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Listen to Her by Nandita Das is a short film that stresses on the fact if we want women to ‘speak up’ about domestic violence, someone needs to be listening. That’s the first step.
Even as domestic violence under the lockdown has seen a sharp increase (587 domestic violence complaints registered as compared to 396 complaints registered between February 27 and March 22), there has also been an increasing sense of helplessness and victim blaming in society.
I’ve seen multiple posts floating around, narrating incidents of how someone called the police on an abuser, only for them to be sent back by the abused woman who protected her husband. “If they refuse help, then what can we do?” these posts ask. “She should leave her husband. What other solution is there,” say others. “She must speak up. She has to take the first step,” is the constant advice. Even in posts written by women, this victim-shaming tone was prevalent.
All well-meaning, but ultimately defeatist and further alienating of the women who are suffering and who need not advice but support. Not to mention the fact that even pop-culture does nothing to offer solutions, and instead adds to the victim blaming.
The current fan favourite, Paatal Lok, for example, has very problematic depictions of domestic violence and among other mixed messages, also gives support to the idea that, ‘a little hitting is okay in love.’ Something Kabir Singh also propagated.
Even Thappad, a movie ostensibly against domestic violence, through the character of the househelp, Sunita, suggested that if only the wives would hit their husbands back, things would be fine.
In real life, hitting back invites even more violence. Forget hitting back, even mere protesting against being hit, or wanting to give up the relationship, has led to dangerous retaliation, like it did for my friend Zakira, the survivor of an acid attack.
Every time I’ve read a post, or watched a scene that promoted such insensitive and half-baked solutions, I have wanted to scream, in disgust and anger.
Thankfully, Listen to Her by Nandita Das, a short film, came as the perfect response to those saying, “what can we do?”
It opens with a professional woman on a work video call.
Like nearly every other woman who has to work from home these days, she switches between listening in on the meeting, taking care of her son, making coffee for her husband, and various other household tasks, while her husband shouts instructions at her from the other room without moving a finger himself. It is in the middle of this that she gets a call from a woman asking if this is a helpline number. Frustrated by all the demands on her, she cuts it with a curt, “wrong number.”
But when the call comes again, she is shocked to hear a woman being beaten up mercilessly. She tries to get help for the woman and is blocked by police apathy. In the end, she realizes that what she can do is give the woman her undivided attention and listen.
Firstly, the film is a great example of how a movie can be ‘realistic’ without having to feed the monster of voyeurism. We never see the woman being hit. All we can hear is what the character in front of us hears. Loud voices, screaming, a few threats. That is enough to convey the dread and the danger of the situation.
Secondly, it is immensely relatable. It accurately conveys the burning desire that someone who is being abused has to speak about it, if only someone would listen. The woman calls back, even after she has been told that it is a wrong number, because she hopes that the woman who answered will understand, and will listen.
Listen to Her by Nandita Das cleverly recognizes that the professional woman working from home has enough to deal with. It weaves in her frustration and exhaustion. Even beyond that exhaustion though, we can still help others, it points out. And in the end choosing to help the woman on the phone is what gives her the push she finally needs to snap back at her own insensitive husband, and tell him to do something on his own.
That is what sisterhood does –it helps us receive as much as we give.
Unfortunately, situations like these almost never have any easy solutions, and the film recognizes that. It doesn’t make the professional woman the ‘saviour’ of the woman on the phone. What it does instead, is place them on an equal footing, by pointing out that even though they lead different lives, and their respective issues are of different intensities, at the root of both is patriarchy.
Nor does it offer easy solutions. It acknowledges that trying to help someone who is being abused means that one must be patient. It is not a simple problem that can be solved by a single phone call. It requires that we rein in our own need to jump in and save someone, and instead focus on what the other person needs.
Some women are forced to stay in bad relationships because they don’t have the necessary financial or social support needed. Others may be financially independent, but may be suffering from trauma bonding –where one has conflicting feelings for a person who is abusive. Happy memories and promises of a better future go hand in hand with the abuse, making it difficult for the person to separate the two. Often, there are children involved and concern for their wellbeing prevents women from leaving. Sometimes they know that if they leave, their abuser will track them down and hurt them more, so fear keeps them paralyzed.
There are so many reasons why women stay in violent relationships, and we may never understand them all. However, that is no reason to give up on trying to help them.
When she shared her short film Listen to Her by Nandita Das on the YouTube channel, she stated that it is “a spontaneous response to the irony of “STAY HOME, STAY SAFE” for millions of women in India and around the world.” She further wrote, “It reminds us that speaking up is only possible when women know that there is someone listening. This pandemic has taught us that our lives are deeply intertwined, and so we must respond to the realities beyond ours.”
She also shared some helpline numbers, which are also included at the end of the film. For your reference a more detailed list of helpline numbers can be found here.
Listen to Her by Nandita Das is supported by UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and the South Asia Foundation (Madanjeet Singh Foundation).
While helplines are extremely necessary, they are sadly not enough, given that most homes in India have one phone, and that does not belong to the woman. The gender gap in mobile phone usage in India, is the fourth highest in the world.
Even where women possess their own phones, they may not have the privacy needed to make the calls.
This means that the numbers indicating the rise in domestic violence are understated, as many women are simply unable to call.
As this insightful piece points out, the government’s response to the domestic violence crisis has been quite lackluster.
As reported in this article, governments around the world have recognized that lockdowns can be dangerous for women who are being abused, and they have put in measures to ensure that these women can get help.
As opposed to this, we in India have largely witnessed a stony silence on the issue from those at the top.
Listen to Her by Nandita Das gives a beautiful message that helping doesn’t necessarily mean ‘saving.’ Even non-judgemental listening can be a great relief to those living in abusive situations. At the very least we can ease their fear, and give them the feeling that they are not alone. We can affirm that being abused is not their fault.
This is why it is imperative that we must step up, and offer whatever help we can. The silence around domestic violence can be broken, only if someone is listening. Especially in a country like ours, where we have been failed by law makers, law enforcement and by the judiciary in these crucial times, it has once again fallen on us to take care of each other.
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