Feminist Review

, Volume 83, Issue 1, pp 169–171 | Cite as

Behind closed doors: domestic violence in India

  • Kaveri Sharma
Book Review

Rinki Bhattacharya (editor); Sage Publications, New Delhi/Thousand Oaks/London, 2004, 234p; ISBN 0-7619-3239-9 £14.99 (Pbk); ISBN 0-7619-3238-0 £29.99 (Hbk)

Domestic violence is the most serious violation of all basic rights that a woman suffers in her own home at the hands of members within her own family. The manifold problems associated with domestic violence have been systematically exposed by data and in-depth work has been undertaken by several people in the women's movement. The few studies available indicate that physical abuse of Indian women is quite high, ranging from 22 to 60 per cent of women surveyed (Mahajan, 1990; Rao, 1997). Most of the available information consists of qualitative studies of very small sample size. The only large-scale indicator of violence against women is the data relating to crimes against women published by the National Crimes Record Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. The records of the bureau reveal a shocking 71.5 per cent increase in cases of torture and dowry deaths during the period from 1991 to 1995 and may reflect increased reporting of violence.

This collection of essays on domestic violence in India is enriched by contributions from eminent academicians and activists who have contributed to the women's movement in India in various ways. The editor, Rinki Bhattacharya is a writer and freelance journalist, having reported on women's issues in India and abroad for over two-and-a-half decades and is presently the Director of Bimal Roy Memorial and Film Society, Mumbai. In the introductory chapter, Rinki discusses the status of women in general and violence against women in particular. She describes various practices that are discriminatory towards women, ranging from forced marriages to ‘honour killings’ in India to Chinese custom of foot binding. The facts and figures she gives are mostly Western-centric and at best, of the Indian diaspora in the US, although there is plenty of data available on violence against women in India (for example see ICRW and CDPA Report, 2000).

In Chapter 1, Anwesha Arya elaborates the dichotomy within the Hindu religion of being ‘worshipped, on the one hand, as the ultimate creative principle, and controlled on the other as threats to that very creation’. Anwesha traces through historical and archaeological evidence within the Hindu religion to understand the role of goddesses in forming the present status of women in Indian society. Anwesha ends her chapter with the analysis that ‘if Indian women are able to find a route for being defined outside the sphere of marriage as individuals, not wives or mothers or daughters or sisters, there is hope’.

In the chapter on the State response to domestic violence, Sobha V Ghosh gives a detailed analysis of the changes in law around ‘cruelty to wives’. Sobha details the provisions of the Domestic Violence Bill, which is presently before the Indian parliament and describes the women's movement's engagement with the State on issues of violence against women. The manipulation of the Bill, which was initially drafted by the women's movement to a form that was not acceptable by the movement and the struggles thereafter have been aptly discussed. Sobha then discusses the role of the family members, male as well as females, in perpetuating domestic violence on women. Referring to Agnes (1995), she states: ‘The politics of the household cannot be seen simply as a struggle between oppressing men and victimized women….women themselves may be inserted into a hierarchy based on age, marital status and maternal status’.

Police attitude towards women is discussed in Kalindi Mazumdar's chapter, which elaborates from the experiences of student placements in police stations in a residential area in Mumbai. From the placement experiences, the chapter describes the attitudes of police towards women, what comprises a good woman and what comprises a bad woman.

The bulk of the book (pp. 67–190) comprises of narratives of 17 women interviewed by the editor during a span of seven years from 1984 to 1991. It is these narratives, which provide the richness to this book, describing various ways in which women are controlled and abused by their husband. These women from various different geographical locations, belonging to different castes, religions and from varied class and educational backgrounds, are similar in what they experience behind closed doors – violence. This collection of women's lives and their struggles from the abuser is an eye-opening account in their own words.

A useful part of the book is a glossary of terms that have been used in the book, which includes some terms that are used in common parlance in India and will be useful for a non-Indian reader.


  1. Agnes, F. (1995) ‘State, Gender and the rhetoric of law reform’, Research Centre for Women's Studies, S.N.D.T. Women's University, Mumbai.Google Scholar
  2. ICRW and CDPA Report (2000) ‘Domestic violence in India: a summary report of four records studies’, International Center for Research on Women and The Centre for Development and Population Activities, Washington DC.Google Scholar
  3. Mahajan, A. (1990) ‘Instigators of wife battering’, in Sood, S. (1990) editor. Violence Against Women, Jaipur: Arihant Publishers.Google Scholar
  4. National Crimes Record Bureau Reports (1991 and 1995) Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.Google Scholar
  5. Rao, V. (1997) ‘Wife-beating in rural south India: a qualitative and econometric analysis’ Social Science and Medicine Vol. 44, No. 8: 1169–1180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Feminist Review Ltd 2006

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  • Kaveri Sharma

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