Humans are sexual dimorphic. Men are bigger than women. Animals are thought to evolve this way to compete over mates (ie, male on male, or male on prey violence), not to beat their mates directly. Still, we live in a time where the Maldives still publicly flogs women for adultery and Sri Lankans often look the other way at domestic abuse.
I won’t get into why spousal abuse (in any direction) is bad. As your mother told you, don’t hit. The more interesting question is why do so many women stay in abusive marriages for so long, and why do families encourage them to? This is what’s behind the complex nexus of abuse that makes it about more than bad people. To quote Method Man, cash rules everything around me.
This is a long essay from Tiger Beatdown about class, but the part about domestic violence is quite telling:
Over the next three years, the violence escalated, lulled, escalated again. Until my brother was born, and a priest finally intervened. Told my mother, finally, that she was going to die, and her children were going to die, unless she left…
She ran away from home. Which many women have to do. Unlike many women who have to do it, she had the college degree, had the infrastructure of family; we lived in other people’s houses, we lived in bad apartments, we slept on furniture people would otherwise have thrown away, I remember more than anything else from these years my mother suddenly starting to cry when I wanted a sandwich and she had to tell me there was no peanut butter, we’d used up our peanut butter and couldn’t get more. But we ate, we had apartments, we had furniture. Other women who have to run away do not have these luxuries. Which does a lot to explain why many of them never run away at all.
This is something we don’t speak about enough; the role of economic stress in domestic violence, or the role that cash, pure cash, plays in keeping women vulnerable. It’s a knotty subject; some abusers undermine their partner’s financial security, take exclusive possession of the bank accounts or spend all the money or demand that their partners work less often or stop working altogether, and so the women cannot leave because they have become unemployable or simply don’t have access to the cash they’d need to escape. And sometimes, women don’t leave because there is not and never has been enough money. Nobody should have to choose between the violence of extreme poverty and the violence of an abusive relationship. But it remains a choice between violence and violence. Class is not separable from the discussion. Because gender and class have never been separable at all. (Tiger Beatdown)
Why don’t women leave? Why don’t families encourage them to? Think about it. If you’re a woman in Sri Lanka you probably could leave and go back to your parents, return to your role as a child. If you have a child, however, it’s not so easy. Children require money and time. Making money requires time, it’s a Catch 22. If you don’t have family support (or your family doesn’t have resources), you’re screwed. You have to stay. If your husband is a special psycho and actively cuts you off from money or opportunity, you’re really really messed.
The police don’t help, counsellors often don’t help and even family fails. The default response is to stay and make it work. For the kid. I know a few families where the fathers are abusive until the son grows old enough to assault them, Sinha Bahu style. It’s not a healthy position for anyone.
I think the best thing to fight domestic violence would be decent halfway houses for women and children, and childcare. So women could get away from bad husbands and bad families without having to scrabble for food, or worry about their children’s safety.
In the end the way women can fight violence is not directly, but through institutions, or the state’s monopoly of violence. That is, the state or police need to defend women (and people) in general such that the strong do not terrorize the weak. Such that strength is defined as education and reason and other attributes more conducive to the survival of the species. Sri Lanka has about 1 million more women than men, but they’re under-represented in positions of power. That has to change gradually, but till, then abused women could really use a place to crash.