Editor’s Note: Akanksha Singh is a Mumbai-based journalist covering politics and social justice. She has written for the BBC, The Independent and South China Morning Post, among others. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In recent weeks, India has been gripped by the ghastly murder cases of two women. Yet again, however, the breathless media coverage has lost sight of a bigger picture.
The murder of 26-year-old Shraddha Walkar has made front page news across the country on account of its gruesome nature. According to police, Walkar’s partner Aftab Poonawala strangled her, cut her body into pieces and stored them in his fridge, before scattering them across parts of New Delhi.
Poonawala confessed in court to killing Walkar, reportedly claiming he acted “in the heat of the moment.”
Since the case came to light, Indian media has prodded it from every possible angle, including using the couple’s different faiths to fuel a “love jihad” narrative – the right-wing conspiracy theory that Hindu women are “lured” into relationships by Muslim men.
No stone has been left unturned in the click-bait coverage. Poonawala was apparently “inspired by” the TV series “Dexter,” which features a forensic specialist who moonlights as a serial killer. And the couple met on Bumble, a popular dating app. A subsequent piece covered the case from this angle, noting that the murder has prompted women to delete dating apps while “experts blame [these] platforms.”
As a single woman, and as a journalist, these brash, un-nuanced takes are incredibly frustrating to read.
Why is the onus of women’s safety solely on women? Why is it so easy to name and blame everything except the obvious? The issue here is not with the apps, or with the TV series, but with India’s deeply patriarchal society, which offers women little to no agency.
It is against this backdrop that violent murderers like Poonawala emerge.
Walkar had previously flagged concerns for her safety with the Mumbai Police in 2020, but withdrew her initial complaint on a follow-up police visit.
While such actions are not uncommon among victims of intimate partner violence, this aspect of the case – that Walkar was allegedly already a victim of intimate partner violence – has been overshadowed by more sensationalist narratives.
According to the British Medical Journal, one in three Indian women is likely to have been subjected to intimate partner violence. But only one in 10 of these women officially report it.
India is not alone. Globally, according to UN chief António Guterres, every 11 minutes, a woman or girl is killed by an intimate partner or family member.
Other similar – equally gory – cases have made recent headlines in India too. Aayushi Chaudhary, a 21-year-old Indian woman, was reportedly found murdered with her body stuffed in a suitcase.
Police have arrested her parents reportedly in connection to a suspected “honor killing,” a term used to describe murders where the victim has brought “shame” to their family, typically by choosing to marry outside their faith or caste.
In India, honor killings claimed 145 lives between 2017 and 2019, according to the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs (the actual number is believed to be higher).
But all these stories point to the same underlying issue: control over women through patriarchy. If it takes gruesome headlines to start a conversation about violence against women, how are we ever going to address the role men play in perpetrating this violence?
How are we going to discuss the ways violence fluctuates along lines of class, sexual orientation or caste? (In India, 54% of Dalit women, the group of people most oppressed by centuries old caste hierarchy, reported being physically assaulted and 23% reported being raped.) Will we ever be able to address the minutiae of aggressions women face in the workplace?
Even as a single woman with a fair amount of privilege, I’m constantly bewildered by the road bumps I face living in India.
When I moved to Mumbai over four years ago, I was shocked at how difficult it was to find and rent a flat because I was single. “The landlord’s saying he won’t rent to a single girl,” my broker told me at the time. “It’s seen as… too dangerous.” What the danger was or is remains unclear to me till date.
But this is an obstacle every single woman faces in this self-branded “city of dreams,” exacerbated by factors such as age, faith, caste, sexual orientation and gender expression.
Due to cultural and social beliefs and economic setbacks, most Indians live at home in “joint families.” It’s common to see a bride leave her parents’ and move in with her husband’s entire family after marriage, for example.
Which is why, for the most part, the freedom to roam continues to be restricted to those women who can afford that privilege. Walkar was essentially punished by society for choosing to live life on her own terms, and her choices continue to be dissected by the press.
She chose to find a partner of her own on a dating app; she chose to stay in her interfaith partnership despite her parents’ objections; she chose to “live-in” with her partner. The subtext in how this has been covered is clear: serves her right for going against her parents, against the larger values of Indian society.
The failed “love marriage” (where a woman has chosen her own partner, instead of an “arranged marriage”) is also a cautionary tale whispered by elderly aunties and grandmothers to the younger women in their lives.
Women are constantly expected to defend their choice to be single, unmarried and child-free. When I tell married people I’ve unlearned the idea of settling down with someone as a life milestone, I’m frequently told it’s just a phase I’m going through or that I simply haven’t found the right person yet.
But I’m not alone, with an increasing number of women choosing to be single (both in India and globally).
Perhaps if Indian society concerned itself more with how its men are reared than why women are choosing to live life differently today, these conversations wouldn’t have to follow the tragic deaths of two young women.