The Price of Abuse

By: Nimah Nawwab

Publication Date: December, 2007

Source Name: Arab News

Shame, violence, abuse, shame - the circle is complete for women of the East as they face a recurring nightmare of the denial of rights and justice.In most cases of violence against women, the role of society and how it perceives these unfortunate women is a crucial factor in the kind of justice they ultimately receive.

As the media highlights the trials and tribulations of women of abuse, and their stories, names and in rare cases faces intertwine with our everyday lives and discussions, they sadly still remain on the fringes of daily life. The world goes on and the horrors abate. Stories come and go with the flow of life. We stop to ponder their fate once a year as a day is dedicated to the cause of Violence Against Women; then we go on as women who are still keeping silent years after abuses continue their muffled, mute calls.

Yet the price of broken silence is steep in most countries of the East. The tribulations of abused women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, honor killings, rape, abuse emotional, mental and physical become fodder for books and films, documenting in some cases a loss or a triumph over adversity.

One of the continuous trends found in the Middle East and Asia revolves around the way the female victim turns in the end to be the one who deserves the blame, while the victimizer gets away with an almost clean slate after a period of punishment. And to add insult to injury, not even the harsh punishment often mandated by laws. Society's stamp of acceptance or rejection of the victim's status plays its omnipotent role throughout the months and years of dealing with such matters.

The case of Mukhtaran Mai, the brave Pakistani woman gang-raped in revenge for alleged indiscretions committed by her brother, is an amazing account of rise against the shame. As she chose to take up the fight to regain her standing in her village and accused her rapists in an unprecedented step. Then went one step further as she opened a girls' school to eradicate illiteracy.

Despite the harrowing memories and indignity of her situation, she dealt with her village's stance and stood alone in the face of society's expectations of silence. She effectively led a campaign that reverberated in her country and set the course for the voices of abused women to be heard for years to come. This brave woman became a true voice for hope and justice.

In Saudi Arabia, Rania Al-Baz, the famous announcer, the "face" of the abused women, battered and thrown out on the street and taken for dead by her husband, now pays for the price of broken silence. Forgiving her husband, her reconstructed new face made up, her hair unveiled and tinted with new color, coming out and talking to Oprah Winfrey, she is now an outcast. She dared to unveil and dared to change. The good she did by bringing to light the long-held taboo of talk of abuse, the opening of women's shelters since, the campaigns against violence that began, all forgotten by a society that took issue with her unveiling. Her husband had the right to it, she invited violence. She must have had problems and did something that led to his jealous rage.

It is enough that she has cast off her veil, peeked out of magazine covers with her new looks, and later on as a hostess of another Gulf state satellite broadcast - her standing changed with the change of her looks as a woman without the accepted mode of dress.

The victim is blamed.

Nowadays with all the controversial complexities of the gang-rape of the Qatif girl, the focus is on her meeting an ex-boyfriend to retrieve an old photograph while being engaged to marry. Who is to blame? She invited rape by putting herself in the way of bodily harm, effectively showing herself to the hungry gazes of the "poor" attackers, being in the company of a nonrelation or guardian.

So every woman with a strange driver, in a place where women can't drive and rely on drivers is inviting rape. Every woman who goes out in public is inviting rape, every woman in company of a coworker is inviting rape? The young girl is sentenced to lashing and flogging. The license of her lawyer is revoked. The same lawyer who defends forced divorce cases - another inhumane revocation of basic rights of women - was threatened with the loss of his license. His rights and his client's rights are thrown out the window as the lawyer's license is revoked by one judge without the usual steps undertaken for such action which requires the convening of disciplinary court to revoke a license.

Her husband now derided for supporting her and dishonoring his manly honor, and yet despite all this both continue to seek a fair resolution. However, society's perception of shame and honor is tied tight to these concepts, as sympathy for the trauma is eroded bit by bit with each telling.

The fervor caused by this "case" internally for over a year and internationally lately only highlights one matter: The victim is to blame. Be she single, married, divorced, she is the one who drew attention, putting herself in danger, and she should have kept quiet after all instead of reviving bit by bit agonizing psychological shock and revealing the unutterable horror.

In addition to violence, the rights of women to determine their own fate - let alone their lives - are at issue. From the essential right of being in charge of their lives, to getting educated, to the right to travel and work to eke out a living in these times of rising prices, high divorce rates and single motherhood, women are still not given the freedom to take charge of their lives and be the driving force in determining their destination. Society still labels a grown up woman a dependent in this day and age. That is her place in society and let none forget this centuries-old mandate. After all, she is the one that needs to be protected with honor.

In societies where women are on the fringes, where they cannot represent themselves, where they "invite" rape and violence by action, appearance, talk, they are often cruelly put in their proper place by the very society they come from and have to live with this reality.

Societies' pegging of women as deserving violence will continue to grow. Developments and economic growth in Eastern countries, regardless of their expected magnitude, don't and will not affect the status of women till women can be considered individuals in their own right.

From Japan and China, to India and Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, be they Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, women have and will continue to bear the burden of losing face, their social standing threatened, and their honor smeared on lifting the heavy veil of silence in cases of violence against them and their sisters in calamity.

Will the time ever come when their own societies embrace their fragile trust in coming forth, a trust in a protective system instead of a prosecutorial system, a society that succors instead of attacks? Will that time ever arrive when women exposed to violence can gain their rights in the eyes of their own societies and win fair justice?