The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 17, 2000
Life Ties

Standing up for oneself
By Taru Bahl

I RECEIVED a desperate call from a middle-aged woman a few weeks ago.
She pleaded with me to come and see her. It was a genuine cry for help. I j
otted down the address and went to meet her mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario. But I was hardly prepared for what I saw. The woman had been badly beaten up by her husband. Her under-lip was swollen and she had a bluish-black eye and a chipped front tooth. They were the results of that morning’s assault.

However, my shock was compounded when I heard her story. Born with a speech deformity, she had reconciled to a "second-rate existence". Constantly made aware of being a "lesser person", she agreed to marry the first boy who proposed to her. The boy’s family was in the construction business. They were crude, uneducated and abusive. Thus, violence became an integral part of her marital life.


His was a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-kind of personality. His violent outbursts used to be followed by extremely loving behaviour. It was he who prepared her for the clerical banking exam and was happy when she got through. However, when she got her first pay cheque, he insisted she hand over the entire salary to him. She complied because as she put it, "All my needs were met with, anyway." When he would question her on her on her long conversation with the neighbour or over a phone call she had received, she would go to great lengths to "clear any misunderstanding." When he would slap and thrash her for not ironing his shirt properly, or for not telling him about the bonus she had received she would tell herself that "she got what she deserved. She had erred and must be punished."

When he forbade her from befriending her office colleagues, or developing a personal equation with them, she felt nice that he was so possessive about her. When he stopped her from taking her yearly vacation to her parental home in Bhopal telling her that he would miss her and not be able to live without her, she again gave in because she "couldn’t hurt him". She felt guilty for not having given him a male child and was actually grateful that he was looking after her and her two daughters. Surprisingly, no family member ever intervened.

Having heard her through, my dilemma was that if she had taken this form of behaviour — one minute loving and the next minute demonic all these years, why had she suddenly felt the need to reach out to a stranger for help?

She answered, "If earlier he would beat me, I would be submissive, allowing his rage to subside, nurse my bruises and get along with life. I would internalise all the pain and trauma because I had reconciled to the situation in the initial years of our marriage. Divorce was out since I had two daughters. I knew he would never agree for psychiatric or marital counselling since he was convinced that there was nothing wrong with him. Today, I am unable to take the thrashings. A part of me is resisting this needless physical abuse. So when I look him defiantly in the eye or hold his hand mid-air as he readies to strike a blow, the beatings get more violent and the situation worsens. I want you to help me revert back to my unquestioning, submissive self. I want to halt this new found defiance which has erupted in me all of a sudden and which is only going to wreak destruction and havoc in my domestic life".

What filled me with utter disbelief was seeing this modern woman preferring to take her husband’s animalistic onslaughts, covering up for him, defending him, wrapping herself up in a cocoon of comforting lies and refusing to see the damage it was doing to her growing impressionable daughters. She was refusing to acknowledge the awakening of her personality.

I felt inadequate and helpless because until she herself was keen to take a stand, how could I force my opinion/decision on her? She should have walked out of this destructive relationship ages ago. Being a working woman and one who was presentable, sincere and well-read, she certainly wasn’t stuck in a groove. She had options if she was willing to think for herself and pull herself out of the quagmire. Unfortunately, I could offer no solutions to her until she made up her mind about him. She had to let him know that she was not going to suffer silently anymore.

For starters, she could elicit support from family members and get them to exert pressure on him. She had to make him see sense. The family had to get together and make him see that this behaviour was scarring the lives of his daughters. I tried telling her that she was not weak. For a woman who had suffered silently for so long, she had to have nerves of steel. She deserved a better deal in life and a lot of it depended on her attitude. Till she decided to break her silence, I couldn’t do anything other than offer lip-service and empty words of comfort. I also told her that it is never too late. There is no point lamenting on what is gone but surely one had the right to shape and mould one’s present and future.

I spoke to a doctor friend in order to untangle my own disturbed chain of thoughts. Also, to figure out why able-bodied intelligent woman like her endure abuse for such a prolonged period of time. I was shocked when the doctor told me that the one very valid reason is that they may actually start liking the abuse. They get into a pattern where the absence of this kind of thrashing is perceived as a sign of their husbands not loving and needing them. A lot of them revel in their suffering martyred status. It elevates their sense of goodness in their own eyes as the husband turns into a devil.

A lot of woman don’t even know they are victims of domestic abuse. Since violence here is perpetuated by someone who is close and intimate, they find it difficult to label it as ‘dysfunctional behaviour’. According to family therapists, domestic abuse victimises and intimidates by its sheer power, force and aura of a fearful, controlling and threatening nature. Usually this power is wielded by men against those without power ---often women and children. The hiding, covering up and denial of abuse are, therefore, the biggest obstacles to breaking that control and behavioural pattern which keeps getting worse.

According to the doctor, the suppression of domestic violence, even if it creates a facade of normalcy, often hides a disturbed state of mind. The father’s abusive behaviour and the mother’s quiet suffering are enough to create a dysfunctional home. Sadly, cases of domestic violence are not isolated. They are widespread and cut across class and status barriers. Since domestic violence arises within the confines of the house and is governed by the dynamics between family members, it has to be resolved and reported accordingly.

But first, one has to help oneself. Just the way the woman has to stand up for herself and demand a life of dignity and love, the man too may be inwardly seeking help to become a better person. This has to be strengthened and brought to the foreground. I hope the woman in our story musters the courage to take her life in her hands and give herself a chance at being happy — with or without her husband.

This feature was published on September 10, 2000