Over the last couple of weeks, Keralites (people who are natives of Kerala)all over the world have been eagerly following the developments of an ongoing police investigation of a murder that has ‘shocked’ the Malayali conscience and shaken the ‘civilizational roots’ of the society. On the 7 May,2020, a 25 year old woman named Uthra died in her sleep due to snake bite. It would have been considered as a normal death but doubts arose on the inconsistency of the circumstantial evidences as discussed by Vava Suresh, a Kerala based snake expert and wild life conservationist. Investigations by the crime branch revealed the purported role of Sooraj, husband of the deceased, in planting a snake inside the room which led to the death. Further investigation charged the in-laws with domestic violence and conspiracy to murder.
These epiphanies led to a huge uproar on social media, where deep seated distrust, devastation and shock on the inhumane nature of the murder were expressed in the strongest of words. Popular opinions were voiced against marrying daughters off to the rapacious grooms. But what caught my attention, among all those opinions, was a tag line which read ‘a divorced daughter is better than a dead daughter’. This is not the first occasion of dowry death in Kerala. Each instance leads to thousands brooding in anguish and shock in the virtual and real world, raising the aforementioned tag line.
The word ‘shock’ implies an element of surprise due to experiencing the bizarre. But being ‘shocked’ by ‘monotonous events’ are irreconcilable. Domestic violence and dowry deaths have been normalised by their intermittent occurrence, eliminating all ingredients of surprise. Moreover the patriarchal society which has proven credentials of masterminding domestic abuses, from time immemorial, should gloat on its triumph rather than being shocked. The vicious in-laws are insignificant partners controlled by a crafted puppeteer nourishing on gagging women and convincing them of their inferiority and unworthiness for generations.
Past researches have pointed out myriad excuses for domestic abuse such as patriarchal mindset of the in-laws, arguments, impotency, desire for a male child, alcoholism, dowry etc. It is maintained that the reluctance of Uthra’s parents to place more financial resources at the disposal of the in-laws along with the resolution to appeal for divorce, which would obligate the repayment of dowry, forced the conspirators to connive the murder. Our adherence to the Dowry Prohibition Act is superficial.
The word dowry has been substituted with a more subtle and sophisticated expression such as gift or pocket money, in common parlance. Brides decorated with gold jewellery from head to toe have become an indispensable component of our marriages. Patriarchy has been successfully employing peer perception in compelling the parents of the bride to bequeath generous ‘gifts’.
It would have been the stigma and bane attached to divorce that forced Uthra, like many others, to endure the family violence. It is here that the tag line ‘a divorced daughter is better than a dead daughter’ earns relevance.
Before moving any further let us consider two scenarios, one is of the dead daughter and the other is of the divorced daughter and how it plays around.
The Scenario of the Dead Daughter
Deaths due to domestic violence are ‘celebrated’ by our society. Such deaths trigger a standardised ephemeral flamboyant response from all quarters expressing solidarity with the family of the deceased, condemning brutality of the in-laws, appealing for an impartial investigation, media trials and swiftness in bringing the culprits before the law.
These debates and discussions fall short of identifying and highlighting the social stigma attached to divorce, correlation between divorce and family honour, patriarchal society’s aversion towards remarriage, reluctance of being a hostage repeatedly and challenges of being a single mother. Such anxieties inspire her to brave through all the insults and tortures by the in-laws at the cost of her life.
She will be affectionately appreciated, by the society, for giving her life up in the line of duty of saving the family honour. The public attention and outrage soon gets diverted to fresh transgressions that ‘shock’ their conscience. The cultural factors that incited the death are left unaddressed.
The Scenario of the Divorced Daughter
Death terminates misery. But divorce, in a patriarchal society, is the beginning of mistreatment through societal encroachment upon the privacy of women. Divorce becomes the pretext for the parents as well as the society to seize decision making capacity due to her perceived incompetence in saving the marriage.
The inconsistencies and inaccuracies in arranging a marriage between two perfect strangers are not considered before abducting her right to arrive at personal decisions.
The life of a divorced woman gets worse with time. Her personal life becomes a material for societal necropsy. Mixed bag of responses ranging from empathy over her misfortune to criticism for not being patient enough with the in-laws, the woman will be tossed around with such taunts and ridicule. Dependence, on the ‘first gender’, cultivated since childhood will land her in the inner domains of the household. Once the hullabaloo surrounding the divorce gets settled she would be considered as a distressing burden.
Not a Dead, Neither a Divorced Daughter: How About an ‘Independent Daughter’?
The realisation that a divorced daughter is as undesirable as a dead daughter should force us to think about a third scenario-, the scenario of an independent daughter. The words women empowerment and gender sensitisation have been in the air for quite a long time.
Without the much needed resolve, on our part, women empowerment and gender sensitisation have lost focus and have subsided as craft workshops or self-defence trainings and short-lived campaigns or movie screenings respectively. We still have not given any serious thought on financial independence and emotional self-dependence of our daughters, which should be the stepping stone towards women’s empowerment. Since childhood our daughters are taught to adhere to a set of norms and behavioural patterns stipulated by the patriarchal society that sustains itself by suppressing dissent and lambasting uniqueness. The binary of male and female with its behavioural attributes are planted in her and grows with her. Dependence on the ‘first gender’ and modesty ‘typical’ to woman are sewn into her daily life, which restricts her to the inner realms of the household while the public realm becomes the exclusive privilege of her male counterpart. Dead daughters and burdensome divorced daughters are immediate consequence of this lopsided system that ensnares daughters in marriage.
Renunciation of the archaic parenting practices, dictated by the patriarchal social order, is the foundation on which an independent daughter should be raised. Equal opportunities should be created for promoting physical, emotional, social and individual development of children irrespective of gender. Marriage should be made an option and not a compulsion.
Financial independence and emotional self-dependence will invigorate her to choose whether to remain in an unfulfilling/torturous marriage or to be divorced, without the angst of taxing her parents. Determination to resist the unwanted societal intrusion and confidence in living as a single mother are the positive spin offs of this revolution. Let’s say, enough is enough, and none of our daughters will ever be enslaved by this patriarchal world order.
Agney GK is Assistant Professor at the Mar Thoma College ,Tiruvalla, Kerala.