Some Questions that need to be answered on Domestic Violence

Background: Poet and Dalit activist Meena kandasamy recently wrote about her story of domestic violence. She is an evocative writer and her article has resulted in a lot of conversation on various web-platforms.  Among the usual “hear, hear” and “she must be lying”  comments were a few a few questions that are earnest and need to be answered. This is a post addressing those questions.

Note: I am not trying to explain Meena Kandasamy’s story, I have no business doing that. I am strictly answering general questions on the topic of Domestic violence.

How can feminists be victims of violence?

One of the earliest reactions to this story was “how can someone so “strong”, a fierce feminist, put up with domestic violence?”. I hope this leads to people searching for truths about domestic violence, and not concluding that her story is fabricated based on a presupposition that strong women do not get beaten up. On my timeline on twitter, stories were pouring in about VP’s of companies, Doctors, and NGO owners who were victims of violence who suffered in silence for a long time. This is, no doubt, puzzling and I hope to explain why it happens.

Principle 1 : Violence does not happen to you because you are weak.

Violence does not affect only un-educated women in the third world. It does not even  happen to only to women. You will find doctors, writers, CEOs, soldiers who put up with violence from an intimate partner for years before they breakdown and take steps to end the relationship.

Strong women, feminists, empowered women, dykes, men, macho men, anyone can be beaten up.

Why?

Some women might not have the typical patterns of financial dependence, social pressures and things like that holding them back, but there are other, equally valid and powerful factors at play.

  1. Violence perpetrators are often great at manipulating people, and all of us, feminists and scientists are equally vulnerable to this.
  2. Fear of escalation: “if things are this bad now, imagine if I try to retaliate” .
  3. Learned helplessness: Our culture is harsh to victims, as the response to the article reveals, but worse is when the person makes several attempts to change things, as many women do, but the violence does not abate, and often gets worse. In such situations, as counterintuitive as it sounds, people almost always react with helplessness or giving up.
  4. Hope, denial, love. We are capable of loving awful people. We also hope that the wonderful person we fell in love with will  someday come back, that this behavior is a result of work pressure, your own inadequacy or other reasons.
  5. Financial dependence: Powerful does not mean independent. Activists need money just like the rest of us do.

The Violence Wheel:
There is another, more illusive  and more fundamental reason, and this is the way we understand “strength” and conceptualize violence.

Principle 2 : Strength is not perfect or universal.

We think strong people are strong in everything they do. We associate ideology, money, and education with strength.In reality, however, “strength” in one part of life, or one way often does not translate into strength in all other parts of life. We are often great project managers with highly messy personal lives. We are often very successful people with desolate emotional lives.

Principle 3: Violence is not a sign of strength

Violence is a result of poor control of anger, inability to react maturely to conflict, and deep emotional issues, not a sign of strength. We think violent people are macho, testosterone junkies with strong personalities, but anyone who has been bullied knows that bullies are often emotional wrecks. In fact, studies have shown that men who perpetuate domestic violence are often emotionally dependent on women. This also explains how many wife-beaters are full of sorrow the moment the violence is over and are profuse in  their promise that it wont happen again.

Principle 4: Empowerment is not magic

We think of empowerment as a magic moment where the chains of social norms, the burden of gender roles and the entanglements of emotions magically disappear and a woman becomes a super-powered entity who cannot be/should not be affected by petty things like what the society expects of her, attachment etc.In reality, however, empowerment is a process, often lifelong, and there is no one achievement that can make a person fully, inalienable empowered. It takes years of struggle for empowerment in one of its form, say, education, to breach the thick walls of the other oppressions that co-exist.

“But they look so happy together”

Yes, they often do. As do people who live in slums, is their life without any problems? We believe in appearances, not just for the sake of those who watch, but for our own selves. People going through the worst in life often smile and seem happy because if they start crying, the tears wont stop and their already tenuous grip on their lives will be gone for ever. At least, this is what we are programmed to believe. As my daddy taught me “Brave children dont weep at small things”. 

But he is such a nice guy.

I’ve written about this before: here is the original post, which is also a summary  “He is not a nice guy”

But cant I doubt the veracity of the claim without being called a regressive anti-feminist who thinks women deserve getting beaten up and Meena K is lying?

I am sorry you were called these things. There is no justification for abuse, not towards you, not even towards regressive misanthropes who think women deserve it. But perhaps the (for the lack of a better word) violent responses to questioning the veracity of the claims of a woman who speaks about violence in her life is a glimpse into why it is so tough to speak about it in the first place. Perhaps women who have been beaten have also been called liars by the society for too long. Perhaps, you mistrust stories of violence less than you mistrust other stories. By questioning the story of one woman who claims to be beaten up, you question not just that story, but those of many women who have to express their stories vicariously, through the story of the few who manage to break free.

Principle 5:  If someone confesses to something that happened to them and this has the potential to worsen the emotional, physical or social trauma, believe them.

For example, if you were to read comments and reactions to Meena’s post, or of other people who speak about domestic violence, you will see that a significant minority and in some cases the majority, has nothing but abuses to hurl, this worsens the trauma, and it does not make sense to subject oneself to such pain if there were no truth in their experiences.

This does not, however, mean that you should not question motives, but that when you do, don’t play into the hands of the “she asked for it” and “she is lying” brigades.

It goes without saying that public figures who come out with stories of their own lives have an added responsibility to stick to the absolute truth and not use their position of privilege to worsen things for co- sufferrers. This does not mean that one must automatically assume that public figures will manipulate their stories to “gain attention” or something.

