Trending: Call for Papers Volume 4 | Issue 3: International Journal of Advanced Legal Research [ISSN: 2582-7340]

PERENNIAL SUFFERING: Understanding Battered Women Syndrome and why it should be included in the Indian criminal justice system


 This paper endeavors to give a voice to all those women who were and are abused in India. A vast majority of women experience daily abuse that is extremely severe and many of them live under the threat of murder.

A big number of these women report needing medical care for their injuries. There are women who do not necessarily report the incidents of abuse, reasons largely being both personal and societal. This is one of those crimes which is often hidden away in shadows. And this seems like an even bigger problem that the authorities and the loved ones do not know who to help.

Domestic violence is usually gender-neutral, religion-neutral, and relation specific. It usually occurs between people in a close and intimate relationship. It means it happens in heterosexual relationships as well as same-sex relationships, irrespective of religions. It is safe to say now that domestic violence is a universal problem. But majority of victims of domestic violence acts are women.

It is very difficult to identify that one is trapped in an abusive relationship. But, experts believe it’s a crime that is preventable. It is also very important to break the cycle of abuse and also to talk about it, share it with some one we love. The cycle of abuse knows no boundaries; it has in many cases proven to be life threatening and even life-taking.

Battered Woman Syndrome is usually equated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) where a woman could develop a learned helplessness which causes her to believe she deserves the abuse and she cannot escape from it. Not all battered women suffer from PTSD, but a sufficient number does. It is important to understand the mental state of battered women who end up killing their batterers.

Statistics reveal that it is very important so as to create the inclusion of a certain kind of law in order to adjust with the changing society. This paper discusses the issue of protecting the battered women. There could be a possibility that though it is probable for situations to arise that pilot a woman to attempt suicide, it is just as possible that instead of hurting herself, she commits an act of violence towards the abuser. This paper emphasises that the law should also recognise that adjacent surroundings could cause the woman to kill. Suicide and divorce are not the only alternatives for abused female victims of domestic violence. They may also have a detrimental impact and could end up killing their abusive partners.

The cover of battered woman needs to be established in its own chapter within the group of defenses to a charge of homicide. The experience of battered women does not seem to fit into the literal requirements to these three exceptions of IPC namely private defence, provocation and necessity. It is very difficult for the battered women to prove these three defences evidently. Therefore, the Indian law needs to allow the battered woman defense its own legal pillar upon which to stand.

Religion and Patriarchy: Reasons for women subordination and suppression

The design that the husband has ownership over his wife is symbolised in different ways in religion. Often, among all religions, man’s role has been superior to that of woman. Almost all the world’s religions depreciate women to some extent. Stories of gender based violence done in the name of religion are customary since Biblical times. Religion is time and again seen as an obstruction to gender parity. 

In Hindu scripture, women are both upheld and respected. But the roles of women are subordinate to that of men. Many religious groups, including Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews, allow only men to be clergy. During the time of Budhha, it was believed that the meticulous responsibility of a wife is to bear an offspring for her husband, and provide him devoted service and marital happiness. In the Ten Commandments, the wife is considered as a piece of property listed alongside her husband’s possessions. Women are often looked as inferior species, which are to be owned like cattle.

In Biblical times, if a man ever violated a virgin, it was counted as a property offense against the woman’s father. It was regarded as violating a male’s property rights. It shows that men were considered to be both owners and lords of their women.

In Synagogue reverence, women were assigned severely receptive part and they were refrained the oral reading of the law.
Rabbis believed that it was better that the words of law should be burned than be shared with women. It would be right to say that in some manner religion also shaped men’s treatment of women by giving them moral excused to limit their women.

Women are expected to maintain even a certain dress code and particular attire like wearing a hijab. These kind of social hostilities are being inflicted upon women since ages and even though it might not result in their direct harassment but it surely instructs them on what and how to dress. Almost all religions in some way show rigidity in the code and conduct of woman. These religions are legitimised by the society at large and this stereotypical portraying of women results in denial of religious freedom and make them even more submissive. Such female suppression is pervasive over all religions. The refutation of religious freedom prevents women from being considered at the table and from being heard, contributing to gender inequality.

In order to close the gender gap and empower women, it is imperative that religious freedom become a factor that is taken seriously and acted upon.


Discrimination is a critical aspect of patriarchy. Women are often limited to the domestic sphere. Patriarchy is deeply rooted in the fabric of society and it is sadly regarded as a standard routine. Even Aristotle used to call males active and females passive.

