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Domestic Violence Is Not So Private

By Shabana Azmi

The Deccan Herald [India]
13 August, 2003

More than eight out of ten men commit violence against wives; four
out of ten use physical violence against their wives; and one out of
every two men commits sexual violence against his wife.

What else do we know? One out of three men engage in violence while
their wives are pregnant. One out of three men indulge in physical
violence that causes injury to their wives.

As we prepare to celebrate India's 57th Independence Day, I wish to
focus on two issues that are restricting social opportunities for
people in India. Domestic violence and communal violence are
acquiring disturbing dimensions - one within the private sphere of
the household and the other in the public domain of civil society.

What is even more shocking is that alarmingly high proportions of
husbands justify the use of force. Some 80 per cent of husbands feel
that force is justified if the wife is disrespectful towards them or
their families. Some 60 per cent justify force if the wife does not
follow their instructions.

Who are these men? They are all Indians. For some two years now,
Indian researchers and activists, supported by the International
Center for Research on Women (ICRW), have been exploring the
much-neglected issue of domestic violence and masculinity in India.
The data pertains to studies in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen sees development as an expansion of
freedoms - from want, hunger, exploitation, political suppression and
so on. But then the assessment of progress must include freedom from
fear as well. In fact all other freedoms lose their shine and become
meaningless unless all individuals are ensured a life without fear.

Cultural Pluralism

Marital and domestic violence may be a private affair but its public
consequences are too serious. Violent behaviour spreads quickly from
the home to the community, and finally to the society. Children who
witness domestic violence are more prone to repeat such action when
they grow up. Now, let us move to communal violence. I grew up in a
commune-like situation in Mumbai since my father was a member of the
Communist Party.

All festivals - Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas and Ganesh Chaturthi -
were celebrated with great fervour. On August 15 and January 26 we
would be put in an open truck to view the festive lights that lit up
the city.

Having grown up in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, I took for granted the
pluralism of Indian culture. So in the post-Babri Masjid days when
the word 'Muslim' was hurled at me as an accusation, I was shocked.

For me being Muslim was Urdu, Biryani, Eid and Gharara-Kuita - it was
a cultural identity just as much as Holi, Diwali and phooljharis
were. But suddenly the fact that I was born into a particular
religion was being forced on me as my only identity. (However, this
is not the truth in entire India, India's greatest strength is her
pluralism and her composite culture.)

If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a woman, an Indian, an actor,
a Member of Parliament, a Muslim, a daughter, a wife and so on. My
being Muslim is only one part of my identity. Unfortunately, an
attempt is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines
of a particular religion one was born in.

Eluding Justice

Communalism must be understood as a political ideology that whips up
grievances related to the past, some real and some imaginary, that
need to be redressed in present times, and thus a means for
contemporary political mobilisation. It has practically nothing to do
with religion except to use it in a manner that is divisive and

The violence thus unleashed continues to fester because justice never
seems to be done. In riot after riot nobody gets punished. The
brutalised community thus feels marginalized and loses faith in the
State's ability to provide redress, giving rise to insecurity and

The first casualty of violence is social opportunity to live a
dignified life, finding employment or even basic health care.
Distrust is among the root causes of such violence, be it is domestic
or communal violence.

On the 57th Independence Day let us celebrate India's pluralism, her
composite culture, her diversity - real strength of our
multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society.