My wife says, only half-jokingly, that except for her, most married girls in the neighbourhood where she grew up are either divorced or otherwise separated from their husbands, and have returned to the parental hearth to raise their children. A lot of them have also sent their husbands and in-laws to police custody, if not also jail, for all kinds of alleged abuse – the law having tilted very strongly in their favour in recent times.
Some time ago, I read a very senior (woman-) police officer publicly grumbling that a lot of women are in their turn taking advantage of the law to abuse husbands and in-laws, or at least to have the whip hand permanently over the latter. I daresay I know some such women myself. Hence I wrote this post three years ago titled ‘A future for marriage?’ Now this front-page news item says today that the National Commission for Women (NCW) has itself observed that “80% of complaints filed under the seven-year old domestic violence act have been declared too trivial to address.” The Commission has said that most such complaints can be resolved adequately by counselling alone. It has simultaneously expressed fears that numerous much graver atrocities are still going unreported.
Alas, I am only too keenly aware of how both aspects of the situation are poignantly true in India: it’s such a complex country!
It is most certainly true that women are humiliated, abused, subjugated and restricted lifelong from doing all sorts of things they both want to do and can ably do in millions of households still, and not merely in the villages and urban slums. Indeed, I personally know a lot of girls and women who live the lives of dumb beasts in all strata of contemporary society – only, if they are lucky enough to be born rich or married rich, they live lives of highly ornamental beasts, and enjoy the privilege of lording it over their less fortunate sisters, the type who work for them as ill-paid domestic help. Girls are still being married off at 14 all around me, or sold off into prostitution, wives are being regularly beaten as entertainment and supported only to bear children and work as unpaid drudges, and even ‘educated’ women in middle-class families have had their fathers pay dowry through their noses in order to get ‘suitable’ husbands, and now live lives filled with gossip and TV and shopping and dressing up for parties and clucking over children’s exam scores, because that is all they are ‘allowed’ to do (in the town I live in, it’s still unusual to see a woman shopping except at the malls, I have seen men buying even underwear for their wives and daughters, and I have been told by countless mothers they can come to see me about their kids’ progress only when their husbands can find time to drive them to my house). And they quietly swallow all this indignity believing that going to complain against husbands and in-laws is something that ‘good’ women never do. Also, I know what callous, uncouth, selfish boors many men can be as husbands and fathers, how intolerable they can make life for their women unless some sort of social/legal restraint is put upon them. So I have no hesitation in saying that a lot more women should go to the courts to seek redressal when all possibility of peaceful and private accommodation has failed.
But there is also the other side of the coin, and I can now speak freely, because no less an institution than the NCW has made things easier for the likes of me. A lot of women are using the law to ‘settle scores’ and ‘take revenge’, and that too over very petty and selfish issues (it is not merely apocryphal that a woman sent her husband briefly to jail on the accusation of violence at home simply because he had not bought her an expensive enough saree for the pujas, just to teach him a lesson!). It is one thing to say that a woman deserves equal rights with men, and quite another to say that, in a reversal of ancient tyranny, the woman must be allowed the last word in everything, no matter how irrational, foolish, selfish or high-handed her demands might be. And there is reason to fear that that is exactly what a significant number of women are now doing, and these women, it seems, mostly come from educated and affluent backgrounds. It does not speak highly of either women’s innate nature or of the kind of education they have received, at home and outside.
The most rabid feminist will concede that throughout the ages there have always been viragos; likewise there have always been timid and peaceable souls among men who have quietly borne with all kinds of impositions from their womenfolk. But if this now becomes a major social phenomenon, there is a chance that there will be a backlash against women in the not too distant future. Already among my old boys I see a marked unwillingness to tie the knot: a lot of them have reached their mid-30s depending on one-night stands and casual or live-in girlfriends, even when they are not turning to same-sex relationships as a ‘better’ option. A time may come when millions of old parents will be desperately looking for grooms for their ageing daughters whom nobody wants to marry. It’s all very well for young girls, in the full flush of their folly, to say that they don’t care, they can do very well without getting married, thank you very much. Most of them will feel very differently once they are into middle age, with neither parents nor children to look after them, and men looking at them only to say ‘Yuck!’ and turn away hurriedly. I have an unmarried aunt in her late-sixties, living on a pension and all alone. The whole family feels only pity and fear for her – and that includes herself, mind you.