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Behind Closed Doors, a Netflix documentary movie tells the true stories of three brave women who are domestic abuse survivors. It made me think of marital abuse that is ignored by Indian society.
I watched a documentary movie on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. Behind Closed Doors, directed by Anna Hall. It follows the true stories of three brave women namely Sabrina and her partner Paul, Helen and her partner Lawrence, and Jemma and her partner Dwayne. These women underwent domestic abuse, both physical as well as emotional, for quite a while, years even, before they decided to put a stop to it, and finally report their partners to the police and sever ties with them. Hopefully, for good.
The movie documents their struggles, it shows their voices, their terrified calls to the police, their difficult adjustments during the trial phase, the effect their abuse has had on their families, their kids included, the scarring and erosion of their own self and the confusion in their minds all paraphrased into a single sentence.
How can you hurt the people who love you?
When you watch this movie, and I think you must, you will be as stunned and teary-eyed as I was when you see the women’s faces right after they have been beaten. Sabrina, for instance, was beaten for six hours continuously. The fact that she is able to give testimony and answer the questions put to her by the police, sitting up, shook me.
Their faces were badly bruised, a rib fracture, eyes swelled so badly it is shut, what little you can see of the eye is bloody from hemorrhage in the sclera, chunks of hair pulled out, torn and bloodied lips, the aftermath of their partner literally standing on them, throwing things at them and even a brain bruise. At one point I had to readjust my screen’s brightness because I thought it was too dim, till I realised it was her face that was black from the beating and bruising. They had literally escaped with their lives, narrowly at that.
These women had a good support system in the form of prompt and intelligent police action, quick arrests and imprisonment of the abusers, swift legal measures, medical support, aftercare if and when the partners were released as well as training for them and their kids on what to do if they found themselves in a position with the former partner facing them against their will in the future, following their jail term.
I couldn’t sleep properly that night, nor the next, nor was I completely myself thereafter. Their pleas to their partners to spare them, them saying they actually wished that the next punch would be the one that would end their life and the pain, their cries when the partner was sentenced because they still loved them, the nice bit of them, kept me up. It will keep you up too.
Stop baby please you’ll kill me!
I don’t care! I hate you!
I then recalled a conversation I had with an elderly woman, who was speaking about a relative of hers who had raised concern over an abusive husband. Not physically abusive, that we knew of anyway, but verbally so. Clearly, the lady in question was bothered about something. The elderly lady proceeded to give her opinion on the matter and the conversation went like this.
“So what if he said something to her? She must have done something to annoy him. If the woman is being difficult naturally the man will slap her around a bit to control her, it happens with everyone, even with me, I never raised a hue and cry over it! Not like the young women today who make a fuss over nothing,” she said.
I was taken aback. “Are you seriously telling me you think it is okay for a man to whack around a woman because he thinks she is being difficult?”
“Then what? Yeah, you can look at me like that all you like, but sometimes the husband has a bad day at work, or the food is not good or he is tired then who else can he take it out on? In marriage adjustments have to be made, this girl is simply creating trouble where none exists.”
“Where none exists?” I asked incredulously. “Since when is it acceptable for anyone to physically or mentally harass someone? You are an educated woman, how can you be saying this?”
“What is the big deal? My husband wouldn’t even speak to me for days if I refused sex,” she replied. “Men need it; it is our duty to fulfil them no matter how tired we may be. My husband always puts me down and makes me feel bad about myself in front of others also but I still respect him. I wish this statement and this entire conversation was an exaggeration, unfortunately, it is not.”
“And if your son in law was physically abusing your daughter would you be okay with that?” I asked. “If she took issue with his behaviour or with her in-laws’ behaviour would you still stay no problem exists?”
I noted a pursing of lips but no response was forthcoming. So I put my own point forward.
“I think it is never okay for anyone to abuse anyone. Whether it is the husband or the wife. There has to be respect. If there isn’t, it is definitely a problem. You speak this way of this girl who took issue with her husband’s behaviour, while you suffered in silence. You think you are better than her because you chose to be a martyr and she chooses to fight for her happiness? Would you not rather have been happy? Or are you proud of being the long-suffering wife who waits hand and food on her husband who shows his contempt for her on a daily basis? You are proud you adjusted and compromised but to what end? And why? It is because of this kind of pride in martyrdom that women, men and even little children think it’s normal for abuse and disrespect to have any place in a marriage. It does not. People in your generation, women especially, think it is a sign of a good wife to suffer in silence. No, it is not. It is just a sign of a bad marriage. This is your thought process and you are an educated person.”
Needless to say, I am extremely unpopular with people with this kind of antiquated school of thought.
