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No country for women

Support groups for women who have faced violence are few and far between

No country for women
“For a long time, I kept quiet about what was happening at home. I saved some money from the amount that I would get for groceries from my husband and with that I secretly got a mobile phone. That is how I reconnected with my female friends and a cousin who was like a brother to me. We don’t think of friendships as something important but they did what little they could do. They listened to my stories without judgement and gave me emotional strength,” recalls 38-year-old Tanveer. Together with her five-year old daughter, Bushra, Tanveer now lives with her cousin and his family in Johar Town.

Her husband, who was physically and emotionally abusive, died in a road accident five years ago. Even after he died, she says, the abuse continued. Tanveer’s in-laws alleged that she had driven him insane, and eventually to his death. They were superstitious people and shunned her. She reveals that keeping her mobile phone a secret was a difficult task but luckily the house maid who was sympathetic towards her helped her top-up her phone with credit and often pretended that it was hers.

“My husband would come home late and drunk and quarrel with me. He would throw things around. I would try to keep as quiet as possible. I was embarrassed because we lived with his parents who would pretend everything was okay. I am sure the neighbours knew. Everyone knew except for the people I lived with – my in-laws: his mother and his father. They would ask: Why is he angry with you? Did you not make him a fresh roti?”

Her pregnancy was a difficult time because the abuse continued. The only support that she received was from her cousin whose wife would visit sometimes.

“I was abandoned by my in-laws in the hospital when I was giving birth. They had also poisoned my relationship with my parents by telling them lies about my conduct. I cut off my ties with them because they did not trust me anymore. I don’t speak to them. My cousin and his wife, and some of my female friends came to support me at the hospital. The road accident happened three days later. I was protective of Bushra and my cousin and his wife suggested I move in with them. We live in a small house, but we live peacefully,” she says. She now works as a teacher at the school her daughter goes to. In the evenings, she tutors children living in the neighbourhood.

“I sometimes think what if I had asked for a divorce? Would everyone treat me differently then?” she asks.

What sets domestic violence apart, notes Shmyla Khan of Girls at Dhabas – a movement for women’s participation in public spaces – is that the family is often the site and even the cause of abuse. “Either it is the husband or the father. They are either complicit in violence or looking the other way,” she says.

“Interventions from family members are very important. Family members tend to cover up for one another. The concept of privacy – the sanctity of the chaar deewari – is the site of feminist intervention,” she explains.

“Shelter homes can provide protection for only a limited period of time. Those operating in the public sector have prison-like attitudes,” says Sabahat Riaz.

“The reason why feminists look outside of the family”, she says, “is that power dynamics are built in the family itself. Community-based solutions, she argues, have their merits.

She emphasises the importance of women cultivating interpersonal relationships and the role female-friendship groups can play to help overcome the isolation that victims of domestic violence are subjected to. The particularly isolated ones, she notes, are married women who do not have support outside of their immediate families. However, she believes that relatives can still play a positive role by shaming abusers within the family.

“Social sanction perhaps is even more threatening than legal,” she states.

Lawyer and activist Nighat Dad, who runs the non-profit organisation, Digital Rights Foundation, believes that legal mechanisms concerning violence against women in the domestic sphere are inadequate. “After the 18th Amendment, each province has had its own journey and orientation relating to domestic violence, for instance the Punjab has the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act and the Punjab Commission for the Status of Women (PCSW) helpline, but there is no national policy. These are inadequate answers when we look at the bigger question – especially when we look at implementation. When an incident happens, women still do not know what they should do. It becomes a police case and they are told to call 15,” she says.

Dad says that support groups are few and far between. However, recently online spaces have tried to provide community-based solutions. “Over the years, online support groups have appeared on Facebook, for instance. People can anonymise their stories and post their concerns online and seek counsel from experts on those groups,” she says, adding that these are all closed groups, and are sometimes kept secret.

Internalised misogyny is still a problem when people come forward with their personal accounts. “This is an ongoing battle. But we need to work on offline solutions as well,” she says. Dad laments the condition of shelters for women in Pakistan that operate in the public sector like Dar-ul-Aman, for instance. “These shelters are in a shambles, we are wary of even referring women who come seeking help to these places.”

“I ran away from home because my father wanted me to marry a much older man. I stayed at Dar-ul-Aman in Lahore for a few weeks, but then I had to run away from there too because of the hostile environment. I fled to a house where my mother used to work as a maid. I am married now to someone of my own choice and have two children,” says 21-year-old Adeela, who works as a maid.

“When I ran away I was 16. It would have been impossible if Baji had not supported me,” she says.

Advocate Sabahat Riaz, who works at Dastak – a Lahore-based shelter home for women – reiterates the role of shelter homes as a temporary solution that aids women transition to normal life.

“Shelter homes can provide protection for only a limited period of time. Those operating in the public sector have prison-like attitudes,” says Riaz. “Usually ‘reconciliation’ happens in problematic ways where women – even educated and working – submit to the will or decision of family elders,” she says. She explains that this choice is made in a societal setting that serves as the biggest deterrent to women talking about the injustices that they face. She further adds that the focus of sensitisation workshops is usually lawyers, and that it should include all people within the justice system.

“When women’s basic needs are not met, when women do not have a shelter over their head, rehabilitation will always be a challenge,” says clinical psychologist and counsellor Arooj Jamal Ahmad.

