#WhyIStayed hashtag shows complexities of domestic violence

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The hashtag #WhyIStayed helps us understand why abusive situations can be hard to leave – but it’s just half the picture. By Sya Taha.

OWINGS MILLS, MD - MAY 23: Running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife Janay at the Ravens training center on May 23, 2014 in Owings Mills, Maryland. Rice spoke publicly for the first time since facing felony assault charges stemming from a February incident involving Janay at an Atlantic City casino.   Rob Carr/Getty Images/AFP
Running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife Janay at the Ravens training centre. Rob Carr/Getty Images/AFP

This week on Twitter, there was an outpouring of deeply personal stories about domestic violence. In the wake of a video released by TMZ showing Ray Rice, a professional American football player, punching and dragging his then-fiancée, and subsequent shaming and blaming of Janay Palmer for staying with him, survivors of domestic abuse took to the Twitterverse to explain #WhyIStayed.

The woman behind the hashtag, Beverly Gooden, started the online campaign because she wanted people to know that leaving an abuser is “a process, not an event”.

“And sometimes it takes a while to navigate through the process. I believe in storytelling. I believe in the power of shared experience. I believe that we find strength in community.”

Domestic violence doesn’t only happen to women. While women are the overwhelming majority of victims, men can also face violence at the hands of women or other men. Despite this, many of our societies are set up to blame the victim for any kind of abuse; that they must have done something to trigger the abuse. In a poem by Sabina Khan-Ibarra that she tweeted about her experience of abuse, she details the many reasons why it can be difficult to leave.

I made him angry
he didn’t mean to hurt me
it doesn’t really hurt
it looks worse than it is

Beverly, Sabina and many other people revealed that domestic violence was a difficult topic to handle in religious communities. Often, women are told by the religious figures that they go to that it’s their fault – they must have done something wrong.

A close friend of mine is going through a divorce. She married her husband despite a history of physical abuse and deep misgivings. She was pressured to marry him because of her age, and the fear that he would use the history of abuse to shame her family.

Predictably, after a few months of marriage, she managed to gather the courage to come to the conclusion that she had to get out of that situation. It took her time to complete the paperwork, find a place to live in the meantime, and deal with harassment from both sides of the family. She showed me that leaving an abusive situation is not so simple.

What is also common in many Muslim communities is the lack of qualifications of imams and other figures of authority. Many victims may choose to seek the advice of an imam if a typical marriage counsellor is seen as giving “secular” advice. But if we wouldn’t dream of a religiously illiterate person preaching in the mosque, why do we still think it’s okay for an imam – if he’s not also a professional counsellor – to give advice about domestic abuse?

Unfortunately in these cases, besides victim-blaming, women are told to “pray it away” or ask Allah to change her husband’s behaviour.

Other institutions can also make it difficult to leave. For example, in Singapore, religious marital counselling is required before a couple can divorce. Attitudes also matter: when my friend went to the sharia court to seek a divorce, she was relentlessly asked by the official handling her case why she couldn’t just stay and “work things out”.

When all is said and done, truly understanding the roots of domestic violence means we have to look into why abusers do it. Is it because of a lack of self-esteem due to unemployment? Repeating the abuse they themselves experienced? Or perhaps they lack communication skills (because boys shouldn’t cry) and see violence as a normal mode of getting their point across.

While it is important to empathise and not judge women who are choosing to stay in their abusive situation, it is also important – perhaps even more so – to understand how the norms of masculinity have fractured and failed our men.

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