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Posts Tagged ‘domestic violence’

The foregoing story says a lot about the gender scene in this region, a landscape that is increasingly dominated by men’s alcoholism and delinquency.  When combined with the grossly unequal gender norms rooted in culture and tradition, these factors are making for widespread domestic violence against women, something that is becoming the new normal.  Alcohol abuse is rife, and  men’s withdrawal from the workforce is becoming an ever-commoner phenomenon.  Its visible evidence is abundantly available in the huge numbers of women who now go out to work regularly, and the clusters of idle men lounging in tea shops and along the road side in every village in the region.  These men have become the public prosecutors of the reputations of the working women of the villages: passing comments on them, spinning stories about alleged misdemeanours, and egging each other to assert their masculinity and chastise ‘errant’ or ‘potentially-errant’ wives. These features are more common in villages that are relatively more ‘developed’, i.e., have roads that connect them to the highway, markets and nearby cities and villages,  and that are also relatively prosperous with symbols of modernity like cars, jeeps, tractors, TV sets, refrigerators etc.

The story says a lot about the deep roots of the patriarchal family and the fundamental inequality that it imposes upon women.  For women, inequality sets in at birth, and their unequal status in the family gender-and-age-hierarchy only intensifies when they marry.  Through the long early years of their married lives spent at the bottom of the conjugal family hierarchy, they work hard to try and craft a closeness with their husbands.  But much of the rest of their interactions within their conjugal families is devoid of even a notional closeness.  What sustains them emotionally is their bonds with their distant natal family, bonds that they are extremely reluctant to jeopardize by stepping out of the severe boundaries of approval and disapproval that have been drawn for them since childhood.  In this region, girls are still taken out of school at puberty to be married off soon after they enter their teenage years, by parents who feel a compulsion to wash their hands off them at the earliest.  Once married, their natal homes become for them just temporary halting places for the occasional visit, with no real practical support forthcoming except perhaps of an episodal or symbolic nature.  Women therefore know that it is up to them to make their peace within the husband’s family.

It is thus hard to over-emphasise how much the prevailing social formation shapes women’s consciousness and their life conditions to place the highest value on the husband as their source of self esteem, and on their natal family as the ultimate emotional bulwark.  Socialised into living their lives by these two lodestars, they remain unequipped to face eventualities that might force them to fend for themselves, were things to go wrong in their marriage.  Without meaningful education, employable skill sets, financial savvy, or understanding of how the real world operates, they are therefore in no position to detach themselves from dependence on men and their worlds.  There are those among them like Sita who learn to play the game from within, by skillfully subordinating themselves to powerful men and manipulating others in their immediate environment.  And there are those like Susheela who lack the savvy to operate within the predatory and mercenary materialistic aspirations that are fast becoming the basis of competitive relationships within the joint family, dooming them to remaining mere pawns.

The story also says a lot about the absence of women’s solidarity for each other, whether within the same neighbourhood or even within the same family.  Why is it that such solidarity for Susheela was nowhere visible?  Not from her own sister who was also her sister-in-law. Not from her sister-in-law who was also the Sarpanch of the village, and who had won her seat by virtue of being a woman.  Not from her mother-in-law or mother.  Not from her women neighbours. Not from her women colleagues at her workplace.  All of the above were witness to – or at least in the know of – the steadily intensifying violence that Susheela faced daily, which culminated in the death threat on that fateful day.  Stories abound in the region of widespread domestic abuse fuelled by male alcoholism, and women whose husbands are alcoholics and do not go out to work but do not beat their wives, actually consider themselves fortunate.   Given that women operate under severe ideological controls that could easily tip into physical violence, the whispers among the women in the village  following what happened to Susheela was that her fate could become theirs were they to speak up for her.

Under what conditions, then, would women be willing to take steps to change their life circumstances, and also help those of their sisters who are in need of support?

The story demonstrates that the home and the world are mirror images of each other.  Having a Constitutionally instituted Panchayati Raj  (system of local self governance based on democratic elections), or affirmative action for women in electoral politics, does not by itself bring about a progressive change in  the mind-set of and towards women, or in the way politics works at the grassroots.  And least of all does it magically transform the women who become the elected beneficiaries of seat reservations, since they merely go on to become instruments for their husbands’ ambitions, ambitions that further strengthen the prevailing masculine norms.  In an earlier post I had told the story of two sisters Rekha and Vinita who were victims of domestic violence (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/indian-political-economy-a-worm%E2%80%99s-eye-view/).   There, the constitutionally elected village panchayat had denounced the sister who had filed a police report against her violently abusive husband.  The panchayat had led the village in passing strictures against her, and had thrown its weight behind her husband’s family in restricting the sisters’ mobility and choice of workplaces .  One could have argued that the panchayat did what it did because it was composed of men and led by men.  But what about Susheela’s case where the panchayat was led by a woman?

