Day Fourteen | Textile Testimonies and Gender-Based Violence

Lydia Cole

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) have become topics of global focus. From #Metoo to landmark judgements in international criminal justice processes, visibility – amid promising calls for action toward justice – is often contingent on the testimony of survivors. In our haste to hear these stories, the long-term impact of demands for testimony is overlooked.

In this post, I propose an alternative site in which we might listen to and hear testimony. Specifically, I take a look at arpilleras – appliquéd wall-hangings – from Peru, featured in the Conflict Textiles collection. The term ‘arpillera’ literally means burlap or hessian, the material on which the textile is made. However, the term has become synonymous with this form of appliquéd wall-hanging.

 

The Conflict Textiles Collection: From Chile to Peru 

The Conflict Textiles collection is a physical and online archive of materials hosted by CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) at Ulster University. Curated by Roberta Bacic and Breege Doherty, the mainstay of the collection is the Chilean arpilleras which were crafted to denounce violence under the Pinochet dictatorship. Made with the support of the Vicariate of Solidarity, arpilleras depicted the killing, disappearance, and poverty experienced under the regime, as well as acts of protest and everyday strategies of survival.

As with the collection itself, the arpillera travelled to other global contexts. Inspired by the Chilean arpilleristas (those who make arpilleras), women living through the Peruvian civil war (1980 to 2000) began to stitch the violence in their own country.

Curator Roberta Bacic uses the term “textile photograph” to describe the arpilleras; a reference to the way that they bear witness. The Peruvian arpilleras, like the Chilean pieces, testify to conflict experiences, depicting scenes of massacre, displacement and poverty, and commenting on issues related to gender-based violence.

quilt cole 1
‘Debo ser humilde y sumisa? / Should I be submissive and subservient?’, Peruvian arpillera, Anonymous, 1986, Photo: Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles.

‘Debo ser humilde y sumisa?’ (Should I be submissive and subservient?) was produced in 1986 in Lima. The textile shows a gathering in a room which has two posters emblazoned on the wall. One states: “Women, value yourself!”, while the other rhetorically asks, “Should I be humble and submissive?”.

This is an emotive piece, with the figures stitched with a range of expressions: some cast their eyes and heads down, though others take a different stance: the figure in light blue appears inquisitive, while three women sat at the bottom of the textile hold a book, perhaps engaging with the themes in the posters. Above all, the arpillera depicts: ‘women who have already made a space to deal with their issues’.

Providing answer to the poster’s question, the arpillera emphatically portrays a space of agency, with suggestion of their ongoing discussion of issues related to gender, violence, and patriarchy.

quilt cole 2
Violar es un Crimen / Rape is a Crime’, Peruvian arpillera, MH, Mujeres Creativas workshop, 2008, Photo: Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles.

‘Violar es un Crimen’ (Rape is a Crime) is a 2008 replica, with the original a design from the Mujeres Creativas workshops in 1985. The textile shows a protest which took place outside military command in Lima. On the right-hand side, a woman has entered the military command, angrily confronting the armed military police. All the figures wear dark colours and hold flowers, representing the cantata (the national flower of Peru). This flower is primarily found in the Andean mountains and its inclusion symbolises a connection to Ayacucho, the community for whom they protest. 

Speaking about the arpillera, Maria (a participant of the action) states:

In October 1985 many people were killed in Ayacucho and women were raped, but nobody protested. Two groups of us decided to demonstrate in front of Comando Conjunto… since the people… living in Ayacucho felt too vulnerable to do so… [Later we] decided to make an arpillera of our action to show that we do not condone such brutality.

‘Rape is a Crime’ denounces sexual violence and displacement in Ayacucho through its depiction of resistance and solidarity with those unable to make their voices heard.

quilt cole 3
‘Violencia Doméstica / Domestic Violence’, Peruvian arpillera, MH, Mujeres Creativas Workshop, 2008, Photo: Colin Peck, © Conflict Textiles.

