‘My first love threatened to kill me’
This week I suddenly found myself for the first time identifying publicly as an abuse victim, with all the backlash, disbelief and belittlement that comes with that.
Ironically this came about when I spoke about abuse during filming of a documentary commemorating women’s suffrage.
The film is called Women In The
House, examining women’s participation in New Zealand politics 125 years after Suffrage.
Serendipitously, filming covered the day Parliament passed Jan Logie’s ground-breaking Domestic Violence Protection of Victims Bill.
The reason I felt it was important and safe to speak about my experience of abuse when Vice NZ film-makers asked me about it, was that I was infinitely excited about Jan’s achievement.
To me, what we were about to do was the ideal of lawmaking ‘‘for the affected community, by the affected community’’.
But a moment after I described my experience of abuse, I imagined the headline and hateful comments. I knew instantly that I would be accused of seeking undeserved victimhood, of lying, or even be told that I deserved what I got. Because, as women, we know that our abuse is often seen as a personal burden that we should bear silently.
The sad realisation was, that the real-life reaction to my public disclosure would answer the central question of the film: How far have we really come in empowering women in 125 years of formal equality?
I also knew that I would be using this platform to highlight the misnomers contained in that backlash, which is key to ending violence against women.
New Zealand will always lead the world with our record of granting women the vote in 1893, which I believe is the reason it’s so difficult to allow the reality of our harrowing domestic and sexual violence statistics to enter our national psyche.
It is indisputable that intimate partner violence takes up 41 per cent of the work of frontline police, even though we know only about a quarter of abuse is actually reported. Those stats speak of mass violence, overwhelmingly against women.
When I think about my personal experience, the shocking thing is that I didn’t recognise it as abuse for so long.
I was only 18 years old when the relationship began, and for two years I saw it as intense ‘‘first love’’.
He would send hundreds of messages all day, turn up to university and my workplace, so we spent every free moment together.
If I did go out without him, the messages turned ugly. It would be a barrage of ‘‘Bitch. Bitch. Bitch’’ and ‘‘Slut. Slut. Slut’’. I justified it as he did: it’s normal for men to be jealous when they love you.
Things got physical with shoving. I went through the sliding door of my wardrobe as it came off its hinges, fell back hard onto some rocks. It got worse when twice he threatened to kill me if I left, and choked me hard enough to leave thumb marks.
The apologies came in the usual way: ‘‘I wish you wouldn’t make me angry.’’ My grades fell and I couldn’t concentrate well.
Still, there was also a very real sense that love meant standing by this ‘‘broken’’ person and ‘‘fixing’’ him. I could only really leave when I found an address he didn’t know and changed my number.
I never talked about it much because to this day I feel a deep sense of failure and responsibility for the abuse.
This is precisely why the Domestic Violence Victims Protection Bill gave me, and many survivors, a sense of relief.
This law, makes it possible for victims and survivors to take 10 days of annual leave.
I was shocked at the Opposition cry that commercial businesses should not be responsible for making workers safe from abuse, though of course we’re comfortable with the concept of sick leave.
What would it say about us as a society, if having the flu takes precedence over the grave mental and physical harm of domestic violence? That we think safety from violence is a privilege that women should pay for themselves?
But Jan Logie knew the importance of this profound measure for survivors because she has spent her life at the grassroots of that sector. She knows that the time immediately after leaving is the most dangerous for women.
We need to change our routine. We also need income to leave. A survivor should never have to choose between financial independence and abuse.
Even if she isn’t ready to leave, she needs time out to seek mental healthcare, to heal.
This isn’t about dollars and cents because being safe is a fundamental human right, which we as a society owe abuse survivors.
Even so, Jan knew what pushback would come and she had the figures ready. It turns out domestic violence costs us far more in commercial profit than the tiny cost of 10 days’ leave.
Golriz Ghahraman Comment