Recently in America, a well-paid, famous football player was suspended and banned from the National Football League (which is the equivalent of the PCB for our cricket) after footage was released of him punching his then-fiancée in the face, knocking her unconscious. His fiancée went on to marry him, and this video is old, and yet the company that employs Ray Rice fired him immediately. It’s a response to be envious of, an organization being so emphatic in its refusal to allow this kind of behaviour from its employees, no matter when it happened. The other, less inspiring response to the Ray Rice scandal is the victim-blaming being heaped on his wife, Janay. People are scornful and derisive in their opinions, the gist of which is why did she marry him if he was so rotten, and if she won’t leave him then she deserves to be abused.

It seems ludicrous, but social ideas about domestic abuse are varied and most often judgmental. To an outsider it seems so obvious: if someone hits you, or abuses you in any other way, you up and leave. Simple. Only anyone who has ever been the victim of abuse, or knows someone who is, will realize how complicated it is to address abuse. The problems are similar across societies and cultures. Domestic abuse is seen as a private affair, and often authorities like the police are loath to get involved with what they think is none of their business. Often the nature of abuse is one that is hard to explain, like verbal, emotional or even financial abuse. Telling a police officer or social worker that your parent routinely humiliates you in front of other people or your partner won’t let you work is hard to do. People think you’re fussing, and making a big deal out of nothing. Sadly, even concrete, obvious abuse, even if noticed, goes unremarked, which isn’t just cruel, but dangerous as well- hundreds of people die at the hands of their abusers each year.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s statistics alone show that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced violence from their partner in America. Pakistani statistics are hard to find, largely because the bulk of domestic abuse is not registered, and when they are, the police tend to disregard them and more often than not fail to lodge an FIR. One is told to go home and work it out. What is most frightening is that a significant majority of women in Pakistan think that a certain level of everyday violence- a slap, kick or shove- is ordinary; that this is how all marriages are. Women all over the world are routinely made to think that they deserve their abuse, that they must have done something to trigger it, that it’s their fault. That their abuser apologising means they will change. That it only happened once- statistics show that if abuse happens once, there is a 44% chance that it will happen again.

Janay Rice has defended her husband’s suspension from the NFL and one can well wonder why. But one brave woman, writer Becky Gooden, started the Twitter thread #whyistayed, chronicling her own experiences with domestic violence. The topic has been trending furiously since, becoming a movement in its own right with scores of women speaking up about their lives. What makes #whyistayed so poignant is the way it exposes the deep psychological hurt we inflict on what seems to be mostly women, who are told repeatedly by religious mentors, the police, their own families and friends that leaving is bad. That if only you were more intelligent you could ‘handle’ the situation better. What we never talk about is how abuse is the abuser’s fault. There is no amount of ‘handling’ one can employ to prevent it. That the victims are precisely that: the victims. They are suffering at the hands of someone who is manipulating them with money, with their feelings, with guilt, with anything at hand. Some women writing at the hashtag reported how their partner killed their dog and threatened that they would be next. Statistically, women who try to leave abusive relationships have a 75% chance of being killed before they can. Men won’t let their wives work or give them enough money to be able to save- that constitutes financial abuse.

Abuse takes all kinds of insidious forms, and as a society we do our best to clamp a lid onto it so we don’t have to deal with it. We ignore our cook’s black eye. We pretend not to hear when the neighbours are screaming. We don’t tell our stories to each other because we don’t want to air our dirty laundry in front of other people. But why doesn’t it occur to us that the thing we seek to hide is far worse? That we think it would be humiliating to confess being abused is proof of how twisted our social mentality has become. Being the perpetrator of violence isn’t condemned, being the victim is. You mock the people who stay in abusive relationships, wondering why they don’t leave, instead of holding the abuser responsible. It’s the same pattern that is used for nearly all instances of violence against women and men. Instead of teaching men not to rape, we blame the victim for somehow “asking for it”. Instead of making our public spaces safer, we tell our women not to go out at all. Instead of putting child molesters in jail for the rest of their lives we don’t listen to our children.

Family is valued all over the world, which is why we are so loath to acknowledge behaviour that threatens the existence of one. But the world is an increasingly violent and dangerous place. If you aren’t safe in your own home, then where else can you go? It is foolhardy to ignore the seriousness of domestic abuse, and the cycle of violence it perpetrates across generations, just because it might cause trouble. Domestic abuse is everyone’s problem. Your child’s best friend might be strangely bruised, or your colleague at work could have a split lip. Your own married child could mysteriously break an arm or nose ‘falling down the stairs’. The day we refuse to let violence keep happening is the day we break the cycle of harm and fear it creates. Victims live in fear every single day, and it is up to us to be brave for them.

    The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.