‘Violencia Doméstica’ (Domestic Violence) is another arpillera produced in the Mujeres Creativas workshops and responds to the contemporary context. The piece is divided into three sections. In the first, we are shown a scene of domestic violence within the home. The second shows the neighbours seeking justice at the local police station. Later, with the police unwilling to take further action, members of the community decide to enact their own justice. In the final panel, the man is tied to a tree and holds a sign which reads “I will not beat again”.  

Responding to the prevalence of domestic violence in Peru, the arpillera again speaks to a wider discussion among the group on issues of gender-based violence, and signals toward community action toward justice.

Conflict Textiles are therefore a promising site to learn (and unlearn) our ways of knowing SGBV. Untangling narratives of victimhood, together the arpilleras stitch a continuum of gender-based violence. As textile testimonies to a range of gender-based violence, arpilleras bring women’s voices, agency, solidarity and resistance to the fore. 

 

Dr Lydia Cole (@LydiaCCole) is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Durham University on ‘The Art of Peace: Interrogating community devised arts-based peacebuilding’. Completing her doctoral research at Aberystwyth University in 2018, her research engages at the intersections of feminist international relations theory, critical peace and conflict studies, and visual, creative and participatory research methods. Lydia’s research on gendered violence and conflict textiles has been published in journals including International Feminist Journal of Politics and Critical Military Studies. She has also co-curated exhibitions including Stitched Voices / Lleisiau wedi eu Pwytho and Threads, War and Conflict.

Day Twelve | From ‘Battered Wives’ to ‘Coercive Control’: Domestic Abuse in Late Twentieth Century Scotland

Anni Donaldson

Women's Aid

Image reproduced courtesy of Scottish Women’s Aid

Scotland’s response to male violence against their wives, partners or girlfriends has come a long way since the 1970s when wives’ were ‘battered’ and police didn’t get involved in ‘domestics’. Forty years since the publication of Violence against Wives – A Case against the Patriarchy, new legislationThe Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 – criminalised coercive control, and reflects our long journey to a deeper understanding of this complex and enduring problem.  

Whatever it is called, men’s violence against women has been a reality in Scotland for centuries. I wondered if a close look at its history in Scotland could teach us anything new.  My oral history research into domestic abuse experienced by a group of women who grew up in the post-war period shed some light on how we got from ‘battered wives’ in the 1970s to ‘coercive control’ in 2019. Most, but not all, of the women grew up in working class families in towns, cities and villages across Scotland.

Girls growing up in changing times

The women I spoke to were dating, getting married or moving in with their boyfriends when Scotland was experiencing fairly dramatic and contrasting social and economic change. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the country’s traditional heavy industries declined, male unemployment rose and more women entered the workforce. In the 1960s and 1970s, progressive legislation was advancing women’s reproductive rights and equality in relation to abortion, pay, maternity leave and sex discrimination. Although marriage was still the norm, the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s had challenged the conventional patterns of young people’s sexual relationships.

‘All men were interested in in the sixties was sex, and at that point I was terrified you know, I’d never met anybody that liked just me so I was a bit confused’ (D. b. 1949)

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister when the new Conservative government was elected. However, Mrs. Thatcher did not express allegiance to feminism or support for women’s equality; the Conservative’s neoliberal politics were profoundly patriarchal and based on her party’s traditional family-centred values of individualism and traditional gender roles.  Freedom and citizens’ rights were reframed as consumption; as Thatcher said:

‘…who is society? There is no such thing! …There are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’

Against this backdrop, the group of women who participated in my research experienced violence and abuse early in their relationships, often whilst dating.  Before their eyes, they watched boyfriends shape-shift from romantic suitors to budding patriarchal tyrants.  

‘I think that once we’d had sex he had some sort of ownership over me’ (S. b. 1963). 

Family life, work and violence

By the 1970s and 1980s, the women had become teachers, nurses, accountants, health professionals, civil servants and administrators. Settling into family life and having children, family incomes and standards of living gradually rose as home and car ownership, family holidays and home improvements were made possible through joint loans and mortgages.  However, these same women continued to experience domestic abuse – physical, emotional and sexual abuse – whilst juggling demanding jobs, childcare, housework, parenting, family debt and the need to ‘keep up appearances’. 

