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Notes on Gender-based violence in the contemporary Hindu society

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Violence against women usually goes unreported in the predominantly Hindu Indian sub-continent. Often the victims are unaware that their spouses are criminally violent at all as violence often takes different forms which are attributed to a belief that men are "naturally" aggressive.

This is of course a myth although I find it shocking that many educated people also still think that being a "man" is to be macho and physically powerful, at least even if it's just a show. Some argue that it's natural because men's role is that of the provider, so he must be out there to "fight" it out in order to get the best for his family. While in the history of civilisation, mostly men did indeed go out to hunt, it is not their physical strength that made human civilisation evolve to what it is currently, but his cunning, or the ability to plan and work in a team that enabled him to hunt more successfully where the fiercest carnivores are now almost close to extinction.

I find the capacity for violence, physical or otherwise is almost equal in both men and women. But domestic violence almost always results from some inadequacy in the part of the man, and also his need to dominate in order to get his way, which is usually some forms of special privileges he was brought up to believe he is entitled to by the virtue of his being a man....

Therefore such men will demand respect in form of servitude from his wife and children or other members of his family and disregard their genuine affection or expectations, placing himself as the chief decision maker. Centuries old tradition ingrained into men and women puts him "naturally" on the top of the ladder in his family, and he expects his woman to do and act as he wishes.

Most men who resort to systematic domestic violence against their spouses are usually cowards in their social and professional life, or by the virtue of inheritance or some fortunate circumstance, usually quite a tyrant anyhow to people who are inferior to him. His attitude towards his wife and family is that of ownership. Sadly, even many women also subscribe to this view, and some actually validate this by acting in a manner that not only encourages the man to be "manly", but also openly make him feel as if he is right in demanding his wife to be "obedient". These people could be anyone, and sometimes they are members of the wife's own family. Such is the nature of ingrained value systems derived from religious ideas.


Connection to Religious Beliefs

In the Hindu religion for example, the man is accorded the status of a divine Lordship. For the wife, he is supposed to be a "god". Deification is one Hinduism's characteristic features. If the husband is not like Narayan[1], the universal Preserver of creation, then at least, the husband could be like Shiva[2], the Destroyer, whose excesses are often overlooked because of his status of one of the most powerful forces of universe.

Young Hindu women yet to get married worship him by pouring milk on the phallic stone lingam[3] that represents him in hopes getting a husband like him. I have met women who have remained devoted to their husbands through decades bearing constant torture mentally and physically never even once contemplating leaving them. If it's not for the sake of the children and family, they will reason, it is owing to the reason that one cannot live alone, or hope to raise a family all alone as a single woman. Societal perception about single women, or women whose husbands have left does nothing to help too;a single woman in the Hindu society automatically faces a lot of discrimination and harassment even in the hands of her neighbours Things have somewhat changed in the urban and more educated milieu, but for the majority, the break up of a household and divorce is still more or less a taboo, or at least something which should be avoided at all costs;to risk physical violence and endless verbal abuse becomes the part and parcel of their daily existence. Indeed, in the Hindu world, to be born as a woman is in itself a curse, and many women know that how their parents had hoped for a son and heir rather than a burden who needs to be looked after and married off with considerable dowry rather than bringing in the fruits of his labour for the parents from an early age or when they are old and wanting.

Also ingrained in women rather than men is the concept of a being ever faithful to one man, their husband forever. It is not only a virtue to remain a virgin and present it to the man who "takes" her as a husband, but it is a sin for her to take any pleasure in sex at all, and be totally faithful to that one man for all her life. As for the men, men will be men! They might just have many other sexual partners, they might have been married before, they might be well known womaniser for none of these are ever condemned by our religion in any texts I know of. No one speaks out against issues with a man's character, but for a woman, her character is always under scrutiny, always in suspect.

In fact most Hindu male gods are polygamists and playboys. Krishna[4], the incarnation of Narayan had a long affair with Radha[5] whom he for some mysterious reason never married. And I don't care if he never made it with her. That's hard to believe he didn't given his penchant for being somewhat of a sexual predator. One well known story is about him when he was cowherd, he stole the clothes of women bathing in a pond and hid them waiting for them to emerge naked from the water while he hid nearby to watch the fun. Arjun[6], another incarnation of Narayan, had numerous affairs and so did Indra[7], the King of gods and thunder.

