Abusive marriages are often more common than people think they are. Why then are they not visible to us? How do we not know about them if they’re happening next door to us? What are we missing? A lot of times we choose to be blind to the reality of domestic violence. But many other times, it is the survivors themselves trying to shield from view the abuse in their marriage.
So deeply conditioned are they to be fearful, cautious, mindful of public opinion that survivors in abusive marriages spend entire lives enduring violence only so their dignity is preserved in the face of the daunting ‘log kya kahenge.‘
This was also why young Vismaya Nair chose to stay in her volatile marriage. The 24-year-old died on June 21 in Kerala – a most tragic end to a life saddled down by dowry harassment and domestic physical assault. She was only a year into marriage and, many commentators are now opining, could have easily walked out.
But could she really have?
Does our patriarchal culture let women to leave an abusive marriage without feeling ashamed? Where the responsibility of holding up marriages falls on the shoulders of women, are they given the choice to give up on bad relationships? If Vismaya had left her abusive marriage, would she have been allowed to live a life of peace without constant reminders of her seeming incompetence? Wouldn’t she have heard: why didn’t you try harder?
Why Should Women ‘Keep Trying’ In Abusive Marriages?
Marriage is sacred, we tell women in India. Preserving its sanctity is a duty that comes with being a woman. Because her identity is from that relationship and how well she nurtures it. After marriage, she is first a wife and then an individual. So what if there is marital conflict? What couple doesn’t quarrel? How can you give up so easily?
“She would call me from the bathroom, and once she told me that he hit her so badly in the face that her mouth was bleeding. I told her to come back, but she said what people say, she will somehow endure it,” Vismaya’s mother said after her death.
Isn’t that what society teaches its girls – to endure?
Mothers say it, grandmothers say it, next-door neighbour aunties say it. They instill in their daughters the fear of being ostracised, of being judged, of having to live with stigma for life if they opt for divorce, even in worst-case scenarios. It’s why India’s divorce rate is among the lowest in the world. A shameful one percent.
The only data more shameful than that is of our domestic violence numbers. As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) numbers, out of the total 4.05 lakh crimes against women in 2019, 1.26 lakh were cases of domestic violence. At 30 percent, this ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’ is higher than rape percentages in the country. Despite there being laws to protect women from this kind of assault (Section 498A of the IPC), cases are shockingly under-recorded.
“It was just a slap.” Society perceives abusive marriages in justifications that are often as shockingly over-simplistic as that. And so women, despite their better judgments, cannot bring themselves to say “just a slap, but nahi maar sakta.”
Then even if they have to cover up their bruises to safeguard the family’s honour, they do. Just shut up and pretend nothing happened.
Only strengthening women financially does not bear the answer to their safety, in marriages, on streets, at homes. A financially independent woman will be able to pack her bags and leave the minute a marriage becomes abusive, but what is the guarantee society will allow her to live the rest of her life in peace?
No, society needs something more dramatic. A tectonic shift in the culture, in our outlook towards dignity, in the collective perception of what women stand for.
Views expressed are the author’s own.