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The viral violence – stating women's place amidst the Covid-19 crisis in India

Feminist Perspectives
Sumedha Dey

Founder, Women for Women

20 January 2021

Though India was quick to declare a pandemic-induced lockdown, it did not take into account the implications this would have for various kinds of violence in domestic contexts. The gendered reality of India has long caused suffering, however during the Covid-19 pandemic the violence has increased two-fold. There have been innumerable cases reported under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code and women’s collectives and organisations have confirmed that the home is not a safe place for women.

Apart from cisgender women registering their complaints about being tortured by the male members in their families there were several cases where they were harassed for their choice of sexual or romantic partner. Especially, trans-men and lesbians have faced huge conflicts in their families as a result of their gender identity and sexual orientation. The feminist collective ‘Women for Women’ was formed to help women in distress in November 2019 and just as the lockdown started we were exhausted and concerned for women’s lives after receiving one disappointing story after another. It is disheartening to note the attitude of family members towards women: not just men, elderly women of the family need to be held accountable for maintaining patriarchal structures in society. This blogpost discusses two case studies (names have been changed to maintain anonymity) from interior villages of West Bengal that I would like to share with the readers. It gives a vivid description of events and how ‘Women for Women' tried to extend help to victims/survivors.

Raka and Mohul’s Story (West- Bengal, India)

Raka* (24) and Mohul* (21) come from a rather rural area of Krishnanagar district, Shantipur, and have been friends since their school days. As they got older they realised that they had a romantic connection with each other. This was okay until Mohul was married off against her will in her tenth standard (similar to Year 11 in the UK) back in 2015 with a man who was then around 36 years old. Mohul was promised by her in-laws that she would be allowed to pursue her higher studies, however just after the day she was married, and her in-laws denied having agreed to anything like allowing her study further. This hit Mohul hard as she wouldn’t get to see Raka if she did not get to go to school. On the day after the marriage the customary taking of cheesy pictures was about to begin when Mohul refused to allow her husband to touch her. This infuriated her new husband and since then she has faced ruthless domestic violence at the hands of her in-laws. She was caught talking to Raka over phone which got her into more trouble. She also found out from a trusted source that the man she was married to was having an affair with another woman. This woman belonged to lower caste than Mohul’s husband’s family so she was not accepted by the boy’s father as a possible daughter in-law. Mohul, after her marriage in February, 2015 managed to escape and was staying with her parents. However, that very year during the occasion of Durga puja (an annual Hindu festival) her mother took her back to her in-laws’ house and left her there. The next day Mohul was caught talking to Raka by her husband and he beat her in presence of her mother, father and brother in law until she started bleeding and threatened that she would be killed and hung if she told to her parents. Her mother somehow managed to find out that she was in trouble and took her away the next day. Even after repeated requests from Mohul’s family her abusive torturing husband did not agree to give her a mutual divorce. Until today she has only received nine thousand rupees as alimony but the case still is not dismissed.

Raka was also married off in 2017 and she too was terribly abused by her husband who was a drunkard and sexually harassed her every night, so much so that she had to be rushed to hospital more than once. After tolerating this for a year Raka fled from her in-laws house is and now staying with her own parents. Mohul’s parents have been trying to get her married again and once again against her will. One day, they suddenly introduced her to a 38 year old man who works in Kuwait, who was already happy to accept her as a bride despite her past, however Mohul is not at all ready and she wants to finish her graduation at least. She is now in first year and Raka in second year, both pursuing undergraduate courses in Bengali Honours from an Open University. Mohul’s parents blame Raka for Mohul’s life state and do not pay a penny for her living costs, but take it all from Raka. However, during lockdown things worsened and now that Mohul’s parents are trying to get her married again, they are not allowing Mohul to have any contact with Raka and have threatened to assault and even kill Raka if she is seen anywhere near Mohul. The parents are so determined to keep Mohul away from Raka that they are happy to sell her off if required.

The girls are in utmost trouble and they were trying to seek help by contacting women’s organisations. That is how they came in contact with Women for Women and as I could not reach them in person I tried advising them over the phone to take legal action. This was not a viable option as both Raka’s and Mohul’s families are well connected to the local police station and they mentioned it will be of no help rather they will be insulted by the duty officers if they even try to file a case. In such a crisis Women for Women decided to address the emergency situation by requesting the girls to keep quiet unless they were physically assaulted and instead look for employment opportunities. Though living for them has become a curse and with the pandemic-induced lockdown things have only worsened they followed as they were advised. As per their last update received at the end of November, Raka has found a job and their families have agreed to let them meet and talk as friends do. She is trying to save some money in the meantime, and has a plan to move to the city with Mohul once the time is right. Women for Women have promised to be by their side and guide them in the whole process and both the girls keep mentioning that they are happy to be connected with the Women for Women and work as they are advised.

Simran and Roosi’s story (West- Bengal, India)

Simran*, a trans man and his girlfriend Roosi* used to live together in a rented house at Sonarpur. However, when the lockdown was declared they both went back to stay with their respective families. During lockdown their relationship was revealed to their family. Roosi’s parents went berserk upon learning about the relationship and decided to marry her off as soon as possible. Roosi fled from her home and started living with Simran, who had lost his mother already. His father had no issues with their relationship until Roosi’s brother interfered and started threatening Simran. In this case however the Superintendent of the local police station got involved and sheltered the couple for few days. Now they have returned to a rented space in Sonarpur but they are going through utmost financial crisis seeking help from different people with not much hope though. Women for Women have put them in touch with queer collectives and lawyers who are happy to help them whenever they are in trouble.

The rise of gender violence in the domestic front especially during the COVID-19 crisis have hugely increased pressure on organizations and collectives dedicated in identifying problems and resisting the ever increasing ill-treatment of women. The crucial contributions of every single organization and collective play a key role in re-defining the place of women in society. As they say, a woman’s place is in the revolution. I feel there will come a day when women will smash the patriarchy. However, the test that women are undergoing during lockdown is traumatic beyond explanation. ‘Women for Women’ shall always strive to help every single woman who reaches out and advocate for their rights.

*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity

About the Author

Sumedha Dey is a Human Rights activist, based in Kolkata, India. She is the founder of the women’s collective ‘Women for Women' which dedicatedly works to improve the social reality of women. At present she is employed as the Monitoring and Evaluation officer at the NGO ‘Women’s Interlink Foundation'. She enjoys reading vociferously and listening to music in her free time and loves travelling. Socialising with indigenous people and learning about various cultures is one of her favourite activities as well as observing differences in gender practices.

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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