Taj Mahal love story: Narrating violence against women

It is, I suppose, a love story.

It began as a fairytale, cross-culture love affair that played out against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal itself. It ended in darkness and tragedy.

Or rather, it ended in a man stabbing a woman to death before killing himself.

Not to worry, though. She was his wife. These things happen, men killing wives, both in fiction and in real life.

The Independent report on the deaths of Erin Willinger and Bunty Sharma makes for what I’d call easy reading. A murder-suicide, yes, but not the kind that would put you off your breakfast. You have read this story before and know it by heart. A couple falls in love too quickly, then that they find they can’t get along – they “have differences,” we will say – and so one of them has to kill the other (in heterosexual relationships it tends to be the man who kills the woman. This is, we believe, pure coincidence. Or just part of the genre, I can’t remember which).

The couple had met last year when Ms Willinger, 35, from Pennsylvania, travelled to Agra with friends. They fell in love and married in October on the rooftop of a hotel with views of the Taj Mahal, the 17 Century mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Such stories are tragic, but somehow neither aberrant nor anger-inducing. They’re the sort of thing one might reflect on, sadly, while picturing the outline of the Taj Mahal as night falls. Poor star-crossed lovers. Silly woman, thinking she could make it work without getting herself killed. Silly culture, making people want different things, so much so that men murder women within a year of marrying them. Oh well, ladies, let’s just hope it doesn’t happen to us.

Police say they separated soon after because of differences. Local media reported that Mr Sharma accused Ms Willinger of smoking too much, talking to other men and “not staying at home”. They were living apart and consulting a counsellor.

Was Sharma a controlling husband? Almost certainly, but the news report offers enough dog-whistle racism to allow us to blame this on “culture (“cross-culture love affair” indeed!). It wouldn’t happen in the US, is the implication. If the Willinger had married a fellow American rather than “an Indian rickshaw driver” she’d still be alive today (the greatest cultural gulf – that she was a woman, and he a man – is one we don’t talk about. It ruins the overall narrative).

I know that we need a familiar storyline when approaching most things. I know it is there when we read novels, watch dramas and read the news. It’s also present in our interactions with and expectations of one another. I think of my life as having a plot. I know it doesn’t, not really, but without half-believing this I suspect I’d go mad. In this respect I understand the need for journalists to create a coherent story from the fragments of other people’s lives and deaths.

Nonetheless I find myself wishing they wouldn’t go quite so far in reflecting the prejudices that perpetuate violence against women when reporting its most extreme outcomes. These are the stories that feed the expectations which then feed into the violence itself.

I think a more interesting story – albeit one that is more experimental, and far more disturbing – would be the truth. That the culture which drives men to kill women is not especially varied the world over. You can go to India, be in the shadow of the Taj Mahal and think yourself modern-day Juliet and still the same darkness could creep up on you. It is this story that now needs telling. We’re dying from all the ones we’ve read before.


One thought on “Taj Mahal love story: Narrating violence against women

  1. But in the spectrum of male behaviour that harms women there are specific cultural, religious, economic, religious differences and factors at work that inform male behaviour and expectation. Our own grandfathers probably had very different ideas about a woman’s role. If we don’t accept these differences we don’t allow for the possibility of change as to deny the specificity of an act is to remove it from its cause. By making violence against women an ahistorical, culturally neutral act and refusing to examine specificity don’t we render ourselves powerless to change the attitudes that lead to it? I can see the risk of racism here but I can also see the risk of inertia that comes from liberal reluctance to address the different attitudes some cultures have towards women. To recognise these isn’t inherently racist: to ignore them doesn’t necessarily help women either.

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