A new financial balance of power challenged the patriarchal family conventions which the women and their husbands had absorbed since childhood. Historically, men’s higher status in the family came from their role as the main breadwinner and for many, assaults on their wives was a common practice for enforcing the family pecking order. 

 By the 1980s and 1990s, with women’s earnings now essential to the family budget and to maintaining their living standards, the function and the way the men used violence began to change. Easier access to credit led to higher spending, and mounting family debt created ever more complex family finances which further entrapped the women.  Women lived their lives with the constant threat of severe physical and sexual violence and described wearing a ‘mask’ in public.

Men devised new ways to extend their control into women’s working and social lives.  Cars and telephones made surveillance easier: husbands telephoned women’s workplaces to check they had arrived, drove them to and from their work and social events.  Men decided if women could attend social events alone; refused to look after their own children; scrutinised their partner’s clothes; insulted their appearance; monitored when they returned home from nights out and punished them for being late.  Women were subjected to jealous outbursts and some were raped for speaking to other men in their husband’s presence, or because they were suspected of flirting.   

In these closely examined narratives, it is possible to see how being a ‘battered wife’ in the confines of the home evolved into being a victim of  ‘coercive control’ –  a constant, invisible presence in every area of the women’s lives.  

While advances in women’s equality, better jobs and higher wages broadened women’s horizons, the violence and abuse did not end.  Instead it adapted to the new context and persisted. The patriarchal legacy was alive and well and violence against women survived into the late twentieth century by adapting successfully to changing times.  

From private violence to public prevention 

The patriarchal system was tenacious and adaptable but so too were women. With no help from the police or other services, and with society still largely hostile to their situation, the women I spoke to finally separated from their partners by devising carefully planned, long-term exit plans, helped only by a small circle of trusted family and friends.

zero tolerance

Image used with the kind permission of Zero Tolerance

However, the first public Zero Tolerance campaign, which launched in Edinburgh in 1992, showed women that their private hell was becoming public business.  

‘I remember seeing big Z-Z-Zs… how empowering that would have felt to me in 1986 to have seen that, that would have just made such a difference.’ (M. b. 1955) 

The state’s efforts to advance women’s equality have yet to lead to an end to domestic abuse.  Here’s hoping Scotland’s commitment to prevention and its new Domestic Abuse Act create a truly hostile environment for violent men. 

 

Anni Donaldson is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Strathclyde., follow her on Twitter @AnniDonaldson, and read her blog here.

 

Day Eleven | A calling to account: Suing perpetrators of domestic violence in Australia

Anni Gethin

anni gethin day 11Image of King Street Court House Sydney by Kgbo, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

The costs of being a victim of domestic violence (DV) are huge. Prolonged abuse by a partner results in psychological, physical, and financial devastation. Leaving the abuser brings a set of formidable challenges, including staying safe, impaired capacity to work, sole parenthood, and high risk of poverty and homelessness. DV costs victims and the Australian economy AU$22 billion a year, yet the people responsible – DV perpetrators – are almost never required to pay for the damage they have caused. 

Suing DV perpetrators in civil actions is one way to put accountability back where it belongs, and to bring some measure of just compensation to victims. In Australia, Domestic Violence Redress, a  joint venture between survivor charity, The Brigid Project, and law firm, The People’s Solicitors, aims to make these actions widely available to DV survivors. 

Most people don’t know that suing an abusive ex-partner is even possible, but it certainly is; in 2018, I took legal action against my former partner and obtained an AU$100,000 settlement in DV-related damages. That my case was unusual was obvious from the reaction of the judges during the five interlocutory hearings – they had clearly never seen a similar case. 

Researching the topic, I found there had only been 9 heard cases in Australia where DV survivors had sued the perpetrator (these cases are Jackson v Jackson (NSWSC, 26 March 1999, unreported); Ainsworth v Ainsworth [2002] NSWCA 130; Penn v Caprioglio [2002] VCC 37; Grosse v Purvis [2003] QDC 151; Varmedja v Varmedja [2008] NSWCA 177 Giller v Procopets [2004] VSC 113; [2008] VSCA 236; Elliott v Kotsopoulos  [2009] NSWDC 164; Morris v Karunaratne [2009] NSWDC 346; Cooper v Mulcahy Mulcahy v Cooper [2013] NSWCA 160). Similarly, an international search only found a very small numbers of cases in other common law countries.