“In cases of domestic violence, support groups, open group therapy can help because you can also connect with people in different phases of recovery,” she adds.

She explains that domestic violence manifests differently in different contexts. No matter how many ‘red flags’ women are able to detect: even if women are well-versed in the vernacular of oppression, and can put a name to the kind of abuse they are facing. She believes it still keeps them from making their lives better when culture endorses domestic abuse as acceptable and denies them their rights.

“Trauma therapy works with the idea that the trauma is in the past and one is out of the abusive environment,” she states. “Even in individual therapy, therapists can facilitate the client’s process of believing themselves – their ability to see reality, to tell right from wrong”, she says.

In her experience, there are still cultural barriers to family therapy and usually, only women end up seeking therapy even in instances where the entire family needs it. “They come in concerned about what they should be doing. They become like carriers.”

For those who are more powerful given the nature of the family structure, she states, it is very rare. “The ego of perpetrators of violence does not really allow for this to happen. They believe that they don’t have any issues and do a lot of projections. We hear things like: ‘It is my wife’s fault, I am going through a tough time, I am going through a financial crunch’. Couple therapy is also very rare and if for instance, it is pointed out that someone like the husband needs individual therapy, they rarely go for it unless they want to make the marriage work,” she says.

In her view, in situations where husbands are abusive they neither accept responsibility nor work towards developing self-reflexivity about how they treat their wives. Though the signs can vary, she says that it is common for things to start with gaslighting, bickering about petty issues which can then lead up to sanctions and acting out. “In some cases, it keeps piling up for ages. In others, it suddenly turns violent,” she says.

“We focus on informal structures only when formal structures do not exist in a way that supports women. The structures that exist are survivor-blaming in spirit. While we celebrate informal structures and talk about strengthening them, there is a stark lack of state support or societal support where neither the law nor any of the functionaries of the state exist in a way to support women survivors of abuse and domestic violence,” says feminist activist and academic Aimen Bucha.

Recently, Bucha was the lead-off at a vibrant feminist study circle hosted by the Women’s Collective. The session comprised discussions on the work of feminist scholars Bell Hooks, Jodi Dean, Audre Lorde and Octavia Butler. The title of the session drew from Audre Lorde’s famous quote “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and discussed notions of “healing through a leftist feminist praxis”. During the session, she shed light on the trap of reading gender-based violence as “the act of monstrous men” which reduces the issue to the level of the individual.

“This keeps you from seeing how huge and insidious the issue is in reality. The other thing that this does is that it keeps you from criticising the system and the structures [that oppress women]. While Mohsin Abbas Haider is a ‘patriarchal monster’ and should pay for physically abusing his wife, there should also be discussion on what has created this ‘patriarchal monster’. The answer is not his mother. What [structures] enabled him, emboldened him? When you don’t address these questions, you individualise [patriarchal] violence.” (Actor Mohsin Abbas Haider was recently in the news for domestic violence for physically abusing his wife, Fatima Sohail. Many celebrities have come out in support of Sohail stating that they had known for some time that Haider was abusive towards her. Sohail has also registered an FIR against Haider and the matter is being investigated.)

Bucha says that discussions about informal support structures – strengthening them and making them a particular way – are telling; these discussions are taking place due to the fact that the state has not provided adequate support.

“Building these collective communities of care which look at this concern that you not only have to help someone report abuse but also to help them heal and survive is important,” she states.

“Healing is never an individual process, it is a collective process. When you hear a story of violence you may also be a survivor and be impacted by it. It also transverses into you and settles in your body. So trauma functions like that. We experience trauma very collectively as well,” she elaborates.


Safety plans

Social researcher and consultant Nazish Brohi recently shared a detailed thread on Twitter outlining warnings on domestic violence based on cases that she has worked on. Physical and sexual violence are “one part” of the abuse. She says that it “accompanies emotional abuse, suicide threats, forced isolation, surveillance, smashing things, displaying weapons, threatening to take kids, withholding money, threat signals/ reminders, gaslighting etc”. She further iterates that there are “happy phases when abuser[s] makes efforts/ grand gestures, tension-building phases before violence, followed by begging for forgiveness/ reconciliation followed by calm and a happy phase before tension builds again”. She adds that there is a high probability of women returning to their abusers and leaving a few times before they are “ready for a clean break”. This calls for an increased sensitivity when dealing with such cases as if women are pressured too much during the process, they are likely to cut ties and isolate themselves further leaving them alone with their abusers.

Also read: The war of narratives 

She writes that one can help by making a safety plan for when the woman decides to leave: “[The] first 48 hours are critical for security. The plan can include a stash of money, backup phone with saved numbers, NIC copy, where to go/ safe location, lawyer’s number” adding that “some shelters will take in both – women and children”. She stresses the importance of knowing the formal system and reaching out to lawyers who know how domestic violence laws have been used for prosecution and conviction. In this regard, she adds that women’s rights organisations can help and the option to file a report with the police can be exercised though it is never easy. But, in all of this, she warns, “be prepared for public slander and abuse, for yourself as well as the abused woman in question”. She closes thoughtfully with helping the woman take control of her life by stating that “it’s easier for her to transfer her dependence on him [the abuser] onto dependence on you [the person who’s helping]. Don’t let it happen.”

Enum Naseer

The writer is an assistant editor at The News on Sunday.

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