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The definition of wife, for Aruna Sharma

Aruna Sharma would seem to have all the qualities of a good Indian wife, educated, hard-working, privileged

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

In a country where girls have a higher mortality rate than boys in every cause of death, Aruna Sharma made it to adulthood. In a country where only 65.46% of the female population is literate and only a tiny fraction of girls reach class XII, Sharma has an MSc in development studies and an MA in English literature. In a country that has the highest number of child brides in the world, it is safe to presume that Sharma married in adulthood. In a country which is grappling with women dropping out of the workforce at an alarming pace, Sharma is one of less than 1,000 women to join the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS)—since 1974. She got a promotion last year on the strength of her performance. She is what India wants for all its women. On paper at least, 59-year-old Sharma is the Indian Gender Parity dream.

Yet news website The Print reported last week that Sharma recently wrote a letter to the Union ministry of women and child development about the “narrow approach in the name of women’s rights". The website said she believes this has led to a rampant misuse of law by women.

The Print quoted from Sharma’s letter, which sounds so much like parody you might be forgiven for not taking it seriously: “Define ‘wife’. Just marrying, making life hell for a couple of years, and ensuring that no child is born cannot be a claim for lifelong maintenance when the boy will have to support his new family and children. Such women only use matrimonial home as a parking place, and then to extort to support their wayward lifestyles."

I scanned recent news reports to help Sharma understand the definition of an Indian wife.

An Indian wife is the one who is shot in front of her two-year-old son because her spouse wants to live with his other wife. Or strangled to death because her husband suspects her of infidelity. She’s the one whose debt-ridden spouse killed her with a 20-pound dumbbell he bought especially for the occasion. Or the one whose surgeon spouse strangled her with her dupatta, packed her in his car and travelled more than 1,000km to dispose of her body.

She’s the trusting soul who tagged along with her husband to purchase a new apartment for them in a building and who, instead of signing on the dotted line of her dream house, got pushed off the third floor of the building under construction because he was having an affair with someone else. She’s the one whose spouse smashed a stone over her head after they argued during dinner and the one whose husband stabbed her repeatedly with a kitchen knife after they argued over money. Her man kills if her food fails the test. It doesn’t matter if she’s pregnant, he could murder her because she didn’t make the perfect round chapati.

Sharma used the term “modern-day dacoit" to describe empowered, educated Indian women, i.e. women like herself, adding that they were framing men under cases of dowry and domestic violence.

Innumerable studies have uncovered the intimate crimes that go on in our homes. In the decade to 2015, 88,467 women, or an average of 22 per day, died in dowry-related cases. In 2015 alone, 7,634 women were killed over dowry, National Crime Records Bureau data show.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was passed in 2005.

Almost 30% of married (this includes widowed, divorced and separated) Indian women between the ages of 15 and 49 years reported experiencing spousal violence at least once, the National Family Health Survey-4, conducted over 2015-16, noted. “More Indian women are prone to fire-related deaths than any other country—18 times more than Pakistani women and 38 times more than Chinese women," the public-interest journalism website IndiaSpend quoted, referencing an analysis of global disease data. Yet Sharma believes men are the real victims in dowry and domestic violence cases. Sharma is also reported to have said in her letter: “It (marital rape) is having intercourse when one of the partners unwilling, it is possible by both genders—and it is word of one against another, what are we trying to hint at? If the woman is undergoing harassment, she can separate from the partner."

Indian men love acid—250-300 attacks are reported every year—so a wife can be the one whose husband pours acid over her genitals when she refuses to have sex with him. She’s the 25-year-old who shares that her father-in-law attempted to rape her to have an heir since her husband was impotent.

But any good Indian wife knows that her body is not her own. It belongs to the family she married. She gets that marriage is risky business. She understands that her husband is within his right to demand sex and that her orgasms are entirely her responsibility (why do wives even need orgasms?). She knows the duties of wife, daughter-in-law and mother take priority over her needs as a woman.

She acknowledges her husband’s right to beat her if her food is not good. She’s already prepared for him to show her who’s the boss in the early years of their marriage. Hang in there, it will get easier, she’s been told.

A good Indian wife knows the money she earns belongs to him. That her work is secondary to his. That it’s okay for her in-laws to torture her for the slightest thing. That she is everyone’s domestic slave. She’s thankful that her man allows her to work. She’s learnt that she shouldn’t argue with him even if she’s sure she’s right.

Aruna Sharma would seem to have all the qualities of a good Indian wife. Educated, hard-working, privileged and yet brainwashed by the parochial values she couldn’t shrug off.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets @priyaramani

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