Silence, Violence, and the Act We Should All Be Talking About
People are talking. About how women are misusing the law. About how women are trying to get money — a roof over their children’s heads and food in their children’s mouths — from hapless husbands/fathers and their parents. About how they are invoking the law to ask for this protection. How dare they invoke such laws? And of course there are those who are not talking. Because it makes them uncomfortable to talk about such things. I don’t know what is worse — those that make such claims of ‘misuse’, or those that don’t say anything at all. All I know is that I have seen what happens to women who suffer – and to their children.
In any democratic setup, there is bound to be criticism from one quarter or another for every kind of governmental policy. To my mind, however, one of the best things to have come during the first run of the UPA government is The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 (more commonly known as the ‘DV’ law). It has come under a lot of fire, primarily due to the fact that it allows women to speak up against any form of abuse in ANY ‘domestic partnership’ and because god knows that while newspapers thrive on sensational Bollywood stories, they refuse to talk about things that hit a little closer to home (pun unintended, but acknowledged).
To begin with, I think it is important to address a very common misconception. Domestic Violence DOES exist. IN EVERY STRATA OF SOCIETY. I felt the need to put that in capitals because I have often heard from educated people that this is a regressive phenomenon that exists only among ‘the uneducated lower classes’. Not only is this a preposterous assumption, but it also shows an issue that needs to be addressed before systemic change is even considered. The problem here is that as a society, we have internalised violence and aggression to a degree where it no longer strikes us as being problematic. The fundamental trouble with living in a domestic setup where violence is a standard occurrence is that you start believing that it is normal, and that’s the level at which change should be targeted.
“Maine bhi maar khai hai. Tumne maar khai toh isme badi baat kya hai?” (I was also beaten. So what is the big deal if you were too?). This is not some dramatic dialogue from a TV serial (though it could well be), but rather a real life example of what a mother-in-law in a South Delhi household told her daughter-in-law. What is incisive about the DV act is that it understands this mindset, and allows women to haul up female members in the domestic setup if they feel they are being abused. In a significant ruling, Bombay High Court has held that a woman can file a complaint of cruelty under the Domestic Violence Act against female family members too, and not just the male relatives. "The DV Act is a beneficial legislation. It is meant for protection of violated women," said Justice Roshan Dalvi in the recent order. A Delhi High Court similarly ruled that women could be prosecuted under the Domestic Violence Act in cases where men could instigate them into being violent in their stead.
A recent social campaign, #VogueEmpower, has come up with a video on domestic violence- “Ladke rulaatay nahi” (boys don’t make other’s cry). It’s a great message. And it makes perfect sense to me. But while it is undoubtedly one of the best ads on TV today in what it seeks to emphasise, what bothers me about it is that there are currently multiple generations of men and women who have espoused the very message that this campaign seeks to eliminate- “Ladke rotay nahi” (or that boys don’t cry). The idea that boys don’t cry is problematic mainly due to the fact that it backs a narrow and stereotypical vision of what constitutes a man. What the ad cleverly points out is that by repeating a seemingly innocuous message to boys across the span of their lives, we as a society create men with severely twisted notions of masculinity or ‘mardaangi.’
The message that has been disseminated to men through time has been one that ‘mardaangi’ depends on certain key characteristics. And more often than not the site upon which this manliness is so brutally displayed is that of a woman’s body. Now we can say that we will teach our sons better. That we will learn better. And of course, we will do better. But what happens until then? Who or what protects the women who are already suffering? An idea that has existed for centuries won’t go away with one advertisement (no matter how incisive it may be). When the women and children in a society start believing that violence is normal, they unconsciously give legitimacy to something that should never be condoned. At least with campaigns like #VogueEmpower, people are beginning to recognise the problem with a social mindset that allows violence to thrive. But presently, the only answer is a law that protects women until they no longer need to be protected.
The DV law is more progressive than most mindsets in our country because it takes into account the fact that the term ‘violence’ is about skewed power equations as much as it is about any kind of physical assault. It thus looks at violence that ranges from physical to verbal and emotional abuse. In a country where women are killed for dowry and married off as children, I’d say a law that protects their rights in the domestic setup that they are so often pushed into is a truly remarkable thing.
The Indian Penal Code does not, as yet, recognise marital rape as a punishable offence. However, the DV Act makes provisions for “sexual abuse.” What is problematic is that it is a civil law, and currently there is no criminal complaint that can be registered in any court of law in India against marital rape. What this means is that even if you are raped, you can’t have your spouse hauled up as an offender in the manner you could a rapist. There is then a distinct legitimacy that is afforded to the act of rape in a domestic setup. Despite this, I feel that the act is a landmark in that at least it sees domestic sexual abuse as a cause for concern, and allows women to file a case against sexual assault. Another unique trademark of the Act is that women may approach official Protection Officers in their district. The State has made provisions for these Protection Officers so that women in need may approach them if they feel threatened.
Given that this is a law, it has often been presumed that it could be subject to a certain degree of misuse. But the DV Law is not a punitive one, not unless the perpetrator of violence goes against a court order. All this law seeks to do is safeguard women who are threatened/abused in a domestic setup. Thus I personally do not believe that it is a law that can be misused, simply because it seeks to protect, not punish. There cannot be a “false claim” if a woman tries to protect herself and her children from abuse. There are so many women in this country who NEED this law to protect their rights. The sad part is, most of them don’t even know that they CAN. The general awareness of the very existence of this law is minimal. Studies on domestic violence have shown that over 73% of women in India have faced Domestic Violence. But activists and NGOs working in this area feel that in reality, the numbers are much higher.
I wish this act were unnecessary. I wish the thousands of women who do seek protection under it every year did not need to. I wish we didn’t culturally assimilate domestic violence as ‘normal’ or even ‘non- existent’. But it hasn’t happened yet. So I think that we should stop trashing the one law that is bringing temporary relief to thousands of women every year, and consider the possibility that we might be condoning a larger, cultural setup of violence by not talking about it.
Why do I know so much about Domestic Violence and its fallouts? Why do I feel so strongly about this particular law? Because I wish it had existed when my mother walked out of an abusive marriage, getting away from all that abuse with nothing but my brother and me.
It is not something I enjoy talking about much and I suppose it has always been something that makes me uncomfortable. But there is something she’s always said that has only recently started to make sense to me. “If talking about it makes even one woman believe that she deserves the right to demand a violence-free environment, then I’ll gladly repeat my story a thousand times over.”
And so, she speaks, she writes, and she changes lives. She provides free legal aid for those who cannot afford it by way of the Woman of the Elements Trust and gives counselling to women and child victims of domestic violence. And I can proudly say that she has taught at least ONE person that some things deserve to be talked about.
This article was originally published in online magazine 'Scribbler.co' in December 2014