Saturday 01 April 2023

Of gorillas and domestic violence

This blog first appeared on Malta Today 

Calm down, I’m not comparing men who carry out domestic violence to gorillas, although sometimes it is very tempting (but probably an insult to the gorilla).

No, what I’m wondering for the umpteenth time is what type of news story triggers our outrage these days.

Corruption, nah.
Thousands die trying to cross the Mediterranean, yawn.
A photo of a tiny dead baby lifted from the sea: cue a barrage of obscene racist abuse.

It is like someone has surgically removed our ability to be moved by anything, let alone compassion.

But then, wait for it. A story that zoo officials decided to shoot and kill a gorilla because an unattended four-year-old child fell into its enclosure and was being dragged around by the animal, has led to the usual outcry which has come to be expected whenever animals are abused or killed. Sorry animal lovers, try as I might I cannot seem to get myself worked up as much as you do about the fact that the animal was killed, because I happen to think the priority was to get that kid out of there quickly and safely.
Many, many people reasoned otherwise and the deluge of comments poured in about the fate of the gorilla, with some even suggesting that it is the parents who should have been shot for their negligence.

At the same time, a story broke about a young Italian woman who was brutally burned alive by her boyfriend whom she had just dumped, yet no similar gasps of shock and horror spread all over Facebook.  Of course, caring about animals does not exclude your ability to care about people, although some of the downright insensitive comments I read really make me wonder. But why is it that violence perpetuated against women and even children (who surely, are as innocent and undeserving of brutality as animals) barely causes a ripple on my newsfeed?

When did we become so blasé about the killing of human beings? What does it say about Western civilization when people went ape over the killing of a gorilla even though a child’s life was at stake? Or the fact that a woman who was screaming for help was ignored by passersby and ended up being callously burned to death by a man who claimed he “loved” her.

With reference to the latter case, we can maybe attribute it to the fact that in Italy, the rate of women being murdered by ex-boyfriends and husbands is alarmingly high (819 women were murdered in the years 2010 – 2014 according to EURES statistics). According to one news report “Italian women’s advocates have been trying to change mentalities in a country where men often turn violent when a women breaks off a relationship.” So maybe it has lost its shock factor.

This should ring alarm bells for us here in Malta because we share a similar type of macho-based Mediterranean culture with our neighbours. In fact, there have been several notorious cases of women being killed in the same vein of “if I cannot have you, no one else can”. One was almost identical to the Italian girl’s – who can forget the horrific murder of Sylvia King who was burned alive in her car by the estranged husband of her friend whom she was trying to help?

There have been many attempts to explain the cause of this increased culture of violence against women (which has been dubbed ‘femicide’) with some claiming that as women have become more independent, men have become more possessive, domineering and controlling. Certainly, a previously submissive woman who starts defying her husband will almost always lead to an explosive situation because he cannot handle the change in the balance of power. There are also other factors such as being brought up by physically violent parents, leading to a cycle of domestic abuse.

What can be said for sure is that underneath it all is an underlying layer of simmering jealous rage and yes, hatred, against “his” woman whom he feels he “owns” as one of his possessions and who has thwarted and humiliated him by leaving him. The obsessive fear that the woman is slipping from his grasp, and his inability to keep her under his thumb where he can control her at will, is at the root cause of why many men murder women.

We have a duty as a society to empower girls to learn how to step away from the flattering allure of what starts off as a relationship with a charmer who never wants to leave their side. We also have a duty to teach boys how to view girls as their equals not as objects which they want to own like a trophy. Most of all, let us hope we never end up in a situation where we see a woman screaming for her life, and turn our heads away because we don’t want the hassle of getting involved.

Let us be a society which cares as much about the murders of women and children, as we do about the murder of a gorilla.

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