Most kings in the past were also polygamists. Even as late as the 19th century and early 20th, many men were polygamist, mainly in the upper castes, or those who were privileged land-owners. In Bengal, the "kulin" Brahmins[8] and Kayasthas[9], castes[10] of privileged priest and courtiers used to have numerous wives in different villages more often than not. There are stories of how ailing and old Brahmins practically lived on their numerous wives in different villages by travelling from one village to another and enjoying the hospitality of the in-laws. The story goes that they had a long list of names and villages with them and when it was time to move on or they were bored in once place, they simply travelled to another in-laws place. The practice seems to have been owing to the fact that people were eager to get their daughters married off as soon as possible and in those days women were usually married off at a very young age, almost as soon as they reached puberty.

The absence of marriageable men does not seem to me the problem at all but rather the demand of a hefty dowry was the chief cause of this practice. It was considered a social taboo to have in their family marriageable daughters, read girls of more than ten or so, still not married. To marry them off, parents had to part with a hefty sum of money and other forms of wealth. So bad was it that the family in question could face ostracism if they supported an unmarried daughter for too long. I think some poorer people happily married their daughters off to those travelling Brahmins, some already at an age when they were becoming senile, and who could well be their grandfather's age! One can easily conjecture from this that poorer families who could not marry their daughters off early enough probably found an escape route by marrying them to an old fogey who would enjoy their hospitality and girl for a short time and then probably move on to some other village, some other bride's house and come back only after many months, or never.

That these practices and even more gruesome practices did occur, there is plenty of evidence. Although these things do not happen in this age, many people secretly harbour a negative attitude towards women, and some shockingly even express those views among friends and family without being looked upon as someone with dangerous ideas or sick mind. All this has been common knowledge for years, and so is the violence against women in its various forms. But somehow people do not want to acknowledge the fact except by either saying it's very rare these days (violence) or they are not involved. Unless we take an active stand to empower women whatever strata of society they belong, passivity and mere lip-service against the violence latent and manifest in our societies cannot be eradicated, never mind how many bills are passed empowering women and laws against gender-based discrimination and violence.

Looking for Solutions

One of the first steps is to stop labelling any woman of being of dubious character whether they have a boyfriend or many boyfriends, wear western clothes, speaks her mind or smokes and drinks. Secondly, the practice of arranging marriages has to be reformed. Very little of the girl's choice is usually involved in this sort of liaison and more often than not, the women are expected to learn to love their husbands. Of course, arranged marriages are not wrong by definition, and after all even a marriage between "lovers" can go wrong and result in domestic violence situation, but arranged marriages are usually more pre-dominant in our countries, and much of it bears the tacit approval of the same religious codes of personal conduct which puts the woman in a role of care-giver while the man her principal provider, guardian and owner. Just hear the marriage vows, you will know how sexist they are. The institution of marriage itself while not rendered obsolete needs to undergo much reform or we will forever be stuck in a "Middle Age" mindset.

Another important measure is that there should be genuine political and societal will to make women understand that marriage is NOT final, or deify their husbands. The model of Sati-Sabitri[11], the two women who are supposed to be inspirational to all virtuous women should be condemned. Sita[12], another model Hindu wife, the wife of Rama[13] was abducted by Ravana but had to go through gruelling tests to prove she had remained "clean" and had not given in to Ravana's advances. One point no one makes is Ravana's gentlemanliness: he never forced himself on Sita although he was the most powerful man in those times until later when Ram killed him in battle. But even later, when Sita was rescued she had to go through fire to prove how she was still pure. However, some years later, hearing the words of an uneducated washerman, Ram compelled her to take yet another test of faithfulness for which, so humiliated was she that she returned to her mother, the Mother Earth, which opened for her. In other words, she probably jumped to her death, or was made to do so.

Sex is unclean for the Hindu. And by extension, so are women who are not virgins, or those who have reached puberty. This notion of absolute purity is almost obsessive in the Hindu's mind. This translates into a peculiar sort of mindset that makes the activity "dirty", even when it is between consenting and willing adults. It's a concept which drives people to a psychosis in extreme cases, and many Indians have become unable to enjoy ordinary sex. Anything to do with it is seen as a corruption of the mind and repression in many cases that there can never be the possibility of a normal and healthy sexual life, and as a result normal or equal sexual partnership. Sin and guilt are the biggest downers, the most potent weapons of destruction, of the self and of others. None of this again is not common knowledge, but there is no public debate about it, no concerted effort to do anything about it. People are more scared to be branded as loose and of bad moral character and probably would not speak out or act against it anyhow. There are no solutions even thought of, and no bodies researching and finding ways to combat these mindsets. Until that happens, things can only get worse, not better.

There is much hope that good meaningful education can achieve this, but there is also evidence that in many places regression to age-old values have taken place. It brings to mind some political activists concern against sex education in schools. They objected on the ground that children were better off not learning about sex at all in an early age, or they would start experimenting with sex. Yet another means of denying natural human urges, another tool of repression: ignorance.

