December 16 would have been an ordinary day in the calendar had it not been for a particularly vicious and murderous sexual assault on a young woman three years ago. Naturally, it deserved the strongest protest. But its horrific and rare nature eclipsed what people already rarely pay attention to: such horrific physical and sexual assault occurs less frequently than other crimes against women. One in particular is abuse faced by woman in the houses of their in-laws.
The National Crime Records Bureau is a very good place to start if one wants even a partial understanding of the spectrum of violence against women. In the chapter Crime against Women, the single-largest category of offences is cruelty by husband and his relatives: Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. Rape stands at number four.
Hereâs looking at the lives of two women, the abuse they faced, their dilemmas and hopes.
For two years, Zoya did her best to hide the physical and emotional abuse by her husband and in-laws from her family. Asked why she never said a word to her brothers and her father with whom she was close, she said no one in her family had verbally or physically abused anybody else.
Eventually, Zoya told only her father. Her mother and four doting brothers only learned of most of it two-and-a-half years ago when Zoyaâs daughter was born. âWoh ulte pau wahi se chala gaya. Bachhi ko dekha bhi nahiâ Her husband turned around and walked away without seeing their daughter.
âWithin a month of our marriage, he began to call me âservantâ. Never once did he call me Zoya after that, except in the presence of my family,â Zoya said.
When she began to narrate her ordeal, one of the first things she said was that everyone in her in-lawsâ house always addressed her in the singular, which in many Indian languages is often considered a disrespectful way to speak to someone, except to a friend or a child.
In her in-lawsâ house in Ningli, a town in Karnatakaâs Kolar district, her husband often beat her with an iron rod, including a night in the eighth month of her pregnancy.
âMy father was to come pick me up the next day (for the religious ceremony). He asked me why I looked dispirited, but I couldnât tell him. I said it was the stress (of the pregnancy),â Zoya said.
Thirty-year-old Asiya though, wants her in-laws punished. In particular, two of her husbandâs relatives, whose names have been left out of the chargesheet allegedly because money changed hands. She had filed a case against them for cruelty last year.
Asiyaâs two previous marriages fell apart. The first time, she was 17 years old and obtained Khula (divorce sought by the woman under Sharia) less than a year after the nikah, as they had not consummated the relationship and her husband did not seem interested in her. They had lived together for barely four months.
Her second marriage was more traumatic. Within a few months of her wedding, she learned that her husband had been married to a Turkish woman for seven years.
âThe third marriage was my mistake. I fell in love with him,â she said in a choked voice. She has two daughters with her current husband and lives in Bengaluru. She is determined to see all of her in-laws punished for what they did to her.
Like Zoya, Asiya too often mentioned that she was called âchinaalâ. Both women would lower their voices when they said the word, not just because their daughters were in the room, but also because it was a word they had never heard being used in their parentsâ houses.
Asiyaâs husband always kept her on tenterhooks. The time she has spent with him since they got married in 2010 has been a cycle of constant abuse by his parents and periodically by his aunt and uncle whenever they visited Bengaluru from the United States. Once, after the wedding, her mother-in-law taunted Asiyaâs husband by saying, âYouâll only eat pani puri with her now that youâre married? What about your mother?â
Amidst this, Asiya also dealt with his own oscillating affection and anger towards her, which manifested in various ways. He set up a separate house for them after his mother threatened to live on the street if she had to share a house with Asiya. However, he often locked her up. Once, he did this when she was nine months pregnant with their second daughter. She had to get her neighbours to call him up so that he would take her to the hospital.
Breaking the silences
As Asiya talked, she stopped mid-way after beginning to talk about âsexual thingsâ. Hesitantly, she asked: âCan I tell you all this?â On being assured that it was all right to discuss anything she wanted, she described acts with the use of objects that would constitute rape had the man in question not been her husband.
âHe would open Google on his phone, and show me p-o-r-n videos and tell me what to do. If I didnât, he would beat me,â Zoya said.
It is evident that Zoya was hesitant in telling them even about the physical abuse. âMy mother is a heart patient. She has high blood pressure too. We were not like father-daughter, more like friends. But nobody in my family has behaved like this, and I thought that if I was the only one to whom this had happened, my fatherâs izzat would be lowered.â
Daughter and dowry
Both Zoya and Asiyaâs parents have given their sons-in-law and their families a lot of money, even taking debts to fulfil their demands.
Zoya was the apple of everybodyâs eye, even in the extended family of her paternal uncles. Her father has three brothers, all of whom have boys. Her wedding was extravagant because they all doted on her.
But in hindsight, the perspective of everybody in the family has changed. Zoyaâs brother Shahid says, âWeâve learned our lesson today. We are stuck with the rules made by people in the past.â
Zoya is under no illusions that her husband would have been good to her even if the dowry had not been given. Looking back she feels, âIf you give money once, then they will keep expecting it. Bad habits are hard to get rid of.â
Dilemmas and determination
Within two months of her daughterâs birth, Zoyaâs husband married another woman. Zoya says that even if he had sought her permission according to custom, she would have left him.
âIâll never go back to him. He showed no affection for me, how will show love to my daughter? He made me a servant; heâll make my daughter a servant too.â She is unsure what form of redress she should seek â whether it should be maintenance through the Sharia or punishment for the assaults, beatings, and taunts she suffered.
The dilemma that Asiya faces is of a different kind. While maintaining that her family has stood by her, she spoke of justice for herself and her daughters. In her imagination, it appears, this includes the possibility of them all living together â minus the in-laws.
âWhen I married him, everybody asked me why I was marrying the son of a bus conductor. But I asked them âArenât they also humans?â Besides, he was a self-made man.â And somewhat bitterly: âToday, (because of my circumstances) everybody says âI told you soâ.â
But Zoyaâs was an arranged marriage, and she too faced the same trouble. Asked if he and his brothers ever discussed their sisterâs abuse with their father, Shahid said, âOur father was so well-respected in Kolar that he mediated family disputes. I think he did not know what to do when his own daughter was in trouble.â
The extreme violence that grabs national headlines from time to time is built on violence, discrimination and attitudes that never become a part of reported crime. If at all being born female, and a woman is not to remain a physical and mental health hazard, it is this systemic violence that must be addressed. Cruetly by in-laws is just one aspect of it. There are many more forms of violence and inequalities.
(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)