Recently, photos of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being manhandled by her husband at a posh London restaurant went viral. A day later, her husband, the advertising baron Charles Saatchi, dismissed the episode, calling it a ‘playful tiff’, saying that he and his wife were arguing about their children.
While Saatchi eventually accepted a caution for the assault from the police, photographs of a teary-eyed Lawson revealed that this was not just a ‘playful tiff’. But the fact that Lawson chose to stay silent on the incident fuelled debates of whether the celebrity chef, like countless women across the world, was a silent sufferer of domestic abuse.
The outrage that followed the incident saw an Australian RJ urging readers of her blog to boycott Lawson’s books until she took a stand against domestic violence.
But that is easier said than done, say experts.
‘Who are we to condemn someone for a bad marriage?’ says Varkha Chulani, psychologist and psychotherapist.
It’s common to assume that a successful and financially independent woman will have no problem walking out on a husband who abuses her. After all, aren’t women who have no safety net in the form of a job or parental support the ones who traditionally stay in abusive relationships?
‘No one can gauge the mindset of a person who takes abuse. The truth is that a woman often measures her success in life by her family and relationships, which has nothing to do with financial independence,’ stresses Chulani.
Society has led women to believe that they are nothing without a man, and it’s this theory that women subscribe to. This is why many financially independent women stay on in abusive marriages, she says.
It’s evident in the case of Priya Nair* (see box), a lawyer who (ironically) also works in the area of women’s rights. She has been in an abusive marriage for six years and has no plans to walk out at least in the near future. The reason? Her daughter.
Psychologist Seema Hingorrany says that separation from a spouse brings with it a social stigma and this can be a big reason why women don’t walk out. Sometimes, there may be other issues involved like emotional upheavals experienced during childhood or history. For example, sometimes the woman comes from a broken home herself and doesn’t want to repeat the pattern (as in Nair’s case).
No matter what, it’s never healthy to stay in such relationships, say the experts.
‘Abused women start harbouring negative beliefs about themselves,’ says Hingorrany. Things can get worse if this ebb in self-belief transfers to their professional sphere because then the women start questioning their abilities.
Violence never stops
Filmmaker and author Rinki Bhattacharya, who walked out of her marriage following abuse in 1982, and has worked closely with victims of domestic violence from all strata of society ever since, says many women do not separate from their partners due to fear of retribution and of losing their children.
Char Diwari, a documentary film that Bhattacharya directed, exposes the abuse suffered by financially independent women at the hands of their educated spouses.
She quotes a scene from her film where on being told that a man lashed out due to ‘frustration’, activist-lawyer Flavia Agnes says, ‘frustration mein friend ko kyun nahi maarta?’
‘Violence happens because a man wants to silence or control the woman and he knows that she will take it. It’s not just a sudden outburst of anger,’ Bhattacharya says.
The tough road ahead
Both Hingorrany and Chulani do not ‘advise’ clients who are at the receiving end of domestic abuse. Their job is to give therapy, like asking such women to question their ideologies.
‘I ask the victim if health and happiness is her ultimate goal and what are her attitudinal blocks that allow dominance and bullying,’ says Chulani. Once the outlook is targeted, changes in behaviour are possible and the victim can reconsider her options.
Hingorrany introduces her clients to the concept of Boundary Management in which women are taught how to develop assertive skills to help themselves. Learning that violence will only increase and never stop is one of the first steps towards acceptance for an abused woman, financially independent or not. ‘It’s a very morbid situation. A woman should react the first time abuse happens and leave that very moment,’ says Bhattacharya. (Read: Are fights ruining your relationship?)
My husband and I dated for five years before we got married. Today, we have a six-year-old daughter and I have been a victim of abuse for almost seven years. The first time he hit me was a couple of months after we got married. His parents used to live with us and on this occasion, my father-in-law was not in town so my husband asked me to sleep with his mother. When I refused, he slapped me hard across my face. I was too shocked to react. The violence then became a regular occurrence over time. He did not have a stable job while I did and this probably frustrated him. He even lashed out at me a couple of times when I was pregnant.
When the violence got out of control, I left the house with my daughter, who was a toddler then, and went to live with my father. My husband promised that he would never raise his hand at me again. I returned and he stuck to his promise, but just for a year and half. Last year, he hit me on our daughter’s birthday. I went to the police to lodge a complaint but he tried to turn the tables on me by saying that I was harassing him. The issue died down.
I’m a lawyer and I work for human rights so the situation was doubly difficult for me as I felt weak and helpless. People wonder why I don’t walk out – it’s only because of my daughter. I’m from a broken house and my mother left me when I was a year old. When my daughter is old enough to understand, I may separate from him but I will not take legal action against him. I will just move out.
—Priya Nair (name changed)