International Women's Day: Woman activist fights for men abused by women

Deepika says she identifies herself as 'a woman who decided to fight for justice for men and women who are falsely accused under women-centric laws'. Photograph:( WION )

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Mar 08, 2017, 02.00 AM (IST) Zeba Khan

Type the words, "International Women’s Day" on any search engine and the search results will give you stories around gender biasness, gender equality, feminism, sensitisation, gender pay gap, protests, To-Do’s-- all, mostly clouded with a strong male vs. female narrative. Some feminists believe that for women to reach where men are-- strong measures have to be taken, including giving preference to women--others argue that inclusivity and a gender-neutral approach is the key. 

While we can continue to discuss which works better, there is a feminist amongst us, who identifies herself as “a woman who decided to fight for justice for men and women who are falsely accused under women-centric laws”. Deepika Narayan Bhardwaj is a journalist-turned-filmmaker who saw the loopholes in India’s gender-based laws: their gross abuse, innocent lives getting destroyed--and decided to speak up against it. 

In her own words, she is “a human being who empathises with men and their problems too while the world is busy condemning them as perpetrators and reason for all the violence”. Deepika says, “I am a media professional who is telling that side of the story which is usually ignored or not told at all.”

I am a human being who empathises with men and their problems too while the world is busy condemning them as perpetrators and reason for all the violence. I am a media professional who is telling that side of the story which is usually ignored or not told at all
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Start of a Struggle

For Deepika, it all started after she witnessed the abuse of dowry laws up close and personal. She says, “In India, using dowry laws, a woman can accuse a man of any wrongdoing in marriage. It is almost like one gender has been handed over supreme powers to destroy anyone’s life-- as it is assumed that a woman never lies. Also, when found wrong, she is rarely tried for those lies or put through trial for false accusations.” 

“When I came across this situation, I asked myself ‘if she as a woman has rights, then what are my rights as a woman or a man--to be saved from false accusations?’ It is this thought that triggered this journey”, she adds. 

In search of an answer, she started researching and “stumbled upon suicide video of Makhdoom, who killed himself because of a false dowry case and alienation from his son”. That video strengthened her resolve to spread awareness about 498A (Dowry Act) misuse. She got on to the task of telling people’s story through her lens--in the form of a documentary, which took four years to complete.  

 The documentary titled “Martyrs of Marriage” took time to come into shape but the filmmaker describes her journey as “eventful with a lot of ups and downs: struggles, hopelessness and finally appreciation from those who got a voice to speak against the injustice”. 

Film poster of documentary 'Martyrs of Marriage' (WION)

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The Real Victim?

To my question on why harassed men take the route of ending their life rather than a divorce, she explained that “men, often don’t have an option to end the marriage, if they are a victim of domestic abuse--as no one listens to them”. 

“One such case in my documentary is that of a man who committed suicide because of harassment by his wife and mother-in-law and their threats of a false dowry case. He was staying with his wife and her family as demanded by them before marriage. When he couldn’t deal with the abuse any longer and she made him leave the house, he filed for divorce. His wife immediately took the man’s family to the police station--created a huge ruckus outside his home, beat up his family and humiliated them in their society”, she narrates. 

Deepika maintains a blog where she writes how dangerous and toxic it is for a survivor of abuse, to file for divorce. She mentions several documented cases where after the man files for divorce on grounds of cruelty, his wife has slapped multiple criminal and civil cases on him--and he has to fight for his innocence while also fighting a divorce case against her. She says, “There are families who have reached out to me, who have been asked to leave their own homes by their daughter-in-law despite being victims of abuse themselves”. 

She also points out, “It is not that every man in this situation is committing suicide. But it can be extremely excruciating for anyone--to deal with so much: entire family gets implicated; family’s image in the society goes for a toss; the man in several cases loses his job either because of court dates or stress or lack of focus; the man usually blames himself for the misery of his entire family; and the process of getting an acquittal in these cases is so long, that people give up due to continuous harassment.”

At this point, I ask about self-respect and preservation of dignity in cases of false accusation?

Deepika says, “Social beliefs, concepts, expectations affect men and women in different ways--but they impact all. Since the society expects family responsibilities to fall under the man’s purview--these cases put a huge toll on their mind--to see their family suffer because of a failed marriage and a slew of cases on him. It is unfortunate when a couple breaks-- and breaks off this ugly.” 

“Self respect and dignity is as dear to a man, as it is to a woman. I have seen several men fighting false cases for years, only to restore their dignity in the society. It is the only way to prove their innocence”, she adds. 

Self respect and dignity is as dear to a man, as it is to a woman. I have seen several men fighting false cases for years, only to restore their dignity in the society. It is the only way to prove their innocence
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The Law

Deepika explains, “In 2014, through Arnesh Kumar Judgment, Supreme Court of India came down heavily on misuse of this law and passed orders to curb mechanical arrests. 

