Imagining a world without violence against women sounds deceptively simple but the act of imagination is, in fact, quite revolutionary. Especially for women. Because before we imagine, we must question. And that is a habit that has not been encouraged in us.
So weighed down are we from the moment of birth by preconceptions about our role in the so-called natural harmonies of this world, that to question is nothing short of revolutionary. To imagine is to see beyond the status quo the possibility of a new world, a new reality. Starvation does not allow the hungry to imagine food. Our censors – cultural traditions and lack of power – click into place, lock down our imagination and so it becomes our secret garden. To share it we need courage and hope.
I have spent the last 23 years opening up this secret garden to public access through my work with Southall Black Sisters. I have written at length about domestic violence. However this article is not an analysis of the issues but a personal perspective on how violence and casual neglect pervade the lives of women.
In a dark, air-less barn filled with bales of straw and smelling of dried buffalo dung, an old woman scraped the black carbon grime off a wedding carriage with a hardened fingernail. A 12 year old girl watched as the silver struggled to shine through and glint in the small shaft of light that had entered through a hole in the barn door. She looked up in wonder at this near-sighted woman with the pendulous breasts and gnarled hands and tried to imagine her as a young bride about the same age as herself, removed from her mother and being pulled by bullock cart to her new home – with a 16 year old boy whose temper was yet to leave its imprint on her.
The woman was my grandmother and the little girl was me.
I had heard stories, the stuff of legend, about her life which I dared not ask her about. Not because she would get angry. That had been beaten out of her a long time ago but because there are silences that pad out the fabric of all family life. If you poke at the silences, you are in danger of puncturing the fabric.
If the walls could speak, they would have told me how she had to make hot chapattis for my grandfather, one by one, run down the spiral staircase from the kitchen to the men’s quarters where he ate, run back up again, make the next one and make sure it reached him before he had finished the last one – or else he would throw the iron bucket at her, the same bucket in which buffalo milk was delivered in the mornings.
She had thirteen children and only five survived. Her deep physical and emotional loss that no one talked about, least of all her – another one of those silences which shrouded the violation of her body.
My mother told me how once she had worn her best clothes – a skirt made of 40 yards of material - to vote in the elections. My grandmother voted?!!! She believed she could change the government but not the situation at home? And in the scrum that is so typical of Indian elections, she gave her sister-in-law the slip and tried to jump into the local well. But the sister-in-law caught up with her and stopped her from putting an end to the misery of it all.
As she got older and needed glasses, they were often without lenses and we children laughed at her empty frames as she burnt her fingers or stepped blindly into mud. She died a few weeks after my grandfather when they were both in their eighties. And so began the process of burying the truth; the years of violence that she had endured were lost in the family myth that theirs had been a great love.
My father asked me to travel 7000 miles, from London to their village in Haryana, to attend my grandfather’s funeral but said not a word when she died a few months later. She didn’t matter. She didn’t enter into the scheme of things. Neither her life nor her death was mourned.
I offer you this skeleton, this anatomy of a life, and ask you which of these single acts you would most condemn. The truth is that wherever they fall on the scale of cruelty, they all arise out of one single thing – the lack of value that is attached to a woman’s life. That translates into low self-esteem and allows us to tolerate ways of being, of living that do us harm.
Of course much has changed. Not to acknowledge that would be to negate all that women’s actions have achieved and the pressure for change and protection of women that they have demanded from government and community. There are a number of UN, EU and national laws dealing with the elimination of violence against women. In Britain, we have a battery of laws to protect women against domestic violence, forced marriage, rape and trafficking, to name but some of the issues, backed up by a network of refuges and women’s centres. Of course these need to be better resourced, the police better trained and the rate of convictions in rape higher. We need to end patriarchy.
But meanwhile we need to build a society that nourishes the development of the unassailable self. We need to develop a sense of self that cannot be eroded, a sense of self that is rounded and whole. And it isn’t something that can be easily rescued if it has been so utterly crushed in children. It is what saves a woman in the final analysis.
Let me give you an example. I remember talking to Kiranjit Ahluwalia shortly after she came out of prison in 1992 where she had served three years for killing her brutal husband, after experiencing ten years of violence from him. And how troubled she was by the women she met at Southall Black Sisters. Had they sustained a deeper cut, a bigger bruise, more broken limbs, she would ask me, guilt-ridden, and yet they had not resorted to her ultimate act of survival? Was she somehow weaker or more evil? They all lived in a country that offered some protection, they were all to a lesser or greater degree constrained by religion, culture, gender and race and yet there were some women who escaped and some who didn’t. Although I could offer her no reassurance, no answers, on reflection I realised that a tentative answer lay in her childhood. She was the youngest in a family of nine, she was orphaned at the age of 16 and was the favourite ‘spoiled’ child of the family. The security and attention that Kiranjit received as a young child gave her that sense of self – that allowed her one day to stand up and say no more, I will take no more.
We need to guard against all those tiny invisible ways in which we erode that sense of self. Every time we tell a young girl to dress modestly and not attract attention to herself in manner or make-up. Every time we praise one body image over another. Every time we elevate certain ideas of beauty above others. Every time we blame her behaviour for being raped or assaulted, for being drunk, for being promiscuous, for being out at night – in short for doing any of the things that would be acceptable for men.
We need to guard against all those many ways in which we condition young girls to accept violence as the cost of their gender: when they have to assume the responsibility of keeping families together no matter what, of submitting to marriages that benefit the wider family, of carrying the family honour, of having their genitals mutilated in order to keep virtue intact. Most of all, we need to make sure that we do not take the blame for the violence that is visited upon us. I have worked with young Bengali girls in the East End of London for whom to lift their heads and eyes to the horizon was an act of rebellion. Every young girl should be able to raise her head and look beyond the horizon.
Violence against women knows no boundaries, taking place to a greater or lesser degree across community, culture, religion and class. In Britain alone, almost two women on average are killed by violent men every week. One of the earliest cases in which Southall Black Sisters became involved was that of Balwant Kaur, an Asian woman, who was brutally stabbed to death in the 80s by her husband in front of her children at the refuge to which she had escaped. To remind ourselves when the question arises in our mind – why didn’t she leave – that women are most at risk when they are leaving a violent relationship or shortly afterwards.
I wrote a poem for a fund‑raising memorial held by the Balwant Kaur campaign which remains as valid today.
There you lay oozing
Blood ran cold, blood ran dry.
A solitary fly buzzing
Stunned by the echo of your death-cries
Stifled by your blood-constricted throat
Brutalised by a knife's gyration.
Sister, all your imagined wrongs
That moved his hirsute wrist
Insinuatingly through dark alleyways
Twitching inside an overcoat
Seeking your final submission
Calling out your guts.
Children peeking, unbelieving
Your mother and I are talking,
He says - blood spilling
What kind of talking is that?
Let it be the last.
You will not be consigned to dust
Time must not heal
Nor memory conceal
Your blood will not congeal
Come we will show men what fear is
When courage stalks a women's raised fist.
Read other articles in the series, 16 Days Activism against Gender Violence