“It was just a slap”, “This happens in every household”, “She must have done something to provoke him” – How many times have you heard people justify domestic violence against women?
The ancient Indian text ‘Manusmriti’ equated women with animals, and sanctioned beating them when they made a mistake or acted without their husband’s permission. In medieval Europe husbands have the right to chastise or physically discipline their wives, servants, and apprentices to justify domestic violence.
In fact, till the late 20th century, most legal systems didn’t recognise domestic violence as a crime. Courts saw it as ‘family problem’ which should be resolved privately. Most police forces did nothing to protect women against domestic violence. A 1967 international training manual for police chiefs even stated that domestic violence arrests should only be made as a ‘last resort.’
This changed only with a second wave of the U.S feminist movement in the late 60s and 70s, which focused on the criminalisation of domestic violence and popularizing the slogan ‘we will not be beaten.’ Around the same time in India, the autonomous women’s movement raised awareness on the issue of violence against women, especially on sexual assault and dowry-related deaths.
The Indian Penal Code was amended in 1983 to make ‘cruelty by a woman’s husband or in-laws’ a punishable offence, with imprisonment for a term up to three years, with fine. However, this limited the definition of domestic violence to ‘dowry-related cruelty’, or ‘extreme cruelty,’ defined as that which could cause ‘grave injury’ or drive a woman to suicide.
Then, in 2005, a landmark legislation, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005” came into existence, which finally extended the definition of ‘domestic violence’ for the first time in Indian law, to include not only physical violence, but also other forms of violence such as ‘verbal, emotional, economic, and sexual abuse.’ But despite these progressive shifts in the law, domestic violence remains highly prevalent.
“The ancient Indian text ‘Manusmriti’ equated women with animals, and sanctioned beating them when they made a mistake or acted without their husband’s permission. In medieval Europe husbands have the right to chastise or physically discipline their wives, servants, and apprentices.”
In fact, research shows that 42% of men, and 52% of women believe it is reasonable for a man to beat his wife. But why? Of all the crimes in the world, domestic violence has the highest repeat rate. This means it’s rarely a stray, one-off incident.
It stems from a systemic problem with power dynamics within families. Girls are socialised into believing that keeping their husbands and in-laws happy is an essential part of their marital duties, while for men, marriage is often framed as bringing someone into the family, whose primary role is to take care of them.
Men’s control over their wives post marriage is socially sanctioned. In fact, research shows that not taking the permission of the husband before performing a simple task, like going out or talking on the phone, is one of the most common reasons men give for inflicting domestic violence. And these power dynamics are reinforced in seemingly harmless ways.
Notions like ‘it’s a private matter,’ or ‘it’s between husband and wife,’ are used to further strengthen a man’s control over his wife, by preventing her from building a support system.
It’s little surprise that women in crisis have nowhere to turn – 75% of women who are subjected to domestic violence don’t seek help. Judges and law enforcement officers, who operate with the same social lens, often sympathise with men in interpretations of the law. Challenging domestic violence then is not just about questioning the physical act of violence. It’s about dismantling the structural disempowerment women face within their marriages and families.
“Men’s control over their wives post marriage is socially sanctioned. In fact, research shows that not taking the permission of the husband before performing a simple task, like going out or talking on the phone, is one of the most common reasons men give for inflicting domestic violence. And these power dynamics are reinforced in seemingly harmless ways.
The Hindi movie, Thappad (2020), starring Taapsee Pannu, vividly portrays the hegemony of men in the lives of women. Through art and activist movements, both online and offline, feminists are doing exactly that. They are raising questions about male entitlement in households, about women being raised as ‘meek compromisers’, about violence being hushed up within four walls, about women having the right to live dignified lives within and outside their homes.
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