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No Woman, No Culture Immune to Violence Against Women

Below the Belt: A Column by NOW President Kim Gandy

February 20, 2009

Rihanna. Aasiya. Does it take a celebrity assault to get violence against women into the news? What about something as gory as cutting off the woman's head? Indeed the story of one woman's life or death can open up a discussion with people who may not think about the issue at all, or that they can do anything about it.

Just over a year ago, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, led me to take a look in this column at the horrific forms of violence that target women around the globe. Then, last July, I wrote about feminist activist Jana Mackey, who was just 25 years old when she was murdered by a man she had dated. Mackey was a law student, a Kansas NOW leader, and a volunteer who assisted victims of sexual assault. But even her knowledge and genuine understanding of dating violence didn't insulate her from tragedy.

Of course, something as pervasive as violence against women is not going to vanish overnight, but raising the profile of the issue does help. It makes people think, starts conversations around the water cooler, and (is this hoping for too much?) perhaps leads to increased public support for programs to protect survivors and break the cycle of violence. So, here we go again with a couple of very public cases that started those conversations recently.

Let's face it, high-profile cases do tend to stop people in their tracks, reminding them that domestic violence can happen anywhere, between people of all ages and income levels--even between much admired celebrities. Reminding everyone that education and wealth don't shield us from partner violence.

Rihanna and Chris

Earlier this month, R&B star Chris Brown was booked by the Los Angeles Police Department on suspicion of making criminal threats against singer Rihanna. As reported by the Los Angeles Times: "An early morning altercation with Brown after a pre-Grammy Awards party left Rihanna with bruises and a scratch on her face, according to police sources. She was treated at a 'major medical facility,' a police source said."

Rihanna had been scheduled to perform at the Grammy ceremony but was unable to attend. The L.A. Times also revealed that "Rihanna is cooperating with investigators building a domestic violence case against her boyfriend," and additional charges involving the alleged assault may follow. Brown later issued a statement that did not admit guilt, but did say that he was "sorry and saddened . . . over what transpired."

Now, the fame of the two people involved means this isn't your average domestic violence case, so the media have been all over it. This might not be a bad thing if reporters and on-air guests actually took the time to discuss the larger issue at hand. If they invited law enforcement experts, advocates, social workers and survivors to share their side of the story. If they emphasized that every year in the U.S. women experience 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes -- and every day three women are killed by an intimate partner.

Instead, early stories focused on how the charges were impacting Brown's endorsement deals. The Washington Post consulted a crisis management expert who said: "Strictly from a career standpoint, [Rihanna] needs to cut him loose." And what about from a personal safety and dignity standpoint? Does anyone care about that?

The media also feed us the comments of other celebrities and gossip columnists, telling us that "Chris is a great guy," and the couple were "affectionate, adorable" at the pre-Grammy party. (Some of these celebrities have since retracted their seemingly thoughtless comments.) Indeed, there was an enormous amount of victim-blaming -- just take a look at the outrageous comments about Rihanna, and what she must have done to "deserve" a beating. As frustrating as these comments were, there is much to be learned from them.

First of all, even men who seem nice in the public sphere can be bullies at home. Men who treat their friends just fine can become violent with their intimate partners. Men (and yes, women, too) who haven't learned how to deal with personal conflict may resort to violence as a means to resolve their problems or to exert control over their partners. That doesn't make it right, but it's important to understand where this violence comes from.

According to experts, young children who have witnessed violence, or been victims of violent acts, are at even greater risk of committing violence in their own relationships -- girls can grow up believing the abuse is their fault because of something they did (did I burn the toast?), and boys can grow up feeling it is their prerogative to control the women in their lives. And perhaps excusing that kind of violence in other relationships as well, judging from some of the blog comments. It looks like the cycle of violence played out in this relationship:

In 2007, Chris Brown gave an interview to Giant magazine in which he recounted the extreme violence he witnessed in his own home: "He made me terrified all the time, terrified like I had to pee on myself. I remember one night he made her nose bleed. I was crying and thinking, 'I'm just gonna go crazy on him one day...' I hate him to this day."

Rihanna told the same magazine about her own turbulent family life, including her father's drug abuse, her parent's marital problems, and the terrible headaches she developed as a result of the stress.