I got the idea for suing my ex-partner from the litigious United States, specifically the OJ Simpson civil case – this case suggested that if the criminal system fails you, then you can bring a civil suit. The criminal system had failed me: it was traumatising and disempowering and did nothing to compensate for the debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from the abusive and violent behaviour of my former partner, nor the associated loss of income from being unable to work for two years. The criminal process also delivers little to nothing in terms of perpetrator accountability.

Tort law, by contrast, can compel a person or company pay money for the harm they have caused, whether by negligence or on purpose. Tortious harms can occur from events such as a street assault, being defamed, or trespass on your property; tort also applies to some domestic violence behaviour. In Australia, there are around 25 intentional torts. DV victims can potentially use a number of these torts to sue perpetrators, although tort law does not by any means cover the full scope of domestic violence. 

Where there has been physical violence, then the tort of battery is relatively easy to establish as it makes actionable any touching without consent. Battery includes slapping, pushing, punching, hair pulling, sexual assaults, and attacks causing serious injury or disability. It also includes physical contact that is primarily degrading, such as urinating on the victim (see Morris v Karunaratne [2009] NSWDC 346, 3), or pouring beer on her (see Cooper v Mulcahy [2012] NSWSC 373, 204). 

DV perpetrators commonly stop their partners from leaving the house, even tying them up or locking them in the home; these behaviours could result in an action for wrongful imprisonment. Intentional infliction of emotional harm is a tort that potentially makes the more shocking emotional abuseby perpetrators actionable, such as sexually abusing children or slaughtering pets. The tort of deceit brings into scope fraud and financially abusive behaviours, such as forcing a victim to sign loan documents.

There are also torts which I call the ‘stalker torts’, because they enable actions against this common form of DV. Stalking is typically used by perpetrators to control a partner, and to terrorise a victim if the victim attempts to leave. Trespass to land, nuisance, and breach of privacy torts were all used in a landmark Queensland case where the survivor successfully sued an ex-lover who stalked and harassed her for many years (Grosse v Purvis [2003] QDC 151).

There are benefits to bringing an action in torts. Damages payouts can be substantial. The largest payout in the DV cases was $800,000 (in Penn v Caprioglio [2002] VCC 37), with damages in six of the nine DV cases exceeding $150,000. These sums should be compared to the tiny amounts available through victims’ compensation schemes. Civil litigation also puts the survivor in control: it is their case, and they instruct their lawyers. This contrasts with criminal cases in Australia where the victim has no role, and the prosecutor and defence can make deals that effectively erase offences. Importantly too, that of the nine DV cases, the women were from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. This is not just an action for middle class victims.

Despite the potential benefits, suing the perpetrator is definitely not for every DV survivor. Perpetrators regularly kill and seriously assault their former partners, and civil courts have none of the protections of family and criminal courts. If a defendant has no money, there is no point pursuing damages. The survivor will also have to relive the trauma to make out their claim, and will need to prove injury or loss. Larger damages payouts can only be expected where the victim has experienced substantial physical or psychiatric injury, and/or a large loss of income connected to the DV. 

Even given these limitations, 1 in 4 Australian women are subjected to DV, so there are thousands of viable cases. Domestic Violence Redress aims to start running actions in 2020, with an initial target of 25 cases. These will run on a no-win no-fee basis, and we will establish a fund to cover the initial costs of litigation and any adverse costs orders. Opening up this legal avenue for redress will make an important contribution to compensating DV survivors. It will also profoundly challenge current social expectations of perpetrator accountability.

Dr. Anni Gethin is a health social scientist with an interest in domestic violence law reform. She coordinates The Brigid Project, a peer support charity for survivors of domestic violence, runs a research consulting business, and lectures in public health and criminology at Western Sydney University. Anni holds a doctorate in population health and, to further her interests in law reform, is completing a Juris Doctor at UNSW. Her current research focuses on legal remedies for victims of domestic violence, and perpetrator accountability.

