For Losers Who Didn’t Have the Spine to Walk


This post is part of the Violence Against Women awareness month, and it’s about those rephresensible, spineless women who just lie back and take what is dished to them. These women support violence against women more effectively than any other pro-violence group, because they have gendered authenticity on their side. They are women, patriarchy points out, and they don’t seem to mind the abuse. This is because they have their eyes trained on a more glorious goal: family, children, and the ‘true’ achivements of the female sex. “Look at my mother”, their wife-beating sons might say to their resisting partners. “She had it a lot worse than you, but do you see her rocking the family boat because of it? She is a real woman — she has her priorities right”.

And it’s not just the sons. A young (female) lawyer, brought up single-handedly by her mother, once told me she respects her aunt much more than she can ever respect her mother, because: “My aunt knew what was truly important in life. She stayed with my uncle — who had a drinking problem on top of his temper — because my cousins needed both a mother and a father. My mother was shallow and selfish — at the first sign of trouble, she ran. She didn’t even stop to think WHY my father would get so mad all the time, she would never admit at least part of it was her fault”.

So, women who have not considered walking out, for whom the rainbow of bruises is not yet enuf, are effectively holding up a blazing sign that reads, “Being victims and martyrs are essential to being female. You’re not a real woman unless you have the scars to show for it”. This might have earned them a dingy shrine in the dusty corners of patriarchy — the ever-sacrificing Seeta is the Hindu Indian ideal of womanhood, for example — but I doubt that’s warm comfort when they’re nursing fractured necks, broken limbs, depleted savings accounts, or post-rape soreness. And yet these women only have themselves to blame for the situations they find themselves in. Unless they become fully-matured adults who can take responsibility for themselves, their victimhood is entirely voluntary, and their pitiful lives are no one’s fault but their own. Right?

Wrong. Utterly, viciously, condescendingly, thoughtlessly, and ignorantly incorrect.

It’s quaint how we’ve been gradually civilised into not punishing the physically disabled for their special needs — some of us have even evolved to accepting the mentally challenged and their special needs — but when it comes to the socially disabled, we think it perfectly normal to blame them for their lack of agency. Context and possible constraints cease to matter. One’s own (relatively superior) situation becomes the standard against which others are judged, and found wanting. So if a woman of one’s acquaintance is abused, and one’s ’empowered’ response is to quickly tweet or tap out a post about this woman’s appalling lack of feminist will, then the time for some shame and self-reflection is, I think, long overdue.

Being an ’empowered’ woman doesn’t mean being entitled, discriminatory, and elitist about one’s privileges (such as they are). It means breaking the myth of feminine subhumanity and being accepted as a full, rounded human being. And a vital part of being human is understanding how our resources, priorities and problems can be almost incomprehensibly diverse. A woman who stays in an abusive relationship or household doesn’t necessarily do it because she is regressive, spineless, or too stupid to realise she has a choice. There is a very real possibility that she doesn’t have a choice. Violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum, independent of the other facts of a person’s life. A woman who takes abuse lying down probably lacks the financial independence to walk out. Perhaps she has an even more abusive past, and thinks the current deal a lesser evil. Perhaps she isn’t even aware that coercion and violence are not ‘normal’, as her culture or family has taught her, and that there are ways of escaping. Perhaps she is terrified of the harassment she will face as a single woman, or of the pity and charity she will be forced to beg for. Perhaps she lives in a Bollywood film and has deathly sick relatives who need her abuser’s support. Perhaps she is a child. Or perhaps she genuinely believes, despite awareness to the contrary, that sufference is the lot of womanhood.

Our feminist halos would shine brighter if we took the time to find out how and why, to tailor our activism to local needs, and to extend a helping hand or a sympathetic ear, instead of sitting around and telling each other how these pathetic women are lowering our collective Girl Power street cred. Be the change you want to see (as a wise man once said), but more importantly, I think, respect the change others want to see, and try to make it happen if you possibly can.

