Violence Doesn’t See Privilege: ‘Women Like Me’ Can Be Abused Too
We bias ourselves into believing that domestic abuse manifests in a certain type of woman, writes Aarushi Ahluwalia.
(This story was first published on 3 November, 2020. It has been republished from The Quint's archives on the occasion of International Women's Day.)
I used to do yoga in the public park in my neighbourhood. As I finished up each evening, a middle-aged woman carrying a small bag of vegetables would wave at me as she passed through. One evening she came over to my spot under the tree.
"I love your short hair," she said, beaming.
"Thank you," I told her, "I think it would suit you too if you cut yours."
“I’ve always wanted to say something to you,” she began seriously, “I see you everyday and I always think about how strong you are. Whoever loves you must respect you so much. You would never let a man hit you.”
We talked for a while about her life. She had an abusive husband and son. She was the only working member of her household and she didn't get to keep her own salary.
She couldn't get out because she had no place to go and because she lived in one of those tight-knit communities where she would be deemed immoral for taking action against her husband.
She rejected my offer of help but kept telling me that she took solace in women like me. Women who were independent enough to cut their hair however they liked, rent their own apartments and make their own money.
“You would never let a man beat you,”she kept saying.
I know she meant well and I know why, to her, I appeared so different. In many ways freedom is a factor of socio-economic condition, exposure to progressive ideology and privilege. I come from a world of privilege.
I have the modern-appearance, disposable income and English-speaking skills that allow me to rent myself private spaces in big cities where I can make my own rules. There is great disparity between me and her, because feminism in India has so many waves going on at once that it sometimes alienates women from one another.
She couldn’t imagine “women like me” could be abused and I cannot blame her for that. Our disparate social environments in the same country taught us to expect different struggles.
‘Privilege Did Not Insulate Me from Abuse’
The unfortunate truth is that my privilege did not insulate me from abuse. For eight years, I was in an abusive relationship with a man. My friend from the park had her partner chosen for her, but I chose mine from the operational bias of low self-esteem.
I was a fat fifteen-year old and he was a college boy who told me I was special and unique. In the first year that we were together, he never hit me but if I had been more experienced I would have seen red-flags much before fists were raised.
He told me that by virtue of being sexually involved with him I had tarnished myself and had to stick with him because only he could see what was beautiful about me where all others only saw an ugly slut. He admonished me for being dedicated to school and having ambition that far surpassed his.
Women are exposed to abusive relationships in different ways and often kept there by financial traps, but even in the absence of that, abusive behaviour follows a similar pattern.
Abusers will make you smaller and pick apart at you until you feel like you have no value and nothing to offer to anyone. They will make themselves appear trustworthy, loving and respectable in social spaces so that even if you speak up, they can rely on you being disbelieved.
When teenagers date there is often little exemplification of a healthy relationship. We are a generation in flux in many ways.
We grew up watching the marriages of our parents; we grew up watching the "adjust and compromise" version of marriages that is now being prescribed to us as appealing by Netflix programming and while many of us cannot relate, we were also not taught how a healthy relationship might look like.
Many of us saw our fathers beat or gaslight our mothers and many of us were beaten by our parents. The treatment of our bodies by the people who loved us when we were children impacts what we believe love looks like.
‘Didn’t Know It Was Wrong When He Hit Me’
Which is why when my boyfriend first hit me over a minor altercation over a burger that we had right in front of his house, I didn’t know how wrong it really was. He slapped, kicked and punched me right in the street as I ran away from him.
My driver, the dhobi and various others watched a grown man beat a girl and no one said a word.
The driver drove me back home in silence as I cried in the backseat, my heart pounding in the bruises forming around my ribs. I didn't tell anyone and I asked the driver not to tell anyone either. He looked at me like I was somehow dirty, it wasn't a look of concern but of judgement and it stayed with me my entire life.
I thought for sure that I would leave my partner then. I knew the reality of many marital relationships in India and I had always known I would never partake in that. I had been taught to speak up, to make noise, to wear skirts with authority and have opinions even louder.
I didn’t understand that the mere act of education and ambition did not disqualify men from treating me like they would other women.
Empowered – Only on Paper
I still believed I would leave him until after two days of ignoring me, instead of apologising he threatened to leave me and socially malign me instead. I felt a terror that I have never felt before and I started begging him not to go.
