In a sunny schoolroom, off a small dusty lane in Madanpur Khadar, a resettlement colony on the outskirts of New Delhi, a group of 10 women are talking amongst themselves. Some giggle nervously. With a reporter in their midst, they’re too shy to make anything other than small talk, until Bhagwati, a slender, self-assured woman who looks younger than her 39 years, speaks up. She gives a clear, unwavering account of a marriage that had become a living hell. “For many years, I didn’t even know what meant. I would just take the anger, the shouting, and the beatings. He would hit me for the smallest of reasons. If there was too much salt in the food, I’d get slaps across my face.” After the beatings, came the rapes. “He would force me into bed for sex. Aisa lagta tha ki uske maarne ka maksad sirf mujhe nanga karne ka tha (It felt as if his beating was aimed at getting me naked).”

Marital rape is defined simply as non-consensual sex where the perpetrator is the victim’s spouse. What Bhagwati’s husband did may have been rape but because he is married to her, and she is not under 15 year of age, it is not a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In early 2000, two-thirds of married Indian women surveyed by the United Nations Population Fund claimed to have been forced into sex by their husbands. The last National Family Health Survey of India (2005-2006) found that 40 percent of women (aged 15-49), married at least once, had experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence perpetrated by spouses. This from a sample size of 1.25 lakh women across 29 states.

The women in Madanpur Khadar, all domestic abuse victims, are gathered for a meeting with Jagori, a Delhi-based women’s rights NGO for which Bhagwati now volunteers. They laugh at the idea of their husbands asking for permission. “If they cared about consent, we wouldn’t be here,” Bhagwati says. People mostly associate violence and brutality with ‘stranger rape’. Indeed, they mostly associate rape with strangers. Despite the precipitous rise in stranger rape in Delhi to around 10 percent, the national figure still hovers around two percent, meaning that the overwhelming number of reported rapes are committed by men known to the victim. Yet, violent stranger rape is the subject of an anguished public discourse while the daily sexual violence women live with in their marriages is unacknowledged, kept hush-hush.

‘My husband said that he spent money on me, how dare I not sleep with him. But he never once kissed me. On our wedding night he had sex with me seven times. I was in so much pain I couldn’t move’

Neha, 26 Lucknow | Separated

Talking to gender rights activists, field workers, lawyers, counsellors, and women across India, it becomes abundantly clear that sexual abuse in marriages (of which the penetrative act of marital rape is just one part) is rife across regions, classes and communities. Such abuse exists, according to Flavia Agnes, the lawyer and feminist, “in a continuum of a range of violence that takes place within the matrimonial relationship.” Violence can include excessive sexual demands, making your wife perform sex acts despite her protests, forcing her to watch and reenact porn, or verbally humiliating her during sex. But rape in India is accompanied by a culture of shame and silence, enforced and internalised by victims. Women, particularly married women, are conditioned to not talk about abuse.

Unlike with most stranger rape, the sexual violence in a marriage is meted out systematically over time, until behaviour that would be criminal outside marriage becomes acceptable. Violence that should be an aberration, a shock, becomes normal. Imagine such a life in which unrelenting fear is normal, in which you are forever uncertain what might trigger your husband’s wrath, in which saying no to sex is unthinkable. You might then empathise with and perhaps even begin to understand the sort of life Bhagwati has led. Or taste the sickening brew of fear and shame that pushed 28-year-old Anita, a market research employee from Lucknow, to attempt suicide.

Anita was married in 2005, to a man in Maurana village in Unnao district, UP. The abuse started almost immediately. Her husband forced her to be available for sex at his beck and call, day or night, sometimes both. He made her perform oral and anal sex despite her resistance. He wouldn’t even let her leave the bed to go to the bathroom. “This was not a marriage. There was no love between us,” Anita says now. “He was just not concerned with me, never bothered even to talk to me.” His utter indifference and constant demands on her body took their toll. Depressed, afraid, and full of hate for her husband and herself, Anita stopped eating and fell frequently ill. Each time the doctor would tell her husband to abstain from sex for the sake of his wife’s health, he ignored the advice. “He would deny that he that done anything wrong,” she says of her husband. “So many times I tried talking to him, I tried compromising, but he never listened.”

