Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Why Don't They Just Leave?

It is also estimated that 3 to 4 million women are victims are physical violence inflicted by their intimate partners each year constituting the figure that between 1/5 and 1/3 of all women in the United States will be physically abused by their partners in their lifetime (Fact Sheet on Gender Violence, UNIFEM). Acts of spousal assault can include, the rape of a woman in front of her children, forced prostitution or pornography, forced sex when the woman is ill, heavily medicated or unconscious, and forced sex without a condom putting the woman at risk for becoming pregnant or contracting an STD (Renzetti, Edleson, and Bergen 2001). In some cases women are held as prisoners in their own homes, they are beaten with sticks, or whips, choked, and burned with cigarettes and in some cases acid, and are victims of intimate femicide (Amnesty International).

The statistics are chilling. And yet most chilling is that in my experiences discussing violence against women in my college courses, someone ALWAYS brings up the argument that women who are being abused are making the choice to stay in said relationships. The question is also raised in the following Salon article entitled "Why Don't They Just Leave?"

In the United States, October is the month designated to draw attention to domestic violence. But unless things take a miraculous turn for the better, this October, in the United States, every nine seconds a woman will be battered -- just as she is every other month of the year. Each year in the United States, approximately 4 million women are beaten, most of them by husbands or boyfriends. Such attacks result in more injuries than muggings, rapes (by strangers) and auto accidents combined.
Domestic violence is not a popular topic. (Some of you have already stopped reading this.) As a member of Maitri, a South Asian group against domestic violence in the San Francisco area, I know it very well. While other nonprofit groups in our community who raise money for flood victims or for literacy projects or events promoting culture among the second generation are generously welcomed, we are often greeted with stony faces or uncomfortable silence. When people talk to us, or -- as is more common -- talk about us to other people, these are some of the things they say:
Domestic violence may exist among other communities and ethnicities, but not in ours.

Domestic violence is a terrible thing, of course, but since it primarily occurs among ill-educated working-class families, or among alcoholics and substance abusers, or in other countries, it doesn't really concern us.
Marriage/relationship problems are private things and need to be resolved within the home. How do you know the woman didn't bring it on herself, anyway? When you encourage women to air their dirty linen in public, you're helping to break up families.
If a woman is in such a terrible situation, why doesn't she just leave?

Many complex answers, backed with eye-opening statistics, can be given to each of the questions above. Being a writer, I will offer, instead, a story from my own experience.
Seven years ago, soon after I started volunteering with organizations against domestic violence, I was called one morning to come into the office of the Support Network for Women in Mountain View. There was a South Asian woman there, and they needed help talking to her. When I got there, I found, in one of the inner rooms, a young woman with a baby boy. She was a beautiful young woman. Her face, with its strikingly dark, long-lashed eyes and sculpted lips, would not have been out of place on the cover of a fashion magazine. From her designer-label clothes I could see that she, or at least her spouse, was well-to-do. But she was emaciated, as though she hadn't eaten properly in months, and when later, in the course of our conversation, she raised her shirt, I could see that her back was completely lacerated, as though she'd been dragged over a rough surface like a concrete patio.

That day, sitting in that tiny room, I learned the smell of fear. It was an odor like rusting metal, rising from her skin. Every breath coming from her was laden with it.
The first thing she said to me was, "I've made a terrible mistake, leaving home like this. My husband will kill me if he finds out, or worse. I've got to get back before he returns from work."
I told her she had been brave and right to leave a home where she was obviously abused. The agency would place her in a safe shelter where her husband wouldn't find her.
She told me of her family back in India, how ashamed they would be that she left her husband's home, that she couldn't make her marriage work. I asked her if they knew about the abuse. She shrugged her shoulders. It didn't matter, she said. What mattered was that she had a younger sister who wouldn't be able to find a good marriage-match if people came to know of her situation. "You have to think about yourself," I said. "You have to take care of yourself and your baby."

She started crying then. That was what was bothering her the most, she said. She'd deprived her son of a good home, all the love and opportunity his father could provide him with -- for he was a good father, her husband, and rich also. How could she, who'd never been trained to work, provide for him in America? "There are programs to help you with money and training," I told her. "Your son will be safer and better off in a poorer home, if it is one without abuse." But I could see she wasn't convinced.
I told her how, in most cases of battering, the abuse gets worse if the woman goes back to the abuser. I told her of women who had died or been damaged for life. I urged her to report the case to the police and ask for a restraining order, but from her eyes I could see that the idea of turning her own husband over to the police was a horrifying one to her. "You have many other options," I said. "You can start a new life. We've seen hundreds of women do it."

But not me, her eyes said. It's hard for eyes to say otherwise when for years they've seen hate and anger and lack of respect on the face of the man who's supposed to love them more than anyone in the whole world.

"At least think it over carefully before you make any hasty decisions," I said. "You can always go back, but once you're back, you may not be able to leave."
Finally she agreed to let us put her in a shelter. She agreed to think about options other than returning to her husband. That was the last time I saw her. Sometime the next day she called her husband from a street phone, and he came and got her. Since she had not given us her name or an address, we never found out what happened after that.

I think of her often as I last saw her, climbing into the car that is to take her to the shelter. She clutches her baby tightly as she looks over her shoulder, her beautiful eyes full of fear and guilt and self-doubt and love and family duty and hopelessness.

Can you blame her for the choice she made, even as you see how wrong it was for her to go back to a violent home? Can you say that in her situation you could have done better? No matter what your ethnicity or background, can you say she is that different from you in wanting what she wanted: security, caring, a chance at happiness? I can't.

It is my hope that in this coming month, as all over America we speak about the lives and deaths of women, for their right to be free and uncrippled by abuse, a few more people will think a little more about the place in which the battered woman finds herself: dark and cold and suffocating, like the bottom of a well. I hope they will look beyond the popular stereotypes of weakness, lack of education and low self-esteem to see into her heart. I hope they will feel for themselves the many conflicting and confusing forces pulling her this way and that in the darkness as she tries to climb out.

For some of us, that climbing out takes years, perhaps a lifetime. But it can happen. And it can, perhaps, happen a little sooner if people around us are a little slower to judge us.