Gendered violences, structures of privilege: A polemic against ‘men’s rights’ discourse (Part 2)

In the previous post (link here), I argued that MRA discourses on domestic and gender-based violence, particularly the idea that women misuse laws, and that there should be ‘gender-neutral’ laws, are divorced from the larger contexts of structural violence, and the fact that gender as we know it, is in itself, a system of inequality.

Here, I outline the second important fallacy in most MRA discourses on domestic violence and misuse of laws: that is, the over reliance of a very selective criteria of data and facts and figures.

***

Most writers and opinionists, while advancing the idea that women are misusing laws, tend to enormously underestimate the cases when women are often denied access to the law in the first place.

They fallaciously talk about ‘genuine’ cases and ‘false’ cases – as if they’re hearts are bleeding out for the ‘genuine’ victims of abuse – and ambiguously push for both, a change in the framework of the laws itself, and the implementation of it. If there were ever a proverbial case of having one’s cake and eating it too, this would certainly be it.

For instance, Shivaji Sarkar, writing for the right-wing Daily Pioneer, writes broadly about laws on sexual harassment in workspaces, laws against molestation, and domestic violence and cruelty, without bothering to ponder over the nuances of the contexts. He then states:

National Crime Records Bureau data reveal a dramatic surge in the number of cases being filed under crimes against women category. This should be interpreted as willingness of women to take on their abusers under new gender empowerment laws. However, the low conviction rate of 23 per cent and increasing number of court observations regarding false and motivated cases being filed against men suggest that men are becoming victims of abuse by women.

In this line of thinking, low conviction rates are symptomatic of women misusing laws, rather than structural issues in police investigation, criminal prosecution or even judicial functioning. All these domains are simply assumed to work efficiently and without biases. Women, on the other hand, are abusers here.

In the Hindu Business Line, Diljeet Titus puts a similar view (including citing the same cases, judges, and statistics). His sanctimonious concern for ‘genuine complainants’ and ‘gender empowerment,’ however, seems to be more apparent:

The biased provisions in laws enacted with the high purpose of providing an effective shield against harassment and abuse have become a double-edged weapon for reverse harassment and blackmail. If the trend continues, the biggest victim will only be genuine complainants and the larger cause of women empowerment. No one wants that to happen!

Neither of these commentators cites data from contrary sources, like the third National Family Health Survey, or NFHS-3 (2005-06), which states that 37.2% of the women surveyed have experienced spousal violence. Or, that nearly 50% of the men believe that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife for at least one reason (including neglecting the house, arguing, and refusing sexual intercourse). While the NFHS-3 data on domestic violence is itself problematic – especially in its narrow idea of violence against women – one could keep on citing it just to show that marriages in India still are deeply unequal relationships.

A bigger travesty, however, is the fact that these commentators do not cite the Justice J.S. Verma Committee Report (2013), which has been one of the landmark public documents on gender justice within the framework of constitutional law in India, and has to say the following with regard to domestic violence:

We are further of the opinion that merely facial gender neutral laws and policies cannot deny what has perceptively called “…..differential access to justice faced by women seeking to engage with the legal system…”

Feminist activists and scholars, like Flavia Agnes and Indira Jaising, have also pointed out the sheer fallacy of most MRA discourse on domestic violence, particularly with regard to Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (which defines cruelty against the wife by the husband and/or his family). Flavia Agnes, for instance, provides a scathing critique of the lawyer-police nexus and judges sitting in ivory towers whilst passing judgements (which are then cited by MRAs). Indira Jaising, on the other hand, calls out the blatant double standards where “courts convict husbands and their families for dowry deaths, the woman’s invocation of Section 498A when she fears for her life…earns her the accusation of being a ‘disgruntled wife.’” This, she says, leads to a “concern for the dead,” and “condemnation for the living.”

***

Not a day went by during fieldwork in Dharavi that I did not come across a case of domestic abuse, or of gender-based violence (including child abuse). When I started working on the pilot project last year, raw data from the NGO showed nearly 1,100 cases of gender-based violence between 2012 and 2014. As I scan through my field notebook from this year, there are at least 20 cases of domestic and gender-based violence where I directly interacted with the victims, or the community organiser in-charge of particular cases.

But these cases are also complex, and can often be deeply contradictory – and thus, precarious. The binary of male perpetrator and woman victim (i.e., husband and wife) can be misleading, as women can also abuse their husbands – as was a case in Shastri Nagar, where the man complained that his wife was not a gruhani, ideal housekeeper, and abused her in-laws as well (and my colleagues, contrary to what MRAs suggest, did not turn him down, but called both him and his wife for counselling).

