‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ The question on everyone’s lips, post arrest of Aftab Poonawala

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I have a friend, ‘happily married,’ for the past decade and a half – she hides the fact that she sends money home to her retired and ageing parents. My own mother, now 70 plus who has been remarried for over three and a half decades, would tell me not to show all the shopping we did to my father, asking me to store the shopping bags in my bedroom. In 2016, when I was in a relationship with a much older man in Delhi – I would not tell him when I visited the parlour.

If you are reading this as a beginning to a column that is not about what you think – you may be wondering if the subtext I am trying to establish here is that the men cross-referenced had an actual objection to all three acts of secrecy.

Or would be dictatorial. Or, reprimanded the women.

The thing is, none of what you may be thinking is absolute – just the way, lies and truth, quite aren’t.

My friend’s spouse, once during a bitter fight, screamed, ‘I earn more than you. This is my home. You send a large chunk of your salary to your folks. Don’t think I don’t know what you are upto!’

My father has a habit of using the phrase ‘again!!’ every time he spots a shopping bag. Followed by the refrain, ‘don’t you already have this (meaning, what we may have picked up)?’

My ex would love to calculate how much ‘vanity bucks,’ I spent on colouring my hair and opined I would look far better with grey hair (note, I was 38. He in his 50s).

None of these men were what you think.

Bad men.

Also, pause and ask – what is your definition of a ‘bad man?’

Abusive or asshole?

Most men I know have at some point, made a joke on themselves and confessed that they have been assholes or are assholes to a certain degree. A rebuttal that smacks of entitlement – in a lopsided world where men can get away with being assholes – where we let them.

Funny thing is – what constitutes an asshole is seen as different from what constitutes one who is an abusive man. Read the proverbial wife/girlfriend beaters, cheaters/liars, frauds/scheming monetarily/dupe women of money, rapists/sexual predators.

There are laws to punish the latter.

There is self-deprecating humour or moral apprenticeship to protect the former.

‘He can be a bad husband. But, at the end of the day, he’s a good father,’ says a girlfriend, after a fight.

And yet, I bet, every woman reading this, may feel a goosebump. A shudder. A wince, maybe?

Every woman, reading this, could probably agree, that we have kept things to ourselves – small, insignificant, sometimes, material pursuits, like shopping jaunts and spa dates, sometimes, even those we have indulged in on our own hard-earned money. Every woman, on this page, will vouch for the fact that every time we do something of our own volition – anything – our socio-cultural-moral and religious conditioning makes it imperative that we ask. Seek permission. Second guess our choices. Question the consequences.

That we wonder, will they – father, brother, husband, partner, son have a counter opinion? Disagree? Admonish us? Not be happy.

Because in a culture where women still serve food to their men and eat last and aren’t used to entering temples when they are menstruating. Where fathers wash the son-in-law’s feet and hoard his home with trays of extravagant trousseau and don’t even sip a drop of water in a married daughter’s home after she has left hers – throwing a fistful of rice over her shoulders, repaying an archaic ‘pitri vrin (father’s debt). Where the biggest festival of the Mother Goddess commences as Devi Paksha, but only after bare bodied men have performed tarpon in the waters of the River Ganges to remember and release the spirit of their ancestors gone by – after Pitri (father) Paksha.

Can we ever stop asking….

What if they get angry? Disagree? Say no? Scream? Pass an unsolicited opinion? Judge us/our parents/our life/our work? Make fun at and of us? Think less of us? Lose interest in us?

What if they stop loving us?

Leave…

In my urban single women’s community, Status Single, all we can talk about is the man accused of killing and chopping up his live-in partner into 35 pieces, allegedly bringing home another woman he met on Bumble, to the same flat, at a time when the head and torso of his deceased partner were still stored in his refrigerator.

Aftab Poonawala had also met his alleged victim, 27-year-old Shraddha Walkar, on the same dating app. Poonawala was arrested on 12 November on the basis of a missing person’s report filed by Walkar’s parents and charged with murder. Police claim he murdered her on 18 May after an argument.

What is heart-breaking yet again is the ashes of yet another woman who camouflaged years of abuse and toxicity – from her parents. Her friends. Her own self, maybe?

“She was a different person before she met Poonawala. She was sweet and ambitious. I don’t know what happened but she changed after she met him. She stopped talking to me and would rarely speak to her mother. I was worried after her mother’s death. I knew she was in a toxic relationship with that boy. I tried stopping her but she wouldn’t listen,” her father has been quoted in his media interactions.