 

Day Three | Unintended consequences of domestic violence law

Heather Nancarrow

Unintended consequences

Women are increasingly ensnared in the criminal justice system as a result of domestic violence laws that were designed to protect women from men’s violence. This is especially the case for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

 The enormity of this problem is captured by the Queensland Domestic and Family Violence Death Review and Advisory Board, which reported that 44.5 percent of female adult victims, and nearly all Aboriginal family violence victims, had been identified by police as a respondent to a domestic violence protection order application on at least one occasion. That is, victims of domestic and family violence had been construed as perpetrators, prior to their domestic violence-related death.   

Understanding how and why law that was originally designed to protect women from men’s violence is being used against them – and what to do about it – is the subject of my book, Unintended consequences of domestic violence law: Gendered aspirations and racialised realities, which was published in October.  The limitations of the law as a site for justice and empowerment for women has long been the subject of feminist critique internationally (see, for example, the work of Carol Smart, Kathleen Ferraro, and Leigh Goodmark) and here in Australia (such as Rosemary Hunter’s book,  Jane Wangmann’s doctoral dissertation and my journal article). 

A key feminist concern is male power in law’s structure and processes, with debates centred on whether women should be treated the same as men, or differently. Others are equally concerned, or more so, about white power in the law (see, for example, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report, as well as Hillary Potter’s Battle Cries and Beth E. Richie’s Arrested Justice), particularly where law’s structures and processes reflect neo-colonial power.

My research, using Queensland as a case study, addresses both concerns and pays attention to the intersections of gender, race and class in the cases of 185 people within four groups, roughly equal in number: Indigenous men, non-Indigenous men, Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women. (Note that ‘Indigenous’ is the term used in police and court records.) Each person in the research sample had been charged on at least one occasion with breaching a domestic violence order (DVO). Here is a sketch of what I found. 

 

Coercive control and resistance

Although not explicitly framed as such, Queensland’s domestic violence law was originally intended to address an ongoing pattern of coercive control perpetrated by men against their intimate female partners (see chapter 3 of Nancarrow 2019). The law recognised non-physical abuse as tactics of control and assumed a particular kind of victim: a subjugated, powerless woman. Therefore, it gave the state (in other words, the police and the courts) powers to make civil DVOs without requiring the consent of the victim, and made the breach of a DVO a criminal offence.

The law is being appropriately applied in regard to the majority of the men in the sample, though less so for the Indigenous men. That is, most of the men had been charged with breaching a DVO on one or more occasions due to coercive controlling abuse. Their abuse was aimed at general, ongoing control of their partner: an attack on their “autonomy, liberty and equality”.

 

Fights, dispute resolution and chaos

But the law is not being applied according to its original intent when women are charged with breaches of DVOs.  Nearly all of the women in the sample had been charged on one or more occasions with breaching a DVO due to fights: physical and verbal abuse in the absence of an ongoing pattern of coercive control. This was also true for some of the men, especially the Indigenous men. 

Further, some of the fights that the Indigenous women and men engaged in were characteristic of contemporary forms of traditional Aboriginal dispute resolution (see Marcia Langton’s chapter in Being Black: Aboriginal cultures in ‘settled’ Australia). This is a process traditionally regulated by cultural rules and boundaries, but which may now manifest as less structured and potentially more dangerous due to colonial interference and associated trauma. 

For about one-third (35%) of the Indigenous women, and 5% of the non-Indigenous women, fights (and related DVO breach charges) occurred in a context of “chaos” – a description frequently used by service providers and police prosecutors that I interviewed to help understand why Indigenous men and women were over-represented in DVO breach data. “Chaos context violence” (see Nancarrow 2019, chapter 7) typically involves a cluster of attributes including (but not limited to) extreme dysfunction arising from acquired brain injury, for example; trauma or poor mental health; and substance addiction. 