Women abuse inexorably stems from patriarchal society. Maltreating women has always been an intrinsic feature of the patriarchal culture. It places stern constrictions on the roles and conduct of females with diverse taboos and their under representation in decision making. The gender chasm is deepened by embedding and reinforcing prejudiced gender allotment of roles for men and women.

The conventions never allow a woman to be with two men at a time. Only women and daughters are expected and burdened with being chaste whereas the rogue and rascality of sexual behaviour & abuse is accepted and promoted for men in the society. The sad thing is that even highly developed societies are growing to be more patriarchal whether we like it or not.

Women are believed to be subordinate to men because men usually provide them with the resources and are in a dominant position. Marriage is common in every religion and it results in men maintaining control, dominance and exploitation over women. With marriage, men believe their wives must always be sexually available to them. Such gender-power relations have an express blow on women’s subordination in the society.

The ancient Vedic belief of Ardhangini of her husband which means half body, meaning husband and wife are equally important in the concept of marriage is to be found only in the scriptures. The wife bears her husband’s surname, dropping her father’s name. It seems as if she has no identity of her own.

Girls are expected to shift their loyalties from parents and siblings to her husband and in laws. Her social status is dependant on her husband’s status in the family. Women have been subjected to misbehaviour, ill- treatment, not only outside but also inside their homes. Women are often pushed down by men. A woman is always associated with a man. All men take women’s inferior destiny for granted. Every force in the society flattens her into an object- housework, child bearing and sexual lavishness. It is correct to say that sexism is the underbelly of human suffering. These beliefs weaken the marital system and domestic violence can gain a stronghold. It is safe to say that patriarchy explains the instances of male violence.

 Women are encouraged to give birth multiple times in order to have a male child even if it means endangering her physical health with multiple pregnancies. Son preference propels the dogma of patriarchy. This implies that violence against women starts from birth by means of sex-selective abortions. Women often succumb while subscribing to the constituents of a patriarchal household and society, which remains unnoticed. But, it is also important to understand that battering or violence or any and all forms of violence do not impound to the precincts of wedlock.

What is Battered Women Syndrome? 

Most women dream of a fairytale prince when it comes to having a life partner or companion. Most of us want a kind of love we see on television, the kind we read about, who would sweep us off our feet, the kind that consumes us and love us more than anything in the world. But the sad reality is that, there is a great deal of underlying and outright violence in many intimate relationships and it goes undetected. Violence can begin at any stage of a relationship and may continue even after the relationship has ended. It is a pattern of controlling and aggressive behaviour that is intentional and calculated to exercise power and control within a relationship. It can happen to anyone, regardless of his/her social group, background, race, class, gender, religion, age, ability, disability, sexual orientation, or lifestyle. We are all vulnerable.

Psychotherapist Lenore Walker introduced the idea of Battered women syndrome in the late 1970s. According to her, BWS is a distinctive pattern of behaviour and emotions which can develop when a person experiences abuse by an intimate partner and tries to find out ways to survive. It is sometimes considered a subcategory of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The facet of abuse includes behaviour like humiliation, coercive-control, extreme jealousy, rape, unwanted sexual contact, threats of punishment and verbal harassment.

With Battered Woman Syndrome, a woman may develop learned helplessness or psychological paralysis that can cause her to believe she deserves the abuse and cannot get away from it. It is caused by persistent and quite serious domestic abuse. It contributes to the victim’s inability to leave the batterer. The riveting fear of the batterer is entirely real to the victim. The victim starts to feel weak and possibly holds out the hopes that her abuser will stop hurting her and this is why the victim is afraid of leaving the abuser. The abused woman does not try to evade the pain- even if she can escape it. It is not an intrinsic trait. It develops over time after repeated abuse. It is referred by Walker as learned behaviour, conditioned during experiences when the person had no control over the situations. It can also lead to a lack of motivation in the victim to escape from such conditions. This perception is exceedingly hard to quake, and often requires demanding therapy and support in order to break it.

Cycle of violence

The cycle of violence is a pattern of repetitive behaviours that keep survivors locked in the relationship. This theory explains how and why the behaviour of a person who is abused continues to face such a violent situation. Many victims of domestic violence are trapped in this vicious cycle.

The tension building phase

This is the first phase where the minor incidents leave the victim to walk on eggshells. In this phase, the batterer gets edgy and the tension begins to build up and gradually escalate resulting in verbal, emotional or financial abuse. The batterer expresses frustration and resentment but not in an extreme form. The victim could attempt to pacify the batterer. This phase can be very frightening for people who have grown up in a loving and healthy environment. The victim feels as if the situation will explode if they do anything wrong. This phase may last for weeks or years until the tension has mounted to the breaking point.