‘My husband raped and beat me even when I was pregnant. Three months ago, I tried to commit suicide’

Smita, 35 New Delhi | Separated

Suicide seemed the only escape. Sadly, Anita could not even rely on support from family and friends. “I asked them to help me,” she says, “but they didn’t listen, didn’t want to understand.” When she found the courage to run away, her family forced her to attempt a compromise, to go back to her abusive husband. Relief came only when Anita got in touch with the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (AALI), a feminist group in Lucknow that helped her file for divorce. Her husband agreed for a divorce on mutual grounds, only after AALI lawyers warned him about cases under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (DV Act).

Anita’s case is a typical one — the early onset of abuse; the husband who doesn’t care; families that don’t support women leaving their marriages; a culture of shame. When the Delhi gangrape caused frenzied discussion on sexual abuse in a patriarchal society, the government had an opportunity to do the right thing by married women. But the Parliamentary Standing Committee chose to exclude marital rape from the Criminal Amendment Bill 2013. Criminalising marital rape, the committee argued, would weaken traditional family values. As if the institution of marriage were built entirely on a man’s entitlement to his wife, as if she were his property. It is an inherently skewed gender equation. Sex for a married woman is a matter of submitting to her partner’s pleasure. A married woman has no autonomy, no rights over her body. It is almost like the doctrine of coverture followed in England and the United States well into the 19th century, in which a married woman’s rights were essentially signed over to her husband. Back then, British feminists argued that marriage amounted to little more than legal prostitution.

‘It feels as if he was like a lion who could come into a jungle, do whatever he wanted and disappear. No one could stop him’

Sujata, 30 Hyderabad | Separated

Bhagwati’s husband clearly thinks the same, refusing to give her money for food and clothes for herself and her children when she began to resist his demands for sex. He was only doing what society enabled. As the lawyer Indira Jaising says, by accepting that marriage presumes consent, we have “legitimised an act of violence associated with sex”. The logic of men like Bhagwati’s husband is crude: sex is the price of food and shelter. Neha, a former school teacher from Lucknow, says her husband told her point blank that he had spent money to marry her and thus had every right to sex.

She recalled in detail her horrifying wedding night, when her husband had sex with her seven times, leaving her crying in excruciating pain and unable to move. “It could be any time of the day, anyone could be in the house, I could be menstruating, it didn’t matter to him,” she says. “He would use abusive words, kick me, make me perform oral sex. And if I refused he would hit me. If I screamed he would tell people I was mad.” Neha tried talking to her parents. Their advice was for her to adjust to her new home. Her husband drank daily and the violence escalated to the point where he began harassing her outside the school where she worked. She had to leave her job. Like Anita, Neha too talks about the lack of love and affection in her marriage. “It was rape,” she says, “not a relationship.” As of now, her complaint is being heard by their gurudwara, as her family is too scared to seek legal redress. “He’s richer and more powerful than me. Will the police listen to me, a lone woman? How will I fight him?”

‘I was so scared of my husband, and hated myself so much that I tried to kill myself ’

Anita, 28 Unnao, UP | Divorced

This feeling of inadequacy, of utter helplessness is all too familiar to any woman who has faced or continues to face abuse. There is nowhere to turn. Not to family, for whom the stigma of a broken marriage appears to override all other concerns. Which is why, the most common advice given to women is to adjust. When Bhagwati began to attend Jagori’s meetings, and began to stand up for herself, her family was appalled. Relatives tried to talk her down from her ‘rebellion’. Please your husband, they told her. Learn to live with him, to make the peace. “When I would refuse,” she says, “they would get so angry, they would tell my husband to beat me more.”

Age, social standing, none of it seems to matter. Kameshwari, for instance, is a 60-year-old woman from a village near Aelur, Andhra Pradesh. For years she was raped and beaten by her husband who branded her an unfit, sexually unsatisfying wife. She’s finally ready to leave her 65-year-old abusive husband but her octogenarian mother won’t hear of it. She is dead against the breaking up of a marriage.

If overbearing, controlling family isn’t enough, when women do summon the courage to leave, or to complain about their husband’s abuse they also need to deal with the police. Indian police is notorious for its callousness towards sexual complaints of any nature. The women of Madanpur Khadar talk about the contempt with which the police treat married women who complain of abuse, either siding with their husbands or calling them to the police station alone and keeping them there well into the night. Neha, from Lucknow, says she went to the police a two years ago. “They shooed me away. They told me to stay at home with my husband like good women are supposed to.” Several victims of domestic abuse in Delhi said how hard it was to even get their complaint registered. When TEHELKA spoke to Suman Nalwa, the Deputy Commissioner of the Crime Against Women Cell in Delhi, she denied any knowledge of the police not registering complaints of sexual abuse. When asked why she thought women were hesitant to approach the police, she said, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them.”

