Friday 24 March 2023

Breaking the culture of violence

This blog first appeared on Malta Today

Every time a woman is murdered, the first suspicion immediately falls on her husband or boyfriend (usually estranged), and many men get upset by the calls to “stop violence against women”. What about women’s abusive behaviour towards men, they demand angrily. Why is her partner always a suspect? And why are all men being tarred with the same label?

In a way I can understand their anger, even though it is sometimes misplaced. It is easy to go on the defensive when you think the whole of society is pointing the finger at your gender. Sweeping generalizations have never done any good when it comes to the male/female dynamic. Obviously, there are many good, decent men out there who would never dream of harming a woman, let alone murder her. If you yourself are a good, decent man, or are fortunate enough to be in a relationship with one, then the discourse about abusive, violent men does not apply to you or yours.

On the other hand, one cannot ignore the facts. The initial suspect is always the husband/partner for the simple reason that time and time again, it has always proven to be the case that the murder is a direct result of a relationship gone wrong.

Secondly, the reason that the chorus of voices is to stop violence specifically against women is because, again, this is what the statistics are showing. Italy is a classic, notorious example of this phenomenon and a word has even been coined for it: femicide. In Malta, the trend is no different. As was stated during a recent conference by SOAR, a victims’ support group which is a service of St Jeanne Antide Foundation: in the last five years, there have been eight solved murders related to domestic violence, all of the victims were women and all the perpetrators were men. During this period, no solved domestic violence case related to a male victim.

Writing in The Times earlier this year, crime historian Eddie Attard wrote, “According to the World Health Organisation’s statistics of violence against women, about 40 per cent of women murdered worldwide are killed by their partner. Since 1800, 30 per cent of female victims of homicide in Malta were killed by their husbands or ex-husbands…The most common motives for these uxoricides are jealousy, envy, hatred and infidelity.”

Women who abuse

Having said all this, I agree that we need to look at shockingly abusive behaviour by some women as well – whether it is emotional, psychologically, manipulative or even downright physical abuse. Yet if a man were to come forward to say that he is being abused the reaction would probably be mocking laughter. Do you remember the derision with which the Men’s Rights Association was met a few years back? For a while everyone was going round cracking jokes about being a battered husband. It was simply not taken that seriously.

Our vernacular doesn’t help. In this macho society of ours, the very language contains a lot of cutting slang which is used in situations where a man is under the thumb or at the mercy of a domineering wife: “msawwat” (whipped), “ghamlitek dublett” (literally: she has turned you into a skirt), “il-pupu tagħha” (her puppet or doll). Apart from the crude Maltese word for vagina of course.

It is telling that the terminology is not directed at the woman’s behaviour, but rather at the man’s inability to “be a man”. If the woman is emasculating him, then the expressions used continue to emasculate him even further. Is it any wonder, then, that abusive behaviour by women towards men is one of those dirty, shameful secrets which few talk about?

The problem with the way women abuse men is that it is often insidious and difficult to pin down. Some even think it doesn’t really matter. But it most definitely does. It is apparent in the snappish, withering tone of voice, the constant nagging criticism, the rolling of the eyes, and incessant criticism at anything the man does. A henpecked husband, despite the caricature in many sitcoms (remember Everybody Loves Raymond?), in reality, is no laughing matter. How long can a man (or anyone) suffer the indignity of always being the object of constant belittlement? It is cruelty in the same vein as Japanese water torture, a constant drip, drip, drip of insults and remarks which wear you down, and crush your spirit.

Then there is the emotional blackmail where a woman plays the victimised martyr in order to guilt the husband or boyfriend into doing what she wants. Don’t be fooled by this kind of pity party, because at the end of the day the “damsel in distress” is the one who is wielding all the real power through manipulative control. Throw children into the mix, and the potential for even more coercion is multiplied.

In cases where a woman resorts to physical violence, she obviously poses a similar risk to any violent man. So while a woman may not resort to murder when she is overwhelmed by jealousy, hatred or blind rage as a reaction to infidelity, this is not to say that she is not also someone to be feared.

Ultimately, I think everyone would agree that we need to stem this culture of violence in all its forms. So let us stop arguing over whether it is men or women who are at fault and recognize we need to begin with the basic tenet of mutual respect. Let us not forget that watching all this abuse unfold are boys and girls, tomorrow’s men and women, who are absorbing this behaviour daily.

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