Sunday, November 20, 2005

VIOLENCE:decade to overcome:Essay on domestic violence..

"Building a Culture of Peace 2001-2010", an initiative of the UN and the World Council of Churches.

Overcoming domestic violence in multicultural Australia.
OR: "SHALOM BAYIT"(Hebrew): peace in the home.


People, cultures and generations who cannot control violence at home cannot successfully promote peace outside.

The current Australian Federal Government's educational campaign "Australia says no to violence against women" is both timely and long overdue. Obviously it is designed to meet a need in the Australian community because the incidence of violence against women has become a serious national concern. Domestic violence is not a new problem in society. It has been of concern to community leaders since biblical times and strategies to counteract it have been devised by the sages of the day. One of these is the concept of "peace in the home" ("shalom bayit" in Hebrew).

As the nationally government distributed pamphlet ( July 2004) explains, fifty-eight percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, but only about twenty percent of all assaults are reported to police. This percentage is even lower among members of ethnic and immigrant communities ( Inst. of Family Studies: ACSSA, Issues #1) who quote studies by Easteal (1996) and Thompson (1999) in which "a resounding theme across stories of immigrant women in Australia is the sense of deep isolation they feel at having so few options that they can rely on or trust for support."

Domestic violence in ethnic communities, (using the Jewish community as an example).
Persuading women in general to admit to their suffering at the hands of their spouses has always been and still is a problem to this day and in all ethnic minorities in particular. For example, researchers also have highlighted the relationship between “women's reluctance to report to police and their fears of being treated unsympathetically" (Lievore 2002; 2003), but for migrant women in particular, it is even more difficult. As ACSSA states, studies (in the USA) suggest that recently arrived immigrant women feel the isolation from family and community and from their country of origin, coupled with issues around language proficiency and immigrant status, further "significantly block any pathways immigrant women may contemplate in gaining support (Ho 1990; Sorenson and Telles, 1991)" for reporting male partner sexual abuse.

Australian ethnic communities in general are divided according to one or more shared criteria, namely: religious denominations, countries of origin, language, cultural traditions,- all under the umbrella of "multiculturalism". These may be indigenous, or first and second generation immigrants, or descendants of the 18th Century Anglo/Celtic settlers in Australia. Once organised into a "community", the ethnic group will build various institutions to cater for the needs of its members. However there needs to be a critical mass of people belonging to a community before such institutions can evolve. Hence there are any number of religious edifices such as churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to cater for many denominations and ethnic demographics in all population centres around Australia. Each community, once established, will often set up ethno-specific schools, self-help welfare organizations, 'old-age' facilities, social and cultural organizations,- in short, everything that makes up a "community" sharing some common traditions and traits.

The Australian Jewish communities in each city are no different in this respect. They are usually comprised of most of the above and therefore are themselves multicultural. Welfare services however are handled overall and for everyone who requires them within a Jewish environment. With travel restrictions due to observances of the Sabbath and specific food prohibitions, this faith community will build its particular institutions wherever the people choose to reside in significant numbers. It is not a matter of the overall percentage of the Australian population,( Jews comprise only 0.5% of the Australian population) not even the percentage of a city or State's population, but rather the particular suburban concentrations within a city that makes each ethnic community have an impact on the local demographics. This makes for close-knit communities in which privacy is at a premium.

The role of women in families in each of the 160 or so recognisable ethnic communities in Australia, varies greatly according to culture and tradition. Although everyone must adhere to Australian laws, the treatment of individuals within families is left mostly to the cultural identity, tradition and values of the individual family. Our Australian educational institutions as well as the various religious ones it is hoped, inculcate in our youth the right values of respect for the individual in families as well as in society.

Yet domestic violence is being recognised as an unacceptable, but prevalent form of abuse within many Australian families. In the Jewish communities, as in many other close-knit faith communities, it becomes even more problematic for women to admit to partner violence. As the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia's manual "STOP, Strategies to prevent Domestic Violence", 2002,-
(a publication printed with the assistance of a Commonwealth Government. grant "the prevailing assumption is that violence does not exist in Jewish families. For years, it has been accepted that a Jewish husband would not harm his wife or children. With those beliefs in place, domestic violence in the Jewish community has remained a secret." ( This would be an assumption held also in many other faith communities in Australia.

The reality is that domestic violence does happen in Jewish families as in many other individual family situations of all faiths in Australia. What is different about domestic violence among Jewish families, as among most minorities in our country, it is that these women may hesitate longer to ask for help, unless there are ethno-specific and discreet means of accessing assistance.

Why does violence occur in Jewish families is a question with which the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia,- a social welfare women's organization established across Australia since 1923,- has been grappling for many decades. After all, the Jewish religious customs and laws are particularly strong in favouring, even honouring the role of women in the home and family. But perhaps as a result of this, many Jewish women feel a heavy responsibility for "shalom bayit", - peace in the home. They feel as though they have sole responsibility for keeping the peace and promoting love, caring, nurturing and understanding within the family. If women cannot fulfil this role because of an abusive relationship, they may feel inadequate and may not admit to violence. (NCJWA." The Jewish Women's Handbook" 2001-2002). Again, this may be a common feature shared by women of other close-knit faith communities and Government strategies designed to address the issue of domestic violence need to take this problem into account and new methods applied.

