We humans are indeed strange creatures. We are social, we cannot live without others. That is what makes family the centre of our lives.
Family encompasses all. Family defines us. But then, we have willpower and hence, individuality, which means we want to be ourselves, have our own identity, and have our own ways with our own lives, preferably always.
This individuality versus family may for many become a constant source of collision in social and private life.
This is even more pronounced in a society like Bangladesh: A society catching up fast with Western notions of progress, development, lifestyle, education, but still wrought with (sometimes misplaced) traditional beliefs and ideas of discrimination.
A society engulfed with blessings of science and technology, but tied with social prejudices.
A society fighting for equality, yet steep with notions of privilege, power, and patriarchy.
Confrontation is a way of life. We grow by confrontation. But not all confrontations are good for us. Too much of it damages us.
And then we need remedies to soothe us. The best remedy? According to popular opinion: Family. The love and warmth that come with family is unique. And in most cases that is true.
They say family is the only group who can’t dispose of you. Well, fair enough. But, hey, let us not forget there are occasions when family is the source of pain, and one would need to find relief elsewhere. And that, my friend, is the toughest job.
For family does define us. Family builds us. Therefore, when family destroys us, it takes more than enough time to believe what is actually happening to us. It takes too long to realise the massacre. And by the time we do realise it, it is often too late.
Domestic violence is dangerous not only because of the violence, but because this violence is like an invisible force field.
We fail to realise that we are being hurt and bruised by the very entity we look up to for protection.
Domestic violence is dangerous because it can be as much from your in-laws as from your birth family. As much from your husband as from your parents. As much from your brother as from your own children.
Yes. Domestic violence is more than wife-beating. It can, and does, affect every member of the family: Parents, children, siblings.
Domestic abuse need not be physical; and that’s another catch. Our family members can easily torment us without laying a single finger on our body.
I am a vocal feminist and someone who openly demands my rights? They make a point to injure me every time I say something over dinner. I am not happy to accept the profession my family chose for me? I want to play cricket or become a designer? They never tire of telling me what a failure I am.
I am a graduate of an Ivy League University, yet I am constantly reminded that that is why I turned out to have such a bad attitude. They tell me my achievements mean nothing because I never listen to the good intentions of my murubbis.
There are times when I am reminded that my disinclination to agree to the marriage proposal is a source of dad’s heart attack, or that the not-high-paying and risky (yet satisfying) job of mine gave mom her high blood pressure.
Domestic violence is dangerous because it can be as much from your in-laws as from your birth family
Where does it end?
Let’s turn a page now. You are a total burden to my family because you try to make decisions. Because you are old and retired, you must be your child’s obedient parent. You are a widowed mother, so you should keep your mind switched off and follow whatever your grown up kids say.
Or perhaps your spouse earns more than you and never ceases to remind you of that. Or perhaps your sibling has more connections and reminds you of that every time you seek a favour (does not help, right?) from them.
In short, your family makes you feel sorry that you are with your family. You suffocate in your own home.
You will be reminded that you must follow the family’s (whimsical?) decisions because as an unmarried woman/bachelor/retired/widowed/minor person, you are dependent.
You have no other place to go. Society will not allow you to. And it is happening in poor, middle income, and rich families.
These may sound like silly family issues. But seldom do we think that such activities fall under the criteria of domestic abuse: Verbal and psychological.
When you are repeatedly shamed because of your quality and unconventional attitude, not because you broke the law, repeatedly mistreated because you exercised your rationality instead of giving in to discriminatory social norms, when words are meant for you to feel sorry -- those are dictionary definitions of abuse.
You will be suffering from a double-binding dilemma: My family worked so hard to get me to good places.
That means they care for me (which means that they do not abuse me). Maybe I am a failure, yes my qualifications mean nothing, yes I must be docile.
You will fall into depression, and start blaming yourself. Maybe I would be better if I just submitted to my parents. Maybe, just maybe, my smart decisions were not so smart after all.
Domestic abuse is bad because you love your abuser. You feel for them. And the abuser, while abusing you, often lacks the knowledge that they are abusing. Note: They have the guilty intent, for they say those words to hurt you to bring you to your senses.
A crime in all seasons
Therefore a crime is committed, surely. But the crime is seldom identified. Not by you, nor your family, nor your society. With more serious crimes in Bangladesh, nobody has time for these small injuries, small insults.
But over years, they crush the victim, destroying their dignity, making them paranoid, depressive, and maybe even suicidal.
It is time we speak up. We must realise and tell them that they are, maybe unknowingly, becoming domestic abusers.
There are laws in most countries on such abusive activities committed by your loved ones. We have them too. But no one bothers.
Courts rarely receive complaints on verbal and psychological abuse unless physical mistreatment can be shown although the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act 2010 has express provisions on it.
It’s not shameful to point out domestic abuse. It saves relationships before they are wasted beyond repair. It helps you to nurture your love and respect for your family. It helps you to be good people.
So speak up. Do not fret. Break the shame to end the shame. For if you don’t speak, nobody else will.
Arpeeta Shams Mizan teaches law at University of Dhaka, and is a socio-legal analyst.