Let us engage constructively to put our values into action
Few days ago, an ordinary conversation with a friend turned into a heated debate: I realized that he is open to the idea of hitting his future wife “under certain circumstances”. In other words, he does not oppose domestic violence. My opinion on the matter is that domestic violence is wrong – plain and simple. I think domestic violence is wrong regardless of the gender, class, race, origin, social-status, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. of the both the perpetrator and the victim. Meaning that I don’t differentiate between men beating women or women beating men, a rich, upper-class Bhutanese male beating his foreign wife from a different religion, a gay person beating their partner – to me it is all still domestic violence if they are engaging in violent acts and are in a domestic partnership, and I am against it.
I hold that opinion because I prescribe to certain core human values which I believe should be the foundation of a society. Therefore, when I base my thoughts, speech and action according to the human values I prescribe to, I come to the conclusion that domestic violence is a bad thing. Some core human values that are particularly relevant in this case for me are values of equality, respect, security, justice and trust. I think domestic violence usually occurs when the perpetrator feels more powerful than the victim, which goes against the value of equality. Furthermore, it signifies a lack of respect for the victim by the perpetrator and definitely diminishes the sense of security for the victim. I also feel such violence cannot be justified for any reason, except maybe in some self defense cases (although I’m still not completely sure if self defense is a good excuse). And finally, how can we build trust if, among other things, there is no equality, respect, security or justice? As you can see, domestic violence violates core human values that I think are important. Moreover, at their heart, Buddhism and many religions also advocate non-violence. Therefore, I believe domestic violence is not right because it hurts the individual victim, it hurts family dynamics, it sets bad example if they have children and affects their child’s psychology, and because of the interrelated nature of the world, it hurts our whole society in the grand scheme of things - just think about how it affects you if your neighbors are fighting violently next door. Domestic violence is not a private matter, it is a wider social and spiritual matter, as we struggle for a more compassionate, respectful and tolerant society.
I presumed all of us prescribe to the same human values, thus any sensible person would take the same stand as I would on domestic violence. But when my friend’s stand on the issue of domestic violence was one of acceptance and in fact a “necessary evil” that he doesn’t mind exercising, it really hit a nerve. In my utter fury, disbelief and frustration at his mindset, I decided to open up the discussion on my Facebook wall. In the discussion, I called for action from individuals - to take a stand, to speak up, to educate themselves and others, to do something - to help address the issue. What ensued was discus- sion on various related topics including gender bias, violence, culture & tradition, alcoholism and effectiveness of intervention methods to address an issue. In an effort to maintain the focus of the discussion on domestic violence and my specific call for individual action to stop domestic violence, I tried not to dwell on the other related issues and topics that came up time and again.
I noticed an interesting phenomenon: quite a few people who expressed their opinion on domestic violence (the topic of my focus) had a particular associated issue that they would keep bringing up, sort of like they all had an individual agenda/grievance to push. For example, let’s suppose Friend A says, “domestic violence is due to gender bias so let’s fight for gender equality”, then Friend B would comment, “domestic violence is about violence so let’s talk about violence in general”. Then Friend C says “domestic violence is a borrowed concept from a different culture”, while Friend D points out, “domestic violence can happen to men too!” to which Friend A would retaliate by saying “yes maybe, but women are victims most of the time and men the perpetrator” and so on and so forth. All this time I was struggling to keep the discussion focused on domestic violence and my specific call for action to address it. Not that I think any of those other related issues are any less important, but it sure was becoming a distraction!
Personally speaking, I think all the themes that were brought to attention such as gender inequality, violence, changing social norms (due to changing time or exposure to other cultures and media mes- sages), human limitation, etc. are all extremely important and should be put up for discussion and debate. And all of them are either very closely or somewhat loosely related to my topic of concern: domestic violence. However, I felt my call for action on individuals to take some action was getting lost in translation.
Which finally brings me to the point of writing this particular opinion piece: we live in a complex world with many complicated issues; and while we may care about one issue more than another, it is important to engage constructively when debating an issue in a way that keeps the focus on the issue of concern without trying to deflect, resist and distract by raising other issues, albeit their importance (to you and in our society). As Ghandi once said, “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”. Instead, I think it would be more helpful to speak of other issues in tandem with the issue of focus and take a value-based approach. That is, we could discuss how all the other issues we care about relate to the particular issue in focus and what are the underlying human values that are violated. For example, in the case I presented above, instead of everyone trying to get their various issues heard under the rubric of domestic violence, I would rather we discussed how inequality (which violates the human value of equality) and the resulting discrimination - not just in terms of gender but also class, age, social status, sexual orientation, nationality or religion - affect and relate to violence in a domestic setting. If we can do that, then I believe we have a chance to maintain our focus on the problem as well as the solution relating to the topic of concern, while also introducing other interrelated (and equally important) issues. Having said that, I think we also have to pay attention to all the other related topics raised as well and find the underlying root cause(s) which may in fact allow the solving of multiple issues at once.