There have been cases where the police acted on “false complaints” and physically assaulted men – and several of the front-line workers did protest against such brutality. There have also been cases where the police have refused to file complaints, or let go of the accused – women are often forced by families to recant their statements. In one particular case last year, a man had burned his wife after being released from police custody. Further, many cases are dismissed by judges in the lower court because “the woman doesn’t look abused enough,” as one of the NGO’s counsellors mentioned in a group discussion. There have been cases of child abuse, as well, where police let go of repeated offenders, either because of the political patronage they enjoy, or because families are simply too scared to file complaints.

And despite all this, the front-line workers I have worked with continue to emphasise the fact that their job is “to keep a family together” (ghar jodhna). They are able to recognise the structural inequality within which marriages and families are situated, particularly in spaces like Dharavi.

They are engaged not only in front-line interventions – of home-based counselling, advocacy sessions, or registering cases – but are also developing a very complex theoretical exercise of producing knowledge and concepts on gender inequity, violence, and inequality. And yet, through that critique, they are able to construct a positive vision for change in the very banal, yet effective everyday language, of care, love, and mutual respect. They talk about being good wives and mothers – when I first encountered these terms, I was disconcerted – but this emerges from experiencing abuse, and developing the ability or agency to negotiate that, and bring a form of change in their lives.

Their politics is, at once, embodied and grounded in the everyday, but highly articulate in its own way. (This does not mean that I do not have problems or concerns; every politics, by necessity, has its own margins. But that discussion is for a later post).

***

The Somnath Bharti case started unfolding towards the end of my fieldwork, and despite the Google Alerts (under ‘domestic violence, India’) I never paid much attention to it until I came across this piece by Saurav Dutta. In it, Dutta places the ongoing case within the context of judicial discourse in India, where domestic violence

…is regularly, and almost habitually, made to fall prey to a sort of verbal inflation, whereby abusive behaviour, even if potentially life-threatening, is routinely whitewashed and passed off as either inconsequential, or trivial, or as the lies and half-truths peddled by mendacious or vituperative women.

In a patriarchal judiciary, overwhelmingly populated by men, there is a marked somnolescence towards reality – that battered women are not hyperventilating or paranoid beings crying wolf without solid reason. For instance, research reveals how judges, prosecutors and lawyers either by design, or because of implicit biases, marginalise and muzzle the voices of women victims.

Perhaps the fact that most MRA narratives tend to use the similar vocabulary and discourse, including the same cases, quotes (by judges) and statistics (without any contextualisation), shows how firmly aligned they are in structures  of masculine power and privilege. Their dogged and niggardly criticism – or rather, complaints – of feminists, activists, and laws, and refusal to engage with contrary facts, or even empirical research, further attests this suspicion. Their arguments do two things simultaneously, conflate specific cases with larger legal measures on the prevention of violence – thus, the misuse of laws; and use this to reassert, and perhaps redefine patriarchal modalities of power, in what I have previously described as the patriarchal moral-political economy.

The fact that Bharti’s case has gained national attention has a lot to do with his status and privilege. But the kind of abuse he subjected his wife to, while singular it its own way, is certainly not uncommon. It is easy to see it as a ‘case apart’ – as I had done initially – but it is precisely interventions like Dutta’s that show the continuum between cases of domestic violence, and the structural violence within which it is embedded.

This post was meant to be a polemic against these discourses. But the real political struggles against both, masculinist and MRA discourse, and gendered violence, is actually what my front-line worker colleagues in Dharavi are continuously engaged in.

***

Works Cited

Flavia Agnes. (2015). Section 498A, Marital Rape and Adverse Propaganda. Economic and Political Weekly. (Link)

Saurav Dutta. (2015, Oct 3). Somnath Bharti is hoodwinking the SC but are judges faultless? The Quint. (Link)

Indira Jaising. (2014). Concern for the Dead, Condemnation for the Living. Economic and Political Weekly. (Link)

IIPS, & Macro International. (2007). National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-06: India: Volume I. (Link)

Shivaji Sarkar. (2015, Sept. 30). Pro-women must not be anti-men. The Daily Pioneer. (Link)

Diljeet Titus. (2015, Sept. 11). A perversion of gender rights. Hindu Business Line. (Link)

J.S. Verma, Leila Seth, & Gopal Subramanium. (2013, Jan. 23). Report on the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law. (Link)

Suggested Reading

Radhika Coomaraswamy & Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham. (2008). Constellations of Violence: Feminist Interventions in South Asia.

R. Emerson Dobash, & Russell P. Dobash. (1992). Women, Violence and Social Change.

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