Let me summarize

  • Violence can happen to anyone.
  • It can  affect CEOs as much as it can sweepers.
  • We often think strong or empowered women are never affected by this, but they do, the problem is with our thinking, and our way of looking at success, empowerment and violence.

I urge you to look for the truth of violence and seek out people who have been hurt and hear their stories.

Note: Domestic and sexual violence does not happen only to women, men suffer too and it is often tougher for them to owe up to it. Physical violence is not the only form of violence, more prevalent and much more malignant is emotional abuse.

Further reading

Research and Technical information:

  1. Krishnan, S.(2005)  Gender, caste, and economic inequalities and marital violence in rural South India.Health Care for Women International 26 (1):87-99.
  2. Bornstein, Robert F The complex relationship between dependency and domestic violence: Converging psychological factors and social forces. American Psychologist, Vol 61(6), Sep 2006, 595-606. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.61.6.595
  3. D. C. Berrios, D. Grady Domestic violence. Risk factors and outcomes. West J Med. 1991 August; 155(2): 133–135.
  4. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report

19 thoughts on “Some Questions that need to be answered on Domestic Violence

  1. My observation is that domestic violence is much less prevalent among professional women, first of all because domestic violence is less socially acceptable, and second of all because professional women have more economic options and knowledge about how to use legal/social services to escape. Less prevalent doesn’t mean non-existent, of course, but my experience with a battered women’s hotline is that the women who stayed for years were working class and had children they couldn’t afford to raise alone. (And in Meena Kandaswamy’s case, she returned to her supportive middle-class parents who could extend financial assistance to her.)

    I also think it is preposterous to say that emotional abuse is more “malignant” than physical abuse. (It is also the sort of preposterous statement that men make to dismiss the fact that physical abuse is largely perpetrated by men against women, though I don’t think that is your intention.)

    I was not taken with Meena Kandaswamy’s essay; actually, Shashie T. Reyna’s comment above has exactly the kind of self-reflection that Meena Kandaswamy’s essay avoids. I admire her (STR)’s directness.

    1. If I may. Meena Kandaswamy encountered a horribly traumatic first marriage at a fairly young age, where a deep faith was shattered. At 48 I am battle hardened, prosaic and pragmatic. You don’t dream of recovery with a terminal condition but you do hunt for quality of life.

  2. I feel the mantra should be speak out, earn money and get out — keep a long distance relationship if you want. Its important that people know violence is being perpetrated. I was lucky in that in the services senior officers can be approached to officially record that this is happening. The problem comes when the abuser becomes senior enough to not have anybody above him in that particular station. Best for the abused spouse to sit out such postings elsewhere.

    The biggest thing I learnt with domestic violence is that the problem lay within me: until I blamed him and/or lived my life as a response to him I was in the soup, my hopes and dreams were linked to him; but to the extent that I reclaimed responsibility for my own peace/happiness I gained power to act. I was gunning for a long-distance relationship, but the care of an elderly ill parent has curtailed my movement almost completely.

    1. This makes things clear, but I think you are too hard on yourself, it is immensly tough to actually realize that you are in a bad place and more so to realize that you can do something about it. Respect.

  3. Thank you for this article. Some of the responses by apparently intelligent, well-read people were enough to make me want to tear my hair out.

  4. I was horrified at the crass and misogynistic responses by readers of Meena Kandasamy’s article. Having volunteered previously with a domestic violence helpline, I can testify that class and education levels are no barriers to experiencing or perpetrating violence against women. I’ve known women who are professionally qualified and employed having to flee from residence to residence and city to city in mortal fear of threats to their lives and those of their children from their equally well-placed husbands. It’s not just Those People : it’s us and people all around us.

    1. It’s not just Those People : it’s us and people all around us.

      I think that about sums it all up.

      thank you Ramki

  5. I have been a target of domestic violence in marriage. I use the word target advisedly, because I am nobody’s victim. I walked out the first time it happened after complaining to the commanding officer of the unit my doctor husband was serving in, and returned months later after much cajoling etc. Over the years his behaviour remained borderline; no violence but pretty much within the spectrum of behaviours outlined in the violence wheel above. Most unpleasant. I kept seeking a psychiatric appraisal, which finally happened after a second violent outburst in 2008 when I insisted his seniors direct him to get an asessment done. For good measure I got assessed too. He has Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder and possibly more but has refused to undergo therapy or treatment. I want a peaceful and constructive old age and stay elsewhere now. This is the second marriage in which I have faced violence. The first also to an armed forces doctor lasted just 8 months, and the person concerned went on to marry again being so violent as to put his second wife in hospital. The wife left him, and he left the defence services.

    1. Thank you very much for sharing your story Shashie, and i love that you are nobody’s victim. I am myself unconfortable in lableing someone who has successfully survived violence as a victim or even a survivor, but lack of better words does me in.

      It is commendable how you kept seeking help and fought it out. I wish this message, that you have to keep fighting till the bully back away reaches far and wide.

  6. Thanks for this Anand. I read both Meena’s piece and the comments yday and was sooooo pissed off with many of the comments. Although the story itself was heartbreaking, more than the story itself – it was the comments which truly irked me. Atleast this gives some insight and attempts an explanation.

  7. Excellent post. I came late to the story, and was wondering why many people’s first reaction was to disbelieve/question veracity. This isn’t about Meena. It’s important to understand that domestic violence happens to all kinds of people, and there is no particular “liberated” type who is immune to it.

    1. we have a very black and white image of what liberation is. i guess that shows how few are in fact liberated.

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