One is tempted to conjecture at this point that absence of exposure to modern education among women in general in Rajasthan, and in rural Rajasthan in particular, might be a factor in keeping them shackled or inhibiting initiative towards gender solidarity.  The region meets the bottom line;  the village in which Susheela and Sita live has four schools and all the children from the village attend these schools, fresh-faced and neatly dressed in smart uniforms.  And there also colleges in the neighbouring villages. But education is more than simply ‘going’ to a school or college.

Other factors are at play here, both in the home and the world.  Even today, families continue the practice of pulling girls out of school by age 12 (class 6 or so), to be married off and sent to their husbands’ homes by the time they are 13 or 14 or, at the most, 18.  They go on to spend the rest of  their lives shouldering the responsibilities of housework, marriage, motherhood and care of  families-in-law, with nothing to open up their narrow and circumscribed worlds.

The fact also is that even where girls/women have ‘access’ to education beyond class 6,  the abysmal state of school and college education,  plagued as it is by low standards and rogue educational institutions, ensures that even those who do spend years at these institutions achieve little by way of developing critical intellectual abilities and the ability to take independent decisions about their own life choices.  These institutions never afford students the exposure to the diverse social and intellectual stimuli that are such an integral component of education, modernity and the whole discourse on rights. There is also the phenomenon of ‘correspondence’ schools and colleges that abound in the villages and small towns of the region.  As institutions that students never even have to visit and that provide no instruction whatsoever even of the third rate variety, these places offer an easy option for aspirants  who are only looking to acquire a ‘degree’.  Their questionable academic standards and exams – it is even possible to hire someone else to sit and write your examination on your behalf masquerading as you, for a fee – ensure that ‘graduates’ are turned out that are barely literate.   Many families permit daughters to go through this kind of education where, basically, they never have to leave home or seriously read a book.  My previous post on how Panchayati Raj actually works had an ‘educated’ young woman at its centre in willing subservience to her husband and family.  She had been through such a correspondence college.  Education – without minimal quality – is thus no guarantee for the emergence of sisterhood around common social issues.

Would the weakening of the traditional family structure create conditions for women’s individuation, particularly by postponing the age at marriage of girls which in turn helps them to stay on in school? Perhaps.  In an earlier post, I had told the story of Sonu, a relatively free spirited girl who was able to get some control over her own life because her family was somewhat ‘dysfunctional’, i.e., her father did not oppose her wishes, even if he did not actually facilitate them. And her elder sister had opted out of a bad marriage and was looking to remarry  (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/for-girls-in-rural-india-even-token-education-is-better-than-no-education-at-all/).  I had argued there that for girls in rural and small town India, even a token education is better than no education at all (Michelle Obama reportedly recently advised black girls in her country that it was important to go to school, even if it was a bad school; that even a poor education was better than no education at all as it opens up opportunities and choices).  But cases like Sonu’s are one-off.  For change that can impact ever-larger numbers of women, not only must the ‘home’ liberate girls so they can access education, the ‘world’ must create possibilities for them to access good quality education.

But what of the boys in the region?  Every new generation of boys socialized in the values of the extreme form of patriarchy – and masculinity – described in these posts retards the possibility of women to come into their own.  More important than the default weakening of the traditional family structure is its purposeful and fundamental transformation into a more gender equal institution, where boys are brought up to be gender sensitive and respectful of women as equal actors, and girls are brought up to be more aware of and committed to their own personal growth  needs and aspirations.

For this to happen, in addition to good quality education, gender sensitization and persistent counseling must happen all the way through school and college for both boys and girls, because educational institutions are the only available environments we have for nurturing new generations in democratic values.  Education in the region – as in large parts of India – is presently sunk in the pits of unregulated private enterprise which has come to fill the yawning non-functioning of the government school system.  This area of gender sensitization requires concerted action.   Energy, focus, resources and imagination are required to train and continuously re-train ever-newer generations of teachers and, equally importantly, counselors, who can transform schools and colleges into nurseries for moulding newer generations of citizens into sensitive, compassionate and democratic human beings. Until that begins to happen, Susheela’s story and countless other untold stories will continue to haunt the silence that hangs over women’s lives in this region.

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The story I tell is about women’s condition against the backdrop of growing economic prosperity, political emancipation of lower castes, the coming of age of Panchayati Raj,  and reserved electoral seats for women for their purported political and social empowerment.  The story is about dalit women belonging to the relatively higher echelons of the dalit hierarchy,  in a region where dalits in general and the creamy layer among them in particular are numerically large and politically powerful, land owning and therefore not economically disadvantaged overall  and, due to all of these reasons, not victims of social discrimination.  It is a region that is in the backyard of the state capital where the state  legislature houses are located, where dalits play the games of competitive electoral politics just like any other politically aware social group/caste.

