Is Domestic Violence an Integral Part of Our Family Traditions and National Identity?

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By Nora Armani

Much has been written and said in the past few weeks, both in Armenia and in the Diaspora, about domestic violence and the urgent need to adopt a law criminalizing such behavior.

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or any suffering caused to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Intimate-partner violence refers to behavior by a partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behavior; 42 percent of women who experience intimate-partner violence report an injury as a consequence. Violence against women, whether domestic or social, can have fatal outcomes such as homicide or suicide.

No sooner had the motion to adopt a law against domestic violence landed on the Armenian Parliament agenda than voices fiercely opposing its adoption rose high in the press, in the media, and through social channels accompanied by active attempts to block it from becoming a law.

It would seem only logical to punish the perpetrator of any form of violence, specifically when exercised against the most vulnerable members of society, namely women and children, and particularly when such violence occurs under the family roof.

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It may be a no-brainer that domestic violence should be punishable by law, just like other forms of violence such as assault and murder are, or should be, in societies where a fair and just judicial system operates. Sadly, the Armenian judicial system in its current form does little to help or protect women who are victims of domestic abuse. There is no respect for the law in Armenia and many criminals roam unpunished, especially those with ties to the powers that be with access to the right social and political echelons. Some Armenian citizens are above the law. The refusal to adopt the law against Domestic Violence puts all male perpetrators above the law as well.

Why is it that more often than not, an abusive husband does not get fair punishment under Armenian law, and why is it that this broken judicial system sends him home to resume the same type of destructive and dangerous behavior? The answer is simple. Armenian society is based on the principle of the three M’s Misogyny, Masculinity, and Machoism. In order for us to understand this primarily male violent behavior, we need to address the norms that govern the males in our societies. It is very important to contextualize and understand that Armenian society is based on Misogyny, Masculinity, and Machoism. Cases can be cited of violence against women even outside the family. One recent incident comes to mind where a certain former governor of a certain region of Armenia physically abused a woman entrepreneur in broad daylight at the Marriott Hotel. What of that? How can such behaviors be accepted and go unpunished even under the criminal code?

It may be important to note that some women advocate these masculine principles and operate by them, willingly engaging in violent social and sexual behavior, the psychological implications of which might be worth studying. Some may even use violence as a turn-on and therefore it may be explained why they oppose such a law from taking effect.

 

These principles of masculinity dictate the behavior of the police, the judicial authorities, and even certain traditional male and female segments of society that consider domestic violence a “private matter” to be resolved within the confines of the home. This very misogynistic society does not hesitate to blame the victim for provocative behavior, often justifying the perpetrator’s actions as having been called for. Finally, the so-called “noble” macho interference into the close-knit family fabric only to try to reconcile the victim with her perpetrator, does nothing but create a vicious cycle for both partners.

Global estimates published by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that about 1 in 3 (35 percent) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. As many as 38 percent of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.

These statistics reflect the global situation, and Armenia does not fall far behind. In fact, it competes very tightly and even wins in this domain, since close to 1 in 10 Armenian women report to have been physically ill-treated by their husbands, according to the findings of the Yerevan-based representatives of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

The outcome of a survey released in 2010 by the UNFPA found domestic violence to account “for the greatest share of physical and psychological” violence suffered by women in Armenia. Of the women surveyed, 9 percent admitted to experiencing physical violence, 25 percent to psychological intimidation, 61 percent to controlling behavior, and 3.3 percent sexual violence, all at the hands of their domestic partners.

Another survey on domestic violence in Armenia released by Proactive Society in 2011 found that 59.6 percent of its respondents had been subjected to domestic violence in their lifetime. This percentage surpasses the world figures, putting Armenia at the forefront of this social ill. The situation has not improved since.

Despite these glaring statistics, opponents argue that Armenia does not need laws that make domestic violence a crime since the criminal code has provisions against all forms of violence. However, the criminal code does not specifically prohibit domestic violence, making it difficult to hold perpetrators accountable for intimate partner violence of any degree. Moreover, these laws do not guarantee a fair treatment for victims of domestic violence because of the embedded prejudices of a masculine society.

Relevant provisions include: Murder (Article 104); Murder in a state of strong temporary insanity (Article 105); Causing death by negligence (Article 109); Causing somebody to commit suicide (Article 110); Infliction of willful heavy damage to health (Article 112); Infliction of willful medium-gravity damage to health (Article 113); Infliction of medium-gravity or grave damage to health in the state of temporary insanity (Article 114); Infliction of willful light damage to health (Article 117); Battery (118); Torture (Article 119) and Forced violent sexual acts (Article 140). In addition, the Criminal Code prohibits illegal separation of the child from the parents (Article 167).

Criminal penalties range from 8 to 15 years (or life) in prison for aggravated murder (Article 104), to fines, correctional labor or two months in prison for infliction of light injury (Article 117).

General provisions in the criminal laws pertaining to crimes against the person may be applied only to certain cases of domestic violence, and often only when the outcome involves death.

As a result, Armenia considers that there is nothing wrong with its social structure and that isolated cases do not make up for an endemic even though official statistics show otherwise. This position clearly illustrates the dictates of the three M’s mentioned above. These opponents, the denialists as I call them, are in collusion with this criminal trend since they consider such behavior tolerated and normal, even when it implied extreme cases of violence putting the lives of women and children in danger.

One article in the Armenian media argues that Armenia is not Europe nor is it America and therefore there is no need to adopt such a law. Other articles argue that the adoption of such a law would undermine our close-knit family values and national identity.

