Last year, 1,600,000 women and 786,000 men in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse. Following these harrowing statistics, any website or charity for those who have experienced domestic abuse always has an emergency ‘close website now’ button that is always onscreen. Far from isolated physical attacks, domestic abuse is an entire environment in which one’s psychological, economic, sexual, and even technological freedom and wellbeing are besieged.
Accordingly, the Government definition of domestic abuse is “as any incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of their gender or sexuality”.
So, every single person in the afore-mentioned statistics has a long story of survival in a brutal and elongated oppressive environment. Consider further that these statistics are substantial underestimates; a culture of shame and victim-blaming has meant that domestic abuse is underreported. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, only 18% of women who had experienced partner abuse reported it to the police in 2018.
What this tells us is that domestic abuse is a serious, and severely understated problem. What we hear of domestic abuse in the media, statistics and from hearsay is just the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, what we must do to address this blight must be relentless and comprehensive to the various facets and permutations of domestic abuse.
As always, we must begin by educating ourselves.
The Cycle of Abuse
Lenore Walker, an American psychologist, published a theory on the cycle of abuse. She based this theory on the testimonies of battered women. She noticed that patterns of attacks and method of attack reoccur throughout a cycle.
The first phase of the cycle is the Tension Building phase. As the name suggests, the aggressor is frequently tense, becoming irritated at small things. According to Walker, the victim tends to regard these as isolated incidents, and tries to calm down the aggressor, believing that this will stop the conflict.
This, however, aggravates the aggressor even further, leading to the second phase, Acute Violence. Physical, psychological, and/or sexual aggression takes place. The victim tends to isolate themselves out of disbelief, and usually wait several days before asking for help. However, this is the shortest phase of the cycle.
In the third phase, the Reconciliation phase, the aggressor becomes apologetic, swearing that they will not be violent again. Gifts and promises form part of manipulative behaviour to ensure the relationship does not end. The victim wants to believe the aggressor, and so finds it hard to report the incident. However, this only serves to reinforce violent behaviour. The Reconciliation behaviour eventually ends, with small incidents flaring up, leading to the Tension Building phase once more.
The victims thus are trapped in a cycle of abuse, remorse, and forgiveness. What needs to be strongly emphasised here is that the victim is never to blame. Dr. Bill McGee, an American psychologist, states it is a misconception that victims could leave if they really wanted to. He adds that this is an extremely dangerous thought-pattern because people then blame the victims, which perpetuates the victim’s belief that the situation is their own fault, thus causing them to stay even longer in an abusive situation.
Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
Dr. McGee’s advice on breaking the cycle is to first realise that they are in a domestic abuse situation. This becomes exceedingly difficult because the phase of physical violence is the shortest phase, and the aggressor always buttresses their behaviour with promises of change. Often, a victim only realises the situation when talking to somebody else. Again, notions of family honour and not wanting to besmirch one’s partner makes this a weighty task.
The second step to break the cycle is to physically leave. It is hard to overstate just how difficult this is. The victim has to contend with not only the threat of the abuser, but they also have to explain to their children (if they have any) of the situation, which can be traumatising. Moreover, there must be a safe place to which the victim can escape to.
Both of these steps point to an important role for the wider community to play. Firstly, we must raise awareness of domestic abuse, so that those in abuse situations are better able to realise their situation. Secondly, charities, safe houses and refuge centres providing space for victims must be available and adequately funded. More important than this, the shame culture surrounding domestic abuse needs to end, so that victims are more willing to tell their own support networks. This is especially true for women, who are seen as lesser for leaving their household.
Men and domestic abuse
Men are also victims of domestic violence. Notions of masculinity make reporting these incidents very difficult. Dr. Sarah Wallace, a researcher at the University of South Wales who specialises in male experiences of domestic abuse, states that the issue of underreporting is even more pronounced amongst men because of ideas of being weak and unmanly. Once more we note that the statistics are a significant understatement.
This points us to an important conversation around masculinity. On the one hand, we see that notions of masculinity are actively leading to men being entrapped in domestic abuse situations. On the other hand, Dr. Toby D. Goldsmith writes that beliefs that women aren’t equal to men, and that women are to be controlled by men, are a cause behind domestic abuse.
This is one reason among many others that points to the urgent need to restore masculinity within boys and men, one which manifests the tremendous potential for upholding goodness and justice because of their strength, rather than despite it. This is a long and challenging journey.
It begins with men learning to heal and care for themselves, realising the deep wisdom that dwells within. It continues with men engaging in physical training and martial arts to apply their strength into a mould of discipline and restraint. And above all, it must always be characterised by a reverential consciousness of God, realising that all strength and power is from Him, and therefore is only ever to be used for good. And in the end, we are all accountable to Him.
Islam and Domestic Abuse
There are people who attempt to justify domestic abuse through Islam. By denying that this is happening within our communities, we only empower the tyrants who dwell among us. Instead, we must be forthright in addressing the problem.
So let me be very clear. Domestic abuse, in all of its forms, is forbidden in Islam. Anybody who even approaches such heinous behaviour risks bringing the wrath of God upon themselves.
Even a cursory glance at the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) makes it very clear that domestic abuse is anathema to the wholesome selflessness and effervescent compassion that he (peace be upon him) embodied.
There are many hadith which explicitly condemn violence towards women:
“Do not hit the maidservants of Allah!” [Sunan Abu Dawud]
“Do not hit them and do not revile them.” [Sunan Abu Dawud]
Moreover, Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, said that the Prophet “never once hit a servant, a woman, not struck anything with his hand.” [Sunan ibn Majah]
In another incident, the Prophet (peace be upon him) invoked God’s wrath upon being informed of an individual who beat his wife.
And of course, the Quran is clear that marriage is based on love and mercy:
“And amongst God’s signs is that He created for you spouses from amongst you and placed between you love and mercy”. [Surah Rūm, Verse 21]
The Yaqeen Institute has published a paper further debunking the myth that Islam somehow permits domestic abuse.
We must hold ourselves to account. It should absolutely intolerable to Muslims that there are people committing such a grave injustice. We must do better.
Violence no more
Anyone with the slightest shred of compassion should convulse at the extent of domestic abuse. It is such an egregious violation of basic human conduct. The path to making a change is difficult. We require a thorough awareness of domestic abuse and ensure that this awareness is stitched into our social structures. We must also ensure that charities and shelters are adequately funded; such organisations need to be given a stronger priority in terms of where we donate.
But to truly rout this problem, better and more holistic education is needed for boys and men. In addition to this, religious institutes must be unequivocal in their condemnation of domestic abuse.
If you or somebody that you know is in a domestic abuse situation, please know that you are not alone. There are a plethora of dedicated, 24-hour services that you can reach out to:
May God instil within us a consciousness of Him that empowers us to never commit such a heinous act, and to always be willing to unite against injustice and oppression. Amen.