This story is a sequel  to stories I had told in earlier posts about two women, Susheela and Sita:

https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/the-changing-rural-scene-in-eastern-rajasthan-%E2%80%93-4-dalit-women%E2%80%99s-lives-some-cameos-4-3-susheela/

https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/the-changing-rural-scene-in-eastern-rajasthan-%E2%80%93-4-dalit-women%E2%80%99s-lives-some-cameos-4-4-sita/;

https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/voting-to-reject/;

Both Susheela and Sita are related to each other;  their husbands are brothers, and the two families live in adjacent compounds.  Recently, Susheela’s already unfortunate  life, riddled with domestic violence, became further interlinked with Sita’s in tragic ways.   Seeing her own life descend dramatically from bad to worse, Susheela  attempted in one brave move to change her life condition.  But she failed.   Not only did Sita not show solidarity with her sister-in-law in her struggle for a better life,  she manipulated her misfortunate to her own benefit.  She also failed to use her public office as elected Head of the Village Council (a Constitutional body) to stop violence against her sister-in-law and thereby highlight the scourge of domestic violence that is rampant in the village.  Through her actions, Sita chose deliberately and cynically to align herself  with the powerful male norms that dominate the social ethos of this rural region.

To recap briefly:  Sita and Susheela  were both formerly agricultural labourers. Their husbands – two of four brothers all of whom live next to each other –  inherited agricultural land from their father in their joint names.   The husbands of these two women preferred to sell their respective shares rather than continue the hereditary profession of their forefathers.

Sita’s husband – the older brother –  opted for  a job as a driver to a rich jeweler in the city, and sat tight on the money earned from the sale of his share of family land,  while Sita continued to earn wages as an agricultural labourer.

Susheela’s husband  – the younger brother – chose to become a layabout and alcoholic, drinking away his share of monetary assets from the sale of his share of family land, leaving his wife to single-handedly run the home with her earnings from agricultural labour.  Unable to make both ends meet in addition to having to finance her husband’s daily  liquor expenses, Susheela was forced into a state of indebtedness.

Five years ago, both women  ceased to be agricultural wage labourers, and transited to roles that brought  them more income and local public visibility.  Sita successfully entered the field of politics as the elected head (Sarpanch)of the  village council (Panchayat), when the seat came to be “reserved” for a woman who was also a dalit.   Together with her husband  – who used part of his land sale assets to finance her election campaign, campaigned for her, and after her victory promoted her among powerful individuals in the area,  and acted on her behalf in her political role since she is illiterate – she used her five year term to  learn to use and manipulate the levers of power to enhance her family’s economic status.  She has since become an adventurer,  consciously looking to build patron-client networks with powerful property sharks and politicians in the area, as a long-term measure to not let go of the gains she has made in political office these past five years.   As head of the village council, Sita (and her husband)  also built enormous wealth by appropriating a share of every land sale in the village as her ‘commission’.  Sita’s story shows how even dalit women can use the system to their advantage, particularly when actively assisted by their husbands.

Susheela’s progress – unsupported by anyone in her family – was less dramatic economically, but had other positive fallouts.  She was promoted from agricultural labourer to salaried domestic worker and then to housekeeper-cum-manager of the estate where she worked, with  responsibilities that entailed managing a largish domestic and gardening work force. This opened up opportunities for her to learn new skills in managing things and people within an organizational framework that was both modern and ecologically responsible,  something  whose  import she does not fully understand and cannot explain to others, but which she vaguely knows to be more elevating than what almost everyone else  in the village does.  As an elementary school dropout she felt motivated to try and advance her schooling as a private student. She was also able to build a relationship of trust with her employers which made her eligible for a flexible work routine so she could attend to her young schoolgoing children,  as well as for periodic interest-free loans.  Her employers put her through driving lessons and gave her exclusive use of an old car, both to run local errands relating to the management of the estate and to drive herself to her home and back and do her own local errands, making her the first woman in the village to drive a car.  In comparison, Sita remains illiterate.  Nor  does she drive.

At the time of the last writing of her story, Susheela still owned a tiny plot of land in the village that her father-in-law had made out in her name as a social security measure, knowing that his youngest son’s alcoholism might jeopardize his family’s welfare.   The house in which they live was also  in their joint names, thanks again to the father-in-law’s foresight. In that story, I had written about how Susheela’s  husband was pressuring her to allow him to sell that piece of land, and Susheela was resisting that pressure, knowing that it was her final bulwark against possible destitution.  Susheela’s resistance had set off a trail of psychological manipulation by her husband that oscillated between loving congeniality and drunken violence.

