Trigger warning: Physical, mental, emotional abuse. Use of strong language
After I shared Swati’s story two weeks ago, I said I would write about the three issues she faced in the following three weeks.
Last week, I wrote about divorce and the many stigmas that we attach with divorced women in India - even though both statistics and stories of real women show that a rise in divorces means happier, safer, and more empowered women and children.
One of the people I interviewed last week was Reena, the wife of a divorce lawyer - who shared an insight into how their own lawyers talk about women clients who have applied for a divorce.
Here is another nugget that Reena shared during her interview:
“When it comes to domestic violence, most lawyers hold as problematic views as the rest of our society. A regular thrashing, light beating (which does not lead to hospitalization), slapping the wife - are all considered normal in a marriage. I have seen cases where a wife fought back and the lawyers used that as an excuse - even called it equality!”
And with that creative definition of equality, let us dive into the second part in this series - some horrifying stories of the ‘good men’ among us who abuse, and the inspiring stories of women who persevere.
Dil ka achha hai ji
Shweta was dating Aman for a year before the two decided to get married.
“As soon as our marriage date was fixed, his behaviour started changing. 2-3 days before our wedding, he verbally abused my father for a small goof-up in the preparations. I was shocked and wanted to call the marriage off. But then he apologized to my father, who also said that it was too small an issue to break a marriage over!”
Shweta and Aman used to live together during their courtship and he was an equal partner at home at that time.
“But after we got married, he suddenly stopped doing anything around the house at all. We would be constantly fighting. He would abuse me and blackmail me over personal things I had told him in confidence about my past. Sometimes, he would even call my parents during our fights and tell them to ‘straighten their daughter’. I approached my mother-in-law but she began fueling his anger against me even more.”
“I got pregnant immediately after our marriage. He was physically abusive a few times even during my pregnancy. Once, he kicked me in front of his mother, who said nothing.”
A few months after their child was born, Aman took a transfer to another city, leaving Shweta alone to manage an infant.
“I kept trying. I would visit him twice a month to make him meet his child, for which I had to take long flights with an infant. He barely ever visited us in this period. He also stopped contributing financially as soon as he moved. Eventually, he quit his job which only made matters worse. He became depressed and the fighting increased even more. I told him to seek help, but he flatly refused.”
Shweta finally applied for a transfer to move to Aman’s new city.
“That was around the time the pandemic hit. Without part-time help coming in, he told me I was supposed to do all the housework as well as take care of the baby. I used to be cooking till 1am so that I could work the next day. He would not lift a finger to help and nor would my in-laws. When I tried to hire full-time help, my mother-in-law fired them over trivial issues. When I protested, my in-laws told me I need to behave like a good bahu (daughter-in-law), or else. My brother-in-law went as far as to threaten that if I don't behave ‘toh main tujhko uthwa dunga’ (I will get you abducted).”
By this time, the abuse had started impacting Shweta’s mental as well as physical health.
“I couldn't sleep at night despite the exhaustion of doing all the housework. I had constant anxiety. Everyday I would wake up with heart palpitations. There were days when I would actually faint as soon as I left the bed. I consulted many doctors, but nothing helped.”
Once the lockdown eased, Shweta convinced Aman to pay a visit to her parents.
“At my parents’ house, my husband had one of his fits of rage.”
“Until that day, the narrative my parents-in-law had peddled was ‘kabhi kabhi kuch gussa kar deta hai but wo dil ka achha hai’ (Sometimes he gets a little angry but he is good at heart). That day, he threw things around the house, broke a glass table, and called me a whore in front of my parents.”
“My dad’s BP plummeted, and they realized what I was going through on a daily basis. With their support, I finally left him.”
Shweta’s in-laws were upset at her leaving, but could not do much.
“Basically they wanted an IIT-IIM bahu working at a senior position and bringing in big bucks while also doing all the housework, and whose family would put ‘damaad ji’ (the revered son-in-law) on their head (They even used to complain how my parents called my husband ‘Aman’ instead of ‘Aman ji’.)”
“As soon as I moved back in with my parents, all my health issues vanished and I realized what a toxic impact my marriage was having on me. Within a year of me leaving, my sister-in-law - another highly educated and professionally successful woman - left my abusive brother-in-law as well. I would like to think that me leaving inspired her as well.”
“I was sure he was going to kill me”
Himani was born and brought up in London. She studied at Oxford and Cambridge for her undergrad and graduate programme. After her graduation, she moved to New York for work, where she met an Indian-American man through a dating website. His father was the vice president of a big company.
After several months of courtship, everything seemed good and they decided to get married.
