A year ago, I received a series of missed calls from my friend Rachel*. When I called her back five minutes later, she was hiding inside her house behind three sets of locks. Her husband was banging on the door.
Her voice was shaking. “He said he’s going to kill me.”
“Don’t move,” I said.
I dove into the car and made the 30-minute journey to her South Bombay home, staying on the phone with her the whole time. Between trying to reassure her and texting anyone who might have a contact at the local police thana, I pieced together the story.
Rachel is an English woman in her mid-forties, and she met her husband, Sunil*, several years ago when she was visiting India. Their relationship started off like most: full of promise, love, and hope. He was sweet and attentive, and took her out dancing and enthusiastically photographed their romantic getaways. All the makings of a Bollywood ending.
But after a couple of honeymoon years, she began to realise that things weren’t going all that well. Sunil was from a wealthy, powerful Indian family, yet the money they spent always seemed to be hers. He started to demean her in small ways, making thinly veiled insults about her body, and frequently laughing at her worries. Over the past few months, things had escalated. He yelled more. Swore heavily. Threatened her.
And finally, he hit her across the face.
When I reached her apartment, he was nowhere in sight. She was leaning against the doorframe, bleeding from the nose.
Half an hour later, we sat in front of two sub-inspectors, shaking with rage and fear. They looked at us, looked at each other, and shrugged. And in a language Rachel couldn’t understand, they said, “Hum kya karein? Yeh toh family matter hai.”
She may not have understood their words. But everyone understood that shrug.
There’s a common misconception in India that domestic violence is something that happens only in poor, uneducated households. It’s those lower-class, lower-caste men beating up their wives and mothers. It happens in Dharavi, not Cuffe Parade. It happens in Dindigul, not Chennai.
Domestic violence is a pattern of abuse that takes place within a domestic setting. It includes physical, mental, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse against any member of the household. This means wives, girlfriends, children, parents, and domestic workers.
And like all gender-based violence, it happens everywhere.
Oh, and if you’re thinking, Wives abuse husbands too, please note that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women worldwide. More than accidents, muggings, or assaults by strangers. In India, where things on the home front are especially crappy, women are 50 times more likely than men to face domestic violence.
This doesn’t mean that men who experience domestic violence don’t matter. What it does mean is that we live in a massively gender-unequal world, and that in this world, domestic violence is one of the biggest threats to women’s lives.
In 2005, the Indian women’s movement managed to instate an amazing domestic violence civil law. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) takes into account all the types of domestic violence women experience, empowers judges to implement restraining orders, requires abusers to pay maintenance, and guarantees women rights to shared homes.
In an even more progressive move, it covers couples in live-in relationships, which is so fab for everyone who is generally disregarded by the law for choosing to do anything other than get shaadi-shudha’d in their early twenties.
As a domestic violence campaign I worked on a few years ago accurately declared, “The law is on your side.”
The only problem is that law enforcement isn’t.
In the recent past, I’ve accompanied domestic violence survivors to police stations in two different parts of India. One was a domestic worker living in an urban slum. The other was Rachel, a white woman married into a wealthy Indian family. And in both cases, the police reaction was exactly the same.
Aside from routing domestic violence cases through a protection officer – a person mostly unconnected with the local police station and therefore difficult as hell to locate – police forces up and down the country have a piss-poor attitude when it comes to family violence.
They’ve advertised an emergency number for women to call, but response teams often show up hours later, if at all.
Officers routinely blame women by asking them what they did to make the man of the house angry. (Answers range anywhere from “bad cup of tea” to “didn’t want to have sex”.)
There are also several reports of police visiting a house once, but refusing to go back if they get another call from the same address.
Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, forget the awesome law.
This is a “family matter”.
The Great Indian Family. Also known as the axis on which that mythical beast, Indian Culture, spins.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about this impossible construct, I picture Amitabh Bachchan’s ridiculously large manor in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (which is, FYI, located in Buckinghamshire, England. You weren’t fooling anyone, Karan).
This fictional home is everything that the social construction of the Indian Family strives for. Huge wealth. Huge status. Two male heirs celebrated by huge Hindu pujas. And of course, kinda progressive insofar as it hosts the occasional sexy dance performed by white girls, during which the women of the household giggle and draw pallus around their heads.
The catchword for K3G is parampara, or tradition. These traditions don’t include uptown London-return Shah Rukh marrying Kajol from Chandni Chowk, but they do include Jaya looking like she’s been slapped every time Amitabh says “bas” to shut her up. (She finally says it back, but by then it feels less like a victory and more like, “What TOOK you so long, Jaya?”)
The importance of family traditions is rooted in a desire to preserve the family – or at least the appearance of the family. Because these traditions rarely refer to fun yearly outings to a local waterfall or making caramel custard for birthday celebrations.
They refer to stuff like pretending to be happy and unified even when everyone is miserable and angry.
They refer to visiting relatives’ homes and pretending to be straight, so when you’re finally married off, they’ll bring cash presents to your wedding.
And they refer to swallowing your voice every time someone pushes you, takes away your money, or touches you without your consent.
These traditions are conspiracies of silence, and punish anyone who tries to speak against them.
Advocates say it’s much harder for upper-class women to report domestic violence, because they risk being ostracised for “bringing shame upon the family name”. Because apparently what’s shameful is reporting violence, not being violent.
And because the myth of the Indian Family looms so large, these traditions create a conspiracy across families. They encourage people to look away, shrug it off, or pretend that they can’t hear what’s going on next door.
Whether it’s about your family or mine, acknowledging any domestic violence is like dropping a bomb right on top of that fictional Buckinghamshire mansion.
People who aren’t so invested in ending domestic violence often raise the issue of privacy. How can you come into my home and tell me what to do with my family?
But these so-called privacy advocates are also the same people who have no problem entering your bedroom when they don’t like your partner’s gender, the porn you're checking out on your computer, or the fact that you're not married but having sex.
Someone needs to tell them that privacy does not include the right to inflict violence, but something tells me that they’re too busy storming hotel rooms to listen.
At the heart of the feminist movement is a phrase: “The personal is political.” It was born from the fight against domestic violence, and very simply explains that the abuse we face at home or in our intimate relationships is as much of a problem as the violence we face in the street or at work.
And that if you see this abuse happening, it is 100% okay to talk about it.
Except everything we’ve been taught about Indian families tells us the exact opposite.
Bas. Enough. Let’s change this right here, right now.
It starts with each one of us doing the thing that is most uncomfortable for Indians: questioning our families.
Does a woman relative look especially tired? Does she have a bruise that would be really hard to get from bumping into the sink? Is your domestic help crying frequently?
The questions run deeper, too.
Who gets to eat first at dinner? Who has access to money? Under whose name is family property registered?
Remember that that feeding boys before girls, yelling at domestic workers, and men "occasionally" slapping their wives are not ghar ki baatein. They are serious problems of gender-based abuse, and we need to treat them as such.
Because the only time domestic violence should be a family matter is when we hold our families to account for it.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the iCALLHelpline for crisis counselling across India (022-2552-1111), you can call 1298 in Mumbai, or check out this list of region-specific numbers for women in distress.
*Names have been changed in this piece to protect the privacy and safety of the individuals involved.