Bollywood actor Armaan Kohli was arrested on June 12th for assaulting his girlfriend. I had not heard of Armaan Kohli earlier, but the news drew my attention. It does not only mark another episode of the continuing saga of violence and abuse of women, but provides an opportunity to look at the changes that have taken place in our understanding and response to the violence that women face in our society. Violence against women in India catapulted into the public consciousness partly because of horrific incidents like the Nirbhaya case in Delhi or the Shakti Mills case in Mumbai, leading to a reform of the law of the land. Women have also launched campaigns like the ‘Pink Chaddi’, ‘Pinjra tod’, ‘Slut Walk’ and ‘Take back the night’ clearly showing they are no longer willing to take this violence silently. However most of these campaigns were against violence in public spaces, while the Armaan Kohli incident draws attention to the private space and among the ‘non-poor’ classes.
Domestic violence was raised as an issue of concern since a series of studies conducted by International Centre for Research on Women, and subsequently National Family Health Survey showed the issue as being widespread in the mid 1990’s. Earlier in the 1980’s there had been successful campaigns against rape and dowry murder, leading to changes in the law notably the introduction of Section 498A in the Indian Penal Code 1983. Later the PWDVA (Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005) was also passed. This is a civil law and provides a series of protective measures for women. Though the overall implementation of the law is not said to be very robust, it is a civil law that provides women some measures financial, physical and residential security, which is very useful for the poor.
Over time there have some changes in the perception and treatment of violence. Firstly there has been a growing opposition to Section 498A as being too arbitrary since it allows for the imprisonment of the family members of the grooms family. In July 2017 the Supreme Court revised procedures under Section 498A IPC which is directed against violence at home. The same month Ministry of Women and Child Development advised the National Women’s Commission to create a space in its web-portal for men to lodge complaints when they think they have been falsely implicated. On the other hand the growing visibility of sexual violence, has accentuated the existing moral dimensions of male and family honor linked to women’s sexuality, making rape the ‘vilest of crimes’, a ‘fate worse than death’ and calling for the death penalty. So the two shifts that seem to have taken place in the realm of violence against women is the raised pitch and alarm around violence in the public space, and a softening of the stand on violence at home especially those in the ‘urban middle class’.
The sexual dynamics of the urban middle class space has changed rapidly in recent years. Young women are now much more self-assured and economically independent. The strict sexual segregation that was visible even twenty five years ago, has led to a more relaxed interaction between sexes in both public and private spaces. Many couples now stay together and I am told ‘Tinder’ is a popular app. The fact that arranged marriage between caste and religious lines continues to be popular and marriage websites promoting such arrangements have huge memberships, indicates that some patriarchal ideas are equally entrenched. It is in this context of changing patterns as well entrenched trenched practices, that the Armaan Kohli incident seems important. Some of the strongest elements of Indian patriarchy are son preference and endogamous marriage practices. The strong cultural influence on marriage makes the marital institution a shared community space rather than a personal intimate space. These two elements together create a situation in which marriage disadvantages women and privileges men. But Armaan Kohli was not married, and thus this element of male privilege should not have acted. What this event highlights is that today even without the safety of the marital contract, the Indian male feels ‘entitled’ enough to physically beat his partner. However because the female does not have the social disadvantage of ‘marriage’, she is empowered enough to file a police complaint. A married woman may have been doubly disadvantaged – a more entitled and probably more violent ‘male’ partner and being discouraged by the ‘family’ not to bring the police into a ‘private’ issue. Divorce is often the result of continuing violence, and this happens without a public or criminal acknowledgement of the violence. This avoids a stigma for the man, but leaves behind a stigma for the woman, as someone who did not adjust.
Feminists have long held that marriage is a stronghold of patriarchy and many rejected it. Socialist feminists have tried to reform the institution of marriage into a more egalitarian relationship, especially since marriage is a given in many societies. However violence by men continues to be feature in many such relationships and probably a reason behind the rising rates of divorce in India. While divorce, or a way out, should be an element of any relationship, violence cannot be part of any relationship, especially an intimate spousal relationship. However male coercion and violence is an integral part of a majority of spousal relationship and expresses itself as control over mobility, friends, time, money etc. as well as violence to discipline. It is not that they are ‘bad’ men, but men who have been bred with a sense of entitlement about their ‘superior’ position in life. The violence by men on their spouses is often a result of what they see as an unjustified claim by their spouses and is justified by this disciplinary prerogative they assume as the superior gender. In more sophisticated situations violence is replaced by coercion, subtle or overt to express preeminence and exercise control.
The idea of being the superior gender is bred, often openly and sometimes in a subtle manner among all boys. As a society we need to invest much more into bringing up our boys differently and providing opportunities for younger men to reflect upon their privileges and consequently aggressive behaviours towards their most intimate relationships. While laws are necessary and important, we cannot hope that laws alone will bring about a less violence and more caring and affection in the family and intimate spaces. It’s time to make the men more responsible and to start with our boys. The work that the Centre for Health and Social Justice and its partners do in rural societies across different states in India, shows that domestic violence can be reduced and it no longer remains socially acceptable through interventions with men alone. It’s time for men and youth in urban middle class India to take up this challenge. Armaan Kohli’s act can serve as a wake-up call for all of us.