Class Division and Gender Roles: Violence and Rape Culture

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Serabai (Sera) Dubash and Bhima are the two central, female characters focused upon in Thrity Umrigar’s novel, The Space Between Us. The novel delves into the issue of both gender and class, and acknowledges the ways in which both men and women play an integral role in the violence that occurs as a result of those differences. One could argue that the way a person is raised effects the mindset of an individual to lash out violently, while another person might suggest the genetic code for being violent. Nonetheless, analyzing the society in which both of these women live and notating the reality of the situation, allows for a better understanding of violence or inequities experienced by women in post-colonial India.

Violence against women appears to be a common act in the Middle East and Southern Asia. Rapes occur, but many times, the man is not held accountable for his actions. In an article by scholar Jenny Sharpe, she examines the limits of rape in colonial India. She bases her theory off of the novel A Passage to India, which explores a falsified rape between an Englishwoman and a Muslim man. In this case, rape was a he-said-she-said bias. Due to the racial distinctions, Dr. Aziz, the Muslim man accused of rape, was arrested. Yet, his innocence went unheard until the Englishwoman retracted her claim:

Since the reader is not prove to what happened in the caves, she or he is faced with the contradictory evidence of Adela’s accusation and Aziz’s denial. The accuracy of Adela’s judgement is undermined during the trial when, upon interrogation, she suddenly withdraws the charge (Sharpe 221-222).

Sharpe provides an inside scope at the injustices within the justice system. The classified “other” is perceived as guilty until proven innocent. However, when looking at people of the same “otherness,” class and gender roles enter the picture as to whom is disparaged against and bears the majority of the violence.

“‘Listen, Maya,’ he said softly. ‘I was thinking in the shower. Thinking about what … just happened, about what you did. Yes, that was a bad thing you did, tempting me like that, taking advantage of me while I was in a weak mood’” (Umrigar 279). In Umrigar’s novel, Viraf, Dinaz’s husband puts the blame of having relations with Maya on her. Although he, in essence, raped her, he tried to make her feel guilty for his actions. Then, he goes further to instill a sense of fear:

“…I’ll forgive you for what happened. Provided it never happens again. And provided you never tell anybody about what you did. Because poor Dinaz, if she ever found out, God, it would kill her. She’d never forgive you. You understand? She would see it as the biggest betrayal of her trust in you. And with the pregnancy and all, I can’t risk anything happening to her. Remember, the Dubash family has been nothing but good to you and your grandma. They’ve treated you like their very own, sent you to a good college…You understand what I’m saying?” (Umrigar 279).

The fear of being shamed and the fear of putting her grandma in harm’s way, forces Maya to keep quiet about what she endured. When she falls pregnant, she is looked down upon being that she is unmarried. Her grandmother can’t stand the sight of her and Sera is confused at her “ridiculous” behavior being that she was such a “good girl”. It is not Viraf who is held accountable for his actions, but it is Maya who is punished. Sera, who is not even blood related makes the decision as to what will happen, “‘Of course she will have to have an abortion’” (Umrigar 20). Bhima, who is Maya’s grandmother, is the domestic servant for Sera and her family. The phrase addresses the power dynamic between the women and how there is a manipulative form of violence in the class divisions.

While violence from man to woman plagues the novel, there is a clear difference in class, and how the women treat one another as a result of their class differences. When Viraf makes advances upon Maya, he acknowledges that he is not only a man, but also a man of power. Maya is just a woman in his eyes, and she is a woman who lives in the slum – best described by Bhima:

“As for the slum, that’s why we have you menfolks–to take care of our needs and to talk and debate with the big bosses. I’m just a poor, illiterate woman, only good for chopping onion and using a broom…”…“Still, what with the flies and rats and dirty water in this slum, anything is possible, I suppose: (Umrigar 53-54).

Bhima knows her place in society, but does she know it because she was told or she just assumes? Bhima’s husband left her and her daughter, Pooja, after losing three fingers in a work-related accident and becoming an alcoholic. When he left, he took with him their son Amit. During the accident, Bhima was deceived into signing a document that tricked her husband, Gopal, and his family out of a large sum of money:

“While you were in the hospital, your wife here signed the terms of this settlement. According to this piece of paper, this is all you’re entitled to.”…“Liar…My wife doesn’t know how to read or write. How could she sign anything?”…“Thumb impression” (Umrigar 224).