‘I bled for days after my husband raped me, and my in-laws thought I had gotten pregnant by another man. My children would go hungry and thirsty if I would say no to my husband’

Jaya, 28 Lucknow | Separated

The uncaring attitudes of the police, of family members, are for abused women confirmations of their worthlessness. In other words, they are a continuation of the abuse begun by their spouses. In an abusive marriage, the victim’s vulnerabilities are preyed upon. Beyond sex, many say, their husbands could barely bring themselves to acknowledge their wives’ existence. They were, they say, to their husbands less than human. To talk of rape and sexual abuse in the context of a marriage challenges the culture’s notions of how marriages should function, challenges the sanctity granted to the institution, challenges the accepted gender roles — aggressive masculinity that validates itself by asserting dominance and passive femininity that seeks to keep the peace.

Dr Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychologist, points out that children internalise these codes, these so-called traditional family values. They see how their mothers rarely get angry at their fathers. It is women, he says, who bear the burden of negotiating peace, who grow up being taught to please everyone and say sorry. Their sons learn that to be a woman means to be submissive.

“When our traditions dictate that satisfying her husband sexually is a wife’s duty, then we’re fighting against a widespread and entrenched mentality,” explains Sandhya Rani Valluripalli, one of Hyderabad’s doughtiest women’s rights activists. “Women are supposed to conform to the notion of bearing and honouring their husband’s name. Where is the space for a woman to talk about or understand sexuality? To express her needs? The public will turn on a woman who does so.” There does seem to be an extreme cultural hostility to and discomfort with women’s sexuality in contemporary India. Women are not supposed to be the initiators of sex, nor are they supposed to desire it. If they do, there is something wrong with them.

‘When I stood up to my husband, my family told me to just listen to him and keep him happy’

Bhagwati, 39 | New Delhi | She and her husband have been living in the same house but different rooms for six years

“We are taught from before marriage that sex is a duty you have to perform for your husband,” says Bhagwati, “that’s why there is no question of them asking for our consent.” Most women TEHELKA spoke to for this article knew what they wanted from their marriages. They universally wanted their husbands to talk to them, to show some affection, to understand their needs. They wanted pleasure from sex, something most said they had known only rarely. “My husband never even kissed me,” says Neha. Fareeda, a volunteer at Jagori, like Bhagwati, says her work with the NGO’s support groups helped her understand that women too deserved pleasure from sex. “Jis cheez se auraton ko itna anand mil sakt hai, usko itna ganda kar diya hai (men have ruined something that could give so much pleasure to women),” she says, to loud agreement from the other women in the group. “A woman’s problems,” she adds, “start from and end in bed.” Fareeda has even managed to make her husband see the light. Sort of. He used to stop eating just to make her feel guilty on days she refused him sex. Now, she says, he is slowly coming to terms with the notion of consent.

When couples meet with Dr Shetty, one of the most important things he says he does is to get them talking to each other about their sexual needs. “Most men rarely even kiss their wives,” he says. Little things help enormously. Getting men to walk alongside their wives, for instance, rather than ahead of them. Dr Shetty advises men to hold their wives close, to kiss them unexpectedly, to try to give them joy. It’s his attempt to chip away, however slightly, at the masculine edifice.

Outside Dr Shetty’s office, though, sexual pleasure is still very much a male prerogative. Vineeta, a 32-year-old government employee from Lucknow, got married three years ago. Though the sex was mostly forced, there were rare occasions when she did feel some pleasure. But if she were to ever express that pleasure, her husband would become incensed and even suspicious. “What kind of relationship was it that I was too scared to feel pleasure in sex?” And if she were to say no to sex, he would say that another man must have just sated her – “tum kisi aur se bhari hui ho”. While riding pillion on his scooter, if her head moved in any direction away from his shoulder, he would scream at her publicly to stop looking at men on the street.

He beat her and raped her with increasingly regularity. According to Vineeta, her husband would “hit me and then ask me whether that hurt a little or a lot.” Typically, he would taunt her, tell her that she was “too dark or too old and not worthy of his love.” It was her brother who finally brought Vineeta to AALI. She has now filed a civil suit under the DV Act, but wishes there was some way her husband could face criminal charges for what he did to her.