Since the writing of that post,  that final remaining parcel of land, too, has been sold. Fatigued by the constant struggle with her husband,  Susheela  caved in to the pressure.   The buyer was brought in by Sita who was still the Sarpanch at the time, and therefore the first port of call for every land deal.  It was she who set the price,  on which she claimed her own commission of 30 per cent.

Even as she saw herself being manipulated by her husband and sister-in-law, Susheela  consoled herself that she would try and get a few things out of the sale for herself. While her husband took away the lion’s share for himself, she used a part of the money to make some improvements to the house like adding a latrine, and building two shops in the front.  Her long-range plan was to rent out one shop and to covert the other into a women’s fancy goods store; these shops  would be her long-term economic security.  She also naively imagined that she would keep her husband gainfully employed in that store.   Finally,  the sale afforded her the possibility to simply enjoy herself a little,  after years of want.

For about a year following the land sale, Susheela did go through a phase of happiness.  Her husband was now socially  active, holding regular drinking parties in their  house, and distributing large chunks of money – in tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands (lakhs) – as unsecured ‘loans’ to all and sundry, in order to boost his own prestige in the area.  In this euphoric state he also willingly took Susheela to places that she wanted to visit on his new motorbike – social occasions in the kin group, pilgrimages and temples – and for a few months Susheela was able to bask in the glow of his attention.  Susheela also found that she had suddenly become everybody’s darling; her  social  popularity soared, her house now had a regular stream of visitors and house guests, and she got invited to marriages and all manner of social occasions. With such an active social life and more disposable cash than ever before,  both her job and  salary seemed a needless distraction and she virtually stopped going in to work.   She rapidly gained weight – a socially accepted sign of prosperity – and took to wearing high heels and make-up and plenty of jewellery and sequined saris.

By year’s end there was virtually nothing to show for all the money that had come in apart from the investment in house upgradation  and the shop space.  While Susheela’s husband had drunk up most of it,  a large chunk was tied up in the ‘loans’ to his drinking companions (who had probably never intended to repay the money to begin with).  In fact, even the shops remained only half constructed, since the money ran out before the doors and windows could be put in.

Not to be done out of his buzzing social life,  Susheela’s husband now began  prodding her every day for money with which to keep up with his drinking parties, suggesting that she return to her former employers and ask if she could have her job back.  Susheela did return to work.  But salaries do not physically accrue from the first day of rejoining a job, and very soon he took to beating her every day – even more viciously than even before – when she came home empty-handed during the initial month of being back at work.  His rages also led him to frequent and often violent quarrels with neighbours and relatives,  and  soon these neighbours were calling in the police to have him arrested, since it was now clear that he was on the road to pauperization  and there was little to be gained from tolerating his mercurial behaviour.

The first few times that he was arrested, Susheela paid the bail amount, each time with borrowed money.  Soon she was borrowing to treat his illness episodes brought on by over drinking, followed by  episodes of hospitalization, visits to holy men, pilgrimages…all in a desperate attempt to boost his  sagging morale, and to restore him in the eyes of the people around him.  But nothing brought back that brief flash of social acceptance.  Instead, the debts mounted. When there were no more creditors left for Susheela to take recourse to and his desperate behavior deteriorated further,  his drinking buddies started paying  the bail amounts to get him released whenever arrested,  telling him that they were repaying  the money that he had loaned them, and making him feel additionally obligated to them for the favour.  They bought him his daily fix of liquor – and bought their own quota as well  – and sat and drank with him,  again toting up the expenses as going towards loan repayment.

Through all of this, Susheela continued to struggle to keep the house going, while fending off his unceasing demands for liquor money,  and caring for him each time he fell sick with over-drinking.  She had her old job back which was what kept her household running .  But now she had to also prove herself worthy of retaining it, and restore some of the trust and self esteem that she had earlier enjoyed with her employers.

Frustrated that he was now becoming dependent financially on the same people  whom he had until recently  grandly patronized – his fellow villagers – Susheela’s husband now tried to sell off the last piece of property he still owned, the  house.  But Susheela, as the joint owner,  refused to comply.   The daily violence against her grew steadily to an extreme where she often went to work with bruises to show for it.  There were days when he would lock her up in the house,  and accuse her of being disloyal to him and more loyal to her job, days when he would come to her workplace and insist that she return home with him to minister to his needs.  With  no money in the house anymore to pay for even the daily food expenses, and loans piling up everywhere, giving up her job was a luxury that Susheela could barely contemplate.  Gone was the extra weight on her body, the strings of gold, the glittering saris.  She was back in her village woman’s skirt and veil.

The final blow was yet to come.  The four brothers still owned – jointly – a small parcel of land.  With Sita’s term as Sarpanch drawing to a close and regular access to commissions about to disappear, Sita and her husband hit upon the idea of engineering the sale of the land so that they could pick up the  commission for Sita’s role in authorizing  the sale and drawing up the deed.  They also eyed Susheela’s husband’s share; in his state of extreme alcoholism and Susheela’s  consequent vulnerability, he presented an easy target for fraud.

