The battered-woman syndrome – March 15, 2009

The local Sunday Herald which arrived in the parlours and the well-appointed drawing rooms of the nation on International Women's Day informed its readers that domestic violence had taken the lives of two more individuals. A 38-year-old woman was shot in the neck by her common-law spouse and a 46-year-old man was stabbed during an altercation with his 35-year-old wife.

In the same article, it was reported that in 2008, Justice Minister Dorothy Lightbourne had disclosed at a church service that "there were more than 22,000 reported cases of domestic violence since 2005" and "women were the victims in a large percentage of the cases".

timely issue

It is this background that makes it timely to raise the issue of the "battered-woman syndrome" as a useful topic for discussion in the society.

By using the term 'the battered-woman syndrome', I have deliberately put the emphasis on the situation of women in society rather than be seduced into using the politically correct term, 'the battered-spouse syndrome'. This does not mean that I am unaware of the reality that a very small number of heterosexual men in most societies experience battering at the hands of their female spouses, and another small sample of gay men and lesbians are battered by their 'male-centric' partners.

In spite of these anomalies, the database from all societies informs us that women are overwhelmingly the victims of spousal abuse of every form (physical, sexual, psychological and economical).

The most recent case of the battered-woman syndrome is demonstrated by the highly publicised case of the brutal beating of the famous and popular young singer Rihanna.

modern Cinderella story

Robyn Rihanna Fenty is of Caribbean ancestry. She was born in St Michael, Barbados, where her singing talent became evident and she caught the ears of those who could facilitate a real modern Cinderella story, from St Michael to New York. This transformation has caught the imagination of thousands and thousands of young people from all regions of the world.

The unsavoury situation that has forced the glare of public scrutiny into the private life of Rihanna was reported on by many famous journalists and writers.

'Larry King Live', the popular CNN flagship show, and the Oprah Winfrey empire are two examples of influential opinion-makers who have decided to put the issue of violence against women squarely on the front-page agenda of our social problems.

Writer Elizabeth Landau of CNN also reported on the middle-of-the-night fight between the 21-year-old Rihanna and her 19-year-old celebrity boyfriend Chris Brown. The world has been told that Rihanna was brutally beaten and punched almost into a state of unconsciousness because she objected to a text message that Chris Brown received from his female lover.

After the publicity around this high-profile case of battery, the American media houses have informed us that "the couple is reportedly together again" and Brown has apparently apologised in general terms although neither he nor his bruised girlfriend has "directly addressed the allegations of brutality in this case".

This highly publicised case has placed Rihanna in the distinct position of the 'poster girl of the battered-woman syndrome'.

This syndrome has been clearly articulated, researched and written about in both formal academic and popular literature. Within this framework, a woman is defined as a 'battered woman' when she experiences at least two of the following three-step battering cycles:

The tension building phase. This is the stage when the romance is not as romantic anymore and the sheen is fading from the shiny armour of the knight that every little girl has been socialised to expect at the 'end of her rainbow'.

The explosion or acute battering syndrome like the one experienced by Rihanna.

The calm, loving honeymoon phase. This is when the batterer appears remorseful and sorry. He brings flowers, jewellery and other goodies, apologises and might even offer marriage if this ritual had not yet been experienced. This, indeed, is the stage when the victim is lulled into complacency and unfortunately she is being set up for the next round of violence.

Like all classical and reliable paradigms, Rihanna and Chris Brown are in yet another honeymoon phase. Oprah Winfrey has warned Rihanna, "He will hit you again." Hers is the voice of experience, a most credible and informed voice. Will Rihanna listen?

One of the most-asked questions about women who are battered is, 'Why do they stay?' Psychologists, counsellors and others who have developed some level of expertise on this complex issue argue that battered women stay in this inhumane situation for a number of reasons, including:

The positive reinforcement of the "honeymoon phase" of the battering;

Women's natural and socialised tendency to make peace and to try and make relationships work;

Adverse economic consequences. This is particularly true of women who have not acquired the requisite education and training to give them choices and economic independence;

Fear. Oftentimes it is more dangerous for the woman to leave than to stay. It is not unusual for a batterer to make threats against the children or the woman's parents;

Batterers oftentimes threaten to commit suicide if the woman leaves;

Fear of independence.

