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					                The Politics of Violence Against Women
                        Special Focus on India

                          Meera Khanna – India

Where have all the baby girls gone?
Sent to heaven by sex sensitive death
Where have all the little girls gone
Sent to heaven starved to death
Where have all the sisters gone
Gone to heaven abused to death
Where have all the wives gone
Gone to heaven hounded to death
Where have all the mothers gone
Gone to heaven giving birth till death

These lines that I wrote some time back are a pointer to the cycle of
violence that women face from the womb to the tomb. More importantly
they reflect the status of women in a traditionally patriarchal society like

Violence against women is seen both by governmental and non-
governmental agencies through two perspectives.The first of these is that
violence – domestic violence is seen as a kind of breakdown in an
otherwise just or necessary system. This aberration may come due to
family conflicts, outside stresses, personal differences etc.

The other perspective is that violence is among the many forms of
subordination and oppression expressed systemically towards women.
Violence against women is only the tip of the iceberg; the visible
dimension of systematic subordination. But there is the rest of the
iceberg that is the firm basis for the tip.

There is a sustained systemic, consistent and deliberate politics of
violence against women. One of the meanings of politics is “the use of
intrigue or strategy to obtain a position of power. It is by a carefully
delineated strategy that the patriarchal institutions are perpetuated by a
culture of violence, which works at various levels. Women become both
victims as well as perpetuators of violence, caught as they are in the
same socio-cultural patterns, and the struggle for survival. Men become
the perpetuators as well as the recognized protectors of the women, thus
emphasizing her subjugated status.Violence is both by acts of
commission as well as acts of omission, as inaccessibility to health care
and nutritional resources indicate.

But what is really more horrifying is the insidious ways in which
tyrannical patriarchal stereotypes are built either through media
projections, advertisements, the nuances of language, acceptability
of unjust customs, or encouragement of gender unjust institutions
in the name of tradition.Many of these institutions emphasize the
weak, inferior, subordinate, victimised, objectified status of women
thus insidiously justifying the violence on her.
Language is a reflection of social norms and in India has developed
with specific expressions, proverbs, abuses which only reinforce the
inferior status of women.(Pati /Husband) For example abuses in
almost all languages of South Asia are expressions of forced sexual
activity on a woman – either as rape or incest. This only reinforces the
victimized status of a woman. More dehumanizing than anything else is
the oppressive discriminative expressions that are used to describe a
widow. The widow is not to be referred to as “she” but as “it”, thus
emphasizing her neutrality, in terms of sex as she is a “desexed”
creature. She is often referred to as “prani” – a creature since it was her
husband’s presence that gave her human status. Widows are often
ridiculed and made the butt of sexual jokes. In most regional languages
the descriptive term for a widow is often used as an abuse. In Tamil the
word “Mundachi or Munda” describes a widow, but it is also a word heard
in colloquial Tamil in the course of any altercation. In Punjabi the widow
is often abused as “Khasma nu khaniye”(husband eater) thus squarely
laying the blame of the man’s death on her shoulders. In Punjabi again a
widow is called a “rand” while a prostitute is called a “randi”. The close
proximity of the two words indicates the social psyche. A widow’s
sexuality becomes suspect and a source of menace once her husband is
no more. Once she is a widow it is a small step to become a randi from a
rand. Both words are used as common abuses

The fact that most of the descriptive expressions on a widow are
interchangeable as abuses indicates the socially degraded status of the

The traditional Hindu blessing for a married woman is “Sadaa
sowbhagyawati bhavaa” thereby implying that any other state is to be
devoutly wished away. Again the blessing for man is Yashaswi Bhava (
may your fame spread wide) or Aayushman Bhava (may you live long).
But for a woman these blessings are never given. Since her long life and
manifestation of her capabilities are immaterial to the power structure.
The blessing she gets is “Doodho Nahaao Pootho Palo” May you give birth
and bring up sons – sons mind you not children. Her motherhood is to
be controlled and channelised for sons alone. Shouldn’t there be a
conscious avoidance of such sexist aashirwads”

The daughter is often referred to as “paraya dhan. Have we ever
wondered why? The reason for this discrimination is in the patriarchal
attitude towards a daughter.It is also an insidious way to deprive her of
her property rights. Any property she inherits will belong to another,
since she herself belongs to someone else. In northern India, where
close-kin marriages are forbidden in most communities land given to
daughters is perceived as lost to the patrilineal descent This is really
most important reason- desire to keep the land within the extended
family and lineage. Barring the woman from property emphasizes her
subordination. Because she is a thing. That is why it is kany daan at the
time of marriage-only an object can be gifted away.