History of our species or evolution of homo sapiens to it's current form is doubtless one of the most important aspects about gender divide and consequently, gender based discrimination. Although I have never heard about cavemen acting dead, and whether the fact that men are usually found to be lacking in expressing emotion accurately or effectively arises from that or not, it's evident there are many such indicators of behaviour that makes women and men act and think differently under the same circumstances. So much so that often many of us are tempted to declare women and men are two different species altogether.

However, whether intelligence or decision-making skills are exhibited more or less in either female or males, such generalisations are not necessarily true for all human beings, and even if they are, that does not necessarily prove that women and men are unequal players in certain areas such as home-making or official work. Given enough encouragement, practice and opportunity to exercise their skills, women and men would, I daresay, perform equally based on various parameters of efficiency. I think it is more to do with conditioning that inherent genetic make-up that makes women and men different from each other (in performance of certain tasks): the proof of this is abundant in the animal kingdom where in many species, it's the female is the dominant partner exhibiting the "so-called" male aggressiveness.

I think the long years of human infants to successfully become mature adults is one of the prime evolutionary causes of the difference of roles in human beings. It's always a strong parental partnership and division of responsibilities that results in successful rearing of children. The human child needs the mother's presence more than anyone else in it's first few years as a source of nourishment. It's only after years of growing up, that the child is able to venture out on it's own to gather or hunt food. As such, there was always the need to have some adults to stay back in the dwellings to look after the infants all the time, and owing to the mother's ability to feed the children, this probably seemed that it was women who should stay back in the home rather than venturing out to hunt. However, this might not have been possible if the males did not take on the responsibility to hunt for the entire family and return to feed the mother and growing children. Also, usually the long period of pregnancy (nine months), very low number of offsprings per birth (usually one) and high mortality rates probably played a big part in keeping the women at home rather. In ancient history, without any effective means of contraception and no fixed -period of mating like other animals, it's also easy to imagine women were mostly restricted to their dwellings owing to small infants or pregnancies.

It's true that after the industrial revolution roles have undergone changes and in the modern times, both women and men are expected to take on roles which previously was the sole domain of one sex. At the same time social attitudes have not fully evolved in various societies to address these, and women and men are still habitually lead to believe their responsibilities are limited by their gender where they can easily find solutions taking advantage of various institutions and technological advances to make child-rearing activities just as easy for both men and women.

Role of Education

In education, I think, it's our duty is to address these changes on an urgent basis so that life goals themselves are re-defined not according to a student's gender but according to what the student is more instinctively good at. After all there is no good physical reason why a man cannot learn to change nappies as well as a woman can, or why a woman can't be a better at fixing the broken lamp than the man. It's seems to me it's just a part of social conditioning. Right from a very young age, the girl child is showered with dolls and utensils as toys whereas the boy will usually receive toys like building blocks, cars and other such items.

I think evolution has negligible effect on the species as a whole. Evolutionary time is negligible when we consider the history of our species. The cavemen's genetic make-up is hardly any different from ours, and usually it takes much more than a few centuries for speciation[14] to occur. And speciation does not occur owing to the difference in external features or behaviour of its sexes;it's occurrence is related to environment and genetic mutations which favour survival. I think it would be more accurate to say that despite the natural propensity of two sexes to take up certain roles better than the other, despite their very different approaches to many life-situations, men and women are equal human beings, and we need to understand that given any complex life situation, they are equally capable of arriving at a good balanced solution and response.

Women and men are not opposites, they often complement each other in various ways, especially in reproduction, but also in daily life: in social interactions and political developments. The genetic make-up of a woman and man is almost the same, and it is the difference in only certain genetic factors out of millions that the sex of an individual is expressed[15]. This results in generation of different quantities of enzymes that make our physical appearance different. This idea has to be clearly understood by people rather than quickly drawing a line to highlight the differences arising out of gender. For sure, this is a hard to thing to do.

If we look at people who are cross-gender, those manly women, and effeminate men who are often ridiculed and considered freaks, to see that this is of course very true. Today medical science has shown how, with some basic techniques, a man can turn into a woman or vice versa, an operation which has greatly helped people trapped in an opposite sex's body. Had men and women been two different species altogether, this would have been an impossible task.

Further Reading

  1. . Vishnu or Naryana
  2. . Shiva
  3. . Lingam
  4. . Krishna
  5. . Radha
  6. . Arjuna
  7. . Indra
  8. . Kulin Brahmin
  9. . Kayasthas
  10. . Caste system
  11. . Dakshayani or Sati, Shiva's first wife
    The myth of Sabitri
  12. . Sita
  13. . Rama
    See also Ramayana
  14. . Speciation in Evolutionary Biology
  15. . Sex determination


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