Why attitudes towards domestic violence differ across cultures

After over six weeks of testimony in a defamation trial, the fate of actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has now been decided in Depp’s favour. This high-profile trial has been parodied, discussed, and remixed since it began on April 11, largely due to the fact that it has been publicly broadcast and live-streamed on YouTube.

Although the response has been polarised, the media and general public have generally tended to side with Depp. The TikTok hashtag #teamjohnnydepp has over 77 million views and videos poking fun at Heard’s emotional testimony flood Instagram’s trending page. Concerned onlookers have noted that whether one believes Depp to be guilty of domestic violence or to be a victim of it, the coverage of the trial both highlights the issue and makes a mockery of it

Not since Americans sat transfixed to their televisions during the OJ Simpson trial in 1995, has a court case been so wildly followed. While few understand the intricacies of the legal system even a novice could ascertain that the public appetite for spectacle has bordered on insensitivity and possibly harm. Domestic violence (DV) is a serious and much to common a crime in countries across the world. However, despite the international consensus seemingly being united against it, standards of blame vary largely between countries and socio-ethnic groups.

What is domestic violence (DV)?

Traditionally, DV has been associated with physical violence that occurs between husband and wife but in recent decades it is now more commonly defined to include all acts of physical, sexual, economic, and psychological violence that may be committed by a family member or an intimate partner.

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DV can take on many forms such as assaults, threats, stalking, neglect and/or economic deprivation. With the emerging popularity of social media, technology can also be used to threaten, blackmail, and stalk victims.

(Indian Express)

Experts largely attribute DV to a need to assert power and gain control, and manage feelings of stress and inadequacy. Lenore Walker, a sociologist who established the Domestic Violence Institute, also points to the prevalence of cycles of abuse, wherein abusers experience four phases of emotions. First is when the tension builds up, leading to the abuse. Next is a phase of calm where the perpetrator may feel guilt leading to a third phase in which they may be kind and affectionate. Lastly, when the victim may start to feel a sense of normalcy and hope, tensions build, after which the abuse is likely to continue.

DV is one of the most underreported crimes worldwide for both men and women, with one 2011 review article finding that the majority of victims fail to report the crime. This could be because they were financially trapped in the arrangement or because they felt a sense of guilt or shame.

While women are often initiators of DV, male violence is often more damaging. According to one US Justice Department analysis of crime, more than 40 per cent of adult female hospital emergency room visits are caused by violence by a male intimate partner. Furthermore, according to a 1998 National Crime Victimization Survey in the US, women experience violent domestic offenses at a five times higher rate than men.

Who is the most vulnerable?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one of the most common factors in DV is a sense that abuse, whether verbal or physical, is acceptable. Other factors include substance abuse, poverty, mental health problems, and dependency on the abuser.

Men who perpetrate violence are likely to believe that their victim deserves the abuse and that their inadequacy is the chief cause of it. Social learning theory posits that people who have either witness abuse or experienced it during childhood are more likely to initiate it.

In developed nations, the rate of DV is much higher within families with household incomes of less than $7500. This is because financial insecurity creates stress and because women who are financially vulnerable are less able to leave abusive relationships.

Laws against DV also vary from country to country and while it is largely outlawed in the developing world, the same cannot be said about developing countries. In the UAE, for example, the Supreme Court upheld a man’s right to physically discipline his wife and children as long as he doesn’t leave any physical marks behind.

(Indian Express)

Moreover, DV is more acceptable in developing nations because attitudes support the practice. According to a Unicef ​​survey, the percentage of women aged 15-49 who think a husband is justified in hitting his wife under certain circumstances is 90 per cent in Afghanistan, 87 per cent in Mali and 80 per cent in the Central African Republic.

According to Violence against Women in Families and Relationships“globally, wife-beating is seen as justified in some circumstances by a majority of the population in various countries, most commonly in situations of actual or suspected infidelity by wives or their ‘disobedience’ toward a husband or partner.”

(Indian Express)

In many places, the so-called “honour killings” are also approved by a large section of society with one survey finding that 33.4 per cent of teenagers in Amman, the capital of Jordan, approved of the practice. Inappropriate clothing is also considered grounds for abuse in countries like Afghanistan where over 60 per cent of women believe a man is justified in hitting his wife if she wears inappropriate clothes.