This is the earliest account, noted where Bhima’s class ignorance betrays her. Her husband is then out of work and becomes an abusive alcoholic. He never seems to have money unless he’s buying alcohol from the bar. Meanwhile, Bhima is guilt ridden and beside herself at what she has done to her family. Later, she is insulted by a doctor at the hospital where her daughter, Pooja, and her son-in-law lay dying:

“You people,” he said. “God knows why the government spends lakhs of rupees trying to educate you about family planning and all. It’s a useless cause…I don’t have time to give you a medical lesson. Have hundreds of other patients to check on. Anyway, I’m a doctor, not a bleddy teacher” (Umrigar 138).

Pooja is not respected, when her husband ends up sleeping around on her and contacts AIDs. He then spreads it onto her, and now they both are sick and dying. She is punished for his infidelity. Bhima has no knowledge as to what AIDs is and wants to understand so she can try to save her daughter. When she learns of it, she becomes angry at Pooja’s husband for doing this to her daughter. They are now leaving Maya, a young child, parentless because of his ignorance.

Pooja’s husband and Viraf may be fictional characters, but their actions are still a reality in many parts of the world. Women fall victims to their husband’s infidelities whether they catch a sexual disease or have to deal with a child he created with another woman. Scholar, Sara Suleri reminds readers of an incident involving a fifteen-year-old woman. The men involved resemble Viraf and Pooja’s husband in the sense that, Viraf is married to Dinaz who regards Maya as family, and Pooja’s husband has no respect for women.

Jahangir cites the example of a fifteen-year-old woman, Jehan Mina, who, after her father’s death, was raped by her aunt’s husband and son. Once her pregnancy was discovered, another relative filed a police report alleging rape. During the trial, however, the accused led no defense, and Mina’s testimony alone was sufficient to get her convicted for fornication and sentenced to one hundred public lashes (Suleri 254).

While in this situation, Mina is punished in every way imaginable, Maya is returned to being just a servant’s daughter when Viraf reminds her to wash the sheets after their encounter. She is already in pain, feeling guilty, and terrified, now he wants to further belittle her. Mina endures the harsh whippings of lashes in public, after she was raped. She is forced into public shame and humiliation. As a woman, in the society in which she lives, she is not allowed to have a voice. The world is against her. Like the women in the novel, what the men in their lives say, goes. Sera is not exempt from cruelty. People of the slums were not the only ones who were exposed to class and gender violence. While rape was more common amongst people of the slums, physical beatings existed. In a flashback, Sera remembers that “Feroz’s fists had not stopped flying after they moved out” (Umrigar 263). After uniting their union, Feroz had changed. Where once before he was sweet, now he was harsh with a bad temper. His father had mentioned to Sera that Feroz’s temper may come from genetics because both his mother and grandmother had/have bad tempers. Then he ponders more. Feroz’s mother endured the cruel temper of her mother-in-law which forces the reader to question inheritance over exposure. There is no clear answer to this. All that is known is that there is much hypocrisy in the lives that these women live. Both women share a unique bond, but yet, Bhima is still not allowed to sit on the furniture or eat or drink using the same plates as the family and must bring her own. While Sera tries to justify her prejudice ways, like the men, there is no excusing blatant ignorance.

In post-colonial India, the women are still victims. Rather than the English being in power and abusing the limitations of the women, the men of India hold the power. Bhima represents women living in the slums, who go through similar struggles and misfortunes. She encountered an abusive alcoholic man, a son-in-law who essentially murdered her daughter, and witness the violent beating that Feroz bestowed upon Sera. In addition, she learned of the rape of her granddaughter, and was seen differently once she chose to speak up about it. The lives of these women, interact with one another, yet neither speak much about the other’s hardships. There is a silence that is understood where one does not talk about the personal injustices of their men. Class division and gender roles are important to recognize in the daily lives of these post-colonial women.

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