Violent episode phase

This is the phase where the peak of violence is reached and the battering is severe. The perpetrator becomes habitual of this phase and the tension is released. It is the height of abuse by the batterer who uses violence to control and have power over the woman. It can last from a few minutes to several hours. This release of tension may soon become addictive. The perpetrator maybe unable to deal with his anger any other way. The woman in this phase may feel frightened, numb or helpless.

The honeymoon phase

The perpetrator maybe sorry or act like nothing happened, but is still interested in making up or may even promise never to do that again. The person feels ashamed of his behavior and feels remorse. They try to justify their actions to themselves and others. The violent offender may purchase gifts, and give the person affected attention. Both the persons might also be in denial as to how bad the abuse and violence was. The offender may also feel apologetic at this time and may make promise to change himself or may use alcohol or drugs as an excuse for his previous behaviour. At this point, the person experiencing the violence may feel confused and hurt because the batterer may act remorseful.

But this phase will soon fade away and the cycle of violence may begin again. Too often, women don’t even realise that they are trapped in this vicious cycle, and they become accustomed to it. They might tend to think how they can upset the man they love- by leaving him. The victim hands over one big part of their freedom to the abuser and then linger in shadows waiting for him to be a loving person again. The abuser however humiliates, constantly dismiss, lash out, scream, throw or break things, and hold the victim hostage to his demands.

Why stay? Why not leave? 

The biggest challenge to an abused woman is leaving her home and getting out of a relationship. The society always tends to stereotype the victims. Leaving one’s home is seen as shameful and a woman who walks out is often blamed for doing so, whatever the circumstances. Even when they suffer from extreme violence frequently, they don’t leave their homes because they feel that they do not have a safe place to go. Women’s subordination is a norm and they are socialised to silently tolerate the oppression. Finding the courage to walk away from a violent relationship is not an easy choice. They submit to the violence without complaint. Saving the family is considered as a priority even if it entails the cost in terms of pain and suffering or even death that abused women pay. Most women have no alternatives. The victim might fear that seeking help could invite unwelcome repercussions for her. Often, they are materially and economically dependent on their abuser and that is the reason they tolerate absolutely everything because they can’t fend for themselves. It becomes almost impossible to leave the batterer because of the fear of threats created by him to the victim or her children. In Indian society, the woman is advised to remain married to even a monster for the sake of her family’s status in society. These factors make it impossible for her to walk out of an abusive marriage. The autonomy of the victim of domestic violence is stripped off in an abusive relationship. It becomes fearful for the victim to make a decision on her own. Violence impacts the capacity to make independent decisions and it dehumanizes the victim. BWS is not to be understood as mental incapacity, but rather as a way to strike out the deepened fear and trauma.

In simple terms, it can be understood as injuries by the person who says I love you.
Woman who are victims of domestic violence have been identified for over a long time now. Domestic violence is an escalating pattern of abuse in which one partner establishes control through force, intimidation or the threat of violence. The abuse is secretive; it is never in front of anyone. The women in essence are unable to escape the vicious cycle of repeated torture inflicted on them. The threats may not be physically imminent; however there is a threat of such a nature so as to cause a psychological paralysis within the battered woman.

People who find themselves in an abusive relationship often do not feel safe or happy. However, they may feel unable to leave for so many reasons. The victim thus remains perpetually spellbound in the abusive relationship. The will to escape is eventually lost because of the learned helplessness state of mind.

Suicide: The domino-effect of BWS

Often suicide is overlooked as having a correlation with domestic abuse. They are both major public health crises and they are closely linked. Just as domestic violence, suicide is an issue in society which hides in the darkness, rarely discussed, but quietly having an impact on the society. It is widely accepted that women attempt suicide more than men, in the context of multiple health conditions, social difficulties and domestic abuse. Usually women internalise the subordinate status relative to male ascendancy in order to maintain harmony, peace and family honour. They are always socialized into adjusting under any and every circumstances.

It is our goal to not only understand the intersections of domestic violence and suicide, but also to promote the tools and resources available to the community for both domestic violence and suicide prevention. There is a great deal of underlying violence in intimate relationships, which is exacerbating the risk of suicide.

The distress, the sense of being captive or entrapment, hopelessness, helplessness arising from domestic abuse can sometimes cause the victims to feel that suicide “is the only way out”.

