Violence against women is a growing concern for any modern society, however, the incidence rate of spousal abuse and wife beating in India suggests that it is a particularly burning issue for us. There are laws to protect women from domestic abuse and punish the perpetrators of this crime, but a society free from such violence seems a distant prospect. The challenges lie in structural and attitudinal change. How do we tackle this problem in the long term? Can we understand the attitudes that reinforce such behaviour?
Feminist theorists often argue that domestic violence is an institutional problem deeply embedded in the values of patriarchy, where men emerge as the victimisers and women, the victims. This perspective has been used to illuminate the relationship between discrimination and violence against women at large, as well as within the household, stressing on gender oppression in the form of battering. Masculinity ideology, patriarchy and interpersonal power are key concepts often associated with domestic violence.
Masculinity ideology is a powerful concept and can colloquially be summed up in the popular maxim: “boys will be boys”. More precisely, it refers to the idea of men in a society adhering to culturally defined roles of masculinity set for them. Within a patriarchal set up, violence in order to settle disputes is seen as a masculine quality. Often justified as an intrinsic and pre-dispositional property of manhood, the socialisation of this notion makes it easy to overlook violent behaviour towards the wife.
Interpersonal Power theory also explains the problem of domestic abuse by asserting that power imbalances in the family due to the tensions created by low income or unemployment are the primary contributors to spouse abuse.
Interpersonal Power Theory also explains the problem of domestic abuse by asserting that power imbalances in the family due to the tensions created by low income or unemployment are the primary contributors to spouse abuse. Based on similar ideas, Resource Theory and Relative Resource Theory also explain behaviours of wife beating by men. These theories argue that married men who have fewer resources to offer (resource theory) or fewer resources than their wives (relative resource theory) are more likely to use violence.
Another perspective vital to understanding violence against women in general as well as attitudes towards wife beating in particular is social learning theory. This prominent learning theory suggests that children learn behaviours by observing others around them. Witnessing marital conflict and spousal abuse during childhood increases the likelihood of violence in an individual’s adult life. This suggests that domestic violence is a learned behaviour and a result of socialisation and intergenerational experiences.
The perspectives discussed here shed light on how attitudes are formed and behaviours are learned. These, however, barely scratch the surface of the issue. Eradicating domestic violence from our society entails a systemic, institutional and cultural paradigm shift. Many researchers have previously conducted studies to explore the issue of domestic violence in India. However, only limited studies examined men’s attitudes towards women, men and women’s attitudes towards wife beating and the gender differences. India is a diverse country with different religious and cultural beliefs across 29 states. Researchers such as Kalyani Menon-Sen (author of the 2001 UNDP report — Women in India: How Free? How Equal?) along with others stress on conducting cross state examinations to assess the impact of culture on a social phenomenon as deeply rooted in the system as that of violence against women.
Madhumita Pandey is a fellow of Higher Education Academy of UK and Academic Researcher at Anglia Ruskin University.