I am not suggesting a forced purging of such expressions and proverbs.
But language is a living index of the social conditions. It reflects the
sensitivity of society. Gender-sensitization would hopefully phase out
such expression.

One of the fundamental sources of gender inequality is the system
of patrilocal residence. In most Hindu communities and in Muslim
communities a woman leaves her parental home at the time of her
marriage to join her husband’s house. Patrilocality can also mean the
drastic alienation from her parental family that a married woman
experiences after her transfer to her husband’s family.For a woman, it
means a drastic alienation from her parental family, even when she is
widowed. On the other hand she suddenly becomes a burden on her in-
laws. In this context the example of matriarchal society is interesting. In
Nair society the woman did not change her residence on marriage, with
the result widowhood did not marginilize her in the manner as in
Nambudri society which is patriarchal. While a woman lives on in her
husband’s home, she is subjected to untold miseries, some of which have
social sanction, and some have the tacit consent of the male forces of the

Early marriage and early motherhood while a reflection of a
patriarchal society is in itself a perpetuation of patriarchal norms.
Marriage before adulthood is a socially sanctioned practice to control the
sexuality, the body and the personhood of the women. Parents may
genuinely feel that their daughters will be better off and safer with a male
guardian. One important impetus for marrying girls at an early age is
that it helps to prevent pre-marital sex and rape. Many societies prize
virginity before marriage and this can manifest itself in a number of
practices designed to “Protect” a girl from unsanctioned sexual activity.
In effect they amount to strict controls imposed upon the girl herself.
She may be secluded from social interaction outside the family. In
NorthEast Africa, and parts of Middle East it manifests in (FGM) Female
Genital Mutilation. In some societies they are withdrawn from school on
reaching puberty. All practices are intended to shelter the girl from male
sexual attention, but marriage gives her legitimate protection. The man
is portrayed as the predator and the women the prey. So there is a sexual
hunt going on all the time. Hence the prey is to be domesticated with
one master who will protect her. Otherwise she will go “astray”. This
social misapprehension conveniently blinks on the fact that it takes two
to go “astray” When a woman goes astray then the honor of the family is
jeopardized – as is indicated by the preponderance of caste lynching
honor killings etc. A woman’s honor is always vested in her body. These
social practices are insensitive to the woman’s personhood beyond her
body – and oblivious of the fact that her sexuality has to be within her
control. But this can never be in a patriarchal framework where a
woman’s sexuality is subservient to male control. This is because
despite the fact that her sexuality is the creative force, it is seen not as
her strength but as her vulnerability. Why else would you have a
Panchayat that “sentences” a woman to be raped or a tribal body that
sanctions rape of a woman as punishment.

Early marriage ensures that a woman is submissive to her husband and
works hard for her in-laws household.            Her immaturity, lack of
education, lack of financial independence makes it impossible to assert
her individual will. The younger the woman, the better and more
effective the control. That is why the emphasis on youth is reiterated
since they are best suited for a supplementary secondary role in the
marital relations. Also control on her is total
Early marriage inevitably denies girls their right to education that is the
need for personal development, preparation for adulthood and their
effective contribution for the well being of their family and society.
Demographic and feasibility studies indicate that an average woman with
several or more years of education marry four years late and have 2.3
fewer children than those with no education. The denial of education
means she looses out on socializing skills, making friends outside her
family circle and other useful skills. It reduces her chances of developing
her own independent identity. She grows up with no sense of right to
assert her viewpoint and little experience in articulating one. Lack of
schooling also means that those girls, who are abandoned, divorced or
widowed have no skills to earn their living and get pushed into
exploitative professions this further reinforcing their low status. Or else
she joins the ranks of urban poor. This early marriage contributes to the
feminization of poverty and its resulting impact on children.
One of the facts governing domestic violence is that the degree and
frequency increases when the victim – the wife is unable to protest, and
protect herself. The sense of power feeds itself on the helplessness of the
victim. The helplessness of the woman if reinforced by her low social
status, her lack of support as much as her low self esteem.