 

Implications for theory and practice

Policy analysis must take account of the patriarchal and racist structures in which domestic and family violence occurs, and it must distinguish between coercive control and fights. Giving the state power to make DVOs without the consent of the victim is sound logic for cases of coercive control, but it is not sound for cases involving fights. Nevertheless, fights can be distressing, harmful and lethal, and alternative strategies are needed to address them. Restorative justice practices and couples counselling may be appropriate in such cases.

The logic of state power over victim choice in cases of chaos context violence is not only unsound, it is unjust. To some extent, it reflects the deployment of exceptional state power to punish people for behaviour resulting from violence perpetrated on them by the state. Ending chaos context violence ultimately requires structural reform to address racial and socio-economic inequality; at an individual level, it may involve therapeutic intervention and support.

 

Risks inherent in a paradigm shift

A paradigm shift in current mainstream responses to intimate partner violence, which distinguishes between coercive control and fights is needed, but there are significant risks associated with such a shift. Further development of knowledge and skills to assess and distinguish between coercive control and fights is needed for any approach. We cannot risk a return to the days when coercive control was dismissed as an argument, or a fight. Nor should we facilitate the criminalisation of women (especially Indigenous women) and some men (especially Indigenous men), whose use of violence is not an expression of patriarchal coercive control, but an expression of powerlessness in a society where power and resources are distributed unevenly along gendered and racialised lines.  

My research represents challenges to orthodoxy within current domestic violence theory and practice. It calls for reconceptualising types of violence to take account of gendered and racialised contexts in which it occurs. I argue that the criminal justice system is not only ineffective in many cases, but it is unjust. Though there are undoubtedly challenges of achieving the recognition of women’s agency in fights; a victims’ choice in engaging agents of the criminal justice system; and unequivocal state sanctions against patriarchal coercive control of women, this nonetheless is what we must work towards.

 

Heather Nancarrow has a PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice and has held many state and national leadership roles in regard to policy on the prevention of violence against women. She is currently the CEO of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, an Adjunct Associate Professor at UNSW Sydney and an Adjunct Research Fellow, Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University. Her work has been recognised with several awards including the “Queenslander of the Year Community Spirit Award” in 2009; “Honours in recognition of outstanding leadership of the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children and advancing strategic implementation of the National Plan” awarded by Victim Support Australia in 2012, and in 2010 she was named a Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow.

Day Three | We, the Women Warriors, are Unstoppable!

Shalu Nigam

Shalu NigamImage reproduced with the  permission of Shalu Nigam

After a long wait, the National Crime Record Bureau of India has recently published its report pertaining to crimes in India  in 2017. According to this report, 104,551 cases have been filed under section 498A IPC, a criminal law dealing with `cruelty’ against married women by their husbands and in-laws. A further 7,466 cases have been registered under section 304B, which pertains to dowry deaths, while 10,189 cases have been registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act, a law that bans the giving and taking of dowry. In addition, 5,282 cases have been registered for abetment of suicide among women and 616 cases have been registered under the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, for breaching the civil orders granted under this law in favor of the victims of domestic violence.

The NCRB report further indicates that the conviction rate was as low as 9.5% under section 498A cases in 2016, but which rose to 15.9% in 2017. In cases pertaining to dowry deaths, the conviction rate is 41.1% in 2017. These figures indicate that majority of women who knock on the doors of the court are not receiving justice. Compounding this, violent men are being acquitted by the courts. 

This data shows that a large number of women are not safe in their own homes. They are being physically and psychologically assaulted, verbally and emotionally tortured, discriminated, sexually harassed, murdered, forced to commit suicide and attacked in numerous ways. Serious complaints of violence are normalised and trivialised, framed as ‘disputes’ or `ego tussles’. Myths and misogyny operate in  society and the courtrooms alike to deny justice to women survivors of violence.

 

The role of the Supreme Court 

 Despite the fact that a large number of women are approaching the police and the courts with their complaints of violence within homes, police are rarely arresting violent men and the courts are failing to hold them accountable. In some instances, the courts are actually making the problem worse. For example, in 2014, the Supreme Court decided the matter of Arnesh Kumar v State of Bihar. It delivered a sweeping statement that section 498A, a criminal law provision relating to domestic violence, is being ‘misused and abused by disgruntled women’ and directed for the dilution of the provisions relating to the arrest and bail of accused persons. 