It is very important for doctors and experts to inquire if someone is coming with injuries of domestic violence, to know whether they are having suicidal thoughts. Similarly, the survivors of suicidal attempts need to be inquired whether domestic abuse is taking place.

If a person is experiencing domestic abuse, then the first step for the doctors and psychologists should be to create strategies to keep the person safe and help him/her develop coping skills. Motivational interviewing can help victims to understand why they are in abusive situations and help them make positive changes. The victims of both domestic violence and suicide attempters need to be assured the response they get is timely, effective, and non-judgmental. There is a need for an attempt to bring these two fields closer together in order to save lives. Yet the mental health and domestic violence fields have historically worked in isolation. But now that is starting to change. Each field needs to be educated about the other, or else the results can be deadly. Empathy is key.

Domestic violence and suicide go hand in hand. The thought pattern about how useless we are never stops. Sometimes counselling doesn’t give us enough time to even scrape the surface. When a person is that beaten down, it is hard to sort out all the logistics of survival, such as where to live, and how to afford it. That is why domestic abuse is the most significant precipitants of female suicide. Humiliated, abused and powerless wives take their own lives to shift the burden of humiliation from themselves to their abusers.

It is believed that reduction of domestic violence will reduce suicidality in women. Some of these women however, choose the other route- they batter back.

BWS as a legal defence: When battered women batter back

The women who kill or fight back at their perpetrators are at a slight disadvantage by the legal system. These women are not considered victims in the eyes of many people because they fought back. Its time that we understand, sometimes killing is one of the fewer options left in order to escape or prevent from further abuse. These battered women feel inability to make decisions and exercise control over them. They feel docile, feeble, passive, blameless, susceptible, mortified, needy, unassertive, miserable and defenseless. In such a mental state, the victim might see no other option other than to retaliate. It is extremely hard for such women who are so conditioned to make peace with violence, to take affirmative steps to leave their relationships, and so they sometimes tend to resort to the extreme violence of killing their partners when no other viable option was available.

This act of killing or attempting to kill the abusive partners by their battered woman should be provided with a legal defence based on the justification that they committed such an act to protect themselves or someone else (their children) from further harm or death. It should be believed that domestic violence has such a major impact on a woman’s state of mind that it could make an act of homicide justifiable, even when there is no imminent danger to her. However, it is difficult for those who have never seen domestic violence, to understand how a sleeping man could be perceived as dangerous and also to understand how a woman can be so afraid of an unarmed man that she needs a weapon in order to feel equal. Sometimes a minor incident precipitates a flood of memories of previous battering incidents that makes the woman’s perception of further physical harm or even death more terrifying and quite real. In this fear, she can sometime kill the batterer, to prevent herself or her children. Expert witness testimony can explain her state of mind at the time of incident and can add context to the explanations of the killing. There are measurable psychological changes that occur due after exposure to repeated abuse. We need to understand the psychological impact of physical, sexual and serious psychological abuse on the battered woman. The impact of such trauma is deeply entrenched in the battered woman. Most of these women have never done anything bad in their lives. They were only trying to survive.

Women who kill their abusers may claim that the killing was committed in self-defence. The law considers self-defence as an act of justification. This means that the legal system does not consider self defence killing a morally culpable act; it concludes that the act was correct under the circumstances. The self defence stand needs to be proved that their actions meet the legal standards for a claim of self-defence. However, legally using self-defence to rationalize the killing of abusers by battered women is controversial and can be often problematic because of the kind of evidence that the defence needs to offer at trial to prove its case.

BWS needs to be integrated as a means to explicate the reasonability of the actions of women who kill their batterers in response to domestic violence. However, it is problematic because the battered woman usually kills the abusers when he is unarmed and there is no imminent danger to the woman. But when these battered women kill their abusers, there is usually a long history and pattern of violence in their relationship with the batterer. This raises the question why these women do not leave the relationships. Now the champions of Battered Women Syndrome explain this through the psychological dynamics involved in the intimate violent relationships. These maybe introduced at trial, often with the testimony of an expert witness. The expert witness testimony can be helpful in determining as to why the woman believed herself to be in imminent danger. The purpose is to provide the law with an alternative perspective for interpreting the woman’s actions. The role of the expert witness is also to provide information relevant to inferences they will have to make about the woman’s mind at the time of the killing.

The legal system needs to be open to accept the history and nature of such abuse as important factor for understanding the reasonableness of the victim’s actions as a “reasonable battered woman” rather than an ordinary reasonable person. The woman is generally not on equal physical grounds with the batterer, thus explaining her use of a deadly force against her partner.

