At 32, Suneeta has a doctorate in Hindi from Delhi University, a job in a women's organisation as the editor of its journal, and two children. She also has a secret that nearly killed her: a husband who beats her up so violently that she once attempted suicide.
At first, Suneeta blamed her in-laws, his parents and brother for his acts of violence. But two years ago, she shifted with her husband and children out of her father-in-law's government-owned flat in Delhi. And a few months later, she landed in her office with a black eye, a result of her husband socking her in the face. Yet she insists: "He is a nice man otherwise. I am also to blame; my tongue can be quite vitriolic when I get angry. "
Suneeta is not the only woman who blames herself for being beaten up. A survey released last month by the International Institute for Population Studies shows that an astonishing 56 per cent of Indian women justify wife-beating. To assess their attitude, the institute's National Family Health Survey asked 1,00,000-odd married women across the country whether they thought a husband is justified in beating his wife for any of these reasons: if he suspects her of being unfaithful; if her natal family doesn't give expected money, jewellery or gifts; if she goes out without telling him; if she neglects the house or children; or if she doesn't cook properly.
Almost three out of five women accepted at least one of these reasons as justification for wife-beating, with neglecting the house or children being the most common (40 per cent). A mere 7 per cent thought inadequate dowry to be valid justification. Expectedly, the justification declined sharply with education and urbanisation.
But while educated, urban women may not justify the violence, they still silently tolerate it for other reasons.
For instance, the first time Sharmila Bose, a 25-year-old executive in a five-star hotel, was assaulted by her husband, she was stunned. "This can't be happening to me," she thought as she picked herself up from the floor, and got ready for dinner with her in-laws downstairs. It was less than two months since she had married tall, handsome and athletic Manish Sharma, her former college-mate and now her colleague. Although she was a Bengali and he a Punjabi, both sets of parents had consented to the marriage. And to tell them now about Manish's hitting her, and all because she was late by half an hour, seemed unimaginable. So when Manish apologised later that night and told her how much he loved her, Sharmila was only too ready to believe him. Until the next time it happened. For three years, Sharmila bore up with her husband's acts of violence, telling no one one about it, even as it consumed her fierce, independent spirit.
"There's little difference in the violence married women face, whether they live in bungalows or jhuggis," says Shanti, a trainer and field officer for women's organisation Jagori. "The only difference is rich women are beaten up in the privacy of their homes, where none can hear them or come to their rescue. And they don't speak out because of the naak kat gaya shame."
Statistics bear out this claim: recent surveys across the country by the International Council for Research on Women (icrw) estimate that up to 60 per cent of married women, regardless of caste, class and education, experience violence in the home. "Except for a few sensational cases, day-to-day physical abuse of women in their own homes is largely hidden," say the icrw reports.
Shame is not the only reason why upper-class women are silent about being beaten up. "Fear of social stigma and of not being believed plays a large role in this conspiracy of silence," says Indira Jaisingh, who heads Lawyers Collective, a women's legal aid centre in Delhi. "Any woman of our class who says publicly that her husband is violent is likely to be called a liar."
Like 26-year-old Shirin Juwaley. She was married on Valentine's Day in 1998 to a man she'd met only twice. But Mubin Mulla was good-looking, an electrical engineer working in Kuwait for Otis Elevators. The romance crumbled for the 24-year-old bride on her wedding night, when Mubin transformed from husband to sexual aggressor. "It was like being raped every night," says Shirin. "My honeymoon was a nightmare, and he cut short our trip when I got my periods and accused me of having planned it in advance. He had said: "Why should I waste my money and take you to Shimla?'"
When she tried to reason with him to "go slow" on sex, she was told: "Why the hell did I marry you if not for this?" The last straw for her came when Mubin humiliated her at a family gathering, announcing to his family and hers that "my wife doesn't sleep with me". Returning to her natal home and filing for divorce was traumatic: no one, least of all the police, was willing to take her fears seriously. Mubin demanded Rs 1 lakh to consent to a divorce. Then one evening, returning home from work, as she climbed the stairs to her first-floor home, Mubin emerged from the shadows and flung acid on her face. "At first," recalls Shirin, "I was actually happy he had burnt me. At least now people would believe he wasn't as angelic as he looked and they'd accept me." The irony is they still don't, because of her face.
Apart from societal pressure, women are reluctant to take action against violent husbands either because of affection or because they have no access to the system, whether the police or lawyers," says Kaveree Sharma of Lawyers Collective. When Suneeta landed in hospital after her suicide attempt, she was reluctant to report the truth about her husband to the police. "If the police caught him, what would happen to my two children?" she asked. Though she admitted pensively: "Now that he's sure I'll never go to the police, and he can resort to violence any time."
