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India: Growing male alcoholism stirs Haryana women to defy marital violence, even discarding veils PDF Print E-mail

Thursday June 5 2014

Of growing self-assertion and defiance
By Prem Chowdhry

In the face of marital violence the self–assertion of women has assumed the form of counter- violence. They attribute their strong reaction to the growing alcoholism among men. This assertion is turning into violent defiance among the women of rural Haryana

?A fact rarely commented upon or even acknowledged is women’s resistance to marital violence, which gives some indication to the changing times that we are living in. This is amply evidenced in Haryana ­ a state with a strong patriarchal/patrilineal system, where women are not known to enjoy any worthwhile status. However, women here, like other subordinate/subaltern groups, have only seemingly acquiesced to their being dominated in public. In private, they have shown enough resistance in their own subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and have not consented to the wielding of patriarchal authority. In academia it is a well- argued case that in public, those that are oppressed accept their domination, but in private they do question their domination. James Scott, for example, argues that the everyday resistance of subalterns shows that they have not consented to dominance. In Haryana, there is a high level of resistance among women, which may have been responsible in varying degrees, for lessening the daily infliction of physical violence on them. This, however, cannot be said of other forms of violence, which continue. Women’s resistance and standing up for themselves does have the potential to change the power-relationship within the family.

Deeds of resistance
Women’s stand against domestic violence cannot be understood in isolation. Historically, far from being mute victims, they have exercised a great deal of enterprise to thwart the unnecessary and unequal demands of the patriarchal system. This is amply demonstrated in the response of women to such constraints in their capacity as daughters, wives and widows. For example, the instances of women eloping to get married to persons of their own choice, whether in the past or present, are all too well known; so also women claiming inheritance as per their legal entitlement, much against the dictates of the male members of their natal families; or the widows resisting the custom of levirate in which she is expected and sometimes even forced to remarry her brother-in-law. Widow’s resistance underlines not only her claims to an independent status, both economic and sexual, but also her refusal to get sucked once more into the fold of a potentially violent marital relationship.

There are other examples of her resistance though not so well recognised. It can be witnessed in women’s successful resistance to male objections and dictates in their songs and dances during various festivals and weddings, which celebrate the sexuality of women in no uncertain terms. Declared as ashleel geet or behuda gaane (vulgar songs), by reformers and caste panchayats ever since the colonial period, these have sought to be curbed and replaced by "decent songs". All these attempts have failed as most rural women across different castes and classes justify the songs as part of their dehati (rural) culture which they refuse to give up. This is one of the interesting instances when women have appropriated the male logic of keeping the dehati "culture" or "custom" alive in order to justify retention of this space for themselves.

Claiming cultural space
Another cultural/customary practice which is on its way to be severely compromised is the observance of ghunghat (veil). New technology has, in fact, prompted this move. The fact that many marriages in Haryana are now being increasingly video-taped has meant that a newly-wed woman’s face is visible to all who view the recording ­ young, old, males and females. Testified by a lot of women, this fact has led many bahus to discard the ghunghat at home though not in the village or in public. Despite opposition, such a move is likely to grow. The working women, like teachers, contend that they have overcome this opposition successfully and are discarding their ghungaht even publicly once they are out of the village periphery.

To these may be added the quiet-but- determined defiance by women of men’s dictates, regarding the exercise of their voting rights in Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections in Haryana. I am a personal witness to this phenomenon from 1960 to 1997. My observation also stands amply evidenced by the 1996-97 Haryana Vidhan Sabha elections, which returned Bansi Lal as the Chief Minister. He had contested and won against heavy odds on the plank of women’s popular demand of imposing prohibition of liquor in the state. Women of Haryana voted almost en block in favour of Bansi Lal, despite strict instructions and threats of violence made by their family male members.

In the face of marital violence the self–assertion of women has assumed the form of counter-violence. Many women stated that they do not take violence lying down and they hit back. Many maintained, "It all depends on the woman, some women retaliate physically some do not". They attribute their strong reaction to the growing alcoholism among men, as alcohol is stated to make men violent. The field work throws up the fact that the women are able to use the weapon of counter-violence especially when the man is under the influence of alcohol. Women stated that only in such a ‘state’ can he be ‘easily restrained’ by them. The recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2005-2006 figures however show only insignificant numbers i.e., 0.2 per cent of women who have ever "initiated" violence against the husband. But here I am talking of ‘retaliatory violence’ from wives, not ‘initiatory’ violence of wives on their husbands. The use of counter-violence by women, although not physical but verbal has been reported in certain instances from other regions as well.

