For eight long years, Shahida lived in a nightmare. She had been married off before she expected. Her parents had certainly wished the best for her: a respectable family, financial security, even happiness. What Shahida got instead was just the opposite. It became apparent very soon after her wedding that she would not be able to continue her studies. Her existence was to revolve around household chores.
A month into the marriage it became obvious that her father would not be able to pay the dowry he had promised. A few days later, the uncontrollable temper and beatings began. The violence escalated to infinity. He raped her. Regularly, he threatened to kill her. He almost strangled her to death on several occasions. Even when she was pregnant she often had to go for days without any food.
Shahida's story could have ended in murder, when her husband finally carried through his threats. Or it could have ended in a suicide. Too rarely does it end in Shahida walking out of her marriage to put the pieces of her life back together. The heroic women who pull off this seemingly miraculous feat deserve nothing less than awe.
The setting for Shahida's narrative could be the most cosmopolitan urban neighbourhood or the most backward village in Bangladesh. Shahida could be of any age, class or social stature. A well-known case is that of Rumana Manzur, an Assistant Professor at Dhaka University and a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. Her husband had regularly beaten her in the course of their decade-long marriage but she had not disclosed it to anyone. She stayed married to him so as to avoid subjecting her daughter to social stigma. The episodes of abuse culminated in the attack that led her to be hospitalised and eventually lose her vision. Her husband was arrested only after six days of protests by students.
A WHO (World Health Organisation) study found that if you are a woman in the urban area they surveyed you have a 53 per cent chance of being physically and sexually abused by your husband; 62 per cent if you live in the rural area. Once you have been beaten, slapped, pushed, shoved, kicked, hit, choked, burned, dragged, hurt with a weapon, raped, coerced into sex or made to perform a sexual act against your will it is again half as likely that you will not tell another soul. You are less than 10 per cent likely to seek any help so the next time he attacks you, you will not have any way to escape.
The regime of silence diminishes victims' experiences of violence by dismissing it as 'nothing serious', ordinary, everyday, habitual, prosaic, commonplace. Some women fear that nobody will believe them. Families are instrumental in perpetuating the silence when 'saving face' is prioritised over a woman's very right to survival. Often a marriage is forged as a way out of sexual harassment in the first place as a girl is given away to exactly the same man who violated her.
Add to this the psychological trauma an abuse victim goes through. Feelings of utter helplessness and devastating shame are further compounded by a society happier to blame the victim than take an honest look at its own failures. What did she do to incur the wrath of her husband? The minutest details about her are examined to find fault while his are above scrutiny.
Many women have never been given the opportunity to complete their education so lack the means to earn a livelihood of their own. In a society where marriage can be seen as the primary means for a girl to find sustenance, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of an abusive marriage. It makes it that much more difficult for them to end such a marriage because they risk losing their children. Further exacerbating is the social stigma of divorce, placing the idea of keeping a family together above the need for everyone's well-being.
To even begin addressing this pandemic, it is imperative on us to lift the shroud of silence that prevents domestic violence from even being acknowledged. The age-old norms of society are slow to change. Meanwhile every day becomes a little more difficult to fight through for those like Shahida.
Model: Sudeshna Swayampraha Tathoi
Make-up: Tofael Ahmed
Wardrobe and Styling: Sharmila Banerjee
LS desk: When it comes to the depiction of women and their inner strength, Tagore has been one of the greatest exponents, showcasing powerful women characters. His dance dramas reveal a wonderful side of women and their enduring potency. This Women's Day we bring snippets from our archives, as Sudeshna Swayampraha Tathoi brings to life the wonderful “Shyama”. The photographs presented here were part of a series that featured on our 8 March, 2011 issue of Star Lifestyle. As an ode to womanhood we are publishing some of the unpublished images.