I know of a young, well-educated woman, who was at the receiving end of some very hurtful verbal abuse from the in-laws. She did defend herself loudly and to the best of her ability, however, was extremely broken because of the many months that she had cared for them. This, of course, happened in the absence of her husband, though in retrospect he said he would most likely have removed her from the situation as opposed to correct his parents, the reason being they won’t get it anyway.
This girl did not tolerate it at all. She cut off all ties with the in-laws. She left it to her husband to bring his parent’s behaviour to their attention if he did he did if he did not he did not, it was on his conscience. Her own parents, however, repeatedly urged her to make up with them citing the following reasons.
“What will they think of us? If we spoke to you like that would you never speak to us either?”
For the record, she said, “yeah I would not speak to you either. If your opinion of me was as vile as theirs, it would be better if I were not in your life”.
Forgive and forget to keep the family together.
But they didn’t apologize. Never.
Elders don’t apologize, it is understood.
No, I don’t understand it. I have never thought that someone could get away with anything just because of their age, whether old or young.
Today this woman is extremely lonely, more so because her own family doesn’t understand the damage that was done, but she knows it is better to associate with people who appreciate her presence in their life. Who pull her up instead of dragging her through the mud. Yes, she is lonely and broken, but I know her and she is getting it together because nothing is worth the abuse.
To her husband’s credit, he has held her when she cried, picked her up when she was down and never, not once, asked her to speak to his family. Would he like it if she took a step forward and pretended things were the same as before? Maybe. That is how women have been doing it forever right?
A happy appearing family in photos doesn’t necessarily indicate a good time or a happy heart. Look beneath the surface.
According to The Wire, about 75% of women in abusive (physically) relationships do not speak up against their abusers. According to a UNICEF global report card in 2012, 57% of boys and 53% of girls, think domestic violence is justifiable. These are kid’s opinions mind you.
This is what happens when adults put up with abuse and normalise it. The children grow up thinking it is normal behaviour. So the boys who grow up and marry behave as they have seen their father does with their mother and girls who grow up and get abused by their husbands, think it is acceptable and that this is just the way it is in a marriage. They don’t know they have any other option.
According to The Guardian, more than 50% of men and women believe that sometimes women do deserve a beating. It is this culturally sanctioned degradation of women in India that has necessitated the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao movement. However, it makes little, if any, difference. It is similar to the anti-dowry laws which have been in place since far longer and yet one woman is being killed every hour for not bringing in enough dowry.
So this dowry issue can result in the death of the woman or severe long term physical or mental harassment by the boy’s side. Despite this extreme form of abuse, even educated people continue to take “gifts” offered to them at the wedding under the guise of shagun or blessings.
Bending over backwards to please others, to fit in, to put up with with abuse because there is no other option, or that there are kids in the picture and no or minimal support from the family, these are major reasons why this very clever sort of abuse game is played where not only are women pitted against men but also against other women in the form of female relatives.
Did you know, according to The News Minute, a countrywide study known as the National Family Health Survey (2015-16) brought to light a shocking statistic. 84% of women in Telangana justified domestic violence against themselves. 82.2% of Andhra women felt the same way. The causes ranged from not cooking properly to suspicion of infidelity. The most popular cause of beating, however, with a win at 37% was disrespecting the in-laws.
I did understand from the police that when a complaint is registered, the boy is locked up, and thereafter a reconciliation is attempted before any legal divorce or separation proceedings are started. When I asked why even an attempt was made to reconcile with an obviously guilty abuser, there was no concrete answer. It is the way.
We would be remiss if we did not mention gaslighting. This is less talked about and more often dismissed casually, a form of psychological and emotional abuse wherein a person is manipulated by their partner to believe they are utterly useless, devoid of intellect and worthless. This gradually rips at the very fabric of their self-esteem and self-worth, resulting in long term psychological damage.
You would lose your mind too if the person you are meant to spend your life with blaming you for every mishap, exploited every insecurity you ever possessed all the while showing false concern for your well being and even claiming love. They won’t even let you leave them claiming you won’t be able to survive without them.
You lose yourself eventually.
When an abuser is seriously brought to task, he or she becomes apologetic, tearful, full of love. Major promises are made to never abuse again, to stop drinking or whatever else the trigger, to change themselves completely. They will then be accepted back into the family. However, over time, the sulks begin. The taunts and abuse soon follow and we are back to square one again.
In the movie, one of the women said, “I don’t know why I met up with him. I don’t know why. It is like an addiction.”
She was right, it really is. It is called Trauma Bonding. It is such a terrible addiction that women will tolerate, on an average, up to 50 severe beatings, before asking for help.
What kind of love is worth this?
Image credits: The Red Elephant Foundation and Sayfty, with permission.
Header image source: a still from Behind Closed Doors
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Very feminist gynecologist. Cannot do without coffee and dogs. Bibliophile. Apart from seeing patients, most
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