Sita took to pampering and coddling Susheela’s husband providing him with his daily liquor and generally making him feel special, and taking his side when he turned against his wife in his rages.  Her home now became an alternative refuge for him.  Emboldened by her show of support,  he began to urge Susheela to leave his house forever.  He no longer needed her, he taunted, she could go where she wished with the children. What he needed was money and she was not bringing in enough.   Besides, he wanted to sell the house as Sita’s house was now available to him. Susheela was alarmed and hurt.  But she did not see any need to retaliate.  The house was the one anchor that she still had for herself and her children.  And she had always known anyway that she was in for the long haul.

The only way now was to shame her into leaving.  Besides occasionally intercepting her on the public road as she walked back from work and thrashing her in the presence of the men clustered at the teashop, for supposed sexual misconduct, he now took to offering her for ‘sale’  to anyone in the village who was willing to buy her – for the price of Rs. 8 lakhs – and take her off his hands.   Susheela had to suffer the ignominy of people in the village speculating on how much she was ‘worth’ to her husband.

Finally, on the evening of Diwali 2014 after darkness had set in and people in the village were celebrating the festival, he dragged her out into the street and threatened to strip her publicly and set her ablaze. By now enraged beyond control, Susheela phoned  her brother to come to her aid and together they beat up the drunken husband with a stick.

For Susheela, there was no question of staying on after this turn of events.  By his threatening to kill her and her own retaliation with violence, both of them had crossed the line.  Also, Susheela now genuinely feared for her life; it was not beyond the realm of possibility that she might be trapped and killed – perhaps while she slept – if she stayed on, and there was no one whom she could see coming to her aid.  Escorted by her brother,  she left with her children that very night for her parents’ home, with just the clothes on her back.

At no stage in the run up to Susheela’s traumatic departure did anyone from among her husband’s family members or her neighbours come to her help, despite her cries of terror.  The brothers and their wives – including Susheela’s own sister who is married to another brother, and Sita the Sarpanch of the village council – were all present when he screamed out his threat to strip and burn her,  but had looked on with indifference.

In fact, village sympathy on the part of both women and men was in support of the husband in this ‘private’ matter; they drew the line at a woman beating her husband  whatever the provocation.  Also, knowing that the husband was being backed by the village Sarpanch, the neighbours were keen to be on the right side of the prevailing power structure in the village.   The husband’s sisters to whose homes Susheela’s husband then fled to nurse his wounds and stay out of the public eye,  declared that had they been present at the time they would have urged and even assisted him to pour  kerosene over Susheela and set her alight,  thus driving her out of his life forever.  In such a manner was patriarchy and its upholders on both sides of the gender divide ranged against Susheela.

In the weeks following the episode, Susheela’s husband ran amok.  Unhampered by his wife’s stubborn presence,  he sold off the motorbike, refrigerator and TV set that they had bought, and resumed his social life with his drinking companions.  When he again ran out of money he wrote promissory notes about the house to many buyers, in lieu of some token money to meet his alcohol requirements.  Once again, the drinking companions reassembled in his house.  And neighbours came to squat,  to use up Susheela’s grocery stocks that she had painstakingly garnered, invade her cooking and sleeping space, and  ransack her trunks of all her personal effects.

Sita and her husband, too, did not waste any time.  They found  a buyer for the plot of land jointly owned by the four brothers.  Of the sale price of Rs. 60 lakhs,  they gave Susheela’s husband only Rs. 2.5 lakhs out of what should have been his share of Rs. 20 lakhs.

As news of these developments reached Susheela, her parents began to urge her to return to her husband, whatever the terms.  They told her it was imperative that she secure at least the jointly owned house.  They reminded her that in any case, she could not think of staying with them forever.  Her place was in her husband’s home and they made it clear to her that she was an unwanted embarrassment for them. If her husband did not come on his own – and indeed, he showed no signs of wanting to, since he had a supply of money for liquor and the support of his eldest brother and sister-in-law – they would go and plead with him to take her back.

Alarmed, Susheela turned to her employers for advice.  They urged her to look ahead and remake her life on the basis of dignity and independence.  They had witnessed her caving in in silence for far too long.  Now, by walking out of an irremediably abusive situation, she had opened up the possibility of another chance for a better life for herself.  They assured her that they would give her all the financial, legal and emotional support that she would require to fight for her rights to the house, the security of her job, a home for her and her children on their own estate, and physical and social security once she had obtained legal separation from her abusive husband.  They reminded her that she had the option to complete her school education and skill herself further.  They arranged  legal aid so that she could explore the option of divorce or at least a legal separation in the interests of her own and her children’s physical and mental well being. The lawyer in turn assured her that under the provisions of the Domestic Violence Act,  she could not be legally thrown out of her marital home, and could exercise her right to sell her portion of it to be able to buy a new house for herself and her children which would be under her exclusive name.