The great tragic irony of the Indian woman is that within the four walls of
the temple she is symbolized as the goddess but outside she is object of
use, misuse and abuse. I will quote from a poem I wrote a few years back
on the Indian woman.

They call you Devi
Yet you are a curse
You are Annapoorna
Yet denied food
You are Saraswathi
Yet unlettered
You have a temple
Only my womb is denied
You have divinity
But denied life

Socio cultural rituals often emphasize subordination. -Karva chauth
is the ritual of no water – no food fast which women of North Indian
states keep for the long life of the husbands. The fast is accompanied by
the narration of an absolutely gory tale of the horrible tortures that a
husband undergoes if a wife does not keep the fast according to the rules
The fast reinforces the woman’s dependent status. She must fast since
her status in society is assured only as a wife. It is the husband who is
her saviour, her protector, and her annadata. Conversely there is no fast
a husband keeps for the wife’s long life or in appreciation of her support
given unstintingly over the years. Because she is a dispensable
commodity. The media while reflecting these attitudes perpetuates it by

Women's bodies have been used whole, or in parts, to market everything
from brassieres to monkey wrenches. One effect of such ads is to give
women unrealistic notions of what they should look like. After instilling
anxiety and insecurity in women, the ads imply that buying consumer
products can correct practically any defect, real or imagined. Moreover,
the women's magazines that could be telling the truth about such
marketplace fraud are largely co-opted by their advertisers. Advertising's
images of the ideal women are everywhere, but women's magazines
deserve a special mention for promoting their commercialized beauty
ideal. These magazines, so widely read that they are nicknamed "cash
cows" in the publishing trade, have a nearly symbiotic relationship with
advertisers. Does any women’s magazine tell us that no cream in the
world can turn a dark skin fair? How could they? What about the much-
needed revenue from the plethora of fairness cream ads.In addition to
reinforcing sexist notions about the ideal woman, ads exploit sexuality.
Many products are pitched with explicit sexual imagery that borders on
pornography. Not only do these images encourage us to think of sex as a
commodity, but also they often reinforce stereotypes of women as sex
objects and may contribute to violence against women.
Everywhere we turn, ads tell us what it means to be a desirable man or
woman. For a man, the message is manifold: he must be powerful, rich,
confident, athletic. For a woman, the messages all share a common
theme: You must be "beautiful." Your hair needs more shine and gloss.
The aging of your skin has to be camouflaged. Your legs must be hairless
and smooth. If your skin is not glowing then your husband will think
twice before taking you out. Just as an old coat is not worn outside
Advertising, of course, did not invent the notion that women should be
valued as ornaments; women have always been measured against
cultural ideals of beauty. But advertising has joined forces with
sexism to make images of the beauty ideal more pervasive, and
more unattainable, than ever before.

 Take a look at the models we see in the print or electronic media -a
nineteen-year-old professional model, weighing just 120 pounds on a
willowy 5'10" frame. Her eyes are a deep black, her teeth pearly white.
She has no wrinkles, blemishes--or even pores, for that matter. As media
critic Jean Kilbourne observes in Still Killing Us Softly, her
groundbreaking film about images of women in advertising, "The ideal
cannot be achieved; it is inhuman in its flawlessness. And it is the only
standard of beauty-and worth-for women in this culture."'
The flawlessness of the model, in fact, is an illusion created by makeup
artists, photographers, and photo retouchers. Each image is
painstakingly worked over: Teeth and eyeballs are bleached white;
blemishes, wrinkles, and stray hairs are airbrushed away. According to
creative directors, almost every photograph we see for a national
advertiser these days has been worked on by a retouched to some
degree.... By inviting women to compare their unimproved reality with
the models’ airbrushed perfection, advertising erodes self-esteem, then
offers to sell it back-for a price.

The price is high. It includes the staggering sums we spend each year to
change our appearance: In US $33 billion on weight loss;47 billion on
cosmetics; $300 million on cosmetic surgery. The emphasis is that
woman is the body, the body and only the body. They would have done
away with the woman’s head, but you need a head for shampoo or hair
oil ads.

