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Domestic Violence - Walk On By?
Putting Domestic Violence in the Spotlight
The recent story of Nigella Lawson, photographed being held around the neck by husband Saatchi in a restaurant, brings domestic violence into the spotlight, publicising that which many women face daily behind closed doors. Women’s Aid state that 1 in 4 women experience some form of domestic violence in their lives and that every week 2 women are killed by a current or former male partner. While there are less cases, an increasing number of men also face domestic violence. As most of these cases go unreported, it is essential that we continue to speak up and break the silence around Domestic Violence.
Don't Cover It Up - Lauren Luke, Refuge Campaign
Walk on By?
The etiquette of posh restaurants it seems forbids intervention - the statement from Scott’s was: “We do not comment on the private matters of customers.” The press contains statements from ‘onlookers’ - yet what prevented those people from intervening?
Social etiquette - it is considered a breach of politeness to intervene in the privacies of a personal relationship.
Responsibility - In smaller tribal societies, the whole community comes together and takes responsibility for a breakdown. This communality has been disrupted in urban settings and responsibility is assigned to social agencies like the police and social services, who are often too under-resourced and over-bureaucratised to take effective action. Yet as individuals we still have the power to make compassionate interventions, as the actions of the women who challenged the murderer of a soldier in Woolwich demonstrate.
Those abused find it hard to ask for help - according to Refuge in their Dont Cover It Up Campaign 65% of women hide the fact they are being abused and a women will have been assaulted on average a staggering 35 times before speaking up.
Those accused tell a different story: after receiving a caution from the police, Saatchi stated “we were sitting outside a restaurant having an intense debate about the children, and I held Nigella's neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point. There was no grip, it was a playful tiff. The pictures are horrific, but give a far more drastic and violent impression of what took place.” Whether Saatchi’s account is true remains to be seen, but it is often the case that those who abuse seek to maintain control over their partners and re-write history from their perspective, often convincing the abused that it is actually their fault. Nigella has so far made no public statement.
The Context of Abuse
Any of us, regardless of gender, may experience abuse at some point in our life. Whether that’s abuse from a stranger who takes a quick grope in the street or from a road rager, abuse is a confronting part of our human experience that always takes place in specific contexts. There is often a complex background to domestic violence, as partners enact dramas with one another based on familial and cultural conditionings.
It is well known that those who experience abuse have often been abused in the past - and are therefore likely to have low self-esteem and be vulnerable to further attack. Those who abuse have often also have either witnessed or experienced abuse in their early lives.
“My opinion is that all men can be influenced by a wider culture which objectifies women, trivialises them. If you are inclined to be abusive, you don’t have to look that far in popular culture to find some sort of justification of that. We might not have as many mother-in-law jokes, but we’ve got a lot more naked and provocatively posed women up and down the street.”
- Polly Neate, CEO Women’s Aid.
There is an insidious level of misogyny built into what remains, in varying degrees, a patriarchal society. Whilst the playing out of this differs culturally, the core message of patriarchy is that women are inferior and therefore subject to a man’s will. In some cases, such as ‘honour’ killings, the cultural and religious context is obvious. In countries which boast of women’s equality it is a more complex picture, because alongside economic and political freedoms, women are bombarded with a barage of sexist media imagery. The Everyday Sexism project gives voice to thousands of women sharing their stories about day to day experiences of harassment and in doing so shows up the context in which domestic violence occurs.
Media images of men continually glamorise the aggressive Alpha Male such as Indiana/James Bond/ Rambo/ Terminator - who is always primed, armed and ready for violent action and sexual conquest. With an emphasis on action over dialogue, movies continually show violence as a means to an end, as the plot resolver - the good guy blows up the bad guy and gets the girl. 'Tough women' are shown displaying similar violent attributes - although of course they get to fight wearing stilletos.
On the personal playing field, these pervasive attitudes brewed over centuries of patriarchy take an immense amount of strength and self-awareness to overcome in both men and women.
Looking in the Shadows
Beyond Stereotypes of Victims/ Oppressors
In order to move beyond patriarchal role-play, it’s necessary to look beyond defining women as victims and men as oppressors.
Nigella, as a high-powered successful woman, is far from the stereotype of a victim.
“I’ve met a lot of women who’ve survived domestic violence, all different types of people, from all walks of life, and I’ve never met a little mousey, victim-type woman.” - Polly Neate, CEO Women’s Aid
Women are not victims, nor does being victimised turn them into victims. Women are powerhouses of creativity, who give birth to the future, as mothers, daughters and sisters. Tina Turner insisted that she was not a victim of her violent husband, Ike, and her mantra became ‘‘the lotus flower grows in the mud, the thicker and deeper the mud, the more beautiful she blooms.” In her interview with Tina, Oprah Winfrey says - “You don't just dance and sing. You represent possibility. When people see you performing, they know you've come up from the ashes, from the depths of despair. It means that however down a woman is, she can be like you.”
Whilst abuse is never acceptable, demonising abusers is rarely effective. The current prison system does not support the effective reform of abusers or effective protection for the abused - Maria’s Stubbings former partner, convicted for her assault, walked out of jail after 11 years and murdered her in 2008 - just one of many tragically similar stories. Her family are now campaigning for a public enquiry into police and state response to Domestic Violence. Alongside women’s organisations like Refuge, refuges need to be made available for men who abuse, to help them process their guilt, shame and unresolved anger issues. To understand and address the causes of domestic violence, women urgently need to be supported to speak out and men encouraged to express themselves and resolve issues non-violently.
There is also, much to be done to support men who are abused by their partners. These cases are less frequent and therefore much overlooked. There are far fewer support networks for men, who are socially encouraged to compete with each other and for whom admitting their vulnerability is challenging. It has been shown that many more cases of cancer in men are not detected early, because men are less likely than women to go to their GP and ask for help. It is therefore incredibly challenging for men to admit they are being abused by a partner.
In the LGBT community, about 25% of relationships encounter domestic abuse. Isolated and alienated by hetero-normative approaches, their experiences are also often overlooked and unreported.
LGBT Domestic Abuse is a bit of an 'elephant-in-the-room' type situation: we all know it's there, we probably all know someone who has experienced it, but too many of us would still rather tip-toe round it than face the reality. Maybe it's the shame factor - we're all so busy trying to convince the rest of society that gay people are fine, upstanding citizens that we can't accept we have the same flaws as everyone else. Yet our community would actually be so much stronger if it did. - Iona Fiesta, OUTSKIRTS editor quoted on Broken Rainbow a resource for LGBT members experiencing Domestic Violence.
A fuller enquiry and treatment of the aggressive, violent and shadow aspects of humanity is called for - for much as we would like to ignore, deny or lock away these aspects, they exist in all of us and require facing rather than walking away from.
Domestic Violence can be survived and healed
Many years ago, I was called by a friend who had experienced a volatile incident with her boyfriend. There was no doubt in my mind that she was not safe and I supported her as she packed her bags. I am happy to say that she now lives with a loving, supportive life-partner and their two children.
Sara Thornton (pictured above) changed the course of legal history in 1996 when after a long appeal, a conviction of murder of her violent husband was amended to manslaughter on the grounds that she was suffering from battered woman syndrome. Having already been imprisoned for five and a half years, she walked free. Her case was supported by a huge movement of women campaigners and gave voice to many of the issues around domestic violence.
Nigella’s story, I hope, will do the same: - challenge us to reassess our response to domestic violence and to actively support those involved - men, women and children - with compassion and awareness.