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Licence to use violence

September 11, 2011

Illustration by Abro

“I was kicked, slapped, shoved. Black, ugly scars and swelling became so regular that I’d be stuck at home for days till the visible signs of torture faded,” whispered Salma Saif (not her real name) as she recalled the nightmare. This would be followed by remorse as he’d beg forgiveness.

Looking at 30-something, Salma, mother of two, it is hard to imagine that this emancipated, fashionably-dressed woman, but most importantly, still married, is a survivor of domestic violence (DV). For seven years she was a victim of all kinds of violence—physical, emotional as well as psychological. Then one fine day she decided she had had enough of being a doormat and must deal with the issue.

“For years I nursed my battered dignity and self-esteem. I knew I was a victim of domestic violence, I’d read enough but I did not have the courage to come out of the closet. It would mean an end to my marriage and how will I deal with the stigma that comes with it, although here I was the victim, I asked myself. And then I kept thinking of my own family who would be devastated. What about financial support? I had never worked in my life. Friends thought we were a perfect couple. Little did they know that underneath the laughter and fun, I was a woman torn, lost and hurt,” she went on.

Then one day, something inside her snapped. “Just as he raised his hand to thrash me, I found the courage to stop him from hitting me. I was trembling from inside, but my voice was very steady as I told him if he lay even a finger on me, I’d walk out of his life,” said Salma.

“He was so taken aback by this; he stopped and went out of the room.” It’s been ten months since that day and she has not been slapped, shoved or jostled. Today, both are seeking professional help as they try to find a new meaning in their relationship.

Violence within the four walls of a home comes in all hues and colours, says Dr Asha Bedar, a clinical psychologist, who sees a whole lot of it through her clients. “It ranges from a few slaps to severe beatings causing serious injuries to verbal, psychological, financial, social, spiritual and sexual abuse,” she says and gives it the term ‘family violence’ to include violence against siblings, parents, kids and even the elderly.

The focus is always power. “Whether husband to wife, parent to child, parents-in-law to daughter-in-law, employer to servant, older siblings to younger sibling, brother to sister, child sexual abuse/incest... somehow we equate having more social power with the right to use violence to control others’ behaviour,” says Bedar.

Bedar further adds: “Such rigid power structures and power imbalances in a society lead to violence and abuse and even when there is a definite power difference between two people (e.g. parent and child), this means there is a responsibility to protect, not a licence to use violence.”

Another form of violence going on within the home, and which does not get much attention, is physical punishment of domestic help. The recent incident in Lahore where a woman clubbed her 12-year-old domestic help for not feeding her pet dog, grabbed media attention, though late.

“Our strongly established and completely accepted class structure means that domestic help are often considered by their employers as their possession. So even though violence might otherwise not be the norm in the family, using it towards servants is not seen as an issue by many families. The combination of the power dynamics of class and gender, of course, means that women are most vulnerable because, in addition to physical abuse, they may also be victims of sexual abuse ranging from molestation to rape,” says Bedar.

But of all these, domestic violence, or DV, is the most pervasive in Pakistan. Mariya Moochhala, a clinical psychologist who works with children primarily, explains that violence is about power and control inflicted on the poor. “Women and children will always remain the victims as they are weaker in the relationship.”

Bedar calls it a “gendered term” as violence meted out in a marital relationship, is “usually husband to wife, as well as in-laws to the daughter-in-law”. From his experience, Dr Murad Moosa Khan, Professor of Psychiatry at the Aga Khan University, Karachi, calls prevalence of DV to have reached “epidemic” proportions. “Almost 90 per cent of Pakistani women have undergone abuse at some point in their lives,” he points out.

A study on DV in Pakistan published in 1999, by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, found that up to 90 per cent of women in Pakistan were subject to verbal, sexual, emotional or physical abuse, within their own homes. Sarah Zaman, director of War Against Rape (WAR) projects DV to be as high as four in every five women in Pakistan.

Zaman rues that while DV is rampant, it fails to draw the attention of lawmakers. “Despite much rhetoric around safeguarding women’s rights, little headway has been made considering the active presence of so many women legislators in our assemblies,” she says.

Khan believes DV was always there, but in recent years there has been more awareness and hence more cases are being reported “at least in the urban centres and amongst the educated”. A factor that is compounding the problem, says Khan, is the abuse and misinterpretation of religion “which is used to control women and to justify violence against women”.

“Because there are no laws to protect the abused and with strong socio-cultural taboos against talking about these issues the problem remains largely hidden,” he says. A domestic violence bill passed in the National Assembly in 2009 lapsed after it failed to get a nod of approval from the Senate.

“The bill is an impressive legal instrument, if adopted. I do believe that it’s well thought out and would provide women great relief if followed to the tee. It does not, however, award much relief to domestic staff, as the definitions of aggrieved focus more on women and other ‘dependants’ in a domestic situation with the abuser, i.e., are married or in a similar domestic arrangement. It also covers the elderly as ‘vulnerable person(s)’,” explains Zaman.

In a family violence scenario, sometimes even girls are not spared. Bedar says it has to do with perceived sullying of family honour, refusal to comply with the parents’ decision to marry them, etc. One of the most common groups she deals with in her practice is girls who are being forced to marry someone they do no wish to be with. “This leads to all kinds of physical and psychological abuse. Depression, anxiety and somatic symptoms are the most common effects,” she explains.

So what does all this tell us in these trying times when the value of human life is naught? Experts say it can have serious consequences. We live in a highly violent society. “When we don’t have strict laws that protect the vulnerable and weak, then society will continue to deteriorate and eventually destroy itself—as we are seeing in Pakistan,” warns Khan.