IT happened one summer evening last year, in a small flat in northern Moscow. In this two-bedroom dwelling lived the Khachaturyan family; a father and his three teenage daughters, aged 17, 18 and 19 years old. One would have expected it to be a lively household full of sisterly chatter, but this was far from the reality. That evening, their father, 57-year-old Mikhail Khachaturyan, had told the girls to clean the living room. However, when he walked into the room, he felt it was not tidy enough. Angry at his daughters, he took out a can of pepper spray (generally used to ward off assailants) and sprayed their faces with it. Revolting as it was, abuse was routine in the household; violent beatings and angry fights were the norm. Their mother, who had fled the family home a few years earlier, said she was regularly beaten by her husband. There was also suspicion of sexual abuse, and the crude words and insults he heaped upon them were a matter of course.
The evening of July 27, 2018, was different. The three daughters had had enough. They waited until their father was asleep on his rocking chair, in the same living room that had been the cause of the fight. When he finally did fall asleep, the sisters attacked him with a hammer and a hunting knife. According to reports, the father tried to fight the girls but they overpowered him. Within minutes, he was dead — a demonic presence that had ruled over their lives, installing surveillance cameras so that he could watch over their every move.
The sisters’ ordeal was not over, however. Days after his death, they were arrested and charged with their father’s murder. Since then, their lawyers have tried to make a case for them, pointing out a long history of abuse and neglect that the sisters faced throughout their lives at the hands of their father. Other supporters have created an online petition and, in Moscow, advocates of domestic violence victims have argued that the girls, abused and afraid, should not be held responsible for the killing.
Unlike just about anything and everything else, domestic violence is an act without consequence.
Moscow is far away, but the complexities of the situation are not unimaginable in Pakistan. Only this past Ramazan, a news report from Pakpattan illustrates why. Gulzar Ahmed allegedly shot and killed his young daughter because she did not wake him up in time for sehri. The situation is not at all unusual. In Pakistani newspapers, news stories featuring men killing their wives, sisters and daughters are so commonplace that they do not get any mention save the bottoms and sides of inside pages. No one will remember that, in March this year, a man in Karachi’s Memon Goth beat his wife and daughter to death because of some argument. The alleged ‘honour’ killing that took place mere days ago on July 6, where a brother killed his sister, will similarly be forgotten.
The Khachaturyan sisters in Moscow refused to be killed. Crushed by years of abuse, they decided they could not bear it anymore. According to lawyers that have met with them, the girls did not see any other option. As is typical with many abuse victims, they believed that if any one of them or even all three of them were to run away, they would have to bear the brunt of their father’s revenge. When interviewed after the incident, they were nervous and anxious, and did not even seem to understand what had happened in the short time span of that day.
There is no question that women should not set out to murder their abusers. At the same time, society, whether it is Russian or Pakistani, must confront the question of what they offer to battered women other than to suffer and bear the abuse until they die or are killed by their abusers. Everyone agrees that killing abusers is wrong, but there seems to be less of a consensus on whether abuse itself is similarly culpable.
Nobody seems to have good answers, only shrugs and nods and expressions of regret. In the US, the ‘battered woman syndrome’ defence permits some women in particular cases to argue that the history of abuse coupled with imminent danger of harm from the abuser’s actions created a state of mind in which they had to either kill or be killed. Even these sorts of defences are under attack, if the abuser — as in the case in Moscow — was asleep, then the threat of imminent harm would be very difficult to prove. The defenceless condition of the abuser can instead be used to establish the premise that the murder was not something that took place in the heat of a crisis but was planned out in detail and then executed, making it an intentional rather than an accidental killing.
No one knows what takes place behind closed doors. In Pakistan, the impermeable nature of these closed doors permits all sorts of cruelties to be enacted on women and girls. Arguments with bosses, bad traffic, a messy living room, less than perfect rotis can all be diverted into rage against women at home. Unlike just about anything and everything else, it is an act without consequence — the perpetrator’s complete control over the life of a victim making it a crime without punishment.
At the moment, the Khachaturyan sisters are still facing murder charges. Advocates for domestic violence victims and human rights activists around the world, who have expressed support and collected signatures, have not been able to secure their freedom. Their situation poses an open question that everyone who wants such violence to cease must ask and answer — what must be done about these crimes behind closed doors, and how culpable is a victim who feels that there is no choice but to fight or die?
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2019