I was absentmindedly scrolling my newsfeed yesterday afternoon when a news article caught my eye__“A husband tried to burn his wife”. The reason was simple__he felt disrespected as the wife requested him to stay on quarantine. The chances of following daily news and not finding any article related to violence against women are quite meagre these days.
How normal is violence against women? One in every three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Other forms of women violence around the world include female infanticide, child marriage, sexual harassment, dowry abuse, differential access to medical care, forced marriage, etc. causing grave consequences on their mental, physical and reproductive health. WHO has recognized women violence as a global public health problem of epidemic proportions, requiring urgent action.
It is difficult to specify a single reason for such dangerous commonness of women violence. However, the most prominent cause behind it can be traced to harmful social constructs that adhere to gender inequality. It may sound strange but what we accept as “normal” are the very things that perpetuates the prevalence of gender discrimination and subsequently, violence against women. As historian Judith Allen writes, “The greatest perpetuator of male privilege is its apparent normality, its invisibility- ‘the fish don’t know the water is wet’.”
Growing up, I often heard my female relatives boasting that their husbands do not “beat” them. It did not sound strange to me at that time but now, it is appalling to me that having a non-violent spouse is a matter of excessive pride. It wasn’t uncommon to chasten women who refuse to tolerate physical abuse. I grew to learn that a non-violent husband is a luxury for women, not a necessity. The gender roles in our society dictate that women should be submissive and men should be aggressive. These roles also contribute to the assumption that married women should act according to the expectations of their husband and in-laws and can face physical abuse if they fail to fulfill them.
In 2015, an Indian man was accused of stalking two women for several months in Australia, where his lawyer argued that it was pretty ‘normal’ for Indian men to stalk and harass women without them returning their affection. The convicted reasoned that Bollywood movies attributed to his belief that if pursued enough, women inevitably fall in love with a man. The court accepted the argument that his cultural background had influenced his behavior and let him go.
The films we see, songs we listen to, festivals we celebrate, traditions we follow, language we speak, all of them play more or less a role in the construction of toxic gender stereotypes. Our society has patriarchal ideals embedded in them which are upheld through different societal structures, cultural norms, religious practices and traditional values.
Nowadays, downright distasteful sexist jokes spreading through social media by the means of forwards and posts has further surged. Though they were not uncommon prior to the pandemic, it has been increasingly problematic after enforcement of lockdown.These seemingly ‘normal’ jokes insult and devalue women and diminishes them to an object or piece of property. I have never been able to understand how the jokes and memes with the essence “couldn’t recognize my wife without makeup” and “would prefer quarantine than staying together with wife” can make anyone laugh. What is even more disheartening is seeing women and girls finding them funny which encourages prejudice towards women themselves. Various research-based studies show that acceptance of sexist humor is correlated with increased predisposition to rape, compared to those who are not exposed to sexist jokes.
We often get outraged due to news of increasing women violence but we need to realize that the causes behind it are often overlooked and deemed insignificant. Every man who rapes a girl or woman or a boy is exercising his presumed male authority and dominance. As it’s said, rape is never about sex but about power and control. Behind the perpetrators that throw acid on a women’s face because she rejected his proposal is his broken male ego and inability to deal with it. The harassers who grope girls on public buses are filled with the belief that they can get away with it. Impunity is indeed a terrifying thing. Behind every family that wants at least a boy child is the traditional gender role that men are primary breadwinner and caregiver for their parents. Every husband who forces himself on his wife feels he is entitled to do so. Violence in marriages are always linked with male entitlement and sense of superiority.
Do you think you have not played a part in normalizing violence against women? Let me take you back a few years, a movie was declared as “must watch '' to every student, parent and teacher. So, we watched ‘3 idiots’ and praised it with all our hearts but let’s not forget how we continuously laughed at “rape” jokes. It is quite shameful that the word that should bring utmost disgust brought laugh in our faces.
Despite everything, it isn’t as easy to uproot the misogyny established from centuries of male supremacy. More than learning values that promote equality, it takes time to unlearn things we’ve learnt since childhood. I recall that five years back, I was debating on twitter that it is my choice if I wish to bow my head to my husband’s feet and it was no one’s business. Now, I realize that such regressive rituals shouldn’t be promoted in the name of individual choice. I am the same girl who used to think as a child that complaining about domestic abuse brings disgrace to the family, who now debates that male entitlement in marriage can exhibit even in subtle things such as addressing spouse as “ta” to horrendous crimes such as marital rape. I have, sometimes with success, tried to convince my friends (male and female alike) who thought marital rape is a laughing matter, not a grave issue. And every time someone calls me pseudofeminist because I see “sexism” in everything, I convince myself that change doesn’t happen overnight.
I and you, as an individual, can always make a contribution to stop normalization of sexism and women violence around us. Educate young boys about consent and teach young girls to say no. Don’t teach your sons and brothers that “respect girls as your own sisters and mothers”. Teach them to respect women as a friend, colleague and partner. Understand that cooking is a basic survival skill and shouldn’t be limited as a gender role. Stop praising men for not assaulting women when they had a chance. Stop putting people on a pedestal for doing what a decent human being would do. Don’t humiliate a guy if he wants to be a stay-at-home dad, don’t chasten a girl if she chooses a career over kids. Learn to not judge anyone’s morality based on the clothes they wear. Discourage victim blaming and hold the perpetrator, regardless of the gender. Try to defy misogynistic traditions, even if it’s just you. If you see someone talking about blatant misogyny and toxic masculinity in movies and songs, don’t tell them to stop overreacting and “making everything about feminism”. It’s never just a movie, it’s never just a song. Next time someone forwards a sexist joke to you, don’t send back laughing emojis but try to explain why sexist humour is harmful. Because it’s never just a joke.
And if you see "huge" news tomorrow about violence against women, remember that it may have evolved from a relatively small “normal” issue.
The author is an environmentalist pursuing master’s degree at Central Department of Environment Sciences, TU.