Millennium Post

What is the fate of a woman?

Justice K Bhaktavatsala of the Bangalore High Court has shocked the nation. Law Minister Salman Khurshid is perturbed by his comments. Chief Justice of India S H Kapadia has received a petition against Bhaktavatsala, who now has been barred from judging family cases including guardianship and child custody. The Karnataka State Commission for Women is up in arms as are other activists. And rightly so. 

Should someone, who has been given the charge of protecting the rights of an individual, in this case women, ask a victim of wife-battering to ignore being slapped around as long as her husband earns well? No. Can violence be condoned in the name of ‘adjustment’ to keep the marriage going? No. Nothing can justify the comments made by the judge when dealing with the case of a 28-year-old woman, who knocked on the door of his court complaining that her husband beat her up regularly. 

While there should be zero tolerance for the sentiments expressed by Bhaktavatsala and he deserves public chastisement, the moment calls for another relevant related discussion. It is time to bring up for debate an extremely worrying fact of our society. Why do a significant number of women in India still justify beatings by their husband? Though there is outrage from important quarters on Bhaktavatsala’s comments, there is no running away from the troubling fact that a sizeable percentage of women find little wrong with what he has said. Many women from poor as well as affluent homes, rural as well as urban zones hold the view that husbands have a right to slap wives around if they have misbehaved, have been disobedient or neglected their duties. This shocking approval of wife battering by women themselves is revealed in reports and surveys done in the last six years. 

A 2009 UN agency report reveals that 54 per cent of Indian women are ‘OK’ with wife beating. It goes on to underline that approval of this form of domestic violence depends on the wife’s level of education. Wife beating is more acceptable amongst women in rural India than by their urban sisters. Step back to the 2007 National Family Health Survey-III in which 1.25 lakh women across 28 states were interviewed. The survey revealed that 41 per cent of the women interviewed justified beatings by their husband because they had been ‘disrespectful to their in-laws’. Thirty five per cent justified it because they had neglected household chores. The moot point highlighted is that these women feel that wives can be punished by husbands if they are doing something ‘wrong’. They do not see wife beating as physical or mental cruelty.

Four recent cases sourced from police and a help group records show that there is little change in the mindset of such women. They also demolish certain myths about wife beating.  

  1. Roshan: Thirty-three-year-old fashion designer, married to a successful garment exporter, and resides in an affluent colony in New Delhi. She confesses that her husband has often slapped her, pushed her violently to the ground and even twisted her wrist. ‘He is just very short tempered. I also do silly things that irritate him like forgetting he has invited friends for dinner and we run short of food. Sometimes I misplace his important papers. Sometimes I wear clothes he doesn’t like’. Has she ever thought of leaving him on this ground? Not really, she says, as she does not have any ‘major problems’ with him. Once she says sorry and makes amends all is back to normal. On advice from a friend, she has made a complaint to a NGO ‘to scare him so that he does not hurt me grievously’.

  2. Naaz: Forty-six-year-old housewife married to an insurance agent. Lives in a Delhi suburb. No children. ‘He beats me up whenever we return from family events where there are lots of children. It is my fault that I have not been able to conceive. He loves children and misses not having one’. One beating resulted in internal bleeding. ‘He was mad that night. He kept punching me in the stomach. Later I was in great pain and he took me to hospital’. A police case was registered when Naaz told the doctor why her stomach was paining. ‘My husband loves me. He was crying when he learnt that I was badly injured. He said sorry’. The thought of ending her marriage has never crossed her mind.

  3. Buladevi: Twenty-four-year-old married to a daily wage earner. She works as a cleaning woman in three households to supplement the family income. She has two daughters and a son. Live in one room in an unrecognised settlement in south Delhi. Hails from Bihar. When money falls short ‘he beats me up. I also lose my temper and tell him not to blow up money in alcohol. This angers him even more’. This happens almost thrice a week. ‘It is the fate of a woman to be beaten. If I leave him where will I go? To another man? He will do the same. I can’t go back to my village and say I have come because my husband beats me they will laugh’. A sympathetic employer sent Bula to a women’s group that helps victims of domestic violence. But there is little they can do till Bula herself decides to stop taking the beating.

  4. Khusbu: Twenty-six-year-old beautician. Married two years ago to an IT technician. Lives in a middle-income locality. ‘I was shocked when my husband hit me for the first time. We had been married just a few months and he saw me talking to a boy who is my parent’s neighbour. I told him I knew him since childhood. He accused me of having an affair with him. I am so scared that I have stopped visiting my parents’. Khusbu is being counseled by an NGO but is ‘yet to make up my mind’ about her next step. ‘Maybe he will realise that I am not telling him a lie and stop slapping me’. 
On one hand there is the inspirational example of Flavia Agnes, a domestic violence victim, who courageously stepped out to become one of the best known women’s rights lawyer and on the other, there are the Roshans, the Naazs, the Buladevis and Khusbus still trapped in a violent marriage even justifying the beating they get. Why this dichotomy? Is it because the likes of Bhaktavatsala reassert age-old male domination? His response to wife beating reaffirms in the mind of women the social response that a husband has the right to beat his wife. This will not help change the mind set of those women who have yet to learn to fight for their dignity and their rights. The change must come. [IPA]
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