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.
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.
- Violence perpetrators are often great at manipulating people, and all of us, feminists and scientists are equally vulnerable to this.
- Fear of escalation: “if things are this bad now, imagine if I try to retaliate” .
- 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.
- 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.
- Financial dependence: Powerful does not mean independent. Activists need money just like the rest of us do.
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.
- Battering, a dangerous Dependency
- The cycle of violence
- Why do men batter?
- Why do some battered women stay?
- Wikipedia on Domestic violence
- Why do some women return to violent men
Research and Technical information:
- Krishnan, S.(2005) Gender, caste, and economic inequalities and marital violence in rural South India.Health Care for Women International 26 (1):87-99.
- 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
- D. C. Berrios, D. Grady Domestic violence. Risk factors and outcomes. West J Med. 1991 August; 155(2): 133–135.
- The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report