Clinical psychologist Mark Crawford who is based in Georgia is quoted as saying: "There are some women who need to be needed so badly, they'll put up with anything. Even if the guy beats the crap out of them, they just feel they are responsible for him."

In a society such as Jamaica, this fear of independence is a multi-pronged problem rooted in the socio-cultural attitudes towards women. In this context, the fear of being labeled 'funny' or 'lesbian' because one chooses to be independent in spirit and in the decisions around one's sexuality or lack thereof force many young women to find a man of any type in order to be "all right".

Battered women tend to present a profile characterised by low self-esteem. This does not mean that such a woman has always had a low estimation of herself. It means that she can lose her sense of self and her dignity through the cycle of violence.

In this process, she has no psychological energy to leave her batterer. She indeed exhibits what psychologists term "learned helplessness" and "psychological paralysis".

The battered woman comes to a point where she believes that the battering is her fault. It is because she has not done the right thing. It is she who has provoked her man.

This cycle of violence has a profound impact on women and from time to time in every society such a woman reaches the "tipping point". This is when she snaps and decides that she can no longer endure her burden. She has gone to her pastor, he told her to pray. She prayed. The man continued to beat her.

She haltingly told her story to her mom who told her to try a little harder. After all, a woman has to learn to understand and forgive a man especially one who provides all the material comforts.

She whispered to her best girlfriend. She found no sympathy. The girlfriend, as a harbour shark, is just waiting for her to leave so that she can move in. The nice house and the expensive SUV are quite appealing.

The battered woman, at the end of this tether, snaps and strikes back. Some of these women leave the marriage and save their lives, others end up dead and a select few make that final blow and kill the batterer.

shot him dead

In 1994, writer Brian Vallee produced the documentary, Life with Billy, which detailed the story of a Nova Scotian woman, Jane Hurshman, who "after five years of severe abuse by her common-law husband, Billy Stanford, shot him to death while he was passed out drunk in the front seat of his half-ton truck".

It is widely known that many members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police considered Billy Stanford a "well-armed, dangerous bully who would one day end up in a shoot-out with them".

At her trial, Jane Hurshman offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, but the Crown insisted on a charge of first-degree murder. Against the prerogatives and established culture of the courts, Jane was forced to "testify publicly and in graphic detail about the degrading sexual torture she had endured and the unremitting mental and physical abuse Billy had inflicted on her and her five-year-old son".

won new trial

History has recorded that the jury acquitted Jane, but the Crown appealed and won a new trial. Jane ended up with a six-month sentence and was allowed to pursue training in nursing. She was released from jail after two months.

It is the story of this desperate woman that has allowed contemporary Canadian women to have access to the 'battered-woman syndrome' as a defence in the courts. In line with this trend almost 31 States in the USA accept the "battered women syndrome" as a defence. Such a defence is not gender specific and is a relatively new area of the law.

In Jamaica, there are several well-documented cases of women who reached the "tipping point" and killed their abusers. Of course, the 'battered-woman syndrome' does not seem to have much resonance in our established legal procedures. What the women of our society need is a concerted effort to focus on the specific issue of violence against women and girls and put in place systems that will deal effectively with the perpetrators of such violence.

The Rihanna case has triggered off a new set of debates on an old issue. Writer Kathryn Blaze Carlson of the National Post has argued that North American feminists have found themselves in a quandary. They are not sure whether they should highlight or downplay this high-profile case. After all, the majority of ordinary women's pain and plight remain unpublicised and largely ignored by family, Church and State.

highlight celebrity case

To these feminists, I say, highlight the Rihanna/Chris Brown case. It really takes the rot among the high-profilers, the rich and the famous to jolt us out of our awe with the frivolous and the infamous.

Far too many of our young people are dazzled by the glitz and superficiality of pop stars and bling-bling artistes.

This is particularly true of the children of the poor and the underclass. In their search for an escape out of their poverty-stricken environments, they cannot even imagine that the so-called 'fancy cats' of runways, film, stage and the social pages of the local media do not always reflect the attitudes and values that are needed to embrace the best of our essential humanity.

For the sake of the thousands of young people who idolise her, we can only hope that Rihanna's plight will be a cautionary tale for all those who face violence in their search for romance and true love.

Dr Glenda Simms is a consultant on gender issues. Feedback may be sent to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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