Addressing domestic violence — together


A meeting of Masum, a women’s organization in India, which works to confront domestic violence as part of a broader effort to strengthen communities. (Masum)

Given that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’ve been thinking about ways in which friends, loved ones and other community members have helped support survivors in their circles. If 75 women are abused every hour, readers most likely know at least one person who is or has been in an abusive relationship. Chances are that most of us, when confronted with abuse in our communities, may feel powerless to respond, especially in ways that do not involve calling the police or legal system. While the following stories are not exact blueprints or road maps to addressing domestic violence, we can use the information as guides to building a world in which communities actively try to ensure the safety of their members rather than ignore the violence.

In my earlier column on NFL player Ray Rice, who was suspended for battering his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, I mentioned that my then-12-year-old daughter and I have both taken self-defense classes at the Center for Antiviolence Education in Brooklyn. These self-defense techniques are not limited to physical self-defense, although those are taught. In class, women, young and old, cis and trans, also practice other ways to stay safe and defend themselves from violence, both on the streets and at home.

The Center for Antiviolence Education has a long history of challenging gender violence. It started as Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts in 1974. The dojo was founded on the idea that all people have the right to live free from violence and the recognition that power dynamics more frequently exposed women to violence than men. “People said to us in the beginning that we were adding to the violence by learning how to defend ourselves, by learning a physical response,” recalled co-founder Annie Ellman, who still teaches at the center. “We always said, ‘If you fight back against violence, that’s not violence. That’s a physical response.’ We also believe in a very strong martial arts philosophy that you live in harmony with all other living things, so if there’s any way to not physically fight, we always choose that.”

By the mid-1970s, Ellman recalled, domestic violence was beginning to emerge from the shadows. “There was a lot of denial and a lot of shame [about being abused], so being able to talk about the number of us as women who are survivors is really, really important.”

The center offered free self-defense courses, as well as six months of martial arts training for survivors. They also ran support groups. “What’s wonderful about martial arts and self-defense is that we’re talking about how we can grow our strength and our pride,” Ellman reflected. “Whenever we’re working with people who have been abused in different communities, a big part of our program is helping people work through the violence and reclaim strength and pride and resiliency that we’ve always had.”

I got to witness this process firsthand when I enrolled in the center’s five-week self-defense course. In addition to learning ways to verbally and physically defend ourselves, each session also included discussions. During the third or fourth week, one participant, who had survived a violent relationship, told us that she had tried to see a movie one night earlier that week. She had left her house and took public transit to the theater, only to learn that the movie was sold out. She then returned home. But, she said, this was the first time that she had felt confident and safe enough to leave her home after dark. And, she continued, that confidence had come back because of the self-defense course.

She’s not the only survivor who has felt this way. “What folks say to us is that martial arts and physical activities and self-defense training restores something that gets lost at times when you’ve been abused, that there’s very much a break,” explained Ellman. “[With self-defense training] the mind-body-spirit gets reintegrated and women again start feeling like they do have a body, and they have a body that’s worth defending, and we have a body that doesn’t just cause us pain and shame.”

At other times, organizing against domestic violence is more situation-specific. In my earlier column, I described one instance in which Sista II Sista, a women of color collective in Brooklyn, organized to confront and stop a potentially violent situation from escalation. This tactic is neither new nor exceptional, although we rarely hear about it. In 1985, members of the collective Vancouver Rape Relief wrote about utilizing this tactic when a disabled woman called about her lover, who was not disabled and had hit and bullied her. “She wanted to expose him and force him to stop abusing her,” the member[s] wrote in an article for the feminist journal off our backs. The woman’s situation was complicated by her economic dependence on him, which made it difficult for her to cut off all ties with him. “She also wanted him to continue his financial support of her and her son,” the writer[s] explained.

Members of Vancouver Rape Relief, the woman and her friends, many of whom were also disabled and economically dependent on the men in their lives, met for two months to figure out a plan of action that would both stop the violence while not leaving her financially vulnerable. These meetings were not always easy, the writer[s] recalled, but “in the course of arguing about what action, where and what effect, we learned a lot about each other’s lives as women, and had an opportunity both to support each other as well as the woman assaulted,” the member[s] recalled.

What the group finally decided upon was a confrontation at his workplace. With the help of her friends, the woman physically stood, testified to the effects his assaults had had on her and demanded that he stop. Then his friends and her son spoke about the effects of his violence. She told him her demands, including one for financial support.

One month later, when her demands remained unmet, the group met again to brainstorm other strategies. They decided to reach out to his friends. That tactic worked: the man not only stopped his abuse but also paid her each month.

The writer[s] credited their original strategy to a California group called Santa Cruz Women Against Rape, which had supported rape survivors in confronting their assailants. “We adapted a tactic, tried it, and when it didn’t get us all we wanted, we went back to analysing the power — his and ours — to see what else we could do,” the member[s] explained.

Vancouver Rape Relief, Santa Cruz Women Against Rape, and Sista II Sista are not unique in utilizing the strategy of confrontation. Women’s groups as far back as the 1700s have used the power of group confrontation to dissuade abusers, although their methods have not always been nonviolent. The confrontation tactic has also been adapted in other ways, as anti-violence activist Andrea Smith has described. In Pune, India, members of Masum, a women’s organization, intervene in domestic violence not by direct confrontation but by singing outside an abuser’s house until he stops his violence. This is especially interesting given that Pune is not a small town or village, but rather the eighth largest city in India. “Masum reports that it has been able to work on this issue without community backlash because it simultaneously provides needed community services, such as microcredit, health care and education,” Smith wrote in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Masum’s strategy, coupled with their other approaches that strengthened the community, positioned domestic violence not as an isolated private matter within a household, but rather another aspect of community support.

This October, let’s go beyond simply being aware of domestic violence to thinking about how we can help stop it in our families and neighborhoods. Again, none of these examples should be interpreted as a precise blueprint on what to do, but by sharing these stories I hope that it allows readers to imagine how they, too, can help stop violence and abuse in our communities.

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