Domestic violence has unfortunately become a daily phenomenon in the lives of Indian women. However, there are some regions within the nation which is perceived as a gender-friendly place, one such is the state of Assam. But this assumption is falsified when the official figures are concerned, which in fact raises an alarming bell depicting the true vulnerabilities of the Assamese women, especially in regard to her domestic space.
In comparison to the mainstream India, especially to the north belt of the country, north-east region is perceived to be a location which is gender-neutral. It is assumed that least discriminations and exploitations of individuals on the basis of one’s gender prevails here. Within the north-east, the Assamese society stands as the hallmark because of the dignity and status bestowed upon the Assamese women from ages. In the historical records, we can trace, glorious examples of Assamese women leaders like Sati Joymoti, Kanaklata Baruah, Chandraprabha Saikiani, and Mina Agarwala who vehemently worked for the upliftment of the entire community.
However, there is another, much less talked about reality of the popular feminist narrative. In the domestic space, the position of the Assamese women is still vulnerable. The man entirely dominates over the domestic sphere, which situates the Assamese women at the receiving end of the patriarchal violence and torture. Domestic violence has always been of shuttle nature in Assam and is assumed by the majority as the norm and in fact, inevitable for women, within domestic spaces. This might be the reason for which the murder at Sarulah village of Soalkuch in Kamrup (rural) district on 16 November, 2020 of a twenty-three years old Pikumoni, pregnant for five and half months, failed to make it into the mainstream media channels, pursued satisfactorily by human rights organisations of the state or not adequately addressed by the political representatives. The pregnant mother succumbed to death following the barbaric physical assault she was subjected to by her husband’s family demanding dowry.
The 2019 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) placed Assam at the top with regard to crimes against women which is three times the national average. For three consecutive years, 2017 to 2019, there was an overall surge in crime against the women populace of the region, of which 30.9% (the largest share) cases are related to tortures and assaults by husbands and relatives. Assam police records reveal that in the year 2005, there were only 2,200 registered cases of domestic violence. In 2017, total numbers of 21,298 cases of crime against women were registered, out of which 10, 580 were the domestic violence cases. Again, from January 2018 up to June, 2018 there were 5,931 cases of domestic violence in the state out of 6, 799 cases (of crime against women) were registered.
A study by the State’s Women Commission in the year 2017 noted that in rural Assam, 83.7% of women bear the burden of domestic violence encompassing both physical and verbal torture. 34.1% Assamese women even reported of being coerced into sex, by the same study. These official figures accounting domestic violence against Assamese women reveal how their condition is a result of patriarchal dominance deeply-rooted within the four walls of their houses. It also raises serious questions on the effectiveness of the existing Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 as well as the role of civil society organisations. These are some of the official reported cases. The actual magnitude might be still unpredictable. The patrilineal society which has continuously marginalised the voices of the women, leaves a little scope for Assamese women like Pikumoni to gather the courage and come forward and report and seek legal protections. Some of them even fear sharing their experiences with their dear ones, fearing societal prejudice and stigma. Some even are abandoned by their own families who believes that after marriage a girl shall except her husband’s family as her own at any cost, even it takes away her life.
Nivedita Menon, the popular feminist scholar through her writings on gender, have argued that in our society there are certain oppression which are ‘natural’ and those oppression cannot be escaped by anyone. She called this system of natural oppression as ‘biological determinants’. For example, race and caste, which provides certain social privileges for some people over the others on the basis of birth. Hence, is it possible to demand and to achieve equality in a society which is deeply divided in lines not only limited to gender but also caste, creed and religion? And hence, we continue to see no end to stories of caste and gender-based oppression such as the rape of Dalit women and public killing of Assamese women in the name of witch-hunting.
Soma A. Chatterji in her book ‘The Indian Women ‘s Search for an Identity’ exactly noted that “once the door of the husband and wife is shut to the world outside, it automatically rules out the possibility of external interference into whatever goes on between the couple behind that door.” This tethered Indian, as well as the Assamese women, to be the subject of domination and exploitation of structural violence. Though, we have tried to address the problem by implementing laws against it but still it has not entirely served the purpose due to the severe opaqueness of the domestic space of the women.
The author would like to propose that rigorous awareness measures on domestic violence is the need of the hour. The education policies should address gender issues. By awareness, mere advertisement in electronic media is not only the solution, it should be of practical utility. There are official helpline numbers available, but the people at the ground level might mostly not not aware where to turn to for help. The awareness programs need to be persistently followed. We now need to bring a radical transformation from the years of dwelling on a patriarchal standpoint. We need to look into the possibilities of discarding traditional belief systems which devalued the women like the practice of Kanyadaan (giving away the bride in charity to the groom) in Hindu marriages, girls leaving their birthplace and moving to the husband’s house, mandatory adornation of symbols of patriarchal control over women such as mangalsutra, sindoor, etc. The government could have gender-focused budgeting which motivates holistic research in areas of crimes against women and provides sufficient aids to the non-government agencies working in similar fields. The authorities shall have a strict monitoring system and assisting mechanism for victims on even the village level to check such cases and act accordingly.
Tridib Bharali is a Ph.D Research Scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Information Technology, Guwahati and currently deals in the area of Gender and Violence. He is currently working on his thesis focused around the problem of women targeted as witches (evils) in Assam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and found on Facebook and Twitter.
Featured image source: Villagesquare