The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 14, 2001
Lead Article


The key to curbing wife-beating in a society is the firming of public opinion against it; police and courts can, at best, play a supportive role, says Mohinder Singh

On marriage, the weakest, the stupidest, the most insignificant man in the world receives a license to rape, beat. — Virginia Woolf

THE recently released National Family Health Survey on wife-beating comes as a terrible disappointment About 56 per cent of the women interviewed supported the use of force to "discipline" wives in certain circumstances: suspected infidelity, showing disrespect to her in-laws, going out without telling her husband, neglecting house or children, or cooking food improperly. Most women agreed that neglecting the house or children justified beating. Even working women as well as younger women (age group 15 to 19) still condone some wife-beating "to keep her in line."

If all what the survey points out is truly representative of Indian women, then we are miles away from ridding ourselves of this barbaric practice. Indeed, the key to curbing wife-beating in a society is the firming of public opinion against it; police and courts can, at best play a supportive role.

Even in cultures and countries where public opinion against wife-beating is fully firmed up, its eradication is proving no easy task. Take England and Wales. About 63,000 women and children spend at least one night in a refuge each year. One in four women is a victim of domestic violence at some point in her life, while half of all female homicide victims in 1997 were killed by their current or former partners.


Seized with the gravity of the situation, the UK authorities are setting up dedicated courts as a part of government clampdown on men who beat their wives or girlfriends. The government’s latest message to men is, "enough is enough," and there will be no more tolerance to wife-beating. Magistrates are being told to hand out the harshest possible sentences to wife-beaters while treating with scepticism claims by men that they were provoked by "nagging" partners.

Of course, there are many who fear that dragging violent husbands through the courts can simply provoke further attacks. Women, in any case, are showing little faith in the criminal justice system. They fear that in most cases men will be let off with a fine (which eventually becomes a fine on the household) or conditional discharge that leaves men more enraged and vicious.

Police have their own difficulties. Often when they reach the domestic scene in response to a desperate call, they find the parties have patched up. Or later, the wife goes back on her statement when in court.

The particular problem with marital violence is that it mostly takes place in private. And is generally over by the time someone intervenes. Fear of social disgrace holds back many an assaulted women from ventilating her situation.

The Indian scene has another complicating dimension; the demand for more dowry persisting for years after marriage — the same possibly figures nowhere else in the world. And sometimes when it looks like a dowry problem, it actually arises out of an inferiority complex; the wife hailing from a family visibly superior to that of the husband’s. Whether eve-teasing, commonly indulged in by many of our youth, makes them more prone to wife-beating later in life is something that merits a special study.

Studies of marital violence in UK (the most studied in the world) have revealed a few interesting findings. Most women being beaten are relatively young, 35 and below. Nearly 60 per cent of the frequently beaten ones were hit within a year of their marriage. With many, the beating started with their first pregnancy or with the birth of the first child. The beatings generally took place between nightfall and the noon next day, more often on Friday and Saturday nights.

Sex was one of the weapons used in marital violence. And to victims, marital rape was at times more traumatic, being committed not by a stranger but someone you once loved and trusted, but now detest. The most common marital rape was the "battering" one, where sex is used to degrade the wife; even anal rape, the "quintessential sexual act by which to humiliate a woman."

Wife-beating is said to happen more frequently where the male possesses no superior skill or talent or resources which are supposed to legitimize his superior status. "Men simply have no culturally approved ways of coping with ‘uppity’ women." If their yelling or sulking fails, "there is an almost overwhelming temptation to use a resource men have to a greater degree than women — physical force." Some men are simply "badly brought up" or have themselves experienced much violence in childhood.

What does a typical wife do faced with recurring beatings? The first reaction is generally of shame and failure. She feels too embarrassed to take anybody into confidence. If the beatings continue, she seeks informal support from relatives and friends. In case of injuries needing medical attention, she may perhaps confide in the family doctor (it’s often less awkward to confide in doctors). But when things go beyond bearing, it’s police and courts, separation and divorce.

Women who have nowhere to go seem to put up with a lot of "shit". A husband often taunts his beaten wife, "Where can you go? What can you do?" Rubbing in her helplessness and dependence on him; the power of his hand and the power of his purse. And ironically, without his "protection", she could risk sexual harassment even outside from rowdies and strangers in unsafe areas.

Those with a place to go or an income to fall back on, display a lower threshold of endurance. But many are held back because they would be depriving their children of their father — perhaps not such a bad father. It becomes a kind of "moth and candle" situation — getting hurt, but still hovering around. And then "some husbands seem to have a fantastic facility for saying they are sorry."

In India, a beaten woman usually finds "refuge" at her parents’ home — though at immense cost to her self-respect and mortification to her parents.

"Women of each and every class, of every age, all religions, educated and uneducated, employed or unemployed, suffer from it," has been made out during deliberations of various workshops on Family Violence Against Females. With women progressively becoming more conscious of their position, they may well be inviting more of such violence in the initial phase of their resistance.

It may, however, be clarified that the incidence of marital violence may not be increasing. It has always been high; only the idealised view of the family prevented us from seeing it, until recently. The incidence may be declining slightly in most places; it is increasingly less tolerated.

Recent studies indicate that much of serious family violence — wife-beating and child abuse — stems from a psychopathic mind or an explosively disordered mind. Persistent, callous brutality fits the pattern of the psychopath, while episodic dyscontrol may take the form of unpredictable attack of rage in response to a minor provocation.

An aggressive psychopath lacks the mechanism of conscience; he’s deaf to the feelings of others. The latest research based on PET scans and other advanced techniques of brain-imaging, suggests that in the brain of the aggressive psychopath the area that creates feelings, and hence our ability intellectually to comprehend guilt, shame and remorse, is disconnected from the more "thoughtful" frontal lobes.

The episodic dyscontrol syndrome is the offshoot of a true Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. He appears perfectly normal most of the time but is prone to sudden outbursts of violent behaviour. It takes various forms; anything from irritability to destructive rages directed at people, animals or things. The onset is often abrupt. It mostly starts with verbal abuse, followed by slapping or kicking or throwing away objects at hand at the victim.

Yet, unlike the psychopath, the explosively violent mind does retain the ability to show remorse and regret. The brain damage, mostly in the limbic system, could be innate or the result of a head injury in childhood (one reason why young children should never be hit on the head).

Most sufferers of explosively violent mind are unaware that they had any brain abnormality; some merely seek psychiatric help for shortness of temper. All the more tragic, as this condition can be treated successfully with anti-convulsant drugs, like the ones for epilepsy. There is, however, no known drug that connects a psychopath’s conscience.

Many a wife puts up with alcohol-induced violence, "He’s OK, when he’s sober." Or another one saying, "He wouldn’t even slap me when he was sober, no matter how mad she got." Some researchers feel that alcohol as a trigger of family violence is rather exaggerated. Perhaps individuals who wish to carry on a violent act; it helps them deny what occurred.