to complain against a partner, against a spouse. The first point of contact, the family, often gives her “tips to manage”, giving the abuse legitimacy.

The police and judiciary, who might on paper look as though they are supportive of women, are as judgemental. A case is often dismissed as a “marital tiff” and the perpetrator is often let off with a warning. “It’s seen as an issue of the feminist brigade, or a “women’s issue” until it doesn’t happen to your own — daughter/sister/mother. “But this is a social issue, it is a societal concern,” says Shobha Gupta.

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Another advocate friend cited an instance where a senior judge went on record to say that “I will not break a daughter’s home on the day my own daughter is getting married”, before refusing to grant divorce to a woman. A lawyer in a district court told me about an instance where a high-ranking officer is out on bail after forcing a woman to marry him despite him being already married. An accused willing to marry a rape victim is let off. As is an abusive husband after agreeing to take a victim back.

According to the Union Health Ministry’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), every third woman in the country encounters some kind of domestic abuse from the age of 15. About 31 per cent of married women have experienced physical, sexual or emotional torture from their partners. However, only 10 per cent have reported the violence. For the fear of being judged as failures, not good enough, financial insecurities or not raising children in dysfunctional families and even not wanting to hear “we told you so”, the women tend to keep quiet.

A survey carried out by the Centre for Advocacy and Research in Ajmer showed that more than 80 per cent of women said they fear going out because of gender-related violence in public places. Forty per cent of respondents said they have faced such violence.

If we scroll through newspaper headlines in the last few months, the country has seen judgments which will sadden and dishearten those fighting for justice. The release of perpetrators in a heinous crime, like the one committed in Gujarat against Bilkis Bano and her family, reflects the attitude of society towards crimes against women. The apologists for violence politicise the crimes and in certain cases, criminals are welcomed back into society with open arms.

“The process completely defeats your cause, as a woman you become hopeless and sad,” says Gupta. “However, let’s not lose hope, let’s keep fighting,” she adds.

The writer works at Pixstory

First published on: 27-11-2022 at 16:00 IST
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