“Everything was great at first. But soon afterwards, he told me we had to live with his parents and siblings. Once I moved in, the abuse started from Day 1.They told me I was supposed to be a maid in their house, and that if I didn't do what they asked, they would lock me up in the basement.
For the next six months, my husband did go on to lock me up, deny me food and water, hit me, and rape me.
I was surrounded by cruelty and lived in constant fear. I was sure he was going to kill me. I had to leave.”
When Himani finally found a chance to escape, she took it and ran.
“I ran away in the middle of the night and went to a colleague's house. My mother took me home from there, and I immediately filed for divorce. During the divorce proceedings, he even tried to get alimony money out of me. Luckily, I won my case. I didn't get even one dollar but I was finally free from him.”
That was 15 years ago. But the six months of that torturous marriage affected Himani’s life and decisions for the next decade.
“I have had to undergo SO much therapy to get over this part of my life. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was so bad that it physically affected my brain and I still get medical treatment to heal that damage.”
And instead of celebrating the warrior that she was, her community began denigrating her for being a divorcee.
“The Indian community - even in the West - thinks a divorce is a matter of great shame. The Indian community members judged me. I was made to feel small and useless. To this day, my own mother does not tell new friends about my divorce. I went ahead and did a Ph.D. just because my parents were upset over my divorce. My six-month-long marriage ruined my late 20s and all of my 30s.”
Himani’s journey of healing was not easy, but she fought on.
“Many people told me I had not given it enough time. Others told me that men change after having children. I have now cut all these people out of my life. I had a few good friends that told me my life was more important, and with their support, I found the strength to move on. Today, I am happily remarried and I hope my story helps someone out there.”
The best-kept secret of ‘nice neighbourhoods’
Domestic violence is not something that only happens far away from our English-speaking homes. It is not just an alcoholic husband beating his wife in a dingy slum at night.
It is all around us.
In the last few weeks, I have heard horror stories unfolding in all kinds of ‘polished’, ‘cultured’, ‘high society’ homes. From senior management executives to IAS officers to well-read and articulate intellectuals - there is absolutely no “type” of man who does not abuse. Just as there is no “type” of man who is kind.
If you need more proof of this, a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Nottingham, UK and the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad found that women who overturn gender norms - for example, women whose earn more than their husbands - are 14% more likely to face domestic violence.
Hypergamy is the idea that women seek to marry men of higher social stature. The study found that while there has been a rise in the percentage of non-hypergamous marriages in India in the last 40 years, it does not necessarily mean that these women - who either earn more and/or are more qualified that their husbands - are also more empowered.
In fact, the violation of hypergamy norms was consistently linked to more chances of facing domestic violence.
According to the study, husbands tend then to use domestic violence to "sabotage" their wives' employment and work prospects. Such husbands are also often jealous about their wives interacting with other men, accusing them of infidelity or insisting on knowing their whereabouts.
The wives, on the other hand, are often found to justify their own abuse.
According to Sowmya Dhanaraj of the Madras School of Economics:
"Our research has shown that working women are more likely to justify violence than non-working women. They feel guilty about spending time at work, away from their prescribed duties towards the husband and family. So even if women are economically empowered, norms that are very hardwired in us take longer to change."
Every woman I have spoken to has reiterated this challenge - that of accepting that you need to walk away, and finding the courage to do it.
Abusers have a way of gaslighting their victims into believing the abuse was the victim’s fault. Some abusive husbands even blackmail their wives and threaten to release personal information, photos, or videos if the wife tries to walk out.
Talking to you, now
Abuse kills the woman’s spirit to the point that she cannot imagine a life beyond the private hell she is living in.
If you are a woman in this position reading this right now, here is a gentle reminder that shouldn’t have to be said at all: Your life is more important than anything else.
How will the divorce go? What will he say in court? What will people say? Will your family support you or not? - All these are not immaterial questions, but they are all still secondary to your life.
If you had a friend in this situation, would you not tell her that her life means more than anything else that is holding her back?
Another reminder - children who grow up in abusive households are statistically more likely to perpetrate or accept abuse. Sons might often grow up to become abusive partners like their fathers, while daughters grow up learning from their mothers to bear and accept abuse quietly. So if you are staying ‘for the children’, leave even sooner than you would leave for yourself alone.
Here is Himani’s message to any woman reading this, who is trapped in a toxic relationship and wondering if there is a way out.
“It is always better to be alone and safe and with the potential to be all you can be, than being trapped in a violent marriage. Every human has the potential to find happiness, survival skills, and success. You only need yourself. It's good to want to be with someone but you should never need to be with them.”
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