(Indian Express)

According to Human Rights Watch, customs such as bride price only exacerbate abuse as women are then considered the property of their husbands. Forced and child marriages also contribute to the problem.

Additionally, religion plays an important factor as well. In Responding to domestic violencea group of authors argue that Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism have all traditionally supported male-dominated households and that “socially sanctioned violence against women has been persistent since ancient times.”

(Indian Express)

Of all the major religions, none invoke as much scrutiny towards women’s rights as Islam. While some authors like Phyllis Chesler argue that Islam is connected to violence against women, others like Tahira Khan, a professor at Aga Khan University, argue that it is the cultural inferiority of women in Islamic countries that leads to abuse, not the religion itself.

Data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in India showed that women (52 per cent) were also more likely than men (42 per cent) to believe that a man is justified in beating his wife. The highest acceptance for DV was in Telangana at 84 per cent while the lowest was in Sikkim, at 17 per cent.

Victim blaming is also prevalent, even in industrialized manufacturing. One 2010 Eurobaramater poll found that 52 per cent of respondents agree with the assertion that the “provocative behavior of women” was the leading cause of violence.

How does the media cover DV?

According to a study by the Reproductive Health Journal, mass media “reinforces existing inequalities and traditional roles and models of femininity and masculinity” with cultural products consumed by young audiences, “praise the subordinance of women to men and even sometimes justify violence.” As such, the mass media plays a key role in defining “romantic relationships,” and often perpetuates an ideal of love that supports unequal relationships.

The media has often made light of DV as well. In 2011, a Family Guy episode highlighted abusive relationships from a comedic perspective whereas, in Kasauti Zindagi Kayan Indian soap opera, a woman who was slapped by her husband pleads with her family not to intervene on her behalf.

According to Anne O’Brien, a professor at Maynooth University, victims of DV are often depicted in a way that justifies their abuse by mainstream news shows. She notes that coverage usually questions what the woman may have done to provoke the abuse while perpetrators are left off the hook because their actions are seen as being out of character. She also argues that the international media provides a simplistic narrative of abuse and “completely erases” the identities of women.

An Oxford University report further claims that media representation of DV tends to provide “racialising victims and class-biased discourses about abusers and their abusers that frame domestic violence as the largest product of marginalized classes.” It also claims that’s that after the 9/11 attacks, media coverage of Islamic nations has justified “progressive” Western cultures with “backwards” Eastern ones.

However, despite the failure of the media to adequately address this issue, its potential to positively influence the narrative is profound. According to the Economics of Peace and Security Journal, media exposure can be a “positive source for changing social norms.” For example, it points to one study from Tamil Nadu which found that the introduction of cable television with programs that present “urban attitudes,” is associated with a 16 per cent decrease in women’s reported of domestic violence and an 8.8 per cent decrease in their preference for having male children.

(Indian Express)

Similarly, after the highly publicized domestic violence trial of American football star OJ Simpson, the then US president Bill Clinton approved the creation of a national domestic violence helpline which surged to record numbers in recent weeks. However, studies also found that while the number of DV related newspaper articles increased during the prime stage of the case, and after the trial was over, numbers began to decrease once again.

The impact of the media is perhaps best observed in cases that never go to court. In 2009, when Chris Brown punched his then-girlfriend Rihanna in the face, he was largely castigated on social media, despite the incident never going to trial. Today, a person accused of DV can be “cancelled” online, their reputations eternally forged in the annals of social media.

This phenomenon was observed in 2015, when a 20-year-old swimmer from Stanford, Brock Turner, was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Turner was only served with a six-month sentence, but a report from Buzzfeed publishing the victim’s statement was one of its most shared stories in the site’s history.

The outcome of the Depp Heard trial means that Heard is found guilty of defaming Depp in the eyes of the law. However, that does not excuse the vitriol and skepticism that she faced throughout the trial. Perhaps the best lesson we can learn about reporting or commenting on domestic violence cases, is that our judgment should be predicated on that of the law. No one wins when social media denigrates the alleged victim or abuser before a verdict is delivered.


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