How often women kill and who they kill and why is an important question to be pondered upon. The inclusion of this type of psychological defence would therefore imply that the law chooses to consider psychological mindset and situation of the person and the condition in which a reasonable person may act in such circumstances. The conformist model of rationality in law needs to consider the particular psychological and physical history of the defendant that the offender commits such an act which constitutes as a crime. The battered woman is always assumed as intending to kill the batterer and understood as a rational actor. The use of BWS will help the legal system to look under the surface and appreciate the reasons for such retaliation in order to change their outlook. It is time to understand the BWS is a grave psychological condition and it has reasonable merits to mitigate the liability of a committed offence. This defence should only be availed on the basis of different circumstances of each case and not be granted as a general exception to all battered women. It is important to shift the focus of the judiciary to the psychological state of the battered woman and their underlying fear and not to term as mentally invalid, but mentally in a helpless state. The defence of insanity or homicide only results in stricter punishment to the women who kill their battterers.

It needs to be understood that battered women kill to protect their battered psychological self and not just for physical self-defence.


Battered women sometimes act violently to protect themselves and end up killing their abusers because of the abusive and life threatening situations they are entangled with, acting in a concrete belief that it is the only way of self-preservation. It should be introduced in Indian law to explain the reasonability of a woman’s actions in self preservation against her batterer. Along with this, the society needs to be aware of the condition of “learned helplessness”. Also, to be clear, the law does not ever encourage any person to kill the other in order to escape from something vicious.

In conclusion, the BWS doctrine is a “defence necessity” based on the thought that women are trapped in a very difficult situation, their context should be considered while adjudicating such cases.

BWS should be viewed as the characteristic of a normal woman who is caught up in a dysfunctional relationship. The law requires a new standard of ‘battered woman’ along with a ‘reasonable man’. BWS should be looked upon as a concentrated version of the ‘self defence’ and ‘imminent danger’ claims. The woman’s subjective perception of threat needs to be analysed in each individual case. There is no prerequisite of immediate threat from the perpetrator for a defence, but rather the anticipation of the cyclical violence is enough to be under duress.

The societal-norms, cultural backgrounds and structural factors have always trained women to tolerate the cruelty inflicted upon them silently. Mostly women do not resort to aggression, rather end up committing suicides or attempting them. For India’s battered women, home is a prison sentence. It is evident that rampant domestic violence among women in India is a harsh reality.

BWS should have a separate place in the Indian legislature and needs an explicit recognition in IPC for an exception of murder. There is no causal link between the grave and sudden provocation and lack of self-control in the case of a battered woman. If the victim fails to respond to the immediate threat and violence by the aggressor, no defence is given to the victim because there was a ‘cooling-off period’ in which she must have regained control. The society needs to understand that there is no requirement of ‘sudden provocation’ in the case of battered women since provocation works differently in the case of BWS. The batter is incessant, perennial and long term which means it is not possible to know a specific trigger for the victim’s actions. The battered woman is always in a constant state of danger and re-experiences the trauma over and over again. There is always an apprehension of violent behaviour based on the past experience and it may not satisfy the test of ‘reasonable apprehension’.

BWS could be termed as an expanded notion of private defence. The history of abuse needs to be recognised even if there is absence of any recent non-provocative behaviour by the batterer. It is necessary to recognise BWS as a separate defence where the woman kills the batterer because of the repeated long-term abuse in order to decide their liability. The andocentric perspective needs to be shunned in order to understand the subjective experiences of the battered women for a gender-just law. It is time we move ahead of thinking that only men can retaliate, after all emotions are not gender biased. Anyone gravely hurt by repeated abuse or violence will at some point retaliate in one way or another. The cumulative provocation can break down at one point. These women need a stronger legal recognition and protection for their actions. The legal system can no longer be slow to accept such a narrative. Our nation is undeniably plagued by domestic violence, and we need good riddance. Its time we grant BWS complete judicial acceptance and the same status as all other homicidal defences. This could help in sending a message to the batterers that their behaviour will not be tolerated anymore. We are taught ‘Thou shall not kill” but we must also teach the society not to endure pain over and over again. It is hard to squeeze BWS into the current and existing defences of homicide, thus it becomes imperative to award it a separate column. Because of the judicial walls of discrimination, battered women in our society are inclined towards homicidal behavior. These tortured women should not bear the archaic judicial process when their acts were no more than retaliations.
Image Source
Author: Neha Chawla, Lloyd Law College

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *