Monday, July 18, 2011

Nicki Minaj and Fighting Back

Last week, singer Nicki Minaj was involved in an incident of domestic violence during which, according to the police report, her companion hit her with a suitcase. Minaj chose not to press charges and then denied the account to the media. Taking to Twitter, she said (paraphrasing due to the adult language in the original tweet) people are stupid to believe that a man would hit her and not leave on a stretcher.

We hear a lot of women say that. Some think that domestic violence victims are weak. Others just think that their own self-esteem (or temper) is too high to "put up with" violence used against them. Zerlina Maxwell at TheLoop21 addresses this somewhat (clicking this link takes you to Minaj's original tweet, which contains adult language):
Being the victim of violence doesn’t make you weak. It makes the perpetrator of that violence look weak. Furthermore, Minaj’s insistence that she would have retaliated against the man if she had really been hit is wholly unacceptable.

We need to have a mature conversation around gender violence. It’s not appropriate for anyone to be hit or leave in a stretcher. The automatic response from Minaj should not be one that coincides with her stage image, she is a human being after all. Even if she didn’t want to admit to being hit, a more empowering response could have been “I was not the victim of domestic abuse but if you find yourself in that situation call the police or tell a friend. Get Help!”
Of course, these kinds of comments are dangerous for more reasons than just that violence should not be met with more violence. I talked to a woman literally as I was typing this post who was struggling to admit that her partner was abusive, that it was really all that bad, despite the fact that he has choked her in front of their child and is threatening to kill her. She said that it's hard to believe that it is real because she isn't the "meek" kind of woman that she thought "usually ended up in these situations". We are stereotyping domestic violence victims so much that they now cannot recognize themselves enough to seek help!

There's another reason why this reaction isn't helpful. WRC offers two free classes every month that the local judicial districts call "anger management". Women are mandated by the courts to attend these classes because they have been arrested for family violence. Some of the women in the class genuinely have anger management issues, but most are victims of domestic violence who were arrested for fighting back. Our classes are 1/3 DV support group, 1/3 anger management, and 1/3 instructions for how to avoid future arrests and how to get this one expunged from your record.

In the class, we often show a video about the Framingham 8, a group of 8 women in Framingham, Massachusetts who were imprisoned for killing a spouse or partner after years of domestic violence. Several of those women have since won their freedom by using Battered Women's Syndrome as a defense. We had a woman in class recently, who you will recall was there because she had been arrested for fighting back, who was assaulted again by her partner a few days after the class. She called to tell us that she thinks that video might have saved her life. Instead of fighting back and possibly escalating the violence, getting arrested again, or killing her partner, she just took the abuse. For her, that was her best-case scenario.

It's not a pretty picture, but here we are. How disheartening is it that we are asked to teach classes for victims that instruct them not to fight back or they might go to jail? The unfortunate truth is that many victims of domestic violence do go to jail for fighting back, or for killing their partners, and the effects of that often last longer than the effects of the physical violence. Once you are arrested, it is harder to find a job. While you are in jail, your children might be taken from you (and sometimes even given to your batterer). You are labeled the "aggressor" by the legal system, a label which follows you throughout your interactions with the courts as you later try to press charges or file a protective order. That label also prevents you from receiving services from the court victim advocates and even some domestic violence programs (though certainly not ours). To help women have the best chance of rebuilding their lives after domestic violence, while they are in it, we are encouraged to tell them just to take it.

How can we get to the hard work of ending domestic violence when we have to tell 80ish women per month just to take it?

We are thankful to be able to offer these classes, for free, because instead victims who are arrested would have to pay a more traditional anger management program to treat them like a criminal. We are lucky to have this means of introducing our agency to women who might otherwise never attend a DV support group or hear about our services. We are also disgusted that so many women who don't belong there end up in these classes at all, and we work hard for the day when our community no longer punishes women for the crimes committed against them.

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