A recent Unicef report found that among Indians aged 15-19, 57% of boys and 53% of girls “think that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances” (p. 32).
The report clarified that 'justification' is not the same as approval: “it reflects societal views that accept such practices when women and girls have a lower status or when they do not fulfil certain expected gender roles”. Much of India remains a patriarchal society, or holds a man to be higher in rank than a woman (patriarchy in India has been a topic of illuminating recent discussion among female bloggers and writers such as Saba Dewan and Nilanjana Roy). As such, these figures are not exactly surprising, however saddening they may be.
In my view, there is no acceptable defence for physical violence against your spouse, be they a man or a woman. I feel the issue is relatively black and white and have little else to offer personally.
The Times of India (TOI), a leading English paper in India, had a more complex – and for me, quite frustrating – view on the results. It initially reported the figures with a piece titled '57% of boys, 53% of girls think wife beating is justified'. As is custom with much TOI reporting, some editorial commentary under the heading 'Times View' was included:
“These findings on youth attitudes towards marital violence should not just be seen as shocking. They should also teach us the limitations of laws on domestic violence. Such laws may be important to help minimize violence against women. But they are clearly not enough […] A strong legal framework to deal with domestic attacks must be backed up, therefore, by a sustained and intensive campaign to raise awareness on the issue among men and women. Steps to raise the levels of female education would play an important role.”
This commentary is quite limited and ill-considered – I'll come back to that later – but not entirely unfair. In any case, TOI makes no claim to absolute objectivity in its reporting. No major problem so far.
But then, somebody at TOI decided these results about domestic violence would provide a good survey question for the paper's 'Speak Out' page. Up it went, in the bluntest terms:
Not surprisingly, the majority of respondents answered in the negative. However, and also not surprisingly given the patriarchal attitudes that remain present in India to varying degrees, a few agreed that wife-beating is justified. Brief arguments were offered, often with the caveat that it is only justified in certain circumstances. One joked about his own wife. Another invoked the beliefs of anti-corruption Anna Hazare. It was a shambles.
Here's why I think The Times of India asked whether wife-beating is justified, and why I think none of those reasons make it an acceptable question for a media organisation – especially a market leader – to ask. (Note that I'm assuming they expected responses to be overwhelmingly negative – surely there's no way they were actually asking their readers because they could not decide for themselves.)
To see if its readers' views reflected those in the Unicef poll. Well, you'd really hope not. Is it worth it to even check? Or was this perhaps considered an opportunity for TOI to demonstrate the relative moral superiority of its readers – and, by extension, itself? TOI does, after all, have a track record of judging itself in comparison to other media outlets, so perhaps it saw fit to tease out an unscientific illustration of the high ground its readers occupy.
If TOI was unsure about how its readers felt on this issue, I'm surprised at how little they understand the market they serve. On the other hand, if TOI were indeed seizing the opportunity to appear morally superior, the act of attempting to demonstrate this instead indicates a character deficit.
To provide an avenue for readers to air their opinions on the matter. There's an inherent risk in offering up an open public forum in which anyone can speak: you may end up providing an avenue for the promotion of prejudiced and perhaps hateful thoughts and attitudes. Well-moderated sites remove comments that include hate speech, so when someone espouses domestic violence in a comment thread, the offending words (or perhaps the whole comment) are removed. The site would not want to be seen as tolerant of hateful or unfairly discriminatory views and would likely consider such views a distraction from the debate, rather than a contribution to it.
In this case, the question directly invites speech prejudiced against women. This clears the way for a domestic violence advocate to write more or less what he wishes, and in wording the question emotionally – 'Do you feel' – rather than factually, TOI absolves itself of responsibility for any storm that may follow. However, as the offending comments appear on TOI's website, TOI bears responsibility for their being aired.
To garner pageviews on its website, leading to increased advertising revenue. The Times of India is a business, owned by Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. (aka The Times Group), and its purpose is to generate revenue for its owners (the Jain family). As such, every single one of its actions, whether in print, online or elsewhere, is designed to bring in revenue; its staff are no doubt encouraged at every level to maximise revenue potential, including the person or people who set the questions for the Speak Out page.
With all that in mind, I don't think it's ethical or responsible to play on people's antiquated attitudes towards domestic violence for the purpose of generating revenue. The financial benefit does not outweigh the dubious morality of allowing someone, be they a reader or anyone else, to post words on your pages arguing in favour of wife-beating.
Back to the legal framework that TOI passed off as “not enough” in its 'Times View'. India's Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Actwas passed into law in 2005. Its definition of domestic violence is broad, and leads off with the following words:
“harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, life, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical, of the aggrieved person or tends to do so and includes causing physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse and economic abuse.”
The remainder of the bill is quite comprehensive. In the context of the Unicef figures, or indeed any story on domestic violence, I'd have expected any media organisation to make reference to it in its coverage. However, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act is not mentioned once in either TOI's initial report on on the Speak Out page, where it so brazenly asked whether readers feel wife-beating is justified.
Photo credit: alarabiya.net