Keeping violence against women a secret and considering it a family’s dirty laundry only contributes to a cycle of violence. By Fatimah Jackson-Best.
Last week video footage of an American athlete brutally assaulting his then-fiancée in an elevator was released. Admittedly, I did not know who this man or woman was until headlines of the altercation were everywhere, but that didn’t affect me feeling immediately disgusted by the situation.
While it has been difficult for me to understand why women stay in violent and abusive relationships, I was shocked to learn that this woman not only stayed but also married him after the events took place. I was even more mystified when I heard the fiancée-turned-wife ask for the couple’s privacy after the video leaked. I wish I knew this woman so that I could tell her that this situation does not necessitate privacy and neither does any other situation that involves domestic violence.
Like too many others, I grew up in environments where domestic violence took place. I can remember hearing stories about a male member of my tight-knit Muslim community who was a notorious spouse abuser. I recall one particularly heinous story about how he threw an entire carton of oranges at his wife – for a reason that now escapes me. It was said that one by one, those fruits hit her and she stood there and received each of them until she and the room were a pulpy, orange mess. Although the story is based on other people’s memories, no one ever disputed it because this man was notorious for that kind of behaviour.
What’s worse is that he was able to regularly abuse his wife because no one felt it was their business to intervene by confronting him or calling the police. I can imagine that the woman involved in the situation probably felt that she should keep the matter within the household and not air their dirty laundry. But the only one who benefitted from this attempt at secrecy was that abusive man and others like him who have the privacy of their homes to protect them from being held accountable.
Several female scholars have explored Muslim complicity towards violence against women and the use of interpretations of the Qur’an to justify these heinous actions. However important this kind of theological challenging is, it hasn’t stopped the domestic violence that takes place in Muslim homes. Often, women who are being abused want to keep their circumstances quiet for fear of shame, further abuse, or even blame from their family and community.
Too often when we hear about women being abused, the next comment is “what did she do to provoke him?” or “we don’t know the whole story so we shouldn’t say anything”. These responses are symptoms of a sickness that pervades communities and simultaneously destroys them. And this is one reason why I do not believe that privacy is more important than calling out male abusers and holding them accountable for their actions.
Privacy may very well be a path to many of these women being killed or experiencing lifelong psychological scarring. Privacy also allows children in these situations to believe that this kind of behaviour is normal – raising new generations of abusers and victims.
In light of this recent news story, I have also heard people say that women can be violent and abusive, and that when women hit men they deserve the response they may get. Abusive behaviour is toxic no matter who initiates it. But in domestic violence situations, it is important to understand the role of power – not only physical power, but also social power.
There are too many countries to list here that do not have laws against domestic violence, or that if they do exist they can be overlooked by law enforcement. In such situations, where women may be viewed as inferior to men or considered a man’s property, many men have social power on their side because they can assault a woman and get away with it. Even if a woman is taller in stature or equal in physical strength to a man it does not mean that she has access to the same kinds of social power that he does. This does not mean that women cannot do or say abusive things, but it does show that they do not have the same kind of support that men do, which allows them to abuse or kill women and consistently get away with it.
Instead of finding excuses to overlook or condone domestic violence, our communities – Muslim and otherwise – must reinforce the belief that there is never a situation or context where a man laying their hands on a woman is justifiable. Women are valuable and so are our lives and wellbeing. If we start from this belief, then we would know that it is my business and yours to be outraged and demand punishment for perpetrators of all kinds of violence against women.