War, emigration, displacement and refugee-life, the Holocaust by the Nazis, immigration into a strange new land and the start of a new life are all the experiences of many in the Australian Jewish community. Other immigrant communities fleeing from overseas conflicts may have experienced similar traumas. The stresses on families under these conditions become enormous and can lead to loss of self-control in individuals. Other immigrant communities have similar experiences and therefore may share similar problems.

Rape in marriage is another area which may not be recognised by women in general and Jewish (and other ethnic) women in particular as falling under the realm of "domestic violence", punishable by law. As reported by ACSSA, "the testimonies of migrant (i.e. ethnic!) women further attest to the range of cultural pressures that narrow the scope through which women will feel able to interpret their partner's/husband's abuse as rape. "I thought he had the right to do that……I thought that as I married him it can't be rape." (cited in Easteal 1996; 160.) This too needs to be addressed sensitively in the ethnic communities through general education. (The reverse is also true for males,- they may not touch a female from their own community outside marriage, but may feel no inhibition to even rape a female outside of their own ethnic group!)

The tradition of "Shalom Bayit".

It is important for the Australian multicultural society to compare and study the strategies used by the various ethnic communities to combat domestic violence. Do they admit it exists or sweep it under the carpet ? This is one of the major questions which needs to be answered before the problem can be tackled across the board.

In the Jewish tradition for example, because it recognised the importance of the family unit in the transmission of traditional values from biblical times, many rabbinic regulations are stated to have been made in order to promote "shalom bayit" and to protect the family unit from disintegration. (However it must be remembered that where irreconcilable differences exist, divorce or "get" has always been an option for both men and women within Jewish laws and customs.)

For example, we read : "where there is peace between husband and wife, the Divine Presence dwells among them" (Sotah 17a). In addition, many customs which promote peace in the home environment have evolved, particularly around the observances of the Sabbath. One of the most important traditions centres on the kindling of the Sabbath candles by the women of the home, on the eve of the Sabbath at sundown on Friday evening,-as well as on the eve of a number of other important religious festivals (such as the Passover, New Year, Day of Atonement, and so on).Together with a festive meal, a warm atmosphere is meant to suffuse the family on the eve of the day of rest, of prayer, relaxation and in spiritual contemplation.

The meaning of "shalom" or peace in the context of the family.

Analysing each of the two words brings the phrase peace in the home or "shalom bayit" into sharper perspective and makes it more meaningful. The thesaurus describes 'peace' as meaning any of the following: absence of war; absence of conflict; a truce; a calm, quiet environment; amity; friendship (between people); harmony; tranquillity.

Within the context of family relationships, it is inconceivable that there will be no stress or conflicts of some kind at various times in life. Resolving conflicts amicably and coping with the stresses and strains of life is part of the secret of successful family relationships in which "shalom bayit" can prevail.

So far the word love has not entered the equation. Interestingly, in the book "Weddings and Wives" (Penguin, 1994), where some twenty-seven writers put their thoughts on this topic, Dale Spender, the editor states: "what does emerge from these accounts is that women are not very sentimental these days about being spouses. In 27 contributions and 416 pages the word love barely rates a mention. And extraordinary as it may seem, only one contributor has anything positive to say about the mutual support and companionship of marriage." While the contributors to her book may represent a rather specific group of women, however Spender also found that "wives are not what they used to be is the conclusion of most of the contributors to this volume.- For some of the younger authors wifedom has never been a necessity – just an option – and not a permanent one either."

While these may seem extreme examples of modern Australian women, the number of one-head-of-household families has risen dramatically in the last two decades according to recent statistics, which is testimony of this new reality! According to the Institute of Family Studies' recently published (2004) research papers by David de Vaus, "Diversity and Change in Australian families: Statistical profiles": couple families with dependent children (i.e. younger generation) now form a minority of households, families and couple families represent a declining percentage of families (a 20% decline between 1976 and 2001). In addition, lone parent families, including those with dependent children, are becoming more common (7.1% in '69 and 22.3% in 2003 of families with dependent children). " The reality today seems to be that couples donnot remain together when there is a breakdown in personal relationships.

"Bayit": house or home?
The biggest cause of conflict appears to be over money. Or,- is it about how to allocate the financial resources of the family? Much of today's conflicts arising in families seems to centre also on the area of "home duties", - or in fact housekeeping, - and whose responsibility this is when both partners have to work away from home. "Keeping-house" as it was traditionally known, or the term "housewife", is not the applicable terminology to today's marriage-partners. One must not confuse "housekeeper" with the role of a wife or partner and/or mother, grandmother. A housekeeper is different to a "home-maker" and a "house" is different to a "home"!

