Whenever I hear allegations of domestic violence or abuse, I immediately believe the woman. Some people call that a bias, and it may well be, but based on my experience of the culture of intimate partner violence my decision seems reasonable to me. However when the law applies the same benefit of the doubt and begins to aid entrapment, am I less of a feminist for wanting to discuss it? Even when I know it is true, why is it so hard to admit that women can be wrong too? We discuss in our latest piece.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
“So a woman can never be the one who is wrong?” He asked.
That’s not what I had said, but I could see why he would think it based on the discussion we had just had. He was telling me about some friends of his who are getting divorced, and the woman has alleged that she was abused by the man, and even though she claims she has evidence she will not present it to the court. He told me that he doesn’t believe her based on the fact that he knows them both well and he thinks she is more likely to lie than he is to beat her. I told him that I do believe her because she’s a woman. If both of our statements seem somewhat unconscionable, it’s because they are. If both our statements seem somewhat reasonable, that is also because they are.
In an ideal scenario, the fact that my friend knows these people, should mean that he be the expert on them in a conversation between the two of us. After all, I don’t even know their names, how could I possibly know what happened? On the other hand, I do know the magnitude of the prevalence of domestic violence, especially in India. Almost all my female friends have been in abusive relationships, most of the older women in my life have been abused, I have been abused, I’ve worked on women’s issues for a long time and I have met many women who were abused, yet I know almost no women who were believed. The conviction rate for domestic violence is abysmal and the reporting of it is almost non-existent, most often it only comes up legally in cases of divorce. I also know the culture of silence that surrounds this issue, and how it is aided by the normalisation of violent and abusive male behaviour in households. A lot of times men will tell me what they are being accused of, and they cannot fathom how they are wrong, even though it is quite clear to me, and the law. When you know dozens of other people who behave exactly as you do with impunity, it is hard to see how your behaviour could possibly be wrong, or worse, actionable.
And so, I believe women, and statistically, I think my decision makes sense. When there’s a 95% chance I am right to believe women, I am willing to risk the 5% chance that I may be wrong. However, this is the part where it gets a little murky and I begin to see my friend’s point. Does that mean women can never be wrong? Is that what I believe?
There are lesser known facts that we are less willing to discuss, and I admit that I try not discuss them either because I worry about my words coming off as a betrayal to feminism and the women’s movement, and more importantly, I worry that discussing these things will further in the minds of people the idea that “modern women” are the reason why more marriages than ever have started to end in India (but please, remember, it’s still just 1% of Indian marriages that end in divorce, and that is a whole other issue). If you belong to a certain socially-liberal section of society, I’m sure you have heard someone say in the past decade that women take advantage of the laws available for their protection to trap men. I don’t want to agree with that position at all, especially out of context like this, but the truth is, I’ve seen it happen.
If you are a woman anticipating a contentious divorce and you go to a divorce lawyer, they will immediately suggest that you file 498A (that is, the husband or any relative of the husband subjecting the woman to any cruelty including dowry harassment). For a while 498A was a non-bailable offense (it is not quite so anymore), and the mere allegation (without any evidence) could get you arrested. I understand why it existed, and it makes sense, because women are so unlikely to be believed, and endangered after they make allegations of abuse, it made sense to provide them with a tool that could ensure their safety as soon as they reported the abuse. However 498A has been abused by divorce lawyers, women are advised to file it immediately, regardless of whether anything happened (and again, this is not to say that in the majority of cases, it probably did). It’s not that, it’s the nature of use of this law. Once in conversation with a lawyer who was representing my husband during his divorce from his former wife, I asked him some questions about 498A, and whether those cases are ever heard to conclusion.
“Rarely,” he said, “This is a tool for negotiation, everyone files it now.”
It makes sense, from a legal point of view, if you wish to secure for your client a sizeable alimony (which, again, is something a lot of women need and should be able to avail to be able to leave bad marriages), you have to weaken the opponent into needing to negotiate to have the case against him dropped. The contrary is also true. Another friend of mine when attempting to get divorced was asked by her lawyer to file the same case, and tell emotional stories of abuse, she refused to do it because she didn’t want to lie, because even though there had been abandonment in that marriage, there had not been anything that met the stipulations of 498A according to her. Her lawyer told her that didn’t really matter, but she refused to budge, and so while she did get divorced, she got nothing (and to the extent that she didn’t even get her own stuff back). She had no bargaining chip.
When my husband divorced his former wife, he had the same case on him. As part of the divorce settlement, it was agreed that he would pay her a certain amount of money, and she would drop the case against him. To me that’s an indication that the case was filed only to secure the divorce, and it being dropped as part of the legal (and ratified by the court) stipulations of the divorce indicates that by all measures, it is acceptable to use this as a means to other ends, and I find that problematic. I just don’t know how to phrase it without indicating that this is what all women do, because it’s not. By nature of my life, my friends all belong to the same “class” of people, they are socially-liberal, reasonably privileged, fairly independent, mostly well-employed, city-dwelling individuals, and often the voices from that circle are reflected most strongly in social discourse, even when they aren’t the norm. That’s also the reason why we are so eager to believe the patriarchy has been fixed now. We hear it loudly from some people, and even when it doesn’t reflect in our lives, we think maybe we are the exception. There is, however, a certain section of society that is more well-versed in the proceedings of divorce law, and those are the people who tend to use this tool the most, and they in no way reflect the majority.
And so I face this conundrum.
On the one hand there exist around me, silenced women who would benefit from this law to escape their marriages or have justice served. On the other hand there exist around me the men who have been victims of this law, and have been unfairly painted as predators just because they were accused by women. This doesn’t change the fact that I believe women, even when I am aware that I have a bias, because I am basing it on statistics and my life. It also doesn’t change the fact that women can be as wilfully wrong as men and take advantage of laws they shouldn’t. Ideally, everyone would act like my friend and refuse to lie, but the truth is that she suffered for her unwillingness to lie.
So all I can really hope is that our judges think about this as deeply as possible, because the ambiguity here doesn’t make for great law, and the reality here doesn’t make for great honesty.