Often it is not the husband, but the mother in law who is the perpetrator. A serious complication emerges from the fact that the victim is placed in a very vulnerable situation with no social or legal recourse, and is obliged to keep silent out of shame, is unable to access proper care, receive compassion and council or even the unthinkable, get a fair compensation. I have heard of cases where the police have themselves abused and assaulted the victim who has called them to the rescue on account of not being a good wife for having called the police on her husband. All these augmented cases of violence may be reverted if a law exists protecting victims of domestic violence and punishing their perpetrators.

The statistics are clear and the numbers do not lie. If they do, they err on the side of conservatism. There are probably many more cases that remain unreported due to the shame element attached, the lack of widely accessible shelters or the knowledge about their existence. One last important element is that as mothers, victims cannot bear being separated from their children, even if temporarily, while seeking help and protection.

Opponents to the law argue that Armenians have different family values and that Armenian women are highly respected and regarded in society, and that there are laws in Armenia governing gender equality, even though the word gender was fiercely opposed to in a most ignorant way a few years back. Let us, for a second, add that not all families in Armenia are concerned with this horrible scourge. Let us, for a second assume that there are many men in Armenia who actually revere women and have a very high regard for them. Let us.

I have personally witnessed, and have been subject to such woman venerating (gnamedzar) Armenian behavior. There is some hypocrisy masked under this excessive gallantry too that sometimes verges on sexual advances or even harassment.

Many Armenian men are respectful towards women, granted, most are certainly respectful towards other men’s wives, not necessarily towards their own. The men who are respectful towards women may either not be the same ones who abuse them, or they may be the same ones who behave one way in public and another way in private. Let these social phenomena of female respect, hand kissing, and door holding not fool us. Again, the statistics are clear, even if opponents choose the denialists approach of ignoring these numbers, and even if they insist on “isolated cases.”

If we are not Europe or America, what, then, are we? Are we an independent country whose sacred family traditions and national identity are based on domestic violence and its impunity?

According to an article published in the Huffington Post, there are 20 countries that have not outlawed domestic violence as of yet. If Armenian opponents to the law against domestic violence claim that we are neither Europe nor America, maybe we can pick and choose one of these countries, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Haiti, Iran, Latvia, Kenya, Lebanon, Lesotho, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

Even Turkey, where about 40 percent of women have been found to have suffered wife-beating at some stage at their lives, has adopted a law on the prevention of domestic violence, and thanks to body tags applied as punishment to restrain wife-beating, domestic violence is thought to be on a decline.

How many more Zaruhi’s have to lose their lives before Armenia adopts a law specifically against domestic violence?

The objectors to this law are so virulent in their rejections that their behavior prompts us to conclude that their family values may indeed involve spousal violence. Otherwise, why oppose a law that protects almost one half of the population from the other? Only a criminal would object to laws governing their criminal behavior or limit it.

Back in 1994, at the first Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) international conference in London, I presented a paper on domestic violence based on a case study that I had witnessed closely, in Los Angeles, happening to the younger sister of a close friend from Armenia. While visiting my friend her sister had shown up at my friend’s apartment with a bruise and a bleeding nose. My friend’s reaction, which was voiced in one word repeated twice, “Again? Again?” as she opened the door and let her sister in, immediately led me to conclude that this was a recurring phenomenon.

Later that evening, my friend opened up to me and said that her sister, 25, had been subjected to this violence by her husband, 35, who was having difficulty integrating into the new society they had immigrated to in Los Angeles. While my friend’s sister had immediately enrolled into language classes and was planning on getting a university education and improving her living conditions, her husband was feeling at a loss and unable to adapt. While social science theories may explain why and how women adapt better, and how age differences as little as five years may make a difference when integrating into a new culture, the manifestation of the aggression resulting from the frustration of not being able to integrate, although explained, cannot be excused.

Violence against women has been used as a weapon of war since time immemorial. Only in war, the enemy is clearly from outside and can easily be identified, in the case of domestic violence, the enemy is from within, and often strikes at the most unexpected and vulnerable situations.

Are we a violent society? If yes, then maybe it is true that such a law might be a threat to our traditional values and consequently our national identity. Are domestic violence and hitting a fist on the table the only ways in which the Armenian male is capable of imposing his authority in the home? Are verbal and physical abuse and other harmful acts of manipulation the only tools of communication for the Homo Sapiens Armenus?

It is said that societies cannot advance without addressing the impact of toxic masculinity and negative cultural norms on women. Armenia needs to unknot this situation at present and come out clean in front of the civilized world. Hopefully, a new generation of Armenians will tilt the balance of violence towards a more equitable norm.

In wartime, and historically, women have been the strongest pillars of our society, but in times of peace, there is a latent form of suffering imposed on them that equals what many undergo only during war.

åAlong with a more just and efficient judicial system that serves all its citizens equally, Armenia could better educate its police force in matters concerning domestic violence. More importantly, it could increase the number of women in the police force, maybe even establish special female squads to help combat domestic violence. This would create a much-needed atmosphere of trust for the victims of domestic violence to take refuge in, while it would exert necessary intimidation on their perpetrators.

Armenian women’s responsibility will have to be engaged as educators, as mothers, as sisters, and as spouses, in order to help raise a new generation of Armenian men who will finally understand that domestic violence is not a given masculine right, that it is not a private matter, and that all its forms are violations of human rights punishable by law.

 

 

 

(Nora Armani is a New York-based actress, filmmaker, and social activist. She has numerous international stage and screen credits to her name, having performed in many languages. Nora holds an M.Sc. in Sociology from the London School of Economics (LSE), the University of London, she is Director of Communications at the Arc/k Project and the Founder and Artistic Director of SR Socially Relevant™ Film Festival New York.)

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