National NOW Foundation Times >> Spring 2009  >> Article

Viewpoint: No Woman, No Culture Immune to Violence Against Women

By Kim Gandy, NOW Foundation President

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. So why does it seem as if it takes a celebrity assault to get violence against women into the news? Or maybe the story has to be as disturbing as a man cutting off his wifeís head for people to take notice?

In fact, the story of one woman's life or death can open up a discussion with people who may not usually think about the issue. Once people start talking, this could lead to increased public support for programs to protect survivors and break the cycle of violence.

In early February, popular singers Rihanna and Chris Brown were absent from the Grammy Awards ceremony, and word quickly spread as to why. Brown had been booked by the Los Angeles Police Department for allegedly beating and threatening Rihanna. A photo surfaced of Rihanna's swollen and bruised face, and a police report was leaked, describing Brown punching and biting Rihanna and putting her in a headlock that nearly caused her to lose consciousness.

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 is not necessarily a bad thing if hosts, reporters and on-air guests actually take the time to discuss the larger issue at hand. Lives could literally be saved by giving law enforcement experts, advocates, social workers and survivors a public platform to speak out.

Much coverage, unfortunately, has been from the celebrity scandal angle with precious little substance. It's no wonder that so many women and men have engaged in an enormous amount of victim-blaming. Outrageous comments about Rihanna, and what she must have done to "deserve" a beating, are all over the Internet. As frustrating as these comments are, there is much to be learned from them.

First of all, even men who seem nice in public 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 itís 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 or becoming victims in their own relationships.

In 2007, 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 parents' marital problems, and the terrible headaches she developed as a result of the stress.

The media should take the next logical step and discuss how these childhood experiences might demonstrate a long-observed cycle of violence 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 with a particular focus on teen dating violence, an increasing problem. They did such a good job, I even saw my 16-year-old daughter watching it. (Now if only their other programming didn't objectify women.) Oprah also tackled the subject, as did Tyra Banks, adding to the discourse.

In the weeks after Brown's alleged attack on Rihanna, countless other women suffered. On Feb. 12, near Buffalo, N.Y., Aasiya Zubair Hassan was killed by her husband, Muzzammil Hassan. She had recently filed for divorce, and he was enraged. We know that the most dangerous time for a woman in a violent relationship is when 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 Hassansí television station wasn't doing well.

Some people who commented on this horrific crime focused primarily on the fact that the couple were Muslim and that in murdering his wife, Muzzammil cut off her head. While the manner of killing certainly wasn't common, other parts of the story were typical of spousal abuse and murder. However, much of the conservative commentary focused not on the prevalence of male violence toward women nor on the importance of protecting women who have separated from a violent relationship, but instead took the opportunity to attack the Islamic faith.

Although the crime was quickly decried by Muslim groups, many talk shows and blogs used the horror of the act to indict an entire community. Is a Muslim man in the U.S. more likely to kill his wife than a Catholic or a Jewish man? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that the long and sordid history of oppressing women in the name of religion surely includes 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. It can only serve to help end these abuses by talking about what they have in common -- the control of women through punishment and fear.

It's time for a national debate on how to end 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.

Editor's Note: This is an updated and abbreviated version of an earlier online column by Kim Gandy.