Domestic violence in India and that slap in Thappad
My surreal conversation with my former classmates on WhatsApp made me question whether we Indians (both men and women) are all really so comfortable with the fact that physical violence towards a woman is so normalised that we defend the man that perpetrates it, and talk down to women who speak out against it.
“I think they’ve taken the topic too far,” she said. She’s a senior security executive with a government agency and my former classmate. I haven’t been in touch with her much, except for the occasional hello and happy birthday on a school WhatsApp group we are both a part of. This conversation is happening there, between her and two others about the recently released movie Thappad, in which a slap by the protagonist’s husband forces her to examine her place in the marriage.
I’m a lurker in the group but this time I can’t stop myself.
“Taken far in what way?” I ask.
“Listen I’ve seen many cases, especially in the course of my work where men have been truly violent. In this case, the guy was irritated. It is wrong to slap but it was unintentional,” she says.
“Not discounting the violence, you may have seen as part of your work, but a slap is violence too. Is any violence justified?” someone asks.
“Would he have slapped his mom? Or his dad?”
“Parents are different,” comes the reply.
I am struggling to understand that this conversation is even happening. Did she watch the same movie that I did? Did she not see the absolute lack of remorse and realisation on the part of the husband about the enormity of his action in the movie until, in the end, a male authority figure he respects points it out to him? He has acted entitled throughout, and he thinks he is -- to the morning cuppa handed to him by his wife after she switches off the alarm he can’t be bothered with; to his mood swings; to the absolute belief that he hasn’t really done anything that can’t be mended because he was extremely upset when he slapped her.
Some of us point these out to her, but she’s irritated now, and she doubles down.
“You’re taking my words out of context. All I’m trying to say is marriage is difficult and we all go through ups and downs and lose it with our partner. He did wrong but he did not treat her badly otherwise.”
I’m furious and tired of typing, but at the same time, I am intrigued by her thought processes. This is a working woman in a position of power. I remember a conversation about her husband taking a work break during their child’s board exams to stay home and teach the kid as my classmate had just got a new posting and couldn’t have taken any time off. How could a woman, who seems to come from a place of equality herself, fail to see the unfairness of that slap and everything that it reflects in its wake?
Apparently, she can’t. Neither can another classmate who works in a senior position in the travel industry. “These days feminism has gone too far,” she says, inserting an argument into the dialogue that is meant to gaslight any conversation around women asserting themselves in some way.
(I did ask this classmate later on personal chat as to what had made her say that. She clarified that her husband felt the same way she did, that it was a lot of fuss about something small. I replied with a hmm because that can mean anything, including go to hell with your pea-brained view and may you never evolve beyond Masti 2.)
Someone pipes up, “Look I’m not a feminist but I think the movie makes a good point.”
My fingers are itching to type things that I don’t.
“What on earth do you mean by saying that feminism has gone too far? Why do you have to declare you are not a feminist? What’s wrong with being one? What kind of connotations do you associate with it to say such things?”
But I stay quiet. WhatsApp conversations within groups generally don’t lend themselves to being able to alter or change people’s mindsets. There is a lot lost to tone, articulation, and interpretation, not to mention the general fatigue of typing out a long message.
Besides, we are all enablers. In some way or the other, even if the woke ones among us try not to be, and try to teach our sons to be and do equal. But often, even unwittingly, under the garb of love, care, and affection, we enable.
I’ve met women who cook for the week if they are travelling because the overgrown child they’ve been living with cannot survive on toast or boil an egg to save his life. And I’ve met women who don’t bother doing this and become the butt of jokes (oh yes, good-natured ones, but demeaning no less) about cooking only if her life depended on it, or because the kitchen came attached with the house. We laugh away those jokes and we enable. We enable behaviour that may not be problematic to start with but becomes problematic in the long run. We enable when emotional labour is dumped on women under the convenient guise of “natural instincts” or “women’s work.” And no, we are not blaming men for it. Many of them are open-minded and believe in sharing equal workloads. At least they intend to, even though breaking through years of unintentional patriarchal moulding doesn’t come undone easily. When it doesn’t, we enable the shortfall because we are so grateful that they are trying!
And this is why the women in the WhatsApp group bother me. If these two successful women can’t see beyond the slap and the reality it represents, what message are they sharing with other younger women in their teams? With their children at home? That it’s okay to brush reality and respect under the carpet as long it doesn’t inconvenience anyone? That we will continue to indulge and enable men being men, even though that catchphrase stopped being funny a long time ago.
When you consider the fact that domestic violence is so prevalent in India and around the world, you discover that it is typically characterised by violence towards women by men, whether they are husbands, boyfriends, partners, or other male relatives. According to a National Family and Health Survey in 2005, the total lifetime prevalence of domestic violence was 33.5% and 8.5% for sexual violence among women aged 15–49. A survey carried out by the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women.
The 2012 National Crime Records Bureau report of India states a reported crime rate of 46 per 100,000, rape rate of 2 per 100,000, the dowry homicide rate of 0.7 per 100,000 and the rate of domestic cruelty by husband or his relatives as 5.9 per 100,000. These reported rates are significantly smaller than the reported intimate partner domestic violence rates in many countries, such as the United States (590 per 100,000) and reported homicide (6.2 per 100,000 globally), crime and rape incidence rates per 100,000 women for most nations tracked by the United Nations.
This is despite the fact that there are several domestic violence laws in India. The earliest law was the Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961, which made the act of giving and receiving dowry a crime. It didn't stop the practice of dowry, however. Dowry deaths have been recorded even after the law was passed, and it's not uncommon to hear of cases even today. The most recent legislation is the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) which was passed in 2005. The PWDVA, a civil law, includes physical, emotional, sexual, verbal, and economic abuse as domestic violence.
In 2006, Renuka Chowdhury, the former Union Minister for Women and Child Development, stated that around 70% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. According to a BBC report in 2013, around 309,546 crimes were reported against women in India, of which 118,866 were for domestic violence alone.
My surreal conversation with my former classmates on WhatsApp made me question whether we Indians (both men and women) are all really so comfortable with the fact that physical violence towards a woman is so normalised that we defend the man that perpetrates it, and talk down to women who speak out against it. Is this really the message we want to send? I certainly don’t.