. The psychological costs of advertising induced self-consciousness
are difficult to quantify. For most women, they include an endless self-
scrutiny that is tiresome at best and paralyzing at worst. It includes
women's lives and health, which are lost to self-imposed starvation and
complications from silicone breast implants. And it includes the
impossible-to- measure cost of lost self-regard and limited personal
horizons. She is never quite satisfied, and never secure,” for desperate,
unending absorption in the drive for perfect appearance -is the ultimate
restriction on freedom of mind." The violence done on the body is
temporary. But the violence on her mind, through the loss of self-esteem
makes her an involuntary accomplice to the violence committed on her.
Women come in an endless array of shapes and sizes, but you'd never
know it from looking at ads. In every generation, advertisers issue a
new paradigm of female perfection. The very rigidity of the ideal
guarantees that most women will fall outside of it, creating a gap
between what women are and what they learn they should be. This
gap is very lucrative for the sellers of commercialized beauty.
In the portrayal of women's bodies, the gap has never been wider. The
slender reigning ideal provides a stark contrast to the rounder curves of
most women's bodies. As an adaptation to the physical demands of
childbearing, women's bodies typically have a fat content of around 25
percent, as opposed to 15 percent in men. For much of human history,
this characteristic was admired, sought after, and celebrated in the arts.
But the twentieth century has seen a steady chipping away at the ideal
female figure. A generation ago, a typical model weighed 8 percent less
than the average woman; more recently she weighs 23 percent less. Most
models are now thinner than 95 percent of the female population.
As the gap between ideal and reality has widened, women's self-esteem
has fallen into the void. Glamour magazine survey of 33,000 women
found that 75 percent of respondents aged eighteen to thirty-five thought
they were fat, although only 25 percent were medically overweight. Even
45 percent of the underweight women believed they were fat. Weight was
virtually an obsession for many of the Glamour respondents, who chose
"losing 10-15 pounds" as their most cherished goal in life Although the
glorification of slenderness is sometimes defended in the interests of
health, for most women it is anything but healthy. In one scientific
study, researchers found that women's magazines contained ten times as
many advertisements and articles promoting weight loss as men's
magazines-corresponding exactly to the ratio of eating disorders in
women versus men.15
Surrounded by ads that depict a stick figure, few women can eat in
peace. On any given day, 25 percent of American women are dieting, and
another 50 percent are finishing, breaking, or starting diets. While
women have purged and starved themselves, the diet industry has grown

Urban India is fighting the battle of the bulge. Armed with diet plans,
weight planning aerobic instructions, these urbanites dressed in tights,
shorts, leotards or the humble salwar kameez are increasingly waging a
war against the stubborn fat cells. The battlegrounds are the burgeoning
health clubs, slimming centers and gymnasiums. It’s certainly very
heartening job to see women, who a decade back, after they became
wives and mothers let themselves look shoddy, are now increasingly
aware of the need to look and feel good. It’s good to see health
consciousness permeating Indian society.

The flip side is - are we health conscious or weight conscious? 90% of
men and women visiting the health clubs desire to lose weight. This is
particularly true for women. Fine, this is a very laudable aim. But the
contradiction is losing weight to be fit is one aspect - losing weight to
restructure the body is another. Urban Indian women are by and large
out to redefine the weight distribution of their bodies based on certain
Western principles. Fashion tenets laid down by a totally alien culture
nurtured in vastly different geographical conditions are dictating to us,
as to how we should look. Why is it necessary for us to look good
according to Western standards? The Anglo-Saxon fashion world has
refashioned the generally `Pear shaped’ female body into a V-shaped one.
They have dictated a small but stiff bust line, a tiny waist, an almost
non-existent derriere and very long legs. The fashion `pundits’, the
advertising and multi crore slimming industries have done this. One
good look at the Barbie doll is enough to give any Indian apsara an
inferiority complex.

There is an inherent difference between the Indian women’s body and her
Western counterpart. The Indian women’s bust line is fuller and starts
higher, while the Western women’s is smaller and starts lower down on
her torso. We are not long legged. The proportion between torso and
legs is almost the same, with the torso being longer sometimes. Very well
defined hips, a broad pelvic girdle and generous thighs accentuate the
Indian femininity. This is in absolute contradiction to the proportion laid
down by the fashion world - not our world. This body structure has come
to us, not yesterday but through a 5000 years old racial growth. Now,
hounded by the fashionable picture of femininity, bombarded by a
blitzkrieg of advertising, we set out not to become fit, but to refashion our
bodies. Often, one sees slim college girls doing a work out to become
slimmer, to fit into the tightest possible jeans. There are 30 + women
with well defined bust lines who’re desperately trying to wish it away,
since it does not look good in T-shirts. A multi crore cosmetic industry,
slimming industry, fashion industry is now dictating who is the ideal
woman, who is the beautiful woman.