Can the family afford to allocate some money for home-help as well as day-care for the children when the woman has to work outside the home?
Just as in Dale Spender's book where all her contributors seemed to refuse to be "wives", what they were really refusing was the role of "housekeepers"! The modern new-age male partner has to accept the fact that maintaining the house is like any business partnership: you pull your weight or pay for outside help,- (if one can afford it. In fact, I have always maintained that the Government should accept such expenses as legitimate joint-income expenses for taxation purposes).The expectation that it is only the wife's duty to "keep house" is no longer acceptable to the independent wife of today , particularly if she is also a "working wife".

Once this source of conflict would be removed, - with its resultant pent-up resentment, - it seems that one would remove many of the conflicts in modern marriages. However, creating the "home environment" is probably still in the realm of female sensitivity and responsibility. The role of the male who is educated in the Jewish-traditions for example, has his role within the family unit also proscribed by custom and tradition,- all aimed at keeping the peace in his home and family. If all males would be so inculcated at school with the notion of shared responsibility at home, then those good traditional values would be reinforced within all the various ethnic communities as well.

Conclusions: inculcating values of "peace" in the family at an early age may prevent domestic violence later on.

Given all the traditions and customs devoted to keeping the peace in the Jewish family, why are there still incidences of family violence in the Australian Jewish community? This occurs probably for the same reasons that it exists in the wider general community. Religion is simply not enough, unless it is also reinforced by the secular society. The NCJWA "STOP" domestic violence kit (and in its 2002 Handbook), in the chapter entitled "The dilemma of the battered Jewish woman", states that " In some cases, women have been ostracized by a close knit community, where both may be well-known, for coming forward. The widespread belief that Jewish men are passive and incapable of violence also contributes to the silence about domestic violence. With these powerful myths in place, it is no surprise that Jewish women are reluctant to come forward with stories of abuse."

Most minority communities in Australia would experience the same lack of reporting by their victims of domestic violence. The spiritual leaders of a community, -for Jews, the Rabbi, - is often the first port-of-call when a woman seeks assistance. This person of authority in the faith community should be able to influence the male perpetrator of abuse towards his wife/partner and/or family. However, too often the anecdotal evidence once again points to the unwillingness of these spiritual leaders to get involved on the side of the women (or the children!). The patriarchal structure of organised religion usually means that the religious leaders side with the males and send the women home with the admonition not to "incite their partners" and in the case of Jews, for the sake of "shalom bayit". Anecdotal evidence suggests that in cases where the husband may be also influential in the community, the religious leader to whom the woman would go for advice would simply be too intimidated to interfere.

Fortunately there are now ethno- specific domestic-violence support groups for these women in most communities in Australia and widely advertised. Other ethnic communities may provide the same service, while the wide publicity given to this issue by the government and the media in 2004, has prompted much more enlightened approaches by all rabbis and other clergy in Australia today.

Violence in the home where children are growing up must lead inevitably to a violent future society in general. The "macho male", explicit sex and images of violence in society, so beloved by the advertising and film industry and the "red-blooded Aussie male" constantly glorified in the media is not conducive to creating the kind of role models who command respect and civility in all male-female relationships among young people.

Training of religious leaders in counselling and referral for victims of domestic violence in their community is another area which the rabbinic community at least, has now taken on board in many of the Jewish denominations. Whether the violence perpetrated by individuals is pathological due to mental illness or dietary causes, such as allergies or abuse of alcohol or other drugs, or whether it is induced by insurmountable environmental conditions which are outside of anyone's control, - children must be and feel protected from it. NCJW in its submission to the Victorian Government Inquiry into Domestic Violence in 1988, recommended that the violent partner should be the one to be removed from the family home and wherever possible, not to uproot the children in order to escape from a violent parent. This was subsequently incorporated into the Victorian legislation that year.

The institution of marriage in general seems to be under threat today although most young women would still romanticise about the wedding (hence the numerous magazines devoted to this topic!)! As the study "Diversity and Change in Australian Families: Statistical profiles, 2004" states: "25% of households consist of a person living alone and almost one in ten people live on their own. Levels of living alone are increasing and the rate of growth is much more marked amongst younger than older age groups. Cohabitation is becoming a more common form of partnering".

Whatever the reason may be for this, for most modern women , staying in an abusive relationship is no longer a necessity. As Dale Spender concludes to her introduction to "Weddings and Wives", the stories in her book record the changing ways of weddings (and marriages) and wives,-from biblical times to the new age. "It is a testimony of the distance (some) women have travelled towards self-realisation. It is a victory even if there are still battles to be won."

One of the battles our Australian society still has to win is to "say no to domestic violence", - or any violence against women, children or towards anyone who is vulnerable. Possibly the men still have a distance to travel to catch up with the wives of today, but they must be taught from a very early age that violence is not the means to resolve personal, or even inter-communal or international conflicts. No matter how well-meaning the traditions some communities may follow or have followed in the past, there needs to be a reinforcement from the government and general secular society as well. When the Australian multicultural community will embrace universally the biblical injunction of 'peace in the home', - for the sake of our children and future generations ,- then we may have a hope of eradicating violence in the world. The physical and mental health of a nation depends on it. Peace in the world must start at and in, the home.
(MM. "miriamdownunder" Melbourne, Australia, November 2005.)

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