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Opening doors

Rinki Bhattacharya hopes her book will empower women.

AFTER MORE than 20 years of listening to women share their experiences of domestic violence, after collecting many "powerful, moving stories" from victims who needed to share and find belief, and after making her own way out of an abusive relationship, Rinki Bhattacharya decided that a book needed to be written to break the myths about the "silent crime" of domestic violence.

Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, ex-wife of the late Basu Bhattacharya and daughter of noted filmmaker Bimal Roy, knows how to wield the power of the written word. Through a regular column in Mumbai's Mid-Day newspaper, she repeatedly dealt with the issue of violence against women.

Documenting domestic violence

"But the media has its limits. There's only so much you can do through a column in a newspaper," she says. "So I started collecting the stories, documenting everything I heard and saw about domestic violence." It was in the mid-1980s that the idea of putting these stories into a book came to her. She sent in her manuscript to a well-known publisher, who initially reacted favourably. Many months later, they changed their minds and returned her document, "totally mutilated". "But I'm a documentarist at heart, so I kept at it, writing and recording," she says.

And almost two decades later, Sage Publications decided to publish these oral histories in an edited volume titled `Behind Closed Doors' dealing with domestic violence in India. "The book is in a sense a sequel to a film I made in the Nineties," says Rinki. "There's been an overwhelming response to it across audience segments." The narratives of battered women are interspersed in the book with essays by scholars and activists, combining journalistic and academic approaches. "While there is no longer that silence or disbelief that once surrounded the issue, there is still very little support for women who face violence within the home," she says. "There is still so much sanctity attached to marriage and family life, that very few women actually seek support or attempt to escape the situation."

Statistics bear that out. A cross-cultural study conducted in 2002 by a U.S.-based research group in collaboration with Indian researchers found that two out of every five women in India remain silent about abuse because of shame and family honour. India had one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, with and estimated 45 percent of Indian women reporting some form of abuse. Of the women reporting violence, 50 percent were kicked, beaten or hit when pregnant. About 74.8 percent of the women who reported violence have attempted to commit suicide. Family pressures, concerns about children, the lack of economic independence, and the overwhelming sense of guilt that most women feel, all contribute to keeping these crimes behind closed doors. "Usually, the woman is taken completely by surprise when the abuse begins, and there's a lot of criss-crossing of emotions," explains Rinki. "There's a continuum of violence, beginning with verbal abuse, with the woman usually feeling that in some way she is responsible for the violent reaction."

Dispelling myths

The book, she hopes, will dispel some of the "myths" about domestic violence and empower more women to break the silence. "Many women think violence is something that happens only among the working class," she says. "So there's a lot of denial that women in upper classes go through before they see that they too are victims." When talking to poorer women, Rinki found that even they thought that women in well-to-do families would never have to deal with domestic violence. But with education and wealth also comes isolation, and women rarely connect what is happening to them with the notion of crime. In addition, "educated" women also feel a greater sense of shame that keeps them from "coming out".

Moreover, there is little social support for victims of domestic violence. In Rinki's film, `Char Diwari', one woman recounts how no one in her Mumbai chawl responded to her screams because they all thought it was a "gharelu mamla". While there are laws that allow women to seek redress against such violence, they are ambiguous and have been misused and few lawyers are motivated - or aware - enough to use these legal provisions to the advantage of women.

Long way to go

"We've definitely made progress over the 20-odd years that I have been working in the area, but we are still not geared up to provide a good safety net for the majority of abused women," notes Rinki. Groups such as Nirmala Niketan and Nari Kendra in Mumbai, Sakshi in Delhi, Vimochana in Bangalore and Asmita in Hyderabad have made a difference to some women. Police are more sensitive, the special Crimes Against Women (CAW) cells have helped to some extent. But not enough. "Where is the visibility for such issues in the public environment?" asks Rinki. "When you travel abroad, you find posters on the tube, in bus stops, that encourage women to report abuse, providing helpline numbers and addresses. But here the sources of support are still invisible to most of the women who need it."

Rinki feels that we need to educate women more about the possibility of such violence. "I was really pleased when a woman picked up my book, telling me she wanted her young daughters to read it and understand that this could happen to anyone," says Rinki "I really hope younger women do not take as long to come out of such situations as we did, in my generation," she says. "But we cannot be prescriptive about such an issue - the answers must come from the women themselves." Society can help by providing the space where they can find their answers. Her own experience has given her a "passion, an edge" for the issue that is clearly visible in the book and the film. "It's more than a book to me." Rinki always knew that she would write a book. "But this is certainly not the book I would have wanted to write, or expected to write," she says, without regret. "When I began writing, I thought I would write a thriller, or a romance, maybe...and yes, I suppose this is a thriller - of a different kind."


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