A very recent Facebook discussion on a closed group brought light to an important issue: domestic abuse. The victim, in the anonymous post, said that her husband had started a new job and was coming home very late. She was distressed about the fact that her husband was not spending time with her and their new baby so she voiced her concerns. Her husband reacted with anger. He shouted at her and grasped her tightly around the neck (basically strangled her). When she tried to defend herself, he twisted her leg and threw her on the bed.
She told the Soul Sisters that this was the third time he had physically assaulted her in the past year.
She then asked them,
“Should I leave him?”
Whilst there were certain sane voices that urged the woman to leave the hostile environment and remove herself from a dangerous situation, even if it were for a temporary period of time, there were many others who encouraged her to stay with her husband and endure the abuse.
They told her to be nice to him, not react when he is angry, cook him food and provide a peaceful environment. Things like, “Maybe you pushed him too far” and “He has a new job and is providing for your family. Bear it out for a few months.” were common. It was unsettling to see that this closed group was a group of women were encouraging to first correct her own behaviour before she addressed the problems with her husband’s.
“New jobs are stressful, he is probably really stressed out.”
“You should have sabr.”
Not only was the victim told to to have “sabr” (patience) and provide the abuser with a good and comfortable environment, she was also told to identify the things she was doing wrong, that might have been triggering the abuse.
The Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) claims that 90 per cent of women in Pakistan face some form of domestic abuse within their homes, and 49.39 per cent of victims do not even report the abuse (as of 2014). Even with those statistics at our disposal, little or nothing is being done to prevent domestic abuse, or provide for shelter, support or rehabilitation of victims.
The normalisation of abuse also featured in a few of the posts. A lot of the women commented saying that the victim’s husband was working long hours and was frustrated so this was bound to happen. How have we as a community, as a gender, become to think of abusive behaviour as normal? When did it ever become okay for a man to raise his hand on a woman, for any reason? The fact that our women believe that abuse is normal, or common, or a legitimate response to frustration is extremely frightening. It is thought provoking too; have we conditioned our children to believe that it is acceptable to talk with our fists?
Let this be a reminder that one day your girls are going to be married too, is this same advice you’d want to give her? Protect your marriage first, then yourself?
Being a victim of domestic abuse is a frightening experience. It helps to have support and guidance from other women. Women all around the world are working to protect each other. However, the women in this public forum are condemning those who advised the victim to separate herself from the situation by leaving her house.
“She will regret it,” they said.
What will she regret? Not having her neck strangled, her leg twisted and her body thrown across the room? Or wait, maybe she will miss the feeling of fear swallowing her.
The narrative of “regret” that is built around domestic abuse is what scares women into staying in situations that are dangerous for them. They stick around and endure abuse because we tell them that they would be much unhappier if they left. We tell them that because we subscribe to a vile stigma that dictates that divorced women are “bad women”.
The socially constructed labels of “good woman” and “bad woman” pollute our understanding of women’s rights and justice in general. A “good woman” is one who is married and has a standing is society as someone’s wife, no matter how battered or beaten she is. A “bad woman” is one who is not tied to any man, whose existence is not under the shadow of a male figure. The “bad woman” has no place in society.
It is because of these labels that women end up living a life of agony.
We stigmatise and justify the actions of the abuser. Internalisation of abuse, believing it to be part of a relationship, only exemplifies the abuse cycle in this country, and the mind-set surrounding it. No one should have to live in constant fear, in their own homes, where they are supposed to feel the safest.
The Facebook post also displayed the need for safe havens; for women to talk about their situations, to get sound professional advice without judgment, to find protection and support and not be told that the nothing is above the sanctity of marriage. It displays the need for educating women today about abuse, how to identify it, and how to overcome it. It is also our job as a community to support each other in need, and not indulge in victim blaming/shaming, and/or encourage perseverance in times when physical safety is of concern.
Sindh Domestic Violence Act 2013 defines domestic violence as,
“Including but is not limited to, all acts of gender based and other physical or psychological abuse committed by a respondent against women, children or other vulnerable persons, with whom the respondent is or has been in a domestic relationship including but not limited to:
d) Criminal Force
e) Criminal Intimidation
f) Emotion, psychological and verbal abuse – a pattern of degrading or humiliating conduct towards the victim, including but not limited to:
- Obsessive possessiveness or jealousy, constituting serious invasion of the victims privacy, liberty integrity and security
- Insults or ridicule
- Threat to cause physical pain
- Threat of malicious prosecution
- Blaming a spouse of immorality
- Threats of divorce
- Baselessly blaming or imputing insanity or citing barrenness of a spouse with the intention to marry again
- Bringing false allegation upon the character of a female member by an member of the shared household; and
- Wilful or negligent abandonment of the aggrieved person;
j) Physical Abuse
l) Sexual Abuse
n) Wrongful confinement
o) Economic abuse.”
This law explicitly states that physical abuse is just one aspect of domestic violence. This realisation is significant; one needs to understand that physical harm is not the only form of abuse. Women need to become aware of the laws that have been set in place to protect them in order to identify the nature of their marital relationship.
Do you feel afraid of your partner most of the time? Do you avoid communicating certain issues for fear of angering your partner? Do you think that you deserve to be assaulted or mistreated? Do you feel alone, helpless, crazy or emotionally numb? Are you belittled, humiliated, yelled at often? Does your partner blame you for their own abusive behaviour? Are you ignored, or put down? Are you threatened, constantly checked up on, or is your movement (where you go who you go with) controlled? – If the answer to any one of these questions is yes, then you may very well be in an abusive relationship.
Chances of an abuser changing are extremely low, but not impossible. First they must be willing toaccept and admit what they have done and stop making excuses or blaming the victim. They must act responsibly and work towards identifying the errors in their ways, and what causes them to be abusive. Rehabilitation is hard work, and in a country where mental health awareness and acceptance is very low, the opportunities to seek help or counsel will most likely be rejected or not followed through properly.
It is extremely important to know the impact on children who grow up witnessing domestic abuse.According to a UNICEF study, “Behind Closed Doors: The Impact of Domestic Violence on Children”, 40 per cent of children who witnessed abused became victims of abuse themselves. A large number of abusers were found to have grown up witnessing abuse in their homes. Social development issues and mental health issues were also found in high numbers amongst such children.
Staying married is not more important than a woman’s physical safety and security. So fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, I ask you: Has social “norm” been placed higher than humanity? Does the “bond” of marriage supersede human life? There is no justification for violence. It is never the victim’s fault. Instead of blaming the victim, we should look at ways of protecting them. We should be preventing further abuse, instead of trying to “sort things out”. Let’s stop wondering what the woman did wrong, and how she can save her marriage; let’s start talking about how we can save our women, and how we can try to end this cycle of abuse.