“Once there was a princess who wept pearls,
and once there was a princess
who laughed flowers. Both died, I heard.
One of weeping
and the other of laughter.
But not because one’s eyes went dry
or the other forgot how to laugh.
One died of suffocation
entombed in pearls. The other choked
on a surfeit of flowers.
The pearls were sold for a fortune, I heard.
But the wilted flowers brought no gain at all.
Since then, I have heard
A woman’s tears have become
far more precious than her laughter.”
– Deepa Agarwal
Last year, I had spent Diwali with some friends and acquaintances, at an impromptu rooftop cookout in South Delhi, the outlines of the Qutub Minar barely a kilometre away, somewhat visible in the familiar haze that marks Diwali in Delhi. Delicious smells wafted in from the temporary cookfire, as our small group huddled closely around a small heater fan. The conversation turned to recent Hindi movies, and someone spoke of the movie Thappad.
In minutes, I found myself embroiled in a lively conversation regarding whether it was warranted for a happy housewife to walk out of a marriage for just one incident where her husband slapped her. It was familiar territory. Most women unequivocally agreed even one instance of slapping one’s wife was one too many. Some men immediately supported this, and some exchanged some well-intentioned, light-hearted banter that women these days were too woke. A few women also voiced their concerns about the sanctity of marriage as an institution, if it took so little for a woman to leave it.
As I sipped my warm drink slowly, I reflected silently on how this crowd dealt with an incidence of domestic violence. Far removed from the abstract, metaphorical academic language I am accustomed to, this was a reified version of social norms and attitudes in play. Whether in jest or reality, I was observing how an urbane, largely post-graduate-educated group in their early/middle thirties spoke about physical spousal violence. Soon we moved on to other, less contentious topics but something that struck me was that roughly half of the group I was in conversation with was not yet decided if physical violence was enough to end a relationship.
In just about a year, India woke up to the news of the gruesome murder of 27-year-old Shraddha Walker allegedly strangled to death by her boyfriend and live-in partner Aftab. The minutiae of the grisly killing have been followed in excruciating detail on the internet and media. Reading between the lines, the actual incident is not that far off from the run-of-the-mill abusive relationship which unfolds openly or subtly all around us. Shraddha took a decision that is frowned upon by many Indian parents — choosing her own romantic partner, and eventually moving in with him and the decision was especially contentious because of Aftab’s faith.
The sensational byte of the case lay in how Aftab had allegedly planned the disposal of Shraddha’s body with clinical precision. There was story after story on how Aftab had posed to be progressive, allied with LGBTQ movements, how he took inspiration from an American web series, etc. What did emerge from the reporting was that Aftab had a history of violence with Shraddha, and there were police complaints to that effect.
In parallel, Twitter started trending hashtags of Love Jihad, and the victim blaming started, right on cue. Within a very short time, conversations on a case that could have jolted the nation and made people take note of the country’s alarming statistics on domestic violence were deflected along sectarian lines and there has been talk of how practices like living In relationships imported from the West was leading to crime.
There are several cases (the Shilpa Jharia murder case, the Mohammad Firoz murder case, the Naina Sahni murder case, and the Nithari cases) which show that murdering Hindu women is by no means under the sole purview of Muslim men. Within days of this case, a 21-year-old was found allegedly murdered and her body disposed of by her own family in Mathura, UP. Around two weeks ago, there were reports of another killing of a Dalit man by his wife’s family. When it comes to faith/caste-based honour killings, neither gender nor faith can be an absolute predictor.
At the global as well as the national level, WHO and NFHS data tells us that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence at the hand of their spouse or intimate partner. This simple statistic should be enough for the public to realise this is nowhere an episodic or politically-motivated crime against Hindu women but is pervasive across cultures and faith. Consistently, disturbing patterns have been replicated by successive rounds of NFHS and larger studies from the United Nations, that irrespective of gender, approximately 45-50 per cent of Indians justify wife-beating on one pretext or another.
The recent UN study on Gender Equality Attitudes (2022) observes that while 90 per cent of Indians espouse gender equality and want more equality in terms of resource allocation and pay, 45 per cent still justifies wife beating, and a fair share of respondents believe in gender stereotypes such as men should be prioritized when it came to education, food allocation under duress and children suffer when the mother works for pay. Sixty per cent of responders agree that women’s dress is responsible for any attention they get and 44 per cent agree that men should get paid more than women for the same job and 35 per cent agree that a woman’s pay should not be greater than her husband’s. Overall, the report paints the picture of a starkly gendered society and it is in this milieu that we must map the domestic violence data henceforth. Domestic violence never happens in a vacuum, out of purely an individual’s failure.
Domestic violence happens in a permissive, often enabling environment where overt or covert incidences are “managed” with relatives’ or partners’ interventions, which tend to invalidate the survivor’s trauma by a combination of tactics that employ victim blaming, invocation of shame upon the family’s honour, isolating the victim from all support systems and consistently undermining the survivor’s own confidence and self-esteem by relentless gaslighting. The psychological abuse, which is rarely studied in large studies, often ends up being the most damaging aspect of relationship abuse, even in absence of overt physical or sexual violence.
Where physical and sexual violence is already present, data from most cultures suggests that psychological abuse is likely to exist as well. Unless the broader social milieu that staunchly harbours acceptability of domestic violence and gender stereotypy is addressed at a public level- interventions against domestic violence are unlikely to show any success. One should bear in mind that Shraddha might not have had a supportive family available to her once she had decided to move ahead with her relationship.
There is detailed literature, which well documents why it takes survivors so much time to break away from abusive relationships. Just as abuse does not happen in a vacuum, survivors, even when they are well-educated, cannot be expected to walk out of abusive relationships.
The second trend which went viral on social media foregrounding this incident was the oft-repeated rhetoric of western cultural evil, imported in the form of living-in relationships. That this can be a rational assumption is ironic, since it is well-documented that the presence of marital in-laws never protects Indian women from physical harm. Conversely, there is a rich body of scholarship now on how married women in India are at risk of both physical and emotional violence from their female marital relatives such as mothers and sisters-in-law, in addition to spousal violence.
Neither faith nor marital status has to do much about why women experience domestic violence or intimate partner violence in India. Irrespective of gender, our social norms are permissive of violence against women, stereotyping gender roles and restricting the autonomy of women while exhibiting multiple standards for men for the same exact behaviours. Indian women are likely to suffer till their fundamental rights are recognised as humans first and women thereafter.
The writer is assistant professor of psychology, Ashoka University