 A strategised violence is being done on the woman’s body keeping sharp
eye on a burgeoning market for slimming pills, diets equipment for
western outfits and cosmetics, as the new found beauty of Indian
women, seems to indicate.
It’ll of course be argued that it’s a freedom of choice, to suffer from
anorexia or not. Of course it is. But the question is it a free choice at all?
Free choice implies informed choice. Do any of the gyms or slimming ads
tell us that when we go on carbohydrate free diet we may damage our
kidneys. Do they tell us that constant yo- yo dieting harms our chances
for nomal pregnancy or children.
The present lot of ads shows women empowered enough to make choices
be it toothpaste or detergents. Women are no instruments of selling but
are the agents themselves. But this economic standardization of
consumer goods cannot be mistaken for equality in the freedom to make
choices. Women make the choices within the patriarchal framework, to
please the husband, support his career prospects, win over a mother in
law, or meet the never ending demands of a selfish family. Her only aim
in life, as ads in most Asian channels show is to look good, make the
home a haven even if she’s to face hell and nurture the boy child. If she’s
to be shown as empowered then she is helping in homework or doing
aerobics. The world is make believe, but conversely it also reiterates
certain social and cultural beliefs.

The points under discussion is the compartmentalization of the women’s
role, the danger to take her contribution to the home as granted and the
emphasis that she really has no life or identity beyond this. Beyond this
are the levels of expectation that is raised of the woman’s capacity and
capability. The reach of the audiovisual media is tremendous.I’ll focus on
the ads of fairness creams a market worth more than RS 300 crores in
India. The ads often indicate that subtly or otherwise that fair skin is a
necessary pre requisite to marriage reiterating a patriarchal stereotype
that marriage is the ultimate goal, and that dark girls find it difficult to
get married. The same kinds of ads are never made on men. No ad
indicates that short men can’t get married or that a badly shaved man
might. never find a girl .With the noises that women’s organisations
made there is a change. Now the ads show that only a fair girl can get a
job, as an airhostess or a pilot. Women are commodified and objectified.

By instructing men to regard women's bodies as objects, ads help create
an atmosphere that devalues women as people, encourages sexual
harassment, and worse. Many ads of this genre take the dehumanization
of women a step farther by focusing on body parts-another convention of
pornography. A pair of shapely female legs emerges out of a bath that is
an ad on bathroom fittings. We see less of the fittings and more of the fit
girl. A woman's torso is juxtaposed against a photo of a sportscar; we are
invited to admire the curves of both. Such ads degrade women turning
her into a thing. Turning a human being into a thing is almost always
the first step in justifying violence against that person," says Jean
Kilbourne. We are stuck with the chicken-and-egg question of whether
ads cause harmful social effects or simply mirror them. In either case,
advertising fuels the perception that women are things, to be used or
abused as men see fit.

A beautiful woman is one who pleases the eyes of men. Beauty is a
political idea, It is a set of standards we are told to conform to-even if it
takes surgery to do so! It is a set of behaviors to which we are restricted.
It defines what is good, useful, acceptable, worthwhile in a woman. What
makes a young woman worthy : passivity, obedience, youth, a starved
body, a glowing skin and a glossy head of hair

We live in a state of white supremacy, and the ideal beauty is fair. We live
in a state of male supremacy, and the ideal beauty is pleasing, polite,
smiling, small, and weak: no challenge, really, to anyone's ego of
privileges. If we are to end forever, the use of women as slave labor and
as livestock,if we are to end the concept of women as objects, if we are to
end the role of women as subordinates then we are going to have to
change, radically what we think of ourselves as women and what the
world thinks of us as women.


(Meera Khanna is a leader for women’s social issues and programs, a free
lance writer, and a social activist. She lives in New Delhi and writes on
gender based issues. She also writes poetry.
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