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Domestic violence against women: Dispelling myths and misconceptions

15May 2012
Domestic violence against women: Dispelling myths and misconceptions

The 8th of March is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Until about two years ago I would have thought little about marking the day or taking time out to reflect on how gender impacts every facet of life. Being a woman who is privileged to have a loving family, education, food, safety and a career I thought my kind of experience was the norm rather than the exception. 

That was until I came to work for a domestic violence charity in London. It was only then that I glimpsed the reality for many women here in the so called empowered and civilised ‘West’. To my astonishment I found out that my kind of life of safety and shelter from violence was in many cases the exception rather than the rule.

The statistics are shockingly high; one in four women in the UK will be a victim of violence at some point in her life (Mooney 1993 and Mirrless-Black 1999). That means a quarter of all women in the UK. So, even if we have been spared that experience we will know at least one other woman who has suffered or is suffering violence and abuse.

The violence can take the form of physical and or sexual assault. But just as destructive and brutal is the emotional, psychological and financial abuse that women are likely to endure. This includes bullying, name calling, harassment, intimidation, stalking, and control of her movements, thoughts and behaviour. It also often includes withholding food or money, stealing the victim’s money and using children to control the woman by either threatening to or actually harming them.

What is startling about this kind of violence is its pervasiveness and multi-faceted levels of abuse that chip away at the very essence of a woman’s sense of self and worth in life. Furthermore, the perpetrators of this human rights abuse in the majority of cases are intimate partners or family members and friends. These are people who should know better, in positions of trust and responsibility to love and nurture such as partners, husbands, sons, brothers, uncles and in some cases female members of the family. Abuse committed in this context is known, amongst other things, as domestic abuse or domestic violence.

For the past 18 months Solace Women’s Aid, a Domestic Abuse charity in London have been coordinating a three year research project looking at what happens to women who report and seek help for the violence they are experiencing. So far 100 women have been tracked. What is scary is the egalitarian way in which domestic violence targets women. There is no specific profile of a victim or if you prefer a survivor of abuse. Women from all backgrounds can find themselves in this predicament. Variables such as ethnicity, social class, educational attainment, career path or the lack of it, religiosity, age or self-confidence  do not in any way act as indicators of whether a woman is more likely to experience violence or not. For instance the research project has worked with wealthy middle class and high powered career women who have found themselves in violent relationships.

“How can they let this happen to themselves?” is the question that is initially asked but having talked with and heard these amazing women’s stories it soon became obvious  that the question that should be asked is, “how can the perpetrators do this to their loved ones?”

At the heart of domestic violence is the power and control dynamic and once women are trapped in that cycle questions like” why doesn’t she just  leave?” illustrate a real ignorance of how, as a result of the abuse, women’s minds and bodies are no longer their own. We should be asking “what does her abuser do to make it impossible for her to leave?”

Apart from the obvious threats of violence and death, a woman’s identity in such a relationship is under constant and systematic attack. Everything that she does, says and thinks is labelled as wrong, stupid, evil or shameful.  Together with isolation from friends and family, which often happens in order to hide the shame of her partner’s violence or more likely as a result of a direct act of the partner to cut the woman from any support network (friends, family or work colleagues), the woman has no one else to tell her otherwise. The seed of doubt in self is planted and the abuse, isolation and instinct for her, and/or her children’s, survival makes a woman adapt and change her behaviour constantly in the hope of stopping the violence. This toxic mix of emotions and behaviour gradually results in the erosion of belief in her ability to function or survive outside of the abusive relationship.

For those women who can muster enough courage and strength to leave often the threat of death is all too real. Tragically, they are killed by their perpetrator. How many cases do we read of weekly in which a man separated from his wife, partner, child or children ends up murdering them and then kills himself?  In the media these cases are never described as cases of domestic violence. The most you may get is a sentence stating that the offender was known to the police or had a substance dependency problem. In choosing not to categorise the crime in this way we are never made aware of the extent to which violence against women and families is present in society. In doing so, such crime is normalised. It makes us think that these are one off incidents and perhaps the murderer loved his family too much to bear being separated from them. We are therefore distracted from the fact that he has been systematically harming them and it simply became intolerable for them to stay.

So what does Islam say about this? Are there any Muslim survivors of Domestic Abuse? How do Muslims as a community deal with this issue, if at all? For possible answers on this issue you will have to read part two in the upcoming month.

If you think you or someone you know may be affected by domestic abuse or violence please ring the national 24 hour helpline for advice and support on: Freephone- 0808 2000 247.

Useful websites:

 Credits: flickr user Jaybird


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