‘My husband admitted openly that he rapes me. He said it to humiliate me. The last time we fought, he pushed a wooden toy inside me and broke my skull’

Prabha, 40 Lucknow | Separated

As in Vineeta’s case, sexual abuse is not just immediate physical violence but systematic mental abuse and psychological coercion. Women will routinely be told that they are not good enough in bed, not beautiful enough, not good at their chores, not worth anything. Threats will be directed at children. “If a woman says no to sex, the husband can refuse to feed and clothe their children,” says Flavia Agnes. “What will she do if there is no food on the table and no money to pay the children’s school fees?” Breaking down your wife, making her completely dependent on you, is a classic tactic of abusive husbands. In India, it is a tactic that is helped by social sanction, by the veneration of the marriage bond.

Which is why, women in India don’t talk about abuse in a marriage. For every woman who has spoken up, there are countless others who have stayed mute. They are scared of a broken marriage, of what people might say, of becoming destitute. Many are dependent on their husbands for financial security. They have no place to go, no way to provide for themselves and their children. Their own families won’t take them back. Many times, women who approach activists for help end up going back to their husbands. Sruthi, for instance, a working-class Dalit woman from Bengaluru, went to the police to register a case against her in-laws for extorting money. She used this to force her husband to reduce the physical and sexual violence to which he had subjected her throughout their marriage. Within a month, she went back to him. As Dr Shetty observes, an abusive husband is better than an absent one.

In his experience, Dr Shetty says he has found that women in India do not know how to live alone. They have never learnt to. Most often, they want to preserve the sanctity of their marriage. If they do try to live by themselves, they are viewed as sex objects, accessible and always available. A woman who has left her husband becomes incredibly vulnerable. “It’s a man’s world,” says Anita, explaining why she prefers the civil remedy of the DV Act, rather than pressing criminal charges against her husband. “He may go to jail, but people will point fingers at me. They’ll twist things to make it my fault.”

This is a problem present across class boundaries. “Working class women still fight,” claims Madhu, a counsellor with Jagori, “but women in the upper middle classes clam up. For them it’s a matter of honour, social status, and wealth. It’s surprising. One would think, with their education, they would be more enlightened about women’s rights.” Renu Mishra, the Lucknow Programme Manager for AALI, told TEHELKA she had dealt with a woman in 2003, an educated upper middle class woman who had been sexually abused throughout her married life and never said a thing. She hadn’t even known it was abuse, submitting to her husband’s appetite because she didn’t want to make a fuss.

‘My husband said it’s not a big deal for a woman to be hit by her husband. He would beat me and say that only he had a right to my body. If I ever got pleasure out of sex he would get suspicious and angry with me’

Vineeta, 32 | Lucknow | Separated

Of course, this is not true of all upper middle class women, just as the example of a Dalit woman is not true for all Dalits. The Mumbai-based sexologist, Dr Mahinder Watsa, for instance, insists that the well-to-do women he meets are assertive and expressive about their rights, that they expect to be treated as equal partners. As women make more money, he argues, they are less willing to put up with a husband’s abuse. He acknowledges, though, that even in his circles, including diplomats and wealthy businessmen, he has seen and heard of wife-beating and sexual abuse.

For lawyers like Agnes, and Madhu Mehra, executive director for Partners for Law and Development, the pervasive nature of sex abuse make them wary of including marital rape within the rape laws. It would privilege the single act of penetration above all other forms of sex abuse. In Agnes’s experience, women seek protection, security and compensation, which are provided under the DV Act. She finds the Act an impressive piece of civil legislation. The provisions, and protection orders, were not there under the IPC and the DV Act includes sexual abuse (along with physical, verbal, emotional and economic abuse) among the forms of abuse perpetrated in a marriage.

This helps women who do not want to talk about sexual abuse alone, says Agnes. Especially in a system in which “even Supreme Court judges make callous and unsubstantiated comments such as S498A is a ‘terrorist law’ through which women hold their husbands to ransom.” (S498A being a criminal law pertaining to cruelty to a woman in marriage.) Lawyers, Agnes says, often have to tone down accounts of sexual abuse in order for the judge to take the petition seriously. Civil remedies provide women with the recourse and protection they need. Still, some want at least the option of being able to file criminal charges. C, a transgender man from Tamil Nadu, was raped by his husband before he came out as a trans male. It took him 18 months to be able to leave the marriage. Today, he is vocal against marital rape, and says that if it were part of the rape laws he would file case against his former husband.

