Lies about qualifications and job, physical and verbal abuse and preventing work or education are only some of the problems this dowry harassment survivor went through.

An illustration of a woman clutching to a door as behind her a man looks onImage for representation
Delve Dowry harassment Sunday, August 08, 2021 - 15:00

In this series on dowry harassment, we explore the structural challenges that women face, what stops them from leaving abusive marriages, and the takeaways from their experiences which could help others.  

When she woke up that morning, Anamika* did not go straight to the kitchen as she usually did. She had to first go to the bathroom. Countless times afterward, she would thank the stars for that little change of routine, for she believes that’s what saved her life that day. In the time she went to the bathroom her husband had quietly walked to the kitchen and switched off the gas burner and cylinder his mother had left open a little earlier. The mother had also carefully latched all the windows and doors and sped away to the bathroom outside the house, minutes before Anamika would walk into the kitchen to begin her cooking for the day. If her husband had not seen his mother’s actions and acted in time, Anamika would not be alive to tell her tale of dowry harassment, she says, in the presence of her aged parents in a house in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

The three of them have been in a daze in recent weeks when a series of dowry deaths of young married women in Kerala came out in the media. “I am just so thankful I got my daughter back alive,” says Anamika’s mother, a hand on her chest. The father is quiet as the women talk.

Read: Once confined to some communities, dowry is now all pervasive in Kerala

Anamika was 27 when her parents zeroed in on a matrimonial ad they saw in the paper. They made a few enquiries and found the man, then 30 years old, quite alright. “We contacted the family. They said he was teaching students to clear PSC (Public Service Commission) exams, made Rs 45,000 a month and above all, what sealed the proposal was their declaration that they needed nothing in dowry,” Anamika’s mother says.

What also made it sound good for the family was the matching of horoscopes that they deeply believed in.

Read: Horoscope matches still popular in Kerala - despite failed marriages and little science

Anamika was then doing her second year of a Masters course and going to work at a public sector company. She left both when she got married. “They didn’t want me to go for either,” she says lightly. You realise why she is so casual about it when you hear the rest of the tale. When you put it against life threats, the inability to go for a job or a higher education must have seemed petty.

“The day I got married and entered their home, my mother-in-law put a broom in my hands and asked me to clean the entire house and compound,” Anamika recalls the day from nearly two-and-a-half years ago. It was only the beginning of a series of actions that soon turned downright abusive.  

“From the next day onward, I was in charge of the kitchen and all of the household chores. My husband, right from the beginning of our marriage, began to weep everyday and tell me, ‘my mother will split us’. I didn’t understand this. I asked him why and he would be silent,” Anamika says.

That’s when the dowry-related abuse began, with indirect references to other families getting such and such properties through a marriage. When that got no response from the new bride, the mother in law became quite direct. She began ‘lamenting’ about the ‘dharma kalyanam’ – charity marriage – her son got himself into. There was no big blue car, the wedding was not in an air-conditioned hall, and so on went the comments.

The demands, of which there were none before marriage, became loud and clear after the wedding. Weirdly enough, the husband’s family not only wanted money and properties from Anamika’s parents, but also for these to be written in the mother-in-law’s name.

“She started asking for all of my parents’ wealth to be transferred to her! She would ask why they aren't giving it to me yet and I’d say it would come to me one day since I was an only child, what was the hurry. She didn’t like this and the abuse increased,” Anamika says.

The mirage of the husband’s profile, presented before as that of a well-educated man, also broke down as the lies were revealed. He never taught PSC aspirants, but would take tuition for middle school students in a shed outside the house. 

“That didn’t miff us, nor did the fact that the family lived in poor economic conditions. We didn’t consider their financial status. What mattered to us was his education,” Anamika’s mother says.

That too turned out to be a lie, Anamika says. For when she asked him about applying to jobs with his certificates, her husband had none. He told her a story of how it got stolen years ago and how he never applied for them again.

“Worse than that were his ridiculous accusations that I was having an affair. He would see WhatsApp group messages on my phone where someone in my college group would send a good-morning message and then allege that I was having an affair with them. After three months of this, I just gave up using a phone!” Anamika says.

She was also stopped from calling her cousins or other relatives.

Read: Kerala sees rise in domestic violence during lockdown

With the phone gone, Anamika lost the one piece of evidence she had of the harassment her in-laws were capable of. “They used to treat my husband’s grandmother very badly. She was aged and could not move around without help and this invited a string of abuse – verbal and physical. I recorded one such incident on my phone and told my husband that I would send it to the Human Rights Commission if they repeated it. It was the next day that my husband created a drama over an “affair” he claimed I have and I just broke the phone myself in a moment of anger,” Anamika says.

To add to all this, they were also superstitious and unwilling to take her to a hospital when Anamika suffered from Urinary Tract Infection until it got much worse.

