"My boyfriend is very possessive," a young woman explains to the counsellor, when asked about her sprained wrist. Her mother, a 42-year-old working woman, has brought her to a counsellor after discovering that she has put up with various kinds of verbal and physical abuse from her boyfriend. Hers is not an isolated case.
Many young women in urban India, themselves educated working, earning, contributing members of the family, seem to confuse jealousy, possessiveness and shows of rage from boyfriends as a sign of love and loyalty; of protectiveness and caring.
It usually starts with the boyfriend throwing sulks and questions about the girl's friendship with a mixed group of colleagues or friends; it then turns into out-in-the-open objections, followed by some 'rules' about who she can and cannot talk to, whether she can go out on an office dinner or picnic, what she should wear to work, and many other injunctions and bans.
At first, girls play along; some find it an endearing trait; but it soon becomes a nuisance, a threat, and a real strain on the relationship as well as on the girl's social and family life. The girl then has little choice but to either simply drop most of her other friendships that her boyfriend/husband is resentful of, or to break off the relationship, as she simply cannot take the restrictions, suspicious and threats. Some opt to tell half-truths, or go out with friends behind the boyfriend's back; but if they are found out, they face threats, angry outbursts, verbal and physical abuse.
What parents are worried about is that these young women are at first reluctant to confide in them, and continue to put up with it. Madhavi Jog (name changed) is the mother of a 22-year-old girl who recently had to ask for neighborhood intervention against an abusive boyfriend. Jog, who lives in a suburban locality of Pune, says, "A lot of women of my generation have done so much to teach our daughters to be independent, have self-worth, and look for only loving, mutually respecting relationships. But somehow we seem to have failed."
Interestingly, even the mothers of a few young boys have expressed their dismay at the situation. Says Aruna Joshi (name changed): "I have brought up my son in a gender-sensitized manner. And yet, I heard him talking in crude, threatening terms on the phone to his girlfriend - just because she chose to go out with her family for the weekend and he was not included in the programme. I tried to talk it over with him, but he seems to have some warped idea of this being 'love' and 'commitment'.
A standard pattern (seen in older, wife-beating men) here, too, is that after the abuse, there is much apology, a lot more loving attention, and possibly gifts and more apologies. Many girls are completely taken in by this every time, and continue to accommodate the abuse, "since he said he was sorry".
Many people point to the 'jealous lover' images that are glorified and perpetuated by Hindi cinema, in which threats, insults, slaps, hair-pulling and other such verbal abuse is shown as legitimate behavior, in the name of love. This is possibly one contributing factor.
Notes one counsellor, "Girls, too, can be extremely possessive, to the point of being cruel, demanding and dictatorial to their boyfriends/husbands, making it difficult for the person to have healthy, normal, friendly and above-board relationships with women friends/ colleagues/relatives. However, it rarely spills over into physical abuse."
Why do girls put up with abuse? Obviously in these cases, the compulsion is not economic, but emotional and social.
Having a boyfriend is seen as extremely important in the peer group, in just about every strata of society, lower middle class and up. The fear of losing him is one reason girls at first hesitate to do anything about the abuse.
Secondly, many of them do not tell their families about the existence of a boyfriend, and are thus unable to talk about an abusive relationship to a family member.
Many young girls, as was pointed out earlier, at first believe that displays of possessiveness by their boyfriends are flattering.
The sense of self, unfortunately, is not well-developed in either girl or boy. While there is pocket money or a pay packet with which a relationship can be enjoyed - outings, movies, shopping, gifts, etc - no core relationship issues are being discussed, either between the pair, or at home, or at school/college, with elders, counsellors, etc.
"There is a now a clear need for 'dating counselling' for young people, well before they embark on such relationships," says one counsellor. "Ultimately, only this will teach our young women that a person who dictates how you should conduct your life, whom you should meet, how you should speak and what you wear, is someone who also has little real respect for your social and emotional needs. And when he decides to 'make you listen' and 'knock sense into you', this should ring a big warning bell."
It seems that a sense of self-worth in women is not guaranteed by economic independence, as generations of women have hoped. It will come only when there is better emotional and social rooting of both sexes.