Vaneisa: One hundred years of abuse; addressing that dirty ‘family secret’

She was born into a Muslim family in 1910, growing up in a compound surrounded by relatives. She would have been around 17 when she was married off and sent to live far away from home.

Her chosen husband was cruel, miserly and violent. To deny her direct access to foodstuff, he measured out portions of rice for her to cook before he left the house on mornings. He would beat her mercilessly and arbitrarily.

Photo: A victim of domestic violence.

One day, he flung a still hot pot of food at her, enraged because he thought it too salty. She was climbing up the wooden stairs, and when the pot and its contents struck her, she fell, slipping through the open space between the wooden steps.

This time she fled, seeking refuge at the family home, where her grandfather, the patriarch ruled. He had come to Trinidad from India during the period of indentureship. She took her daughter and her two sons with her; all practically toddlers. She told her grandfather that she was never going back and she asked him to take her in with her children. He insisted that she go back to the man they had married her off to. Duty, pride and tradition demanded it.

Usually acquiescent, this time she could not countenance a return to the horror. She ran to the nearby river bank, weeping for hours and refusing to budge. Eventually her grandfather relented.

It is not clear if the Islamic divorce was conducted by the triple recitation of the word, Talaq, (the uncontested right of a man), or if it was done through a Khula, the right of a woman. But either way, she had taken a courageous step that saved her life.

Photo: A victim of domestic abuse.

Yet, she could not save her daughter, who was married off as well to an abusive man at an early age. After years of suffering, she committed suicide, leaving her young children—a daughter and two sons—to make their forlorn way in the world. She had been fortunate to be married again, this time, to a man from India, who was the opposite of her dastardly first husband. From her second marriage she had several children.

Another daughter was married to an abusive, philandering man. She bore the beatings like a martyr; she was staying for the sake of the children, she told herself. In the end, he left, setting up house with the young wife of a man he called his friend. One of her daughters got involved with a man who became abusive, but carrying the trauma of seeing her father beat her mother, she did not hang around. Her other daughter did not encounter domestic violence, but two of her three daughters did.

These are the women of one family; subjected to physical abuse for generation after generation: a hundred years. It is as much the story of the victimisation of women as it is of the patriarchal culture that has implicitly supported the right of men to own and control.

Domestic violence is not new. It may seem to have increased, but that is perhaps because more women are reporting it; and more people are prepared to speak out about what has been traditionally closeted as a family secret.

Photo: St Francis RC primary school teacher Margaret Guevara was shot dead on 27 February 2018. She was 42.

The young girl of 1910 had taken a remarkable step to walk away; but what was even more remarkable was her refusal to go back, even when it meant defying her grandfather. Then, as now, there is little support for women in these situations.

Religion, encrusted in tenets that bestow power and control to men over women and children; and the culture of shame that surrounds the victim more glutinously than it does the perpetrator, have ensured that the code of silence is hardly breached.

Outside of that, even with protective legislation, the constabulary have never been convincing enforcers. There are still too many stories of reports being ignored.

The police argue that often when they investigate, they find that the partners have kissed and made up, and the complainant no longer wishes to pursue the matter. Seems a ploy to escape jail, and it should not be dropped at the request of the victim. Restraining orders are confidently breached; fines are astonishingly low; bail is easily granted, and if perchance, an offender were to be convicted, the sentences are gentle slaps on the wrist.

It is a wretched part of humankind’s culture.

Photo: WPC Nyasha Joseph’s lifeless body was found in the Gulf of Paria on 15 March 2017.

In our space, it has been accepted across every group. Just grab hold of the lyrics of Sparrow’s love song, ‘Rose’ (Rose, you looking for blows), or Kitchener’s ‘Marjorie’s Flirtation’, whose refrain is ‘I going to beat you’.

These concepts have been strummed into our psyche.

It is the same with sexual offenders. A set of big hard-back men preying on little children; rapists and perverts of all kinds; and they spend barely a weekend in a jail cell if held. The news reports are full of these stories.

Just last week, a 52-year-old man was charged with raping his 14-year-old daughter; a 64-year-old with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. Years pass before trials begin. The victim has to live with this trauma without any semblance of closure; then comes the lightweight sentencing.

This culture that treats women as human chattel needs to be crushed from early childhood. Laws do not provide protection; we—all of us—must act in self-defence.

Photo: Must a significant portion of our women live in fear?
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About Vaneisa Baksh

Vaneisa Baksh
Vaneisa Baksh is a columnist with the Trinidad Express, an editor and a cricket historian. She is currently working on a biography of Sir Frank Worrell.

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