When a woman is nothing if not a wife: Vismaya's death points to our shared guilt

Vismaya was let down by the man she married, but she was also let down by a society that conditions women into believing marriage is their destiny.
Domestic violence victim Vismaya and her husband Kiran in their wedding finery
Domestic violence victim Vismaya and her husband Kiran in their wedding finery
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Her sparkling bright eyes and dimples are all over social media. But Vismaya will never smile again. The 22-year-old woman from Kollam was found dead in her husband's house, days after she had told a relative about the horrific abuse that she was suffering in her marital home. The marriage was just over a year old, and already Kiran, her husband, had assaulted her several times. In fact, he had even allegedly assaulted her in front of her parents, and broken her brother's arm in the altercation. Yet, Vismaya was sent back to this violent man, not only by her family but also the police who initiated a 'compromise' between the couple. 

Compromise. A word that's all too familiar to women. It means that the parties involved in a dispute reach an agreement with both making concessions. But that's not how compromise plays out in the typical Indian marriage where the concessions happen entirely from the woman's side and she's expected to put up with any amount of unfairness and abuse just to stay married. If you were to scroll through Vismaya's Facebook page, you would believe that this is a happily married young couple, nurturing a blooming romance. It is the facade that she chose to present to the world because the truth was too terrible for her to reveal. It is a facade with which many women live, hiding their bruises in long sleeves, loose clothes and make-up. Their immediate circle knows or at least suspects that all is not well, but ripping the facade away is a fearful prospect for them. Not in the least because many a time, the woman herself is unwilling to walk away. 

In Vismaya's case, her mother Sajitha told the media that she'd asked her daughter to leave Kiran after a violent assault that left her mouth bleeding. However, Vismaya reportedly told her mother that she would endure the abuse because she was worried about what people would say if they came to know that her marriage was in shambles. This may seem like an irrational assertion but it is unfortunately a decision that many, many women make. And it's not surprising either, when from the time a girl is born, she is conditioned to believe that her sole purpose in life is to get married and bear children. She is treated as an object who is under her father's control till the time she's married and 'transferred' to her husband's home thereafter. That is why we say that a woman was 'given' in marriage, after she is 'viewed' (the word 'pennukaanal' is quite revealing, as if a woman is an ornament kept on display). Language closely reflects our sociocultural realities, and the terms and phrases we use show a disconcerting unwillingness to respect women's agency when it comes to marriage.

Vismaya was in her final year of Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery course. To get her married to Kiran, an official at the Motor Vehicle Department, the family gave a dowry of 100 sovereigns, an acre of land, and a Toyota Yaris car. It's been stated repeatedly that it was Kiran's unhappiness over the car's mileage that led him to abuse Vismaya. But to buy this theory is to wish away our culpability in Vismaya's death. Men like Kiran abuse their wives because they have the social sanction to do so and get away with it. Though the Dowry Prohibition Act came into effect in 1961, it continues to be a common practice across the country and in most communities. In fact, it is so normalised that in many films, the hero's poverty is emphasised by a sister character who needs to be 'married off'. Celebrating the woman's wedding grandly is considered to be the biggest responsibility of the father or brother on screen, and such ideas are rarely challenged by the audience which is in complete agreement with what they're watching.

Once the 'deal' has been struck and the woman is 'sold' for a price that her family pays, they're likely to stick by a 'no returns' policy. It's not only a loss of money but also a loss of face to have the daughter of the family return home for good. Even though intimate partner violence happens everywhere in the world, it is even more acute in societies where women are denied the agency to decide when they will marry and whom they will marry. In fact, the institution of marriage is skewed so disfavourably against women that section 304B of the Indian Penal Code treats a woman's death in her marital home under seven years of marriage as a possible dowry death that needs to be investigated. Let's reflect on this for a moment. The law itself concedes that the institution of marriage, into which the vast majority of parents wish to push their daughters, may become their death sentence. Yet, parents continue to consider marriage as their daughter's destiny, and bring her up to believe that she must fulfil it no matter what.

In situations where a woman chooses her partner, it becomes even more difficult to speak up about abuse. They are guilted into believing that they deserve their fate since they chose it. Another young woman in Kerala, Archana, was found dead in her marital home in Thiruvananthapuram just hours after the news of Vismaya's death broke. The 24-year-old woman and Suresh had fallen in love and gotten married, but Suresh's father allegedly demanded that Archana's family cough up Rs 3 lakh as dowry. Archana's father refused to pay, and this reportedly led to issues in Suresh's family. The couple moved out but on June 21, Archana's immolated body was found in her home where she lived with her husband. Her father has alleged that Suresh used to harass her and that she "hid a lot" from them.

There are many answers to why women put up with domestic violence, with children being a big part of the reason. Many women believe that if they walk out, their children will be deprived of a father, even though it is unhealthy for a child to grow up in a violent home. Ironically, when the couple does not have a child, many women are also advised by their families to immediately have a child to "solve" the problem of domestic violence, essentially complicating the situation even more. Forced or persuaded into marriage before they have established their career, many women may be financially dependent on their spouse, making it difficult for them to file for divorce. All their lives, they are conditioned into believing that dependency is desirable while being independent and assertive will not win them a groom. The lack of support from family and society's scrutinizing gaze when it comes to single women makes it near impossible for them to leave a bad marriage. 

Domestic violence is also glorified in popular culture as love, with its defenders drawing ludicrous comparisons between a parent hitting a child to discipline him/her (which is also wrong), and a man hitting his wife or girlfriend. The phenomenal box-office success of films like Arjun Reddy and its Hindi remake Kabir Singh that celebrate toxic 'love' show how ingrained such ideas are in our society. In fact, when I was growing up, it was commonplace to hear grown-ups joking about how a rebellious girl in the family should be married off to a 'military man' who would 'discipline' her and put her in her place. Not only was it considered normal that the spirit of a disobedient girl should be punctured, it was also humorous to imagine that she would be beaten into it.

When this is the framework, it's not surprising that the police treat domestic violence, a non-bailable offence, as an opportunity to 'counsel' couples and strike 'compromises' because they too consider it to be a 'family matter' which can be resolved internally. And it is true that in quite a few of these cases, the families ask for the charges to be dropped because the couple wants to live together again. The woman is told to 'compromise' and 'compromise' until one day, she has nothing more to give than her life. 

Vismaya was let down by the man she married and his family which did not intervene. She was let down by her parents, brother and relative who knew what was happening but did not convince her to leave. She was let down by the police who persuaded her to go back. She was let down by all of us who have made our daughters believe that they're nothing if not wives. In the collective outpouring of grief for a young life that is happening now, our shared guilt should not be forgotten. 

If you are a woman facing violence at home, call national domestic violence hotline Dhwani - 1800 102 7282

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