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18 comments

  1. The financial strength to take your own decisions. That’s the crux. Also, plenty of women have chronic hopes of reforming troublesome guys.

    • “plenty of women have chronic hopes of reforming troublesome guys”

      True. This is what sustains a biggest slice of the Romance pie. I’ve never read a single romance novel — and during my late teens I read several — which didn’t feature an incredibly rich and handsome man with a damaged soul, who found love and wholesomeoness through the love of a good (which equals plain, plump and poor) woman.

      These days, girls much younger than my 18 or 19 read these books (and watch these movies). One can’t help reproducing expectations or behaviour one is so insiduously fed from such an early age.

  2. Badge code:

    I find I am more interested in knowing how she stays on, these days. The whys may not make sense to me, nor do they have to, but if I can see for myself that the people involved show an acceptance of the need to change, the willingness to do so, then staying on makes plenty of sense to me.

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  4. I believe each one of us takes their own time to come to a decision which is right for them.

    If someone chooses to stay on in an abusive situation, you can be as condescending as you like from the outside, it is not going to help the person leave. Or deal with the situation. Unless she or he decides for themselves.

    And there is no reason to blame oneself for the lack of will or strength to leave. As if there is not enough suffering with the abuse in itself.

    Critical and one-sided opinions may in fact, push the person further into the trap, as they sense that you do not really understand their situation.

    • “Critical and one-sided opinions may in fact, push the person further into the trap, as they sense that you do not really understand their situation”

      This has, indeed, been my personal experience. “No one understands me” is not just a teenage-angst phase.

  5. Thanks for this post. This needs to be said.The lack of financial independence/support is IMO a BIG reason for staying. Especially when there are children involved. How many of those who advise women to “walk out” have ever stayed at a government run home or institution? Even those supported by NGOs are often terribly under-funded, and if one’s parents or siblings or friends are not willing to offer a safe place to stay in, there literally is often little choice. Even where parents or siblings “take back” a woman, she is made to feel unwelcome, or welcome only for a limited period. In many such cases, it may feel like it’s better to stay in one’s ‘own home’ however bad, than wait for help where there is none.

    • That is precisely it, isn’t it?

      1. Who is going to “shelter” an abused or coerced woman, because a great many of them have been brought up without the training needed to support themselves in all the ways needed to be truly independent.

      And 2. Since she’s formally detached from her family after her vidaai — in terms of social norms and till recently, in terms of legal inheritance as well — most married women feel the only home they have a right to are the ones they have only because of their relationship with their abusers (or their supporters). As long as the stigma of the daughter becoming ‘paraya’ does not go away, we are unlikely to see post-marital domestic violence go down in our culture.

      • Yes. Also, even if you have the money, it isn’t always that easy to suddenly rent a flat as a single woman – if you don’t want to/can’t move back in with your parents.

        • I know this first hand. I have to suffer — and I do mean suffer — a two-hour commute to work because the flats near work that I liked wouldn’t be let to a single woman.

  6. More than anything, the fact is that abusers are shrewd and manipulative. They convince the victim of abuse that she has called it upon herself in some way, they systematically work to destroy her self-esteem and confidence. After a while the victim starts believing that she is worthless in and of herself and the only thing that gives her any value is that the abuser is willing to stay with her despite her worthlessness. In such a situation, how can we blame the victim of abuse for hanging in there?

    • “In such a situation, how can we blame the victim of abuse for hanging in there?”

      Well, logic, analysis and humanity doesn’t stop people from doing it anyway. I’m beginning to think we blame the victim to avoid the long, arduous and deeply involved process of making a positive change, even a small one. If we can convince ourselves and others it was the victim’s fault, we save ourselves a lot of hard work and unpleasant thoughts. Life can carry on being peachy.

  7. So much truth here, Priyanka.
    We need to see the situation through the victim’s lens, while helping her, if possible, to know that there are other ways of living. Without offering a viable alternative, we cannot be part of a solution.

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