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Why we need to stop asking Why didn’t she just leave? #justiceforannissia #whyshestays

As a psychologist, working with Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) – better known as ‘Domestic Violence’ (DV) in India – since the past 12 years the number of posts since 13th July, 2018 asking why Anissia just didn’t leave have been bothering me.
So many posts and comments have focused on why her parents didn’t take her home, why she didn’t just leave an abusive marriage especially since she was financially independent. Although these may seem like valid questions, but all these very simple questions have very complicated, multi layered answers.

As the director of Aks Foundation, I want to clarify why women in abusive relationships ‘don’t leave’. The questions we need to ask are why women stay and more importantly, why are men abusive to their partners? (although this will need a whole different post)

Here are a few reasons why women stay in abusive marriages:

  1. Socialization and gender roles put the onus of working relationships out, on women. Supporting men, over time has become a part of our job description as women. While men are raised to be independent, women are often raised to be relational. Women continue trying to support and fix abusive men, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Gender role socialization leads to the transmission of the cultural values of patriarchy, including male entitlement, privilege and domination. India has a deeply rooted patriarchal culture which promotes male entitlement and the objectification and possession of women (a lot of men see their partners as possessions) leads to an imbalance of power in relationships. Violence becomes a tool to exert power and keep control in a culture where men are supposed to always be in control and never be challenged or disrespected. The culture of honor further justifies abuse and often encourages the same. When working with perpetrators of violence, one of the things I often heard from men was that they hit the woman when they felt disrespected.
  2. The big bad P wordPatriarchy is macrosocietal, intergenerational, cultural and seeps into the individual lives of ALL of us. None of us go untouched by the values of patriarchy, often internalizing gender roles and patriarchal values even when we are strong and independent. The common thought that men don’t show emotion, hence deeply troubled men use violence as an expression has logic, but often becomes a justification for abuse. The system is built to keep men powerful and Indian society with its structures don’t make it easy for victims to leave abusive marriages. For instance, I’ve had clients being stalked by ex husbands while the police turn around and say: “but nothing has happened yet”. Victims live in fear. Fear clouds judgment – leaving becomes harder and harder.
  3. Emotional Abuse is confusing – Emotional abuse in IPV/ DV is very multilayered. It breaks the victim’s spirit and makes her question her own reality. Gaslighting, defined as manipulating (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity. Ghosting – the practice of ending (sometimes intermittently) a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication. Manipulative games that include pushing the partner away through ghosting and then pulling them closer, is hard on a victim’s psyche. Imagine the same man who showers you with love and affection also tells you how you piss him off and how YOU bring out the monster in him. You begin to question your own worth and wonder if you changed, would the abuse get better?
  4. Minimization, Denial and Blame – Abusive partners will often minimize their abuse (I just pushed her), deny it is happening or blame the partner for the abuse by saying that you make me angry, or you made me hit you. For instance, if you were not so over friendly or you were a better wife/ mother I would not abuse you. Victims tend to start blaming themselves and also minimizing and hiding the partners abuse since they don’t want their partner to be judged by others and also do not want to be judged for picking a partner who is abusive.
  5. Power and Control Dynamics – The abusive partner may use power and control tactics like shaming you, putting you down, breaking your confidence through verbal and emotional abuse. They also might intimidate you, threaten to share intimate details about your life or flaunt your dirty laundry. Abuse, in fact, gets worse when a woman tries to leave the relationship and a lot of women across the world are assaulted or even murdered when they try to leave. The dangers of staying seem to pale in contrast to the dangers of leaving. Especially when filing an FIR in this country is not made easy even in this day and age, police protection is negligible with the availability of protective officers written into the DV Act, but the Police force having a huge dearth of officers to play the role with little or no training on the dynamics of DV.
  6. Abuse escalates slowly and in gradual increments with intermittent spurts of love, affection and apologies. Grand gestures and huge apologies may be used to convince the victim that they are loved. Abuse follows a cyclical pattern where there is a violent episode, followed by an apology and maybe even a honeymoon period which fills the victim with hope. The honeymoon phase is almost always followed by a period of tension building and yet another abusive episode. This cycle can be as short as a week or in some cases have months or years in between. ABUSE IS CONFUSING
  7. Learned Helplessness and the ‘Good-cop, Bad-cop’ routine A lot of research shows that abuse in IPV/ DV is akin to what prisoners of war go through. The good-cop, bad-cop routine exists but in this case both those roles are played by the perpetrator. This kind of abuse, mixed with the feelings of desperation and hope make it difficult to see the abuse. Victims experience what is known as ‘learned helplessness’ by being stuck in the cycle of abuse for days, months and years.
  8. Physical Abuse is sad, humiliating and soul crushing. A lot of self blame, guilt and self judgment brews when someone is physically abusing the victim. This mirage of feelings combined with the sense of duty and virtue of tolerance (both epitomised in Indian culture) makes leaving hard. Abuse is also isolating – sometimes the abuser will try to isolate the victim from her loved ones and sometimes the soul crushing shame will make the woman withdraw – making leaving even harder as the support system dwindles and psychologically it might become too lonely. Strong, independent women may have a harder time asking for help due to this very shame. Asking for help is often associated with weakness and the fear of judgment leads to prolonged silence.

I will not comment on the Anissia case. The case itself is subjudice and the law must follow its course. I don’t want to participate in any kind of public or media trial. However, all I ask from readers is to respect a woman’s life because she is more than just a victim. Focus on the right questions, instead of asking why she didn’t leave, ask why and how in 2018 can a man feel confident and entitled to abuse a woman? Focus on how we are raising our sons and why our boys grow up to be abusive. Ask the right questions and maybe we will find the right solutions

Barkha Bajaj, is the Executive Director of Aks Foundation, a Not for profit fighting against gender based violence. She has a Masters in Clinical Psychology and a Masters in Counseling Psychology and has worked in the field of Trauma and Gender Based Violence since 2005.  

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