Susheela’s parents, however, refused to permit her to follow up on the legal advice that she had received.  They reminded her of her duty to them; their family’s honour and her reputation required that she surrender to her husband’s authority.  If she failed to heed their advice, she would lose her natal family forever.  They took away her cell phone and cut off any communication she might have with persons outside their house.

Finally, at the end of three months of waiting, Susheela returned to her husband.  Although he had earlier threatened that even if he took her back he would never again permit her to return to her job – which seemed to be giving her more ideas than was good for her – she did eventually go back to her employers without any opposition from him.

She spoke nothing at all about all that had transpired.  It was as if nothing had actually happened.  She seemed to have had made her peace.  At least for now.

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Some time ago – quite some time ago – I told a few stories about the condition of dalit women (women belonging to the lowest castes in the Hindu social hierarchy) living in rural eastern Rajasthan (see the category Rajasthan Village Diary).  My stories were based on close observation and interaction with people over a considerable length of time, living as I currently do in a village in this region.  The main theme of those  stories was the  daily – and often brutal – psychological, verbal, and physical violence suffered by a majority of dalit women at the hands of their husbands, violence that is often abetted by the sisters or mothers of these husbands.  In some of the cases that I had described, patriarchy had closed ranks behind the abusive husbands in the form of democratically elected Constitutional bodies like elected village councils (Panchayats),  most of whose members tend to be male or males acting on behalf of women.  Nor did women in the village – family members, neighbours –  either individually or in groups free themselves of the hold of patriarchy to express support or engage in action in favour of the rights of the abused women to lead violence-free lives.

In taking up stories of dalit women, I  was not trying to imply that the weight of either patriarchy or domestic violence sits heavily only on women of the lowest castes. Far be it.  Patriarchy in this region is all-pervasive, and is ever-present whether in subtle or overt ways.  My reasons for focusing on the condition of dalit women were three-fold.

In this region, dalits – belonging to a wide range of communities, all of which coexist in nuanced hierarchical relation to each other –  are numerically the largest social group.  Affirmative policies over the last few decades since Independence have brought them into the social and political mainstream and have given them a public voice.  Changes in patterns of behavior  among them, therefore, take on significance.

Secondly, dalits in this region almost universally own agricultural land.  Due to historical reasons of feudal modes of landownership (jagirdari), small communities of high caste (Rajput) big landlords needed  armies of tenant-tillers for revenue generation.  When land reforms were enacted and implemented in the 1950s following on the country’s Independence,  all the hitherto-landless tenant communities acquired property rights.    The rising prices of land in recent years have motivated many to seek  dramatic economic prosperity through land sales.  This has resulted in unprecedented consumerist behaviours,  a feature that dalits share with intermediate and higher castes in the region.

Finally, dalits have a long tradition of hiring themselves out as wage labourers.  Today, with the growth of urbanization, spread of industry, and launching of road and other infrastructural projects in the region, there has been an  explosion of non-farm employment opportunities for semi-skilled and unskilled labour.  Both men and women go out for wage labour,  making them the largest ‘working class’ in the area, in both agricultural and non-agricultural spheres.

For all of the above reasons, dalit women are more accessible to an observer like me.  They also tend to be relatively more articulate about their lives than women of higher castes who are invisible and whose ideological conditioning makes them more reclusive about their views.

A dominant strand of academic thinking has for long held that while poverty carries its own disabilities for both men and women belonging to historically disadvantaged groups,  the compulsion to go out of the house to work for wages gives poor women a double-edged advantage over their better-off sisters belonging to higher social echelons.  It brings them into contact with the outside world, which is the pre-requisite for self awareness denied to cloistered women.  And their tangible economic contribution to the family in the form of wages  enhances their social value within the family, i.e., it gives them  a greater say in decision making regarding budgeting and allocation of resources, children’s education and their futures etc., and also confers on them the self esteem required to negotiate greater autonomy for themselves.   A lot of economic analysis, policy initiatives and social activism have, therefore, focused on how to create conditions for increasing women’s ‘gainful participation in the labour force’  with its attendant ‘visibilisation’ of women as economic agents.

My observation in rural eastern Rajasthan is that stubbornly-persisting cultural factors rooted in feudalism continue to militate against women’s autonomy even within the current changing economic and political scenario.  And under the weight of consumerist aspirations and men’s sense of entitlement to these aspirations, these cultural factors take on added forms.  Women’s employment outside the home, far from enhancing the family’s economic base and conferring higher status on the women wage earners, is actually causing the reverse.  Men’s  heightened sense of entitlement has also gone hand in hand with the weakening of extended family structures, most notably the authority of the supreme patriarch and traditional norms that upheld men’s role as providers. There has been a distinct generational shift in this regard.