Anamika bore all of it including the attempts at her life – for that happened twice – for six months. What surprises you is she never said a word about any of this to her parents. They had found it strange that every time they visited her, Anamika’s in-laws would have them leave in less than 15 minutes, citing their ill health. Either the husband or the in-laws would also make sure one of them is present at all times between Anamika and her parents so she could not have a word with them alone. But they didn’t know the extent of abuse their daughter was subjected to.

“I didn’t tell my parents because they were aged and suffering from health problems and I didn’t want to burden them with all of this. I also thought that if I came home of my own accord they would ask me to somehow adjust and live at the marital home. So I didn’t do anything that would bring the blame to me,” says Anamika, reflecting the ‘ideals’ that many girls in Kerala are still brought up with – bear it all with a smile on your face and don’t complain.

After six months, it was the mother-in-law who finally drove her away – literally. “I didn’t understand it when one morning, she suddenly refused to talk to me. She then began murmuring that my parents were embracing their wealth. Then my husband came to me and said let’s leave. Still dazed, I began packing. The mother-in-law then came to my room and began throwing away my husband’s clothes. She said she would not let her son go anywhere. When I said this was his idea, she began twisting my arm around and pushing me out of the house. When I pulled away she hit me and I fell against the wall, hitting my head. After this, my husband took me home.”

At her home, it was the husband who told her parents that his mother wouldn’t let them live peacefully. The parents were shocked to hear all that had been going on but were happy to have them live at their home. “I wasn’t having my daughter go back to that house where they tried to kill her,” says the soft-spoken father, speaking for the first time.

Read: Blackmailed, beaten, made to drink urine: Kochi woman's horror at partner’s hands

Anamika’s husband stayed at her home for one-and-a-half months before going back to his place. “He was supposed to come back soon but I never heard from him after that,” Anamika says.

It didn’t end there. The husband’s family made a call and placed three demands. If Anamika’s parents wanted the marriage to work, they had three conditions: transfer all their wealth to the husband’s family, Anamika should not go to study or work, and she should not have any contact with her relatives.

“My only response to that was -- let’s proceed legally,” the father says.

They registered a complaint with the police, and 498A of the Indian Penal Code (harassment of a woman by husband or relatives) was applied. The police made enquiries and found that the husband’s father was a goon. Anamika also took the issue to the Kerala Women’s Commission, however. there has been no action from their side so far, she says.

Anamika and her parents moved for divorce with the help of a lawyer. They had absolutely no conditions except that the gold (over 60 sovereigns) and other materials that Anamika had been married with, and which were now with the husband’s family, be returned. “They didn’t respond for long. After a while their lawyer spoke to my lawyer and we were to sign a mutual divorce a few months ago. That day, they called in sick and we have never heard from them since. They just want to make my life difficult again by delaying the divorce.”

But Anamika did bounce back in her life. The young woman who was all skin and bones one-and-a-half-year ago, stressed out and miserable, is now busy translating books. She has translated six books from English to Malayalam and is now researching for a book on a late politician, that will be her own work. “All my therapy came from writing. That’s where I found relief. But I am hoping to get back on my feet with a regular job. I have also enrolled in a Bachelors course for Library Science,” she says.

She still loathes getting the much-despised ‘divorce tag’, but Anamika knows her life is worth a lot more than prejudice or tags that society would mark her with.

Her advice to any other young woman going through such an experience is to make sure she has numbers of her immediate neighbours – people who could rush to the house for help if something goes wrong. “I mean the neighbours of the marital home where you live. Your own family and friends might be far away. You need to have contacts of at least two people you can trust in the neighbourhood, who could come to help. And you must make sure you share all your problems with at least one trusted person. I didn’t share with my parents but I did tell everything to my best friend, who has always been supportive. It is also important that you collect evidence. I made the mistake of breaking my phone or I could have collected some evidence of the endless harassment,” Anamika says, now emboldened and certain that she will not endure another such experience.

“You may ‘adjust’ to a certain extent, hoping that it will get better. It won’t,” she says.

Also read: Kerala dentist who faced domestic abuse asks for public support

Access to resources

Several non governmental organisations and government verticals are dedicated towards addressing domestic abuse and dowry harassment among women. The government helpline number for women facing harassment is 1091. This link lists the phone numbers to reach out in every district.

Read: Kerala govt launches 'Pink Protection' project to prevent crimes against women

Recently the Kerala police also began an initiative called Aparajitha is Online though which women can submit complaints of domestic abuse as well as report cyber crimes against them. The number to call is 9497996992 and the email to reach is aparajitha.pol@kerala.gov.in.

Among the NGOs working for women's safety is Sakhi, a women's resource centre in Thiruvananthapuram, aimed at creating gender justice practices and an accomodating space for women. Anweshi, run by Ajitha since 1993, has been one of the premier NGOs in helping out women going through physical and emotional abuse. 

Kudumbashree, a woman network started by the government for poverty eradication and women empowerment, runs Snehitha, a 24-hour gender helpdesk. The toll free number to contact Snehitha are here.

(* name changed)

Read: 'How could I leave a love marriage?': Dowry harassment survivor on what made her stay

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