A friend says in the Indian Express, “They were in a live-in relationship since 2019, but it was a very turbulent one, and he assaulted her many times. Finally they decided to give it a last shot and went to Himachal Pradesh this year for a trip. Even there, they were having fights and Shraddha had told us she had decided to break up and their relationship was nearing an end. After the Himachal Pradesh trip, they decided to spend some time in Delhi and I think she was waiting for 16 May, which was their anniversary.”

According to WHO, globally about 1 in 3 (30 per cent) women worldwide are subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (27 per cent) of women aged 15-49 years who’ve been in a relationship report that they have been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.

Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is aggression in a relationship where violence can take diverse forms — physical, emotional, or sexual. The National Commission for Women registered a total of 4.350 complaints against domestic violence from March 2020 to September 2020. Besides, the safety of pregnant women is hampered due to IPV. In India 21-28 per cent of women face IPV while their pregnancy.

A September news piece in India Today cites a total of 4,71, 684 original cases and 21,088 appeals are still pending under the Domestic Violence (DV) Act in the county, according to the data submitted by the National Legal Services Authority before the Supreme Court. The NALSA has submitted state-wise data regarding pendency of disposal of cases under the DV Act as of July 1, 2022. As per the data, a total of 1,193,359 cases of domestic violence have been registered across the country under the Act since its notification.

I know what you are thinking – why do women suffer intimate partner violence? Educated women? Professionally qualified women? Women from middle and upper middle class families? Good-looking and supposedly empowered women?

Women like the deceased victim who had probably everything going in her young life – who could have been happy? Why did she stick onto and conceal details of her fractured relationship which allegedly got murky when she started asking for commitment in the form of marriage – leading to ugly, screaming slugfests.

Writing on a topic that has been my greatest battle to overcome is never easy.

As I see Shraddha’s half smile – I am transported back to my own trajectory. My first real relationship in second year of college with a man who checked all my boxes. English medium, Bengali Brahmin, only son, South Kolkata, job in a private airline, car and own home, older sister settled in USA. I still have no clue, so many years later, why on a date, when all I did is refuse to be touched in a shadowy public place, my head was banged into the steering wheel. The perfectly normal man screaming at me. Driving like a maniac. I think I had tasted alcohol on his after breath. The second time was during an argument when he forcefully parted my thighs, using both hands and pressed a half smoked, cigarette butt inside my sex, over my panty. I think he had used the word ‘punish.’ The third time, pulling my hair and threatening to slap me.

The fourth…

Me lying to my motley group of women friends in Jadavpur University, my alma mater, on how I had hurt my eye. Repeating the same thing to my parents.

The man in question had a habit that I now recognise is the same in every person who is a narcissist and enmeshed in this psychological power tussle – where there is no winning. The webs of carefully constructed excuses and lies – always a side to their story. Always an alibi and defence. You are guilt-tripped into self-questioning – did I do something wrong? Was it my fault? Did I deserve this? What can I do to change and make peace?

What can I do to stop them from going?

Almost every woman reading this who has been abused by an asshole (to me, they are not very different) will know how humiliating, how painful, how dehumanising, this process of indoctrination is. How easily we believe we can shrink ourselves – change ourselves – keep our demands down – speak lesser and lesser – till we have no voice left. Till we are a role. Till we are a showpiece. A pleasure provider. A comprised reality.

Sans self-worth or boundaries.

Till we self-harm by internalising comments that we hear our mothers, and, girlfriends normalise.

‘Men will be men.’

‘Men have needs.’

‘Men need space.’

‘Men don’t like to be questioned.’

‘Men like to dominate.’

Till we hear the following in our heads.

Aankein nicchi rakhna sikho (keep your eyes down).’

Awaaz upar nahin (don’t raise your voice).’

Tangey dhakkho (cover your legs).’

Dhang ke kapde pehno (wear decent clothes).’

Sehna sikho (learn to adjust/take it)’

Tameez se baat karo (speak politely).

Anger and protest are not our armaments till we discover another Nirbhaya or Shraddha – till another one of our sisters degenerates into a staggering statistic.

Till we are nothing else but a placard to hold up and a candle to light.

Till we can only dream again of forbidden freedom.

Not one based on crude revenge.

But, basic equality.

The writer is the bestselling author of ‘Sita’s Curse’, India’s first feminist erotica, and ‘Status Single’ and the founder of India’s first and only community for urban single women. She is also a leading columnist on sexuality and gender. Views expressed are personal.

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‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ The question on everyone’s lips, post arrest of Aftab Poonawala
‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ The question on everyone’s lips, post arrest of Aftab Poonawala
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