The net effect is that men are dropping out of the labour force – or working only fitfully – leaving their wives to single-handedly support the family on their sole incomes.  When men do work, their tendency is to keep much of their earnings for their own pleasure and recreation rather than contribute to the family’s  expenses.  In addition, men are using violence to ensure that their wives’ apparent economic value and greater mobility due to employment does not translate into greater autonomy for them.  The surveillance of working women by men in general – in collusion with their female allies in the family, neighbourhood and village –  can take many forms.  Clusters of men idling at street corners and in ubiquitous chai and liquor shops along roadsides, or playing cards under clumps of trees,  have become the new symbol of women’s collective oppression by the male gaze.  ‘Stories’ about the imagined misdemeanours of local working women as they travel to and from work are spread via these idle clusters, as parables that advise men to control their wives.  These  culminate in violent domestic  abuse of women by their  men,  who feel their ‘honour’  and  marital rights wronged in the public eye.

Women, thus, not only do the double shift of domestic work plus paid labour; they also do a third shift where they become punching bags for the daily doses of domestic violence doled out by their men.  This has its own negative health fallouts, both  physical and mental, which add to the burden of disease and chronic debility already carried by women.

The obvious questions that arise are:  why do women put up with these conditions?  Why do they not fight back? Why do they not simply walk out of abusive situations to rebuild their lives on their own terms? If most women are facing domestic abuse, what comes in the way of women making common cause to work out ways of dealing with such problems? Is this a problem of all women in eastern Rajasthan,  or only of rural dwelling women?

I try to address some of these questions through the next story.

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Susheela, a  dalit Regar, is the youngest sister-in-law among four brothers.  She and her husband have their  own house – two rooms – in one part of the family homestead, where they live with their two intelligent-looking bright-eyed children, Gulaab (7) and Shankar (4).

Susheela herself is a pretty and petite young woman in her mid to late 20s, her full traditional skirt swirling around her ankles as she walks making for an attractive and graceful picture.  She is soft-spoken and demure under her artfully arranged veil, quick to break into a friendly smile, and careful in building good rapport with others in her little world of work and home.  Susheela is too undernourished and weak to do agricultural labour, so she is happy to do domestic labour in better-off homes in the village.  Despite the traditional stigma attached to this kind of work, she knows that it is the kind of light labour that suits her capability, and since there are not many competitors for the job, she gets paid on par with agricultural workers.  She also prefers not to travel too far from home for a job, since she feels the need to pop back home at lunchtime to make sure that her children are back from school and are eating the food she has cooked and left for them.

Behind Susheela’s demeanour lies a life of utter hopelessness.  Her husband is a wastrel who has never done a day’s work in his life, drinking up his share of the money accruing from the agricultural land that he and his brothers have been selling off steadily over the years.   He is now such a confirmed alcoholic that his day begins with liquor instead of tea, and he has liquor for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  He has run up near-unrepayable debts with all the liquor shops in his own and neighbouring villages, and whenever he is asked to pay up, he promises to do so from his  share of  the last remaining piece of land that has still not been sold, something that temporarily satisfies his creditors, since it is known among village folk that land sales take a long time and go through many failed negotiations and other uncertainties.  Sometimes, when a particularly exasperated creditor turns up at the house to demand his money back, the husband disappears for a few days – continuing to drink all the while, shamelessly turning up at his wife’s parents’ home or visiting relatives for money – hoping that by the time he returns, his debts would have been temporarily forgotten.

Since he has sold off all the gold jewelry that Susheela’s parents gave her at the time of marriage, and continues to sell off occasional sacks of wheat that she  manages to procure when prices are relatively low, she too is forced into running up debts for household expenses.   Every month, part of her salary goes towards paying back some of these debts, pushing her into ever newer debts, thus keeping the cycle ongoing.  Through all this, Susheela struggles to maintain her job,  often having to take leave from work, when one or the other child falls sick due to lack of supervision at home.  Her employers remain sympathetic despite her high absenteeism, and continue to give advances to help her pay for food for the family, moved by her stories of hopelessness.  Even though one of her own sisters is also a sister-in-law – they are two sisters married to two brothers, a regular custom in these parts – and lives in the same compound, relations between Susheela’s husband and his brothers (whom he regularly fights with in an attempt to extract liquor money) have soured to such an extent that there is barely any civility between them.  They, too, demand back the debts that they say he owes them.

Her only support comes from her lone brother, who visits her from time to time, helps out with money, and takes her away to her natal home every few months, to give her and her children a vacation.

Right now, all eyes are on Susheela.   And there is an insidious reason for this.

