March 19, 2013

Cycles of Abuse: Kamala breaks through – 2

(This is the second in a series of posts on domestic violence and maternal health. Read part 1 and part 3.)

Kamala* and her husband moved to Chennai after marriage. For her, it was a whole new world—though of a very different hue from the Disney movie song. With her family far away in Mumbai, Kamala was grappling with new physical and emotional demands when the first violence started. As is common in many cases, it accompanied material demands. Her husband took away all of Kamala’s jewels and stowed them with his family who lived in the village. Then he started demanding money from Kamala’s family.

“He wanted to build his family a new home in the village, a new shop,” she recalls. He was asking for Rs 200,000 to 300,000. How could we get so much money?”

Around this time, Kamala’s father died. Grieving and tired, she felt less inclined to go to her newly widowed mother with her problems. “How could I go to her, means she already had so many problems of her own.”  Unrelenting, her husband intensified his demands. He also got more innovative with the abuse, withholding approval, and frequently taunting her.

Economics has a lot to do with violence. Kamala’s husband was less educated than she was, and from a small village in Tamil Nadu while she was from a metropolitan city. He also earned less and in her words “was not good-looking, was bald.” In every way then, he felt inferior to Kamala, but especially in terms of money. A complex mix of greed and low self-esteem may have made for an unhealthy brew. Much of the abuse seems to have been fueled by an obsession with her ability to earn as if this was a source of power that he needed to crush. (Ironically, it is this ability to earn that would later give her the courage she needed. )

“How did you earn so much in Bombay? he used to ask me,” she says, wincing. “You must have been working as a prostitute.”

This is one of the points at which Kamala’s hurt and shock seem keenest. To be accused of being a prostitute is something she has not been able to get over. In a middle class home, a woman’s chastity and respectability are precious commodities–to be valued, hoarded, protected—and taking it away is a form of severe emotional abuse. A society that places this value on women’s chastity also makes it easy for a man who wants to abuse a woman. Kamala’s husband also marshalled the traditional suspicion of “modern” women into his abuse of her. “You lived in the city,” he repeatedly told her. “There, all this goes on, I know.”

Underlying all this was deep psychological imbalance. Kamala’s narrative is fractured with a sense of puzzlement. She is still grappling with the images in her head, still struggling to understand the man she married. There are many ways in which violence expresses itself and her husband displayed the entire gamut.

“Sometimes he suddenly stripped naked and started shouting. Sometimes he walked around the room naked, hitting himself. Sometimes, he took an inflammable object and told me ‘come here, bring your face closer, I will show you a magic trick’. Then he lit a match.”

Like in many cases of domestic violence, he made increasing material demands and displayed intense jealousy. He started becoming suspicious of her in relation to other men. “He started accusing me about the neighbours. I felt sick. He gave me a lot of gandi gaalis, (foul curses). Did she identify all of this as abuse? Yes, but she kept hoping he would change, that he would begin to love her. She tried to win his love. According to, if a woman is forced to change her behaviour because she is frightened of her partner then she is being abused.  If she is experiencing any of the following then it’s likely that she’s being abused:

 Is he jealous and possessive?

Does he cut her off from family and friends and try to isolate her?

Is he charming one minute and abusive the next? Does he have sudden changes of mood  – like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

Does he control her life – for example, her money, who she should see, what she should wear?

Does he monitor her movements?

Does he blame her for the abuse?

Does he humiliate or insult her in front of others?

Does he verbally abuse her?

Does he constantly criticise her?

Does he use anger and intimidation to frighten her and make her comply with his demands?

Does he tell her she’s useless and couldn’t cope without him?

Has he threatened to hurt her or people close to her if she leaves?

Does she change her behaviour to avoid making him angry?

Does he force her to have sex when she doesn’t want to?

The terror built quickly. A few months into the marriage, he was beating Kamala regularly. Like many women, she hung on because of circumstances, a fragile belief that things would get better, the inability to ask for help. “Sometimes he would cry and say sorry. Sometimes, he would be nice. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t want to worry my mother so I tried to be strong.”

Kamala had been brought up to believe that strength is sehena, endurance. She tried to endure. In the meantime, she spiralled into depression.

According to this book, domestic violence has huge repercussions on the victim. “Apart from injuries, disability, mental health consequences of violence include feelings of anger and helplessness, self-blame, anxiety, phobia, panic disorder, eating disorder, low self-esteem, nightmares, hyper vigilance, heightened startle response, memory loss, and nervous breakdown. Self-harming behaviour is also a serious consequence and includes refusal of food and drink, suicide ideation and attempts, and a general neglect of oneself and one’s health.”

This was not an ideal time for Kamala to get pregnant.   (To be cont…)

*Not her real name

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