As the years passed, I went away to college in a big city, and he moved to a different city for a job. The distance between us allowed the abuse not to be frequently physical, though it was consistently emotional. I joined feminist organisations and attended protests. I started doing social work in favour of victims.
I got my own apartment and a job. I was so empowered out in the streets. On paper, I was a strong, free, independent woman who was out there asking questions, smoking cigarettes and smashing the patriarchy.
The knowledge of the abuse kept me from ever being able to accept that about myself, I felt consistently that by letting myself be beaten by a man, I was a criminal in the court of feminism.
I was surrounded by strong women along with whom I told other women in difficult situations that a sewing machine would be the first step to erasing their black eyes and stolen autonomy. I couldn't tell those women that I needed a magic sewing machine too.
I couldn’t tell my friends because the one time I did the chorus of, “Why would you not leave for so many years?” that screamed back at me felt like it was asking me to prove my truth instead of alleging it.
As I grew to have more of a voice, financial independence and individual identity in my relationship, the relationship suffered. He blamed me for purposely living far away and started to show up unannounced, and as a way to avoid that, I decided to move in with him. I deluded myself into believing that would be a fresh start for us.
‘Had Anxiety at Thought of Going Home’
Dysfunctional relationships like that give you the mindset of war, you start approaching each battle as if it's the thing that will fix everything. It didn’t, it only got worse.
People with issues of violence and anger will often show it in more than one place, and because of that tendency he got fired from his jobs frequently until I was essentially the one providing for us.
His dependence on me made me feel guilty for even entertaining thoughts of leaving because I was worried he would have nothing.
I got two jobs and he developed a stay-at-home habit. He hated me for working but needed me to work. He got angry at each instance of professional success.
His temper got so bad I started to have anxiety at the prospect of going home. The signs of abuse became harder to hide. People in my life started to suspect the obvious and I lied and isolated myself from everyone. I could hear the voices of the entire world, screaming inside my head,
"How could a woman like you allow this to happen to yourself?"
‘You Don’t Know How to Adjust with a Man’: Abuser’s Mother
The levy cracked with my femur. On a particularly angry evening, he pushed me down the stairs, giving me a hairline fracture in my femur. Unable to find a recourse, I confessed to his mother.
“Women are like the sky, they accept everything,” she said to me in a soft tone, “These days women like you are so modern, you start crying about every little thing, you don’t know how to adjust with a man.”
Somehow hearing that from the mouth of a woman broke the spell of delusion that had been cast on me eight years prior to then. I left him a week later. After I left him, everyone in my life was shocked. My family couldn't believe I would leave such a loving boy after being with him so long.
An older woman in my life asked me privately to discuss it with her, and when I told her that the relationship had been abusive, her response instilled further silence into me.
“Are you sure it was like... real abuse?” She said with concern, “Because real abuse is serious but if he just pushed you or something... You know these days, young girls think everything is abusive.”
The Pathology of Abusers
After I left my abusive relationship, I communicated with women who had been abused all over the world.
“We were women from different industries, different countries, different financial realities but the experience of abuse followed such a textbook narrative that it’s impossible not to conclude that the commonality lies in the pathology of abusers and their ability to direct controlled behaviour.”
They will make you complicit in their ideologies and behaviours and remind you constantly that their hateful behaviour is an expression of love and concern.
They will call themselves possessive and make it sound like that is an attractive trait. They will operate with confident ownership and gaslight your reactions until you start to believe you are the unreasonable one.
They will take your money and act as if you are dependent on them. They will say they respect women because we are goddesses while they punish us for slipping from our morally-upheld pedestals.
When we look too closely at the women alone, we bias ourselves. We bias ourselves into believing domestic abuse manifests in a certain type of woman.
The best case scenario of that is what happened to me in the park, a woman saw me at face-value and drew strength from her belief that in my differences I held the power to escape abuse.
The worst case scenario is that people find it difficult to believe I could really have been abused because we hear only one story of abuse and women like me don't fit the role.
I like to tell myself that I didn't tell my friend from the park the truth about myself because I didn't want to take away her hope of independence as a means to escaping abuse, but the truth is, I was scared she wouldn’t believe me, because of my short hair.
(Aarushi Ahluwalia is a freelance journalist currently based in J&K. She recently launched her own women-centric news website, The Pamphleteer. She has worked extensively on the subject of gendered violence and women's issues for organisations such as Cobrapost, CNN and The Guardian. She tweets @the_pamphleteer. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.