written by Jenny Bhatt
Recently, a nationwide ad campaign went viral in India. The tagline is “Save the boy child and our girls won’t need saving.” Boys below the age of ten look into the camera and ask their parents to raise them better so they do not grow up to become rapists, wife beaters, molesters, stalkers, perverts, chauvinists, misogynists, and so on.
It’s disconcerting to hear such words from innocent children. But the ad is designed to make people stop and pay attention. Why? Because, in India, rape culture and aggression towards women are a part of everyday life, even among the educated elite. Marital rape is not a criminal offense. Indian politicians continue to dismiss complaints about rapists and women abusers among their party ranks and constituencies with statements like “boys will be boys” and “wives lose their charm over time” and worse, victim-shaming ones like “she should not be out so late at night anyway” and “if she obeyed her husband and adhered to Indian cultural traditions, this would not have happened.”
Let’s clarify the definition of “domestic abuse”: any behavior involving physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, or verbal abuse; any form of aggression intended to hurt, damage, or kill a person close to us.
Sure, it comes from a place of vulnerability where our sense of hurt or betrayal causes enough panic and anxiety that we explode, shout, belittle, and/or hit whatever or whomever we can to make ourselves feel better and stronger. But it also comes from a place of entitlement and privilege where we expect certain relationships to conform to our needs or demands and where we consider our fury-filled words and actions above reproach or repercussion. An abuser’s stance is always about what they are being “made” to do or say, projecting all responsibility for their own words and actions onto those they abuse.
This patriarchal mindset and toxic masculinity goes beyond the country’s geographical boundaries as the Indian diaspora is spread across the world. Indian men abusing women is one of the worst-kept secrets in other countries too. For example:
- An Indian man was taken to court in Australia for stalking women “Bollywood-style.”
- The UK government is trying to deal with thousands of cases of abandoned Indian brides where British nationals of Indian origin visit India, marry for large dowries, abuse their wives, and abandon them.
- An Indian startup whizkid in San Francisco was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend and still managed to get a cushy VC job.
- This husband stabbed his wife brutally to death because their US visas had expired and she wanted to return to India, putting him on the FBI’s most wanted list.
- Recently, another Indian startup co-founder in the Bay Area was found guilty of beating his engineer wife for ten years, including while she was pregnant, and getting less than thirty days’ sentencing. The audio clips made my blood run cold.
During my years of living and working in Silicon Valley, I met some first-generation Indian immigrant women who, despite their professional achievements, were struggling with their husbands’ anger issues, which ranged from public berating/humiliation to private beatings and more. The usual coping mechanisms for these women are to either make excuses for the men (high-stress jobs, alcohol, etc.) or to blame themselves for being somehow responsible. An Indian woman will rarely walk away from her marriage, especially if the husband is doing well professionally. Her own family is likely to view that as both her failure to hold her marriage together and her short-sightedness for her own financial wellbeing, immigrant status, etc. Additionally, as a society, we certainly do not make it easy for single women to thrive, especially if they also have to raise kids on their own.
Putting aside my anecdotal evidence, here are some statistics from two South Asian non-profit organizations in the Bay Area: Maitri received 4,330 domestic abuse calls in 2016, 2x more than in 2013. Narika receives 65%-70% calls annually from South Asian tech women. These are but a fraction of the actual cases because many women don’t call. The stakes are too high as a good number of them moved to the US after marriage, so they depend on their husbands for everything and often have no other support system.
I am not suggesting that domestic abuse happens only within Indian culture or that all Indian men are abusers. Nor am I implying that other cultures are more effective in preventing it or dealing with offenders. I also believe that all close relationships are ongoing, private negotiations where we do not bail due to occasional fights.
All that said, domestic abuse, in any society, is symptomatic of the deep-rooted, systemic values with which we raise our children. In Indian families, even today, an inflated sense of entitlement and privilege and a lack of accountability for one’s own words and actions are allowed to go unchecked among boys throughout their formative years and beyond. Patriarchal norms still hold fast that sons are the parents’ crutches in old age. So they are given preferential treatment in everything over daughters.
Though daughters are not entirely submissive nobodies as in my mother’s time, they are often still raised to be subordinate to the male ego and needs. What is nurtured within them, instead, is a sense of shame, fear, guilt, and responsibility for whatever bad happens to them. The emotional labor of relationships and marriages is almost entirely on them. If a marriage fails, it is likely something the wife did or did not do. Pile on top of all this an abusive partner and what we have, in addition to the inflicted savagery, is an ongoing erosion of self-esteem and self-confidence that makes the women even more dependent on the very men who abuse them.
With my short story, “Life Spring,” published in the May 2017 issue of Windmill Magazine, I wanted to show an Indian woman who walks away from an abusive marriage, despite the shame and blame, and finds her own place. Heena leaves her techie husband and troubled life in Silicon Valley to return to India and start again. She has to come to terms with her family abandoning her and the neighbors questioning her morality. She has to take her own power back from the world, making no excuses for who she is or wants to be. The narrative focuses on her life after the marriage because such an existence is hard to even imagine for those in abusive situations—for good reason, of course. I confess it would have been more challenging if I had included kids or legal aspects, which are inescapable realities for many and my story covers only the start of such a difficult solo journey.
As a society, we are collectively responsible for raising the next generation. We cannot claim to be against gender discrimination, inequality, and violence unless we demonstrate it in our own families. As the ad said: let’s save our men by raising them right so we won’t have to save our women.
Read Jenny Bhatt’s short story “Life Spring” here, in the Spring 2017 issue of Windmill.