“This is what Supreme Court observed in the case while giving orders:

‘There is phenomenal increase in matrimonial disputes in recent years. The institution of marriage is greatly revered in this country. Section 498-A of the IPC was introduced with avowed object to combat the menace of harassment to a woman at the hands of her husband and his relatives. The fact that Section 498-A is a cognisable and non-bailable offence has lent it a dubious place of pride amongst the provisions that is used as a weapon rather than a shield by disgruntled wives. The simplest way to harass is to get the husband and his relatives arrested under this provision. In a quite number of cases, bed-ridden grandfathers and grandmothers of the husbands, their sisters living abroad for decades are arrested’.”

“Crime in India 2012 Statistics” published by National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs shows that 1,97,762 persons all over India were arrested during the year 2012 for offence under Section 498-A of the IPC. 

Nearly a quarter of those arrested under this provision were women that is, 47,951, which depicts that mothers and sisters of the husbands got included in their arrest net. While the acquittal rate is as high as 93.6%, the conviction rate is only 15%. 

Deepika insists, “No one has till now answered what is the recourse available to people falsely accused under this law--while so many have already ended their life because of this harassment.”

She adds, “Rights of men’ is still a phrase that people laugh upon. As far as gender based crimes are concerned – whether it is domestic violence or cruelty or rape or sexual harassment – our laws do not see men as victims. False accusations against men, despite being in such large numbers are hardly seen as violation of their right to dignity and life.”

Deepika Narayan at a screening of her documentary (WION)

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I ask if she thinks Dowry Act should be done away with?

Deepika says, “ To answer this I would first ask a question--do only married women face physical or mental cruelty? If a man faces physical or mental cruelty inside of marriage, the only recourse with him is to file a divorce case. Even in case of extreme physical abuse, police refuses to file FIR. So while on one hand, certain behaviour is seen as a criminal offense, on other hand same behaviour is ground only for divorce.  So how can the law be so specific in terms of whom it protects when the acts it criminalises happen in many other situations as well?”

She adds, “I have met several people during the making of the film and post screening Martyrs of Marriage with similar viewpoints. A female judge in Bombay said that the law should be abolished because of the extent of its abuse. Retired Justice S N Dhingra in my film says that ‘repealing the law isn’t the solution but it should be made gender neutral’. Swarup Sarkar of ‘Save Indian Family’ speaks about punishing those who misuse the law, making the law bailable and gender neutral. So there are different opinions on what should be done with the law but there is unanimous acceptance by most--that the law certainly needs a relook in terms of its definition, implementation and corrective measures against its misuse. 

Facing criticism

Deepika faced severe criticism from all factions. She says, “Some call me anti-women. They think I am someone standing against the rights of women but it doesn’t bother me--I know what I stand for. I know who I am. If I ever saw a woman being harassed, I raised my voice against it but when I saw harassment of men through one-sided laws, I decided to stand for their justice. It doesn’t make me anti-women.”

I have repeatedly said that this is not about man vs. woman. This is about justice to people, irrespective of their gender. It is about punishing the wrong--irrespective of gender.
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She adds, “I have repeatedly said that this is not about man vs. woman. This is about justice to people, irrespective of their gender. It is about punishing the wrong--irrespective of gender.  While I do face criticism from people with extremely biased views on gender issues, I have also received amazing support from various quarters for my work. They understand that one wrong does not make another wrong valid. Sometimes people become nasty and abuse my family and me, but I guess it’s a part of the work I do.”

Moving forward

“It needs to be realised that men also feel--they feel helpless being responsible for mess in the family; handling physical, emotional and mental trauma; losing their jobs”, Deepika points. 

Currently there are no government helplines dedicated to hear problems of men. The only helpline for men that runs with the help of volunteers in India is one by Save Indian Family called SIFONE 08882498498. ‘The helpline doesn’t get any funds from the government even though their call flow is huge’. 

She adds, “False accusations on men are a reality in many parts of the world. If I talk about laws, we are far away from gender equality in those. We don’t even recognise domestic violence against men. In most parts of the world, this violence is recognised irrespective of gender.

On part of the judiciary, she highlights that both the Supreme Court and High Courts have expressed serious concerns about the misuse of IPC 498A. Change in law however can happen only in the Parliament. There have been two law commission reports on changes to 498A, suggesting that the law should be amended but so far no concrete changes in the law itself have been done--though Supreme Court has issued guidelines in 2014 to curb mechanical arrests under 498A. 

Deepika also blames media for not playing an active part in relaying the atrocities happening on men. She insists that media must exercise caution while reporting on such issues--keeping in mind that a lot is at stake. 

Deepika is currently screening her documentary “Martyrs of Marriage” throughout the country and wishes to continue media activism--to highlight the plight of men and their families--implicated in false cases by women after marriage. Deepika wants to showcase the film in the parliament so that our lawmakers understand the problem and find a solution to it. 

The interview ended with: “There is a saying - When injustice becomes law, resistance/rebellion becomes a duty. Future for the cause is that more and more people will rise up against this injustice and our lawmakers will have to address the situation.”

(WION)