While violence perpetrated on women in public spaces constitute the most significant challenge to gender justice in India, the private sphere of the home — parental or marital — is far from a safe haven. As women activists keep reminding us, married women, girl children and even aged mothers are routinely abused by male members of households across the class divide. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 was instituted to prevent and address these acts of violence within homes.
However, the Act has recently been in the news for its perceived abuse, and the allegation of abuse has come not from men but from a section of influential women — those belonging to the National Commission for Women (NCW). The commission recently observed that more than 80% of cases reported under the Act were too ‘trivial’ for it to address, and that the law was being used by women to vent their frustration at things like spousal restrictions on going out of home, perceived spousal ‘disrespect’ or the lack of monetary freedom.
This should prompt a re-look into how we define and perceive domestic violence. It is undeniable that acts restricting movement or showing disrespect may engender considerable psychological distress in the victim. A woman forbidden to go out of home might feel incarcerated, her autonomy as a person undermined by the injunction. Coercion is violence through psychological means and if the home is recognised as a space that may be violent to women — as the Act in question does — then the concept of what constitutes violence has to be adapted to fit the parameters of the domestic space.
While most of these issues can be sorted out through counseling, it does not follow that the problems were insignificant. ‘Trivial’ cases often point to issues that are central to gender dynamics within patriarchy. The charge of being housebound by husbands, for one, highlights the private/public dichotomy in patriarchal gender arrangements, apart from demonstrating the man’s will to dominate the woman. Similarly, a husband’s alleged refusal to provide ‘pocket money’ to the wife raises the now buried issue of unpaid housework and how that undermines women’s economic freedom.
It is not a coincidence that both charges are related to women’s often enforced domesticity. Even today, there are a large number of us who are ‘merely’ housewives — either by choice or circumstance — and the privileged, empowered women of NCW should be sensitive to the problems these women continue to encounter. The allegation of spousal disrespect underscores both the inequity inherent in the marital bond and society’s attitude to women in our country. That women are no longer prepared to countenance such disrespect should cause cheer to women activists.
Indeed, even if the charges are perceived to be insignificant for argument’s sake, we cannot deny that the Domestic Violence Act has given voice to a section long accustomed to silence and forbearance. This is not a small matter. The commission’s observation that many major atrocities against women are not being reported and registered under the Act is worrying and should be taken seriously by activists and the police. But if certain real problems faced by women in middle class homes are denied legal redress simply because they are not obviously ‘violent’, the process of women’s empowerment could be hampered.
Suparna Banerjee is author of the forthcoming book Science, Gender & History: Mary Shelley & Margaret Atwood
The views expressed by the author are personal