When a wealthy and powerful nobleman asks the hand of his neighbour’s youngest daughter, it terrifies her family.
While he boasts of a luxurious palace and riches, there is a hitch – all his previous wives have mysteriously disappeared. Yet the girl gets married to him against her will. One day he announces that he has to travel and gives the keys of the chateau to his wife – allowing her to access all his riches and throw parties – but with strict injunctions to not enter an underground chamber. Of course, she does. And discovers to her horror the murdered corpses of his wives. She flees but not before dropping her key that is now covered in un-removable blood stain. Her husband, Bluebeard as he is known in the tale with the same title, comes back unexpectedly, discovers the key and threatens to kill her. She is saved in last minute by her brothers. The tale has a happy ending, Bluebeard is killed, the girl remarries and the dead wives are given a proper burial.
Bluebeard is one of the lesser known tales. While enjoying several re-tellings and even extensive scholarship on its motifs, it cannot be perhaps made palpable for children or Disney, which is usually the case with most modern retelling of folk tales. In fact the story almost reads like a domestic noir. The violence here cannot be sanitised, for instance white washing the rape in Sleeping Beauty and paedophilia in Little Red Riding Hood. The violence, quite excessive, forms the crux of the plot and raises a pertinent issue that is seldom seen in folk or fairy tales i.e. domestic or intimate partner violence.
Violence per se is quite common in folk tales and fairy tales. The climax is often preceded by a war or a fight, killing of the villain, the triumph of good over evil. This is in fact also the case with Bluebeard. Yet the more interesting part is the one outside the pages, the history per se of the story, the murder of the wives by Bluebeard. The message is quite clear and somewhat now well known – women are more likely to be abused and killed by men known to them – for women home is often the most unsafe place. This makes this folk tale relevant in contemporary times.
The discourse around violence against women in India tends to revolve more around violence outside, inflicted by strangers. It is undeniable that public spaces, roads and especially modes of transportation still remain extremely hostile to women of our country. The cases of sexual assault, rapes and stalking continue unabated. Some are reported, majority never see the light of the day. Even the ones which are extremely serious only get media attention for a short time, justice is often elusive even when evidence is concrete, and especially so if the perpetrator is powerful or well connected. These cases are often followed by misogynistic statements by people in power ranging from victim blaming to slut shaming.
It is thus no surprise that the violence that takes place inside homes and is perpetrated by partners rarely comes to light. Alcohol abuse and dowry demands are usually the most common reasons. The violence can range from taunts, cruelty, abusive behaviour by husband or in laws, desertion, beatings, rapes, and in the worst case, murder. It is usually in the last case that the issue does come to light and gets police and legal attention if at all. Women, often with little financial options and no support from their parents continue to stay in these abusive relationships. Recently a case came up where a 25 years old woman had tried to return to her parents home 20 times before she was being murdered by husband and in laws! She was being tortured and beaten for dowry and feared for her life but was repeatedly sent back.
Patriarchal society that reveres matrimony, defines woman according to her marital status, and stigmatises separation or divorce also normalises the violence. The state correspondingly refuses to intervene. The laws still don’t classify marital rape as crime and recently this has been extended to include minor wives. The centre told the Supreme Court that a man forcibly having sex with his wife of less than 15 years of age also doesn’t come under IPC Sec 375 (rape). This is ostensibly done to “protect the institution of marriage”.
Recently the central government again submitted affidavit to the Delhi High Court on Monday stating that what “may appear to be marital rape” to a wife “may not appear so to others” and that it “may destabilise the institution of marriage apart from being an easy tool for harassing the husbands.” The petitioners have cited several studies in support of their claims. A 1999 study, ‘Domestic Violence in Northern India’, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, examined the nature of wife abuse by 6,700 married men from five districts of northern India. It found that 18-40 per cent of the men in each district had non-consensual sex with their wives, and 4-9 per cent physically forced their wives to have sex. The center’s refusal to recognize marital rape goes on to prove that government like society is seeped in patriarchy.
Indian legislation does take up the issue of domestic violence with The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Here a woman deprived her right to life by her husband or in laws can file a complaint in the form of ‘Domestic Incident Report’. Every ‘Domestic Incident Report’ has to be prepared by the Protection Officer who will assist in the further investigation of the incidence. The protection officer then passes order for the protection of the women, custody of respondent and/or order of monetary relief to the victim. However the law is poorly enforced.
A look at the NFHS-III data shows that married women (ages 15-49) from all regions of India experienced physical (31%) and sexual (8.3%) violence in the past 12 months of the survey. While higher education, urbanisation and higher household wealth were associated with lower incidence of violence, being employed and being wife of a man who drank alcohol increased the risk of violence. More worrying was that many men in the survey (and even some women) believed that wife beating was justified under certain circumstances leading the survey to conclude that interventions against domestic violence must go beyond law to include re-examination of social conditioning and cultural norms.
The UN Population Fund Report is even more serious. It estimated that around two-third of married Indian women are victims of domestic violence attacks and as many as 70 per cent of married women in India between the age of 15 and 49 are victims of beating, rape or forced sex. The incidence is higher in northern states and rural India. The justice in these parts is even more elusive.
In her article ‘How to get away with murder in small town India’ in The New York Times, journalist Ellen Barry writes about a woman bludgeoned to death by her husband in an open area in front of villagers and no one intervened. Furthermore, there was complete cover up by the local police authorities, the local politicians, and the rest of the village. The husband faced zero accountability for what he had done and soon got married again. The culture of violence unleashed in the village had everyone complicit.
What can be done to make the women safer in their own homes? The first steps are legal, laws must be enforced, complaints must be registered without fuss, police must be supportive. Secondly, the nature of abuse must be broadened to include marital rape and verbal/ non-physical abuse. Lastly, the immediate family and society of the women need to be able to recognise and intervene when they see the warning signs. Often the abuse begins quite early but pleas for help by the victim are ignored. Moreover the society needs to stop valorising marriage as the be all and end all of a woman’s life. It is better to get out as soon as possible than stay in an abusive relationship. Unfortunately due to lack of any other option, and diminished agency, abused women continue to stay. However the last issue delves into the larger question of patriarchy and its inherent violence and needs a complete dismantling of the ideology.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.