Embracing death over domestic violence
Although official statistics are not available, Haryanvis are considered among the more suicide-prone communities in India. There are calculated to be nearly 3,500 attempted suicides every year in the state; unofficial data gathered by The Tribune (7 December, 2007) from the district towns of Haryana show Rohtak to be the worst-affected district with 35 persons attempting suicide every month. In rural areas, women outnumber men in committing or attempting to commit suicide. Experts opine that marital discord and violence are the main causes for this in the villages.

Resistance as counter-violence from women needs some explanation. In a situation where violence on wife is accepted as normal and dismissed as a fact of life, women can hardly expect any help from the outside to stem it. In their conjugal home they are not given any help by the husband’s family members, who generally stand and watch or even instigate in certain cases; friends and neighbors refuse to intervene. The 2005-2006 NFHS figures show that seven out of 10 married women have not sought help from any one. However, some of them do approach the local thana (police station). The police does not heed them or take them seriously; they are generally dismissed. In certain cases the policemen brutally tell them to "behave themselves". Complaining to the police is also construed as resistance to violence and condemned as "unwarranted behaviour" in popular opinion.

Pretentious subservience
In this given situation it is entirely understandable that some of the women take the matters in their own hands and confront the man in their own way. It is their way of refusing to be a victim of violence. On the whole, this form of resistance by wives is an extremely sensitive issue and people­both victims and perpetrators ­are not willing to acknowledge that it exists and is increasing. The men especially never admit such a reaction or retaliatory behaviour of their wives. The slur cast on them ­ especially on their masculinity ­ is too horrendous, which they may never be able to live down. A cultural system which considers `lugai admi ki juti ho sai' (woman is no better than a man's shoe), and that she is inferior to him in physique, morality, knowledge and wisdom will certainly be given to ridiculing the reversal of these known values.

For a man, the right to beat his wife shows wielding of power and authority and assertion of his superiority; a role reversal makes him, in the local parlance, a weakling and a coward "like a woman". This is perceived to lead to `aurat ka raj', (a household ruled by a woman). This impression is enough to damn that house forever. Explaining this, local male opinion maintains that ‘jis ghar main aurton ki chalti hai us main rishta bhi nahin karte hain, kahten hain ki us main mard ki moonchh nahin hoti’ (no one wants to enter into a marriage alliance in a family where the woman dominates and the husband is henpecked). Perhaps it is because of these hard realities and public censure that women ‘appear’ most subservient in public in Haryana. For example, they continue to conform to the "submissive -woman" stereotype that in ghunghat (veil) walks three paces behind her husband and carries the heavier load.

A woman, therefore, is not really forthcoming on her assertive behaviour and use of this form of resistance. She generally maintains silence, because it is the husband who would be declared "weak". But unofficially it is stated to exist fairly widely and is said to have major impact in containing spousal violence in Haryana. For example, men agree privately that if such a thing were to happen, and they insist ‘if at all’, a man will never ‘touch’ (meaning beat) his wife again. The field study shows this to be by and large true.

The above observations do not mean that everything is rosy for women in this state. The reverse face of retaliatory violence by women is infliction of violence upon themselves. There is evidence that many women when faced with daily trauma of marital violence think of ending their lives. Such a woman reportedly "feels isolated" in bearing up the stress of daily violence with no one to support her and when her patience reaches a saturation point; when the taunts and her own feeling of "tu to khoonti se bandhi gai hai kit jaagi" (you are a cow tied to the a peg) becomes overwhelming, she revolts; but this time in an attempt to destroy herself. Some actually do; others may refrain from taking such a drastic step or reportedly the thought of children stops them.

All is not lost as the agency and self-assertion of women in Haryana is on the upward swing. Education and employment, declared to be the most effective prompters of this change by women themselves, along with their claiming their legal rights and property will go a long way in sustaining and even furthering this change taking place rather quietly. In fact, Haryana with its 27 per cent of all married women having experienced physical, emotional and sexual violence, is much lower in the category of inflicting spousal violence calculated for all the states of India. It holds the twelfth position in ascending order. According to the NFHS data, the dubious "top honours" in this category go to states like Bihar with 59 per cent retaliating violence and to Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh with 46 per cent each; lowest is Himachal Pradesh with 6 per cent. It will be safe to say that the growing self-assertion of women in the state has had its effect at least on infliction of spousal violence in Haryana, if not on other forms of violence like eliminating female foetus in the womb itself, leading to a highly skewed male-female sex ratio, or inflicting mindless violence as seen in the so called "crimes of honour".

A well-known scholar of gender studies, the writer has authored several books including The Veiled Women: Shifting Gender Equations In Rural Haryana and Gender Discrimination in Land Ownership.