By: Merrian Brooks*
A friend of mine was physically and emotionally abused by her husband for years. He bruised and broke her and she remained in a relationship with him for 11 years. Despite emergency room visits, times of complete terror, and multiple apologies, and promises to change she stayed. Hold your judgment. What follows is not an attack on women who stay with perpetrators, or an attack on perpetrators themselves. It is a set of thoughts that I hope can cause a conversation that will help us move past certain systemic problems that make this scenario so common.
According to Say No To Violence in South Africa for example, a woman is killed every 6 hours by an intimate partner. That is devastating. It is clearly not unique to South Africa, or the African continent: violence against women is a world-wide epidemic. But how can we stop it?
There have been campaigns, money, policy changes, legal approaches and yet even in South Africa, which in my opinion has one of the more progressive constitutions in the world, 4 women will die today at the hands of their partners. South Africa is merely a case study that applies to multiple other contexts as well.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 48th Session observed that in South Africa, Violence against women has become “socially normalized, legitimized and accompanied by a culture of silence and impunity”. This is by no means unique to South Africa and leads to the question of how to fight this as women and men. I believe that the cultural context in which we see women and men makes it easier for violence against women to occur. It starts with sexism that leads society to believe women are wrong and need to be corrected, owned, or subservient. It is complicated by an oppressive view of men that can limits their sense of self, and their roles as complex emotional valuable members of a family.
‘Sexism,’ as I will use it, is defined in Merriam Webster as behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex/gender. Most cultures have sexist elements. The idea in most homes worldwide that women should do the household chores, rear the children, etc, is fundamentally sexist. Some women may enjoy this work, but when a woman is expected to play a role simply because she is a woman then that is oppressive. Any adult can tend a home: why must the chore go to women?
A more significant example includes ideas about what level of sexuality is appropriate for a woman, and how she should be punished if she is found acting outside of that expectation. No matter what she may do, a women does not deserve to be beaten or emotionally abused. A woman is rarely abused without the knowledge of the community in which she lives yet it is often met with silence and impunity. Many in the community may blame the woman for not adhering to sexist norms, saying “she should or should not have done…”. Those norms may also exist for men, but the power of sexism is that they also deem it acceptable for women to be physically and emotionally abused for their real or perceived mistakes. When a community does not intercede in obvious cases of abuse in order to maintain cultural norms, that community has failed the woman. A community cannot grow and flourish if it encourages oppressive tactics against non-conformity.
A culture’s view of men also plays a huge role in the nonchalant violence that is used by men against women. In cultures where men are restricted in the emotions they are allowed to show, where definitions of ‘manhood’ or ‘masculinity’ revolve around being stoic and emotionless, the only accepted emotion becomes anger. Instead of allowing men to express frustration, devotion, sadness, dependence, or intimacy, men are encouraged to hold back their emotions until they erupt. This kind of male oppression is deep. It devalues the role of fathers as important to the emotional strength of a family and replaces it with a description of fatherhood based solely on material contributions. Instead of valuing and reinforcing the equivalent role of men in raising children and serving as nurturing partners, it puts forward the idea that “men are not good at such things”. When men are, for example, stay-at-home dads, they are ridiculed on the whole by friends and sometimes family. Many men take on versions of this role daily and their strength is reflected in their ability to do the job well, but it is often not easy. In this way the question of “what it means to be a man” often relates directly to the way that men are allowed to express themselves and the value we all place on men as complex emotional members of a partnership or family. This is more difficult with men from societies with long histories of war or oppression, who have to rebuild their definitions of masculinity. Their definition of manhood is in flux as many emerge from (or continue to be in) tense times where uncertainty and fear were the norm, and violence was used as a tool.
My friend finally left her abusive husband because she discovered that he did not know how to be loving because of his own conflicts about his own self-worth and his feelings about what level of control over his wife as “head of the house”. She also left him because she had found her own self-worth. She realized that she allowed it because she had believed she was not worthy of anything better, that she had not earned it, and that he was just teaching her how to be a better wife. She had stayed because she had thought if she had left then she would have been the one responsible for breaking up the family.
Until we can start openly talking about the role of violence and coercion in our relationships there will never be healing. Until women can feel free to call out the sexist notions about how a woman “should be” without being attacked by men and women alike, we cannot move forward in our various cultures. Until we understand and reject the internalized sexism that leads some of us to believe we are not worthy of healthy and loving relationships, there will be women defending the men who are violent against them. And until men support an expanded definition of masculinity, that is not simply linked to being a soldier or a breadwinner, there will be men who practice violence as a way to express frustration, or to feel a sense of control especially when they lose it in the workplace or battlefield.
*Merrian Brooks is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.