Women victims of domestic violence have been expressing themselves in folk songs and poems. Its time to document them.
  • Women victims of domestic violence have been expressing themselves in folk songs and poems. Its time to document them.

‘Dhamail deo go bherbherir ma/amra dhamail chini na/ Kichu kichu chintam pari/budha betay manoin na

(‘Dance, O mother of Bherbheri.’ ‘We don’t know how to dance. Actually, we know a little bit, but the Big Man won’t allow us’)

Growing us as a child in a village of North-east India, bordering Sylhet district of Bangladesh, I sung this song along with my friends during a session of ‘Dhamail’- the most commonly practiced group dance in our area. In Dhamail,(originated from ‘Dhamal’ or fun) women, accompanied by a drummer, dance in a circular motion, singing songs of love, rituals, rebellion and worship. Such dance is an integral part of any social event, be that a wedding or an engagement or even ‘annaprashan’(first rice eating of a child) in hundreds of villages in the NE region.

Also, Dhamail has always been the most popular game among children, especially girls. Every day while playing, we would break into a ‘Dhamail’ dance and sing joyously whatever we learnt from our female relatives.

However, this particular song, mentioned above, wasn’t sung at any social event, and was only heard in little girls’ groups such as ours. The reason: it was considered a pariah for elders because of its silly lyric.

As I danced with my friends, I too would sing and break into laughter. The very word ‘Bherbheri’ was funny as nobody had ever heard a girl with such a name. The laughter kept us from completing our singing.

It’s only after I became a journalist and started covering, among others, women’s issues, that the song started making sense. I started wondering about this mother of Bherbheri. Who was she? Why did she name her girl ‘Bherbheri?’ Why wasn’t she allowed to dance? Who was this ‘Big Man’ who stopped her? Was it her husband or her father in-law? And, above all, why was the song considered silly? Was it because it spoke of an ugly reality?

Pondering over one song led me to another. In our village, every now and then, some women would come and beg for work or for food. My mother would always try to find work for them. One day, one such woman was weaning rice, while she started singing ’Ronger oto shamay na go, bare bare kaitam.’

Roughly translated, it means ‘It’s not something amusing that I like to talk about again and again’. I was curious and listened quietly as the woman sang on: ’Yesterday you beat me/broke my nose ring/if one wants, he can indeed go/to the market and/get a new nose ring…’

The song was a long one; it was a long tale of a woman battered by her husband. Every limb in the woman’s body was sore from the beating and the song – with an extremely melancholic tune – was a cry rising straight out of her heart.

After a few weeks, the woman was back. This time she had a new song and it was pure helplessness: ‘my hand and legs are trembling/Oh god, which country shall I escape to?’

I have remembered and hummed those two songs a hundred times in past few years. It has since downed upon me that the woman wasn’t just talking of the physical pain that she bore, but had other issues too. She obviously was a woman who still lived with her tormentor, hoping that things would change. Yet they didn’t and now the woman’s miseries increased manifold in which, added to physical violence was neglect, injustice and helplessness.

For past 6 years, I have been collecting folk songs from villages along this Indo-Bangla border. In my collection, there are songs that describe the anguish of women with vivid clarity:

“shisukale putrer adhin/jaubankale swamis adhin/bridhokale putrer adhin”

(As a child, I was a slave of my father/as a young woman, as slave of my husband and as an old woman, I am a slave of my son)

The song definitely is a lamentation of a woman who never tasted freedom in all her life.

In another song the woman cries “Oh god, I feel like tearing open my chest and show my injuries, but who is there to see them?”

Illiterate, unorganized and alone, but women victims of domestic violence have been telling to the world, the cruelty that they are facing day in and day out.

The question is are we ready yet, to pause, listen and accept as this rustic, yet true documentation of the violence? If we do, it will certainly help us better equip ourselves in the fight against violence against women and emerge as a safer, better society. ---------------------------------------

Dear Friends, the above article of mine was recently published by the Folklore Foundation of India - a prestigious research institute that publishes academic papers on folk literature.

In India, one in every 3 women in the age group of 15-49 experiences domestic violence. The number has not seen a significant drop despite the introduction of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence (PWDVA) Act in 2005 - a law that offers protection to women from domestic violence. And because the problem persists, we must keep talking against it as well.


Thank you, Stella, for sharing the songs of these women's anguish. It seems that in some way their songs are songs of resistance. They cry out against their abuse when society tells them they should bear all stoically. But, as you say, "illiterate, unorganized and alone" they seem to have little impact beyond helping them bear their grief. I read a similar article about Bedouin women's folk songs in Egypt. That it was only through song that they could speak out against, even mock, the men in their lives. It was an interesting article...I'll see if I can find it and send it along to you.

Sending you warm wishes as well as much gratitude for spreading awareness about violence against women in India,


Thank you Emily!

This is a subject (domestic violence in folk music) I had been wanting to write on for a long time. Now that it is finally done, feel a task well started. Your comment makes me feel very encouraged to go on and write more. Also, thanks for sharing the information on Bedouin women. It makes me now wonder if we have similar songs in our own desert (Rajasthan). I am sure, we do.

Thanks again!

Stella Paul Twitter: @stellasglobe

Hi Stella,

I think this is a great subject to explore and I'm glad I could do my little part to help encourage you to write more! The article I mentioned is called ‘The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women’ and it's by Lila Abu-Lughod. I think she also wrote a book on this subject too. Wishing you all the best with your research!


Congratulations for the publication. Songs are great medium for women in our communities to express themselves. Thanks for reminding us that women use different media to express themselves. Keep writing Stella, I like reading your write ups.


Thank you Amie my friend, for your encouraging words! I am a folk singer myself and writing about such music is a joy. I am only happy to see others liking it. Love

Stella Paul Twitter: @stellasglobe