by Diana Rahim
(Content Warning for Partner Violence and descriptions of abuse)
Reading the submissions for the call-out on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has been the most affecting experience for me so far in editing Beyond The Hijab. The stories shared are heartbreaking, not just because of what these women have experienced, but how their suffering was treated by those around them. These are women who have seen or experienced partner violence and had to contend with the added trauma of being dismissed, of seeking help and not receiving it, and at times even being disappointed by legal institutions and the police.
It really goes to show how the problem of IPV is one that extends beyond the individual. It is not just the abuser who is guilty and implicated. It is also the people around the victim, the society they are in, and the institutions that were supposed to help them that are guilty and implicated as well. These external factors have a part to play in how the victim’s suffering is perceived, whether it’s taken seriously, if they feel safe speaking up, and if they manage to get the help they need.
It is often difficult to even admit that you are in an abusive situation in the first place, and victim-blaming only adds to the suffering. Love should never feel full of fear, humiliation, and pain. Abuse can come in more than just its physical form, but also in the form of emotional and psychological abuse, financial abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual abuse (currently there marital rape immunity in Singapore law), verbal abuse, isolation and intimidation, amongst others.
This article provides a breakdown of the different types of abuse and how to detect them. This graph by Project Sakinah gives a visual aid to understanding the cycle of abuse and this exhaustive list of signs will provide you with an understanding of what domestic violence looks like.
It is also important that we learn how to adequately respond to victims of domestic abuse as well, take the time to read this article breaking down how you can support and listen to them. These 12 steps are also incredibly helpful to keep in mind in case you know a loved one has an abusive partner.
The Problem of Perception
There’s an older female relative that comes immediately to my mind when I think of domestic abuse. She has been through so much, too much, in her marriage. The last I saw her during Raya visiting, she was characteristically herself: loud, energetic, and opinionated.
My female relative’s vocal, opinionated nature was something her husband often could not withstand, and my mother often told me that he would beat her when she expressed disagreement. He would beat her in public. He would even beat her in front of her own mother. Those decades ago, people were often reluctant to interfere even when they saw abuse happening in broad daylight. They viewed it as a personal matter. Her mother did not say anything because she felt she could not interfere with her son-in-law’s authority. She did not report to the police because it was tacitly understood that when it comes to family matters, the police were unhelpful or reluctant to intervene.
Once, after being physically punched, she went to the shariah court with a bruised eye to file a complaint. She was hoping they could talk to her husband. It did not happen and nothing changed. She is now 70 years old, and still married to the man. He has since taken on another wife.
There are several things to note in the experience of this female relative of mine. Firstly, if one were to hear her story, one might be surprised to see that she is not a “perfect victim”—one who is visibly battered, traumatised, and fragile. She was loud. She spoke back. The truth is a lot of victims of abuse do not fit under the narrow conceptualisation of the “perfect victim.” Any person can be vulnerable to partner violence. We are, after all, talking about an intimate partnership.
There is often the trouble of perception in the problem of partner violence. Not only do victims sometimes not appear as “real victims” but abusers sometimes do not clearly seem like abusers. In the submissions, the women sometimes talk about how their abusers were seen as exemplary to the other people in their lives. They did good deeds and were kind in other situations. Perhaps it is a problem of how we are unable to view humans as complex beings who can sometimes still do terrible things in private even if they perform what they know are socially-respected behaviours in public.
This problem of perception is a serious thing because it is what often leaves the victim with the trauma of being suspected and even disbelieved. It gives abusers the benefit of doubt. Remember that just as anybody can be vulnerable to partner violence, abusers do not come in a single profile too.
Secondly, victims of IPV or domestic abuse often suffer in silence, but with her, the violence was visible to those around her. Her mother saw her get beaten. Members of the public saw her get beaten. She went to the shariah court. At each of these points, someone could have intervened, but most did not. And even institutions that were in place that we would assume could help, were not trusted. The police are notorious with victims of assault and abuse for not taking their pain seriously, and for being reluctant to interfere.