For once, the media 's penchant for rooting around in celebrities' personal lives might actually be adding context to the story. But the media should take the next logical step and discuss how these childhood experiences and this most recent (and still alleged) event demonstrate a long-observed cycle of violence (namely that children who witness violence at home are more likely to be victims of partner violence or perpetrate it as adults) and then ask domestic violence experts: how do we stop the cycle once and for all?

One bright spot in the media coverage was MTV, which quickly examined the implications in an online story, and then put together a half-hour special that focused particularly on teen dating violence, an increasing problem. They did such a good job that I even saw my 16-year-old daughter watching it -- the first time I've seen her sit still for a show about domestic violence. Now if only their other programming didn't objectify women...

That Rihanna is working with the police is an encouraging sign. It can be difficult for women to leave violent men, to report their abuse to the police and follow through in seeking justice. But women must do it -- for themselves, for those who come after them, and in this case, for all the young women and girls who look up to them. And we must provide the societal resources to ensure their safety.

At the same time, it's up to groups like NOW to help identify the influences that combine to create this epidemic of violence against women: One, a society that often relies on violence to solve its problems; two, a popular culture and media that are obsessed with violent crime and its victims; and three, persistent sexist attitudes toward women and outdated gender roles that still set up a male/dominant, female/submissive equation.

Aasiya and Muzzammil

Since I started working on this column last week, countless more women have been beaten and killed. Just in the last week: A Virginia woman was fatally shot in an apparent domestic dispute that also injured her husband. A woman in Washington state was killed by her boyfriend. A man was charged with killing his wife and two stepchildren in their Virginia home. And on and on.

But after Rihanna and Chris, the one that got the most media attention was the most gruesome. The co-owner of an Islamic television station in Buffalo, New York -- prepare yourself -- cut off the head of his wife, Aasiya Hassan. She had filed for divorce from her husband, Muzzammil, and he was enraged.

Indeed, we know that the most dangerous time for the woman is not during a violent relationship, but after she leaves. The loss of control infuriates an already violent man. This pattern has been observed for many years, and is true regardless of the race, religion or nationality of the man. We also know that unemployment and business reversals increase the likelihood of violence, and reports indicated that the Hassans' television station wasn't doing well.

Despite these patterns that are typical of spouse abuse and murder (only the manner of killing was atypical), most of the conservative commentary has focused not on male violence toward women (surprise, surprise), nor on the importance of protecting women who have separated from a violent relationship (another surprise) but has focused instead on attacking the Muslim community. Although the crime was quickly decried by Muslim groups, many talk shows and blogs used the horror of Muzzammil's act to indict an entire community -- in a way that they would never have accused the entire Christian religion because a Methodist man murdered his estranged wife in a horrible way. Three weeks ago, a Chinese graduate student at Virginia Tech cut off a female friend's head with a knife. Not a single news outlet referred to his religion.

Is a Muslim man in Buffalo more likely to kill his wife than a Catholic man in Buffalo? A Jewish man in Buffalo? I don't know the answer to that, but I know that there is plenty of violence to go around -- and that the long and sordid history of oppressing women in the name of religion surely includes Islam, but is not limited to Islam. We need to call out the repression of women whenever and wherever we see it, while recognizing that the roots of violence are long and deep, and require a concerted response from every community.

What Next?

As we work to educate people about the cycle of violence, and urge women and men to help break the cycle, we must also make sure that the necessary resources and services are there. This is why we have been advocating for decades to enact and fund groundbreaking legislation like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and to reauthorize its funding. More recently, we worked to keep VAWA funding in the economic recovery package, because we know violence increases during the stress of economic hard times.

Violence against women is horrific no matter who it happens to, and it happens to many, many women and girls. But these high-profile cases may bring much needed attention to the issue; these stories may bring courage to women who haven't yet taken action to stop the violence in their own lives; and it might even help promote justice for the millions of women and girls who suffer ever day. That is, if we take these stories seriously and don't treat them as just another salacious celebrity scandal, or something that only happens in "other" communities or religions.

It's time for a national debate on how to stop this epidemic of violence against women. Patching up and sheltering the survivors and their children isn't enough -- we must put real resources and the power of every major institution behind stopping the cycle.

More Information:

Violence Against Women in the United States: Statistics

Irshad Manji speaks at the 2008 NOW Conference about the conflict between women's individual rights and the "right" to oppress women in the name of religion/culture

Statement from a coalition of American Muslims

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