Given what I have said above, allow me bring your attention to the issue of violence against women and girls, as each year November 25th is observed as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I care about the issue and I think you should too. I feel we need to do what we can at an individual level so that our individual efforts can build up to a collective effort to reduce and finally eliminate violence against women and girls. Just so it is clear, in this instance I am not talking about domestic violence; rather I am talking specifically about violence against women and girls. The two issues are very closely related but I would like to keep the spotlight on violence against women either in a domestic setting or otherwise. Keep in mind that the Bhutan Multiple Indicator Survey survey undertaken in 2010 findings say that 68.4% of women say they deserved beating if they neglect children, argue with their partners, refuse sex or burn dinner. This shows my friend is not alone and the normalized attitude towards violence against women is quite pervasive.
In a private message to me following the above
mentioned Facebook discussion, a very close friend wrote:
“Just this week, I read about a 16-year old girl in Ethiopia, who was gang-raped for 5 days and died; about a Kenyan woman who was stripped naked in broad daylight in public because she was dressed “indecently”; and an honor killing of a woman in Pakistan because she chose to marry someone she loved against the wishes of her family… It is just so crazy... and it is very “emasculating” whatever the female version of that would be called. Even feeling empowered is described in reference to male strength. I am not denying that men don’t get abused. In fact, I think society is even less sympathetic to men who are abused.”
And here is an excerpt of the message of the UN Women Executive Director to mark the November 25th occasion this year:
“Women are beaten in their homes, harassed on the streets, bullied on the internet. Globally, one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in her life… More often than not, violence against women is committed by an intimate partner. Of all women killed in 2012, almost half died at the hands of a partner or family member. It is no exaggeration that the overall greatest threat to women’s lives is men, and often the men they love.”
I hope you will agree with me that both above the messages on violence towards women and my argument with my friend are all related to violence, gender inequality, cultural norms, male chauvinism and religious sentiments embedded, among other things. They are all important issues and all interrelated to violence against women and girls. And by now, I am sure by now you can think of few fundamental human values that these issues violate, not to mention spiritual values!
Violence against women and girls is a worldwide issue and we know from our experience of living in Bhutan that violence against women and girls is a problem here too. Whether we want acknowledge it or not, there are numerous cases of women and girls being subject to abuse, the Violence Against Women report (2007) compiled by RENEW has the statistics to prove it. Of the 688 married women surveyed, 188 said they have been victims of physical abuse. The nature of abuse was physical abuse (77%), emotional torment (54%) and forced sex (23%). In the same survey, 38% of the women surveyed said that they face harassment at the workplace from their male counterparts and 17% have said that they have been touched by a male colleague. Only six reported to their boss although majority said that they just kept quiet and did nothing. Of the 145 men surveyed, 10 respondents said that they had at some point forced sex on their women partner although 5 said that they did know that this could be termed as “rape”.
I bet we know men (and women) who have been violent to women and girls, we know of domestic violence in Bhutanese homes and we have read on the news of rape cases. We most probably even know and/or are related to perpetrators or victims. Perhaps one of us has been the perpetrator at some point. I bet more than one of the women/ girls reading this has been the victim. We know that despite the matrilineal culture practiced in some regions in Bhutan, Bhutanese women and girls face many challenges that Bhutanese men and boys don’t. Again, I’m not saying that men and boys don’t have challenges, in fact I am certain they do and perhaps never express it openly because of the societal pressure to appear “manly”, but that’s again besides the focus of the November 25th occasion.
Finally, to tie all the points I have made in this article while keeping our attention on the issue of violence against women and girls, I am calling on you, the reader, to engage with the issue. I am inviting you to contemplate on the matter, debate and discuss with your friends and family and of course in the end do something, it can be anything you can do in your individual capacity to curb the issue of violence against women and girls. You may say you are doing your part to because you are not violent to women or girls. While that is a good start, I think it is time we become more proactive and engage ourselves in doing more than just that. We should educate ourselves, be critical and analytical, take a stand, raise our voices, challenge others, and educate people around us so they can be more knowledgeable about the issue at hand.
If we don’t engage constructively, just like my friend who does not think domestic violence is a bad thing (which by the way is an offense under the Penal Code of Bhutan since the Domestic Violence Prevention Act of 2013), I fear that deep down some of us may be living our lives with flawed ideas and convenient justifications for actions that are simply against fundamental human values. Worst still, some might write off women’s rights, access to justice and protection against violence as a “Western idea”, when in fact such violence also goes against fundamental human values. In addition to that, specifically in Bhutan, it goes against our Buddhist, spiritual, and Bhutanese values as enshrined in the GNH philosophy.
All said and done, I don’t think my friend is a “bad person without values”. Although my immediate reaction that day was that of anger, my intention is not to embarrass him by speaking about it. I feel perhaps he does not see the incoherence between his values vis-à-vis his thoughts, speech and action on the particular issue. Perhaps he is unable to connect the dots about why his belief and action will negatively affect him and the society at large. Therefore, by engaging him, taking up the discussion with my friends on Facebook and by writing this, I am hopeful that we can change his mindset and the mindset of those who hold similar beliefs as him. The accumulation of our individual actions could collectively build an enlightened society.