The police, on their part, tend to take up complaints of domestic violence only when it's too late. When they arrested Aloke Jalan, a Calcutta businessman, it was not for thrashing his wife Ruchika, but for killing her. Ruchika's attempts to seek police help to deal with her violent husband only resulted in a warning to Aloke and he was released after he signed an undertaking promising to behave better. Three such undertakings ended with Ruchika's body being discovered in the family car by neighbours who now say Aloke used to beat her often.
Similarly, when a badly-battered Flavia Agnes, mother of three, landed in a Mumbai police station 20 years ago, the cops were of little help. "The officer told me my husband was an educated man. If I pressed charges, it would be worse for me; he would not be scared of their warnings. When I told him I needed a shelter, he said there was one he could direct me to but they would not take the children. When I asked what would happen to them, I was told they'd be sent to a remand home or left with their father. That settled the matter. I withdrew the complaint," recalls Flavia, who learnt the hard way to fight her own battle and now, as an activist lawyer and leader of women's organisation Majlis, helps others.
Twenty years hence, the police remain as indifferent to the plight of these women. Says D.T. Barde, additional commissioner of police in Delhi's Crime against Women Cell: "Women don't come here to complain of domestic violence because they know it is a common phenomenon: either the husband gets irritated or he's tired after a day's work or the wife replies impudently, so he may give her a slap or two. Only a psychotic or a drunkard is severely violent with his wife, and for that they have to seek medical help." Not surprisingly, of the 7,250-odd complaints filed with the cell every year, not one case is about wife-beating. An overwhelming 90 per cent are complaints about dowry harassment. Cases not related to dowry are "very, very few", says Barde, and are mostly complaints of desertion, impotence or property disputes.
Jaisingh blames this "police mindset" for the failure of Section 498(A) of the Indian Penal Code to punish domestic violence. So, Lawyers Collective is proposing a new law against domestic violence to enable women to seek a protection order from courts to prevent both battering and being thrown out of their homes or losing custody of their children. Without this law, Lawyers Collective points out in its draft proposal, "a man can quite simply throw his wife out and wait for her to make a long-winding way through the courts for whatever little relief she can get. He can put her in fear of losing custody of her children and agree to unconscionable compromises."
It was for the sake of her two children that Deanna Drego hung on to her marriage with Basil Menezes for 23 years, until her own son began to thrash her. It was hell from the start: her husband would drink, he'd abuse, rape her and beat her with whatever he could find—his hands, a leather belt, a cane chair.
Deanna put up with it, even while her daughter was molested by her father and later tried to kill herself. But the day her 21-year-old son, Shehan, began lashing her with a leather belt, while her husband sat at the table, nursing his drink and egging him on, Deanna finally fled her marital home with her daughter, Primrose, 23. The two now earn a livelihood by giving tuitions to children in their neighbourhood in Mumbai, both relishing their new-found freedom and social life.
Fortunately for C.N. Shyamala, 31 and lecturer of business management in a prestigious institute in Delhi, the realisation to put a stop to the violence before her son followed in his father's footsteps came early. Not only did her husband Mohan Rao, whom she married six years ago, beat her up, he even got Shyamala's stepfather to do the same. And it was only when the six-year-old son she was trying to discipline raised his hand to strike her that Shyamala realised that it was time for her to leave. She has now approached Lawyers Collective and is gathering strength to resist the violence against her. "Even my little daughter urges me to call the police whenever I get beaten up," says she, with a laugh close to tears.
"The longer a woman stays in such a marriage, the harder it is for her to leave," says clinical psychologist Jiv Jyot Kaur, who counsels many battered wives. She goes through shock and denial first, followed by a conviction that she can control the situation or reason out of it. It's only when the violence escalates that she becomes helpless and starts taking the blame. And the reason why she chooses to remain in such a situation despite evidently having other options is because, as Jiv Jyot feels, "we are living in a culture not conducive to women. Culturally, there are not enough messages that violence is unacceptable in marriage and despite progress, a woman's identity still comes from marriage. And partly because of the fear of the unknown. It takes courage to say I want to change my life."
That courage seems to be growing. When Sharmila finally picked up the nerve to leave her husband, neither his ridicule nor her in-laws' assurance to seek counselling for their son could stop her. "I felt life was too precious to wait another five years to see if he'd get cured. I learnt it's okay to be mean and selfish—unless I love myself enough, nobody can love me." n
(Some names have been changed.)
With Payal Kapadia and Ashish Biswas