One might say that institutional changes are needed, and certainly, they help. Back when she first married for many years of her marriage, the family violence bill in 1995 (which was rejected by the parliament) and the amendments to the women’s charter which took effect in May 1997 had yet to take place. The bill and the amendments were both the efforts of Nominated Member of Parliament at the time, Dr Kanwaljit Soin. Before these amendments took place, it was incredibly difficult for abuse victims to turn to legal institutions to make a case.
I personally think it would have been great if the bill was passed. The bill suggested wider powers to the police to arrest abusers and follow up with responsibilities to the victim such as securing medical attention, safe accommodation, and helping to retrieve her belongings from her home. The bill, however, was debated with a measure of fear by a state that is besotted with “family values.” Narayanan Ganapathy had noted in his book Policing Marital Violence in Singapore (Brill, 2008):
“It is not in the interest of a patriarchal and paternalistic State to effect wide-sweeping structural changes that may contribute to a rewriting of gendered power relations that exist in contemporary Singapore society. While the State, through the organisation of the police and the criminal justice system, must and be prepared to offer protection to victims of violence—the majority of whom are women—the State’s primary concern is to safeguard the institution of the family that would reflect and normalise women’s subordinate status within the hetero-patriarchal family. Even ‘radical’ initiatives such as the ‘facilitated complaint and referral system’ is essentially designed to relocate both the offender and the victim to the family after undergoing a period of rehabilitative counselling.
Reforms introduced in such a political climate remain tokenistic and divisive, without addressing the fundamental bases of gendered social relations of power that generate violence towards women in the first place, and the rank-and-file police’s contribution to the exclusion of marital violence from the ranks of ‘real crimes’”
Today, the first step a victim can take is to file a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against the abuser. Without the PPO, a lot of the cases would remain categorised as a family dispute, which leaves no possibility of legal intervention.
Institutional changes help, but whether it is practiced on the ground can be a different story. If there is no parallel improvement and advocacy for a change in the way women are regarded and treated, change can only be painfully slow. Narayanan Ganapathy had noted in his book, in fact, that the institutional changes do not match with how police officers react to domestic abuse cases on the ground. The fundamental issue of how women’s pain is regarded, of her subordinate status in society, remains unchallenged. As long as this remains unchallenged, domestic abuse will still be considered as not a “real crime” by police officers. If the prevalent idea on marriage is not challenged, then the manipulative rhetoric for women to try their best not to “break up” the family will also remain unchallenged.
An Islamic antidote to abuse
In looking at the problem of IPV, we need to see the ideological bed upon which the violence rests. For Muslim women in Singapore, it is not just the cultural and ideological mores of Singaporean society that has to be taken into account, but also religious culture.
Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, a therapist and founding board member of a domestic violence national organization for the Muslim community called Peaceful Families Project shared in an interview that a lot of domestic violence is backed by “traditional customs that you may find in some parts of the Muslim world that have no connection to the Qur’an.”
He goes on to say abuse has been denounced in the Qur’an many times, but somehow the topic remains taboo and rarely touched upon by imams in their sermons. He also noted that:
“Culturally, it can be shameful for a woman to leave her family, to live by herself or to initiate a divorce . . . Whereas from the religious perspective, the shame is on the person who is oppressive and divorce is not a sin—it’s actually a peaceful alternative to a marriage that’s not working, even if it’s not abusive. That’s something that a lot of Muslim women don’t know.”
Muslim women might face spiritual dilemmas when they go through domestic violence and are thinking of how to react or leave the situation. There is often guilt associated with divorce and religious communities might stigmatise a woman who initiates one.
