The coming into force of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) in 2005 is a validation of the enormous struggle of the feminist movement in India. The Act recognizes domestic violence as a punishable crime, extends its provisions to live-in relationships and provides civil remedies to victims. It also provides for protection officers and service providers to enable women to effectively use the law. Most importantly from the perspective of the authors, the act legitimizes the private and personal space as a public site of contestation and allows feminist interventions. Feminist Counselling and Domestic Violence in India documents and demonstrates the challenge of translating a counselling session with a woman affected by violence (VAW) into the recognition, intervention and interruption of the oppressive patriarchal structure. To practice ideology is a rare opportunity. It comes alive in this work in the counselling sessions and conversations, where the axes of power, patriarchy and violence are revealed and contested by feminist counsellors to VAW. In ten essays contributed by feminist practitioners and activists, the book maps the development and challenges in addressing the question of violence against women.
Significantly, each of the essays is a testimony to the individual’s agency in questioning and reshaping patriarchy. With the publication of this book, feminist theory, experience and practice have come full circle. The feminist movement was successful in constructing a knowledge base, and recognizing the broader structure of structural inequity men and women are embedded in. But the real challenge appears with the coming of the PWDVA, whereby women’s groups are enabled to intervene in the private lives of women through a specific epistemology. Through iniatives in the public health system, such as Dilaasa—an inititaive set up in 2001 between the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Systems (CEHAT) and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, counsellors intervene in the first contact zone where VAW reach out for help. Rege and Chandrashe-khar’s essay ‘Feminist Interventions in India’ is valuable in documenting the breadth and reach of such interventionist feminist programmes running across the country. The essay is valuable for charting the history and diversity of women help groups and support centres since the 1970s to the present. As a reflexive thought and practice, the evolution of ‘feminist intervention’ from merely speaking out, to negotiating with public institutions and assisting in other support systems like child-care and a shelter home are debated and discussed. Indeed, the book is an outcome of the data on feminist methodologies in counselling put together by these organizations.
Most acute amongst these organizations is the awareness that unlike a mainstream counsellor, a counsellor effected by feminist methodology is logically different. Vindhya in her essay on theory and practice underlines that ‘feminist counsellors are distinguished in the ways in which they held the client become aware of connection between their current difficulties and the larger social and political context of power’ (p. 106). The counsellor therefore in demonstrating that the personal pain of violence as part of a larger structural issue, enables the counsellee to view herself not as an isolated and unusual case. Using multiple tools ranging from psychology, psychotherapy to feminism, feminist counsellors operate with a deep awareness of the social and political context of violence against women. This amounts to operating at several levels at the same time, says Aparna Joshi in her essay on methods of integrating feminism and psychotherapy. This could range from gently dislodging patterns such as ‘learned helplessness’ amongst clients who are convinced of their inefficacy or identifying ‘androprocentrism’ (p. 177) where the client views the world from the dominant masculine point of view. Notable amongst the essays is Burte’s ‘The Spirit of Resistance’, which presents the history of the feminist movement in India elegantly positioning VAW as a public health issue. As is consistently maintained throughout the book, violence against women is only a continuum of the control men wield against women over mobility, reproduction and property. Interspersed with personal narratives of counsellees, the work disturbs the thin line between theory and reality. The reader is exposed to the real and painful world of men and women collectively suffering the conditioning structure of patriarchy.
The work is remarkable for the constant self-reflection and introspection on the methods, processes and outcomes of ongoing feminist interventions. Manisha Gupte’s essay clearly states the absence of a single operating definition of the word ‘feminist’, opening up the arena for multiple forms of interpretations and interventions to the structure of patriarchy. These include reconciling with the counsellee’s desire to return to her abuser, if he discontinues the violence. For many feminists, such a bargain is distressing. The work nevertheless recognizes the need to accept the social conditions both the counsellor and the counsellee are situated in. In addressing the question of the hierarchy between these two, it is significant that Rege refers to the relationship between the counsellor and the ‘client’ or counsellee and not ‘victim’. Similarly, Burte in ‘Recognizing the Social Weave for Effective Counselling’ speaks of the need to recognize the counsellor as part of the ‘social weave’ to which the client belongs, and not as an alien outsider. Bhate-Deosthali points to the pragmatics of setting up a counselling centre, following government guidelines and negotiating with other institutions such as the family, the police, the health system and the judiciary in her essay ‘Evolving Guidelines for a Crisis Counselling Centre’.
The work is a brave and honest effort to translate feminist thought and ideology into practice. Its value lies in documenting for the first time the history and methods of feminist methodology and will be of interest to the layman as well as feminist activists.
Priya Naik teaches at Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi, Delhi.