‘My husband would rape me, threaten to divorce me, and then sleep in another bed, so that people would think he wasn’t having sex with me’

Radha, 25 | New Delhi | Separated

In the end, though, both genders are implicated in marital rape (to varying degrees, of course): the men who think they are entitled to a woman’s body and who raise their sons to think so; the women who help perpetuate gender imbalance — the mothers who refuse to help their daughters, the mothers-in-law who view their daughters-in-law with suspicion and hostility, who further aggravate their sons against their wives. These may appear soap opera stereotypes but in conversation with survivors of marital rape, many held up. According to Harish Sadani, a Mumbai-based activist working with Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA), the problem is rooted in how our culture has shaped masculinity.

He cites a 2012 UNICEF Global Report Card on Adolescents which shows that 57 percent of Indian boys and 53 percent of Indian girls, between the ages of 15 to 19, find nothing wrong in a wife being beaten if she hasn’t cooked the food well, answers back, fails to inform her husband before leaving the house, neglects the children, or refuses her husband’s demands for sex. There is also the 2011 study by the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington-based non-profit, which revealed that one in every five Indian men surveyed admitted to forcing their wives into sex. In his years working with young men, Sadani has seen how notions of machismo become inculcated from an early age. The movies they watch, the music they listen to, the power equations in their own homes, all combine to persuade them that they have “a license to sex” as young man once told Sadani.

He does not, despite this, seek easy answers by blaming pop culture alone. There is no space, he says, for boys to talk about sexuality to counter all that they see and hear. Just as women have no space to talk about their desires, men have no space to understand sex as mutual pleasure and satisfaction for both parties.  is not just a women’s issue, it is gender issue, where each generation keeps perpetrating the same vicious cycle. Masculinity dictates that men don’t talk about issues of sex, unless they’re bragging. Alcohol is set up as a demon, causing men to rape both strangers and their wives. But alcoholic rage is only symptomatic of the aggression towards women that men grow up with. “We need to help boys evolve a gender-equitable definition of masculinity,” says Sadani. “Sadly, most feminists I’ve come across don’t want to include men in their work.”

With MAVA, Sadani runs premarital guidance workshops, where men talk about sex without immediately being labelled as abusers. Many times, this talking helps them sort out their aggression towards their partners. The sort of aggression that leads to a man forcing his wife to have sex with him so many times, and so roughly, that she bleeds for days on end, as was the case with Jaya, a domestic worker in Lucknow. The ingrained violence towards women that made her husband threaten to break her limbs off when she resisted. The suspicion with which society views women that leads her in-laws to think that Jaya’s bleeding was the result of her sleeping with another man. The violence that left Prabha, a cook from Lucknow, with horrific injuries after her husband inserted a wooden toy into her vagina and then bashed her head in. Or lead Smita, another Madanpur Khadar resident, to attempt suicide after countless rapes and beatings during which he would hit her, scratch her, tear her clothes off, even when she was pregnant. Her mother-in-law knew all this but did nothing.

“Where there isn’t aggression, there is an apathy towards women and their sexuality,” says writer Mridula Garg, who wrote about marital sex abuse in her story Tuk. The story is told in the first person about a woman deeply in love with her husband who uses her for sex and rapes her one evening after losing at bridge. “Indian men” Garg says, “don’t know and don’t care about a woman’s satisfaction.” This disregard extends to her well-being, her diet, her likes and dislikes. Garg and Dr Shetty both point out the inability of many men to deal with a woman who has an independent mind. To deal with her husband’s inferiority, to keep him happy, even a high-earning, confident-seeming upper middle class woman will revert to the pliant type when the husband has senior colleague over for dinner.

Our unwillingness to criminalise marital rape should force us to ask questions about what marriage means in our society. What are these traditional family values that the Parliamentary Standing Committee is so afraid will weaken were husbands who rape their wives sent to prison? Is the state really so intent on preserving an outmoded, irrelevant male dominance? And if the Indian marriage is so resistant to change, so indifferent to female sexuality, so ungenerous and inequitable, is it worth saving? If traditional values mean men continue to have it all their own way, expect those values to soon be discarded on the dustheap of an unbecoming history.