Spiritual abuse is also an added dimension they may experience from men who might justify their behaviour and intimidate their wives, believing that their superiority is supported by the religion. One of the coming submissions for this series will detail how the writer’s father, who had cheated on his wife, somehow still managed to maintain his sense of superiority and exercised control through spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse in Muslim communities in the context of a marriage is sadly often backed by the belief that the man as the leader of the household has the authority to enforce his own will on his wife. The wife may feel guilt in “transgressing” or “disobeying” her husband even though by all objective standards he is the one transgressing morally. In the submissions, I’ve noticed how the abusers weaponized Islam to their own advantage, utilising it as a tool to guilt their wives in order to get what they want.
There are many verses in the Qur’an that call for marriage to be an equal, peaceful, loving partnership. Men and women are regarded as equal in eyes of Allah (Qur’an 49:13), that men are to tend to the needs of women without controlling, abusing, or hurting them (Qur’an 4:34) and that any verbal abuse is not tolerated (Qur’an 49:11). Yet somehow the abusers’ behaviour did not take any of these scriptures into account while they quoted other verses while abusing their wives, or used spirituality to control them. There’s a famous Christian saying that comes to mind — even the devil quoted scripture.
Perhaps the most violent thing I found is how abusers even weaponise religion to justify marital rape. In almost all the submissions received for this call-out, the victims had experienced marital rape. This sexual violence is routinely dismissed not just by the harmful idea that the husband is entitled to sex by virtue of being a husband, regardless of the wife’s desire, but also by the fact our law currently does not view it as a criminal offence due to a partial immunity for marital rape. This immunity is currently being reviewed.
The problem, personally, to me, is not in the religion. If a person is not abusive, they would not find ways to justify abuse through hadiths or cherry-picked verses in the first place. Ideas of male superiority in the context of a marriage, or of having to “obey” a husband are propagated without properly talking about how such a blanket rule makes women vulnerable in abusive situations, must actively be denounced by community leaders consistently. For some, hearing their suffering validated by institutions they trust means everything. It can be what gives them the confidence to know that if they decide to take action, they will be believed and supported. It must be discussed openly and it must be discussed without making women feel guilty or ashamed of their situation.
So much of partner violence is perpetuated not just by individual actions, but by all the ideological, social, cultural, and institutional factors that still require challenging and work. Most victims of partner violence are women, and this fact attests to the fact that as long as a society is still guided under the harms of patriarchy, where women are still regarded as subordinate both by individuals and by systems, women will continue to suffer even in the most intimate situations. Having concurrent identities such as being Muslim also make the experience particularly different requiring different solutions.
The world as it is now is certainly not perfect, and I don’t want to spend too much time despairing. We can do a lot to support victims of abuse even if they have been failed by others. It is important that we listen to them, and that they are able to speak their stories and to be able to inspire others who are currently suffering that there is a way out and that there is a future beyond the current trauma. I am very thankful for the writers who have contributed stories for this call-out, and I hope that whatever we learn in this series of posts will help at least one person, and push others to take partner violence more seriously.
If you or someone you know is facing partner/domestic violence don’t hesitate to call the Women’s Helpline at 1800 777 5555 or email email@example.com. If you are facing any kind of sexual violence, call the Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) hotline at 6779 0282 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some organizations you can turn to:
Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE)
Blk 211 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, #01-1446
Tel: 6555 0390
SAFE Programme (Stop Abuse in Families)
Address: Blk 411 Bedok North Avenue 2,
#01-106, Singapore 460411
Telephone: 6449 0762
Syariah Court of Singapore
Address: Family Link@ Lengkok Bahru,
8 Lengkok Bahru #03-01,
Telephone: 63548371, Monday to Friday, 8:30 am – 5:30 pm
A PPO can be applied for at:
Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE)
Blk 211 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3, #01-1446
Tel: 6555 0390
TRANS SAFE Centre
Blk 410 Bedok North Avenue 2, #01-58
Tel: 6449 9088
Care Corner Project StART
Blk 7A Commonwealth Ave, 01-672
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu