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Shraddha Walkar murder case: Could her story have turned out differently?

Urvashi Butalia writes: Her story tells us that despite all the progress made on women’s rights in the world, there is still deep misogyny and the idea of women being independent, strong and with opinions and desires of their own is still anathema to so many societies

Shraddha’s family was perhaps not wrong in worrying about their daughter — but not because the man she chose was Muslim.

For the last several days I have not been able to get young Shraddha Walkar out of my head. Imagine the scenario: A young woman leaves home to be with the man she loves. The partner she wishes to be with happens to belong to a different religion, which clearly does not matter to her, although it is reason enough to make her family unhappy. Should she choose for herself or for them? Perhaps she weighs her options, or, equally likely, the choice is so clear that she doesn’t need to.

She loves the man, she wants to be with him, so that’s the choice she makes: She chooses herself. It’s her life, her choice.

But sometimes people make wrong choices and then there are consequences, horrific consequences. Shraddha’s choice went terribly wrong: She thought she was walking into love, instead she walked into what passed for love and soon turned into something truly sinister — violence, murder, death, dismemberment as if she were not a human being but a thing to be cast aside.

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Imagine what that young woman must have lived through – caught in the cruelty of daily violence and fear, diminished as a human being by the person from whom she sought love, no place to go for support, and unable, even had she wanted to, to go back to her family for then their belief in the “wrongness” of her relationship would become truth. A truth that offered only one way out: To return to the fold of the family.

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Her decision would no longer remain just a wrong decision, a mistake.

Instead, it would become the “truth” our society wants to impose on every woman: Do not make your own decisions, abide by what the family says, we know better than you what you want.

And yet, families are wrong countless times — they make a choice for their daughters. The choice turns out to be tragically wrong. But instead of acknowledging and rectifying that mistake — which is what people tend to do when they realise their mistakes — the scenario changes and the focus now shifts to that nonsensical and elusive thing, family “honour”. The woman is told not to speak about it, to endure it. What families do not say, but what often happens, is that the woman is killed for a choice she did not make and one she was not allowed to opt out of, and very quickly, silence settles around her death.

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Shraddha’s family was perhaps not wrong in worrying about their daughter — but not because the man she chose was Muslim. All parents worry when children step out into the world, even if those children are adults in their own right. I keep wondering if things might have turned out differently if her family had said to her that they supported her choice, her wish to make her own decisions, but that they would be there for her at all times if she ever needed support. Might that have changed things? Saved her life? We’ll never know.

Shraddha’s story is the story of millions of women in India and across the world: It’s a story that happens between intimate partners, no matter what sex, or religion, or class or caste they belong to. It’s a story that is hidden in plain sight. We all know it exists, we all pretend it does not.

It’s a story that tells us that despite all the progress made on women’s rights in the world, there is still deep misogyny and the idea of women being independent, strong and with opinions, wishes, desires and needs of their own is still anathema to so many societies.

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It’s also a story that is linked to the many ways in which our societies are turning increasingly violent: Killing, lynching, rape lie just beneath the veneer of civilisation, and such violence, particularly when it relates to caste or gender, is tacitly sanctioned and supported by society and social and state institutions.

Look at the ways in which the media reports gender-based violence: Claims are made that it is communal (as in Shraddha’s case), or that it is linked to hawala money (as in the Hathras case). Look at the ways in which the media are not outraged — anyone with even a shred of a conscience would be — when convicted rapists are released and celebrated, or when an eight-year-old’s rapist-murderers are garlanded. Political point scoring trumps the deep injustice of murder.

The police echo these statements. The arbiters of law support them: Remember the Hadiya case and the judge who opined that a 24-year-old woman could not be her own decision-maker? Or look at the way support systems set up for women facing violence are systematically reduced in number, their budgets are cut, their people are not trained. This is not a society serious about tackling the issue of violence against women.

A 2005 10-country study by WHO on women’s health and domestic violence against women, notes that between 55-95 per cent of women facing domestic violence from intimate partners have never sought help. The question is: Where would they go?

We know well that domestic violence is the major killer of women across the world, making the home one of the most unsafe places for women to be. The murderers are usually husbands or men known as “intimate partners”, and the killing is the culmination of a long process of incremental physical and mental violence – insults, physical injury, beatings and more.

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And the reasons are random: Food not cooked on time, too much salt, a conversation with another man, a reluctance to have sex. The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that nearly six out of every ten women (58 per cent) who are intentionally — not randomly — killed worldwide are murdered by intimate partners or family members. Their numbers are not small. In 2017 this figure was 50,000 women around the world. By now it is probably higher.

Surely it’s time to stop this continuing history of shame? We could begin by demanding justice for Shraddha and every other woman caught in the trap of domestic violence.

The writer is publisher, Zubaan

First published on: 28-11-2022 at 15:58 IST
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