Susheela’s trump card is that there is one remaining piece of wealth that she still retains.  This is a small plot of land in the village that came into her husband’s share, but that her father-in-law, knowing his own son’s record,  wrote in her name as a security measure.  Susheela has been steadfastly refusing to sell this plot, wanting to retain it as a security for her own and for her children’s sakes.  Her husband provokes regular fights  on this score, accompanied by domestic violence and, on occasion, has even imprisoned her in the house so she cannot go to work,  threatening to kill her if she does not sign off the property in his name.

In the meanwhile, he has serially ‘sold’ off this piece of land to several different persons, signing papers as the legitimate owner and taking huge advances from each ‘buyer’, all of which he has promptly liquidated in the cause of his liquor habit (this action of negotiating deals on a wife’s behalf even in her absence, is in keeping with the culture of this region – men taking decisions, signing papers on behalf of their wives, with or without the latters’ knowledge).  Every now and again, a tornado comes into Susheela’s life when a new set of strangers arrive at her house showing documents signed by her husband selling off the land to them.

She is now beginning to face heat  from her eldest sister-in-law as well, who demands  that Susheela allow her and her husband to sell the piece of land, realize its value, and take back their share of money loaned to her husband in the past.  These two persons are already negotiating with yet more prospective new ‘buyers’.  The sister-in-law recently threatened Susheela that if she didn’t give in to their demand, she would file a First Information Report (FIR) against her in the local police station and have her arrested.  Susheela is worried, as she believes that the lady has the powers to do so.  The sister-in-law recently contested and won the Panchayat (elected Village Council) elections, on a seat reserved  for a dalit woman ( one of the many affirmative action policies of the Indian polity).  Today, the sister-in-law is the Sarpanch (Head of the Village Council)).  Worried by all this, Susheela has given what she believes to be  the original papers of this land ownership to her employers for safe-keeping, and against this ‘surety’ has borrowed a large sum of money from them for meeting her daily needs.

But there is no way that Susheela can get out of the bind she finds herself in.  Her debts are mounting everywhere.  The inevitable monthly cut in her salary reduces the money available for her household expenses.   At the same time, she does not wish to sell the last surviving piece of property that she owns.  Nor indeed can she sell it, as there are already too many ‘claimants’  for that property…

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One of the characteristics of the intensely hierarchical society that India is, is that even among dalits,,  there are upper (relatively cleaner) and lower (relatively more polluted and polluting) castes.  Meera is a Balai, one of the upper dalit castes (who in the dim past made ropes and other such accessories of village life, i.e., didn’t handle dead cattle and hides).  She is a widow in her early-30s, and a mother of one little son and two daughters who are barely into their teens.  She is illiterate, and although her children go to school, she has little idea of how to make their so-called education work for them.  She has just come out of a harrowing family experience and has learned to smile again, and now just lives from day to day enjoying her new-found freedom from care.

Meera’s husband was one of six brothers, and jointly with them owned the plot on which the family house stands.  When her husband died suddenly in a road accident a few years ago, Meera was given marching orders by her brothers-in-law – told to leave the house with her children and just disappear, thus forfeiting her and her children’s rights to her share of the family home.  With little alternative at the time but to do as was expected of her, Meera and her children took shelter just outside the house under one of the eaves like homeless people, using the house wall as a support and cordoning off a little space with cloth.  She found an agricultural job, and the daily wages helped pay for food for the little family.

Fortunately for her, the offending truck that had knocked down her husband was caught and fined, and under the court’s orders, Meera became entitled to a sum as insurance.  Overnight, her five brothers-in-law were by her side, applying the sticky balm of kinship…They accompanied her on the numerous trips to the insurance company, with all the necessary and avoidable expenses that these trips involved… She unquestioningly fixed her thumb mark to documents that they asked her to endorse, and they greased palms (in anticipation of the money to come)…When the money was actually realized, they collectively wormed out considerable sums from her on various ‘family’ pretexts, and looked forward to feeding on the rest.

It was a while before Meera became wise to what was happening and gathered the courage to sever her daily links with them.  She moved away from the external shelter and, with some of the insurance money, built herself a room in another part of the homestead.  She put the remaining money into a bank, and now gets a monthly interest from it that supplements her wages.  Not surprisingly, her husband’s family flew into a rage and once again ostracized her.

Meera has continued to work steadily and sends her children to school.  She enjoys her current freedom, smiles and laughs a lot in her shrill voice, and sportingly takes in her stride the aspersions cast on her from time to time by her husband’s relatives.

Many of the women with whom she works, who know what it is to be victims of domestic violence at the hands of alcoholic or self-centred husbands and who have little autonomy to take major decisions in their lives, say – in moments of resigned hopelessness  – that they envy her her freedom…That they would gladly trade the privilege of being able to wear vermillion on their forehead, for her widowhood…”How I wish I could be a widow!’ is a remark  that I have heard from many young women in this region.

 

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