Then, in 2017, in Rajesh Sharma v State of UP the Supreme Court passed a directive to police and magistrates that no arrests were to be made or coercive actions taken without ascertaining the veracity of the complaints lodged under section 498A. It suggested the formulation of Family Welfare Committees to scrutinise every complaint of domestic violence to ensure that no ‘false cases’ were registered. Without examining the on-the-ground realities, the court concluded that the law is misused by ‘vengeful’ women, and saw men as victims of this ‘cruel’ law. While himpathising (a term coined by Kate Manne) with the accused persons, the bench remarked that there was “violation of human rights of innocents”. In contrast, no compassion is shown towards the women who are abused, abandoned, burned, murdered, killed, raped and brutalised.

However, after protest by several women’s organizations and petitions filed in the Supreme Court, the Court heard the matter of Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar v Union of India in 2018. It ordered the Family Welfare Committees be done away with, while retaining the provision relating to arrest and bail for the accused persons. Even earlier, the Law Commission and several other state institutions too, have recommended the dilution of the domestic violence laws.

The legal system provides a platform for women to raise their concerns; however, there is a lack of commitment in implementation. Over the years, concerted actions have been taken by state actors to dilute the provisions of law. The system is being manipulated to serve the logic of the patriarchy, protecting the interest of the dominant group while reinforcing the prevailing biased stereotypical norms. The state more broadly is treating domestic violence as a social crime and using manipulative tools –including mandatory mediation – designed to compel women to arrive at a ‘compromise’ or ‘settlement’ with the accused persons without any assurance for their safety (and that of their children), and without punishing the abusive men. In many other cases pertaining to domestic violence, dowry deaths and suicide by married women, the courts have granted immunity to violent men by placing weight on the principle of ‘family harmony’, and in the process, disregarding the constitutional rights of women as citizens.

 

We, the Women, are Warriors and We Will Persist!

Yet the survivors, who may be seen as powerless and vulnerable, through their sheer grit, are demanding justice, breaking the codes of prolonged imposed silence, shaking the system and forcing it to respond. They are not feminists or experts but they are everyday women who, with their own sense of justice, and with scant resources or little support, are seeking a violence-free life for themselves and their children. They are fighting battles not only against abusive men but also against the patriarchal structures within homes, misogyny in courts, and androcentric culture and sexism in society. In doing so, they are reclaiming ownership of their lives with persistence, courage and resilience.

The law is currently implemented in a way that means complainants are being revictimised in the process. Despite this, women are using the law to reclaim their rights and resist violence. Those who are registering their complaints are negotiating their rights and contesting their claims while challenging the stubborn patriarchy. While writing their own stories of emancipation, they are shifting the inegalitarian structure within families, creating democratic spaces within society and –  in fighting to seek freedom, or aazadi, from violence – they are demanding the recognition of their dignity. 

For the state, as well as national and international organisations working on the issue of violence, it is essential to focus on women’s autonomy and agency in a patriarchal society and to provide support measures that help them to attain socio-economic self-sufficiency while countering ingrained misogyny. Many women are compelled to stay and bear violence because they lack any other options. There is therefore a  need to create a mechanism whereby women can access support that is specific to their circumstances. Until then, through their tough persistent legal and social battles, the simple message women are giving is this: “We, the women warriors, are unstoppable; unless violence is eliminated, we will persist”. 

 

Shalu Nigam (@ShaluNigam) is an advocate, researcher and an activist working at the intersection of gender, law, governance and human rights issues. She is currently practicing at the courts in Delhi and is associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Delhi, Indian Social Institute, Delhi, as well as the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi. She was awarded a Senior Fellowship by the Indian Council for Social Science Research, Delhi. She has published several books, the recent one is Women and Domestic Violence in India: A Quest for Justice. She has been a regular contributor to countercurrents.org and has published her essays in journals such as the Indian Journal of Gender Studies, South Asia Journal, Social Action, International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies, Women’s Link, Legal News and Views among others. You can read some of  her work here and here