The recent pictures that undoubtedly appear to show Nigella Lawson being physically assaulted by her husband in public are shocking and outrageous. What is even more outrageous is the fact that no-one intervened. Had she had her handbag stolen you can rest assured that many of the on-lookers would have gone to her aid to prevent it happening and pursued the thief. Had she been assaulted by a passer by; again someone would have helped.
So why then do people treat domestic abuse differently? I believe that it is society’s dismissive attitude towards domestic violence, even when committed in public, that allows it to infect our communities and that this same attitude is translated into poor police investigations and inadequate sentencing. The answer? Blame.
Society points its judgemental finger at victims of domestic abuse, apportioning blame with the victim. A similar attitude is also often present in cases of rape. ‘She must have done something to deserve it? Why doesn’t she leave him? She must like it.’
We don’t do this with other crimes. We don’t blame people for flaunting their phones, jewellery or handbags in public and say that they were asking for it when they are stolen. We treat the offence as a crime, concentrate on bringing the offender to justice and rarely give a second thought to what kind of person the victim is.
Even with photographs showing Charles Saatchi clearly gripping Nigella Lawson by the throat several times, pulling her nose and her looking frightened and tearful many commentators and members of the public are still not able to describe what happened as a crime so it is hardly surprising that no-one saw fit to intervene.
Several newspapers described it as ‘an alleged attack’ which in the face of the evidence of the photographs suggests that they believe that domestic violence isn’t an attack or a crime but “just a domestic.” A journalist on Radio 2 claimed that he wouldn’t class it as a crime and said that it was wrong to intervene in such circumstances as ‘you don’t know the background or what has happened before.’
In my view this translates as – domestic abuse is acceptable and she may have deserved it.
Another commented that Saatchi could have ‘been checking her throat for cancer’! I’m unclear as to why the commentator felt that checking for cancer may also require Saatchi to drag her nose and argue in an aggressive manner but I may be missing something.
The most ridiculous explanation however came from Saatchi himself who described it as ‘a playful tiff’. To anyone working in domestic abuse this denial and minimisation is very common and a known risk factor in assessing risk from the perpetrator. If Saatchi is prepared to do that in public then I do wonder what on earth he does when he’s actually angry and behind closed doors. Domestic abuse incidents are rarely one-offs.
This episode should raise public awareness of the fact that domestic abuse is not just confined to council estates. It permeates every section of society. In my experience I have found that it tends to be middle class women who are the least likely to report it to the police or other agencies due to feelings of shame and heavier financial consequences (albeit temporary) if they separate. I have acted for the wives of all kinds of professionals – doctors, lawyers, magistrates, accountants, police and even clergy, many of the victims being professional women in their own right.
If a woman with independent wealth, power and intelligence can be a victim then we all can. Domestic abuse is the most insidious of all crimes and women often don’t realise that they are experiencing it until its too late and their confidence is battered, they feel frightened and intimidated and don’t feel able to get out of it.
It is then the victim rather than the perpetrator who is once again judged and blamed by society. If I had a pound for every time someone asked me ‘why don’t they leave?’ I would have retired and made a large donation to Women’s Aid. Instead of asking why doesn’t she leave, we should be asking – why is he violent to her? Why is he being aggressive? Why isn’t he being prosecuted? Why hasn’t he received a proportionate sentence from the courts?
Until blame is removed from victims and laid firmly at the door of perpetrators society will continue to turn a blind eye to domestic abuse even if the victim is Nigella Lawson.
Rachel Horman: Feminist legal blog by family legal aid lawyer of the year Rachel Horman. Mainly domestic abuse /forced marriage and violence against women. Sometimes ranty but always right…..