High Heels from Istanbul

In a touching memorial to female victims of domestic violence recently unveiled in Istanbul, the Turkish artist Vahit Tuna attached 440 pairs of women’s high-heeled shoes to two walls. This is the number of women killed by their partners in the past year alone. A memorial such as this would be very fitting indeed for Russia, where thousands of women die every year at the hands of their (former) partners. At a time when women are so defenseless, Putin’s statements that “Russian women are the best” appear particularly cynical. After all, there are over 16 million victims of domestic violence in Russia—and that’s only according to official statistics.

I would advise any artist wishing to organize such an installation in Russia to place the high heels next to the entrance to the State Duma and within its building—in stairwells, hallways, and offices—to show deputies the results of their failure to take action. Because the fact is that parliament is not even considering a domestic violence law. Experts from the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial recently participated in a discussion about gender discrimination at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting held by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, where they talked about the judgments of international courts that have recognized violence against women in Russia as discrimination, including the recent ECtHR judgment in the case of Volodina v. Russia. They noted in particular that Russia does not have a comprehensive domestic violence law and also focused on the position of a UN committee, which pointed out that complaints about domestic violence are still considered “private charges,” which is to say, a personal dispute between a victim and an abuser.

High heels should also be arranged near the police stations whose officers failed to respond to the cries for help from domestic violence victims. The blood and deaths of these women are also on them.

Sometimes its seems, deceptively, that adding the adjective “domestic” to the noun “violence” softens this violence and makes it less serious. In a Levada Center publication, researchers looked at the results of a study on what Russians think about domestic violence. Predictably, men were more indifferent: They are more likely than women to believe that domestic violence is something of a squabble between spouses (this isn’t surprising—just look at the comments on any article about violence against women). This seems logical at first glance: men are far removed from women’s experiences, they don’t feel the pain of domestic violence as frequently, they are impassive to the sufferings of women, and, of course, they need to justify their behavior somehow. But the truth is that everyone suffers in this situation.

Domestic violence and femicide are the overall results of the customary division of social power, where men view women as their property. There’s no question that women are more frequent victims of domestic violence, but everyone is the victim of toxic masculinity. Is a man who cannot express his emotions in human terms without displaying aggression really happy? Is a man who uses alcohol to manage his emotions really happy? Is a man living with constant disputes really happy? And is a man who bullies his wife, attacks her with his fists, or launches heavy objects at her really happy? If no one is happy, then why isn’t society changing? Because it is accustomed to this routine?

Everyone knows about the case of the Khachaturyan sisters. All my sympathies lie with these young women, who were victimized by their terror of a father and forced to take the extreme measure of murdering their abuser for their own self-protection. But, in the end, the father was also a victim of this situation; he became the executioner not just of his daughters, but also of himself.

The Levada Center study showed a difference in perception not just between men and women, but also between generations. Older people generally do not view verbal threats of physical violence (like “I’ll kill you), constant humiliation and criticism (“bad wife,” “good-for-nothing husband), or loud disputes, scandals, and fights as violence. My grandmother once told me about how lucky her friend was: when her husband was younger, he drank a lot, treated her badly, and thought that, as head of the family, he could act like a domestic tyrant, but then he mellowed out as he grew older… Now, however, more and more people are starting to realize that constant screaming and humiliation cannot be part of a “healthy relationship” between partners. More and more people are starting to understand that a woman’s body belongs to her and that marriage does not deprive her of the right to make decisions: until recently, sexual violence in marriage was not considered rape, and even now 50 percent of people surveyed agree. It would be good to win over this half, which apparently views spouses as sex slaves and not partners.

The study also reflected changes in the conception of personal borders. There used to be one home phone for the entire family, but now family members each have their own phones and their own social media accounts. Twenty-one percent of people surveyed believed that demands to see text messages and online correspondence amount to violence. At first people think is that yes, of course, people who decide to live together retain their independent identities and have the right to their own lives. But then they think, well, what if I suspect my partner of deceiving me or cheating? Do I have the right to look at text messages, or is this already violence?

Responses to a survey question about blackmail or denial of money are also interesting. Financial dependence has long been thought to be the chief reason for women’s vulnerability. Having one’s own money signifies independence from a partner, “a safety net” in case a partner becomes a threat. Many generations of women have fought for the right to work and for an independent income. This problem has now been partially resolved: women are active in the labor market and most have financial resources, although these may not always be sufficient. But many women also stay home to manage the household and raise children. And while I can state unequivocally that blackmail involving daily matters (“I won’t give you money for the apartment, for food!”) is violence, I also know there are cases where the situation is not so clear. The market is still structured around the model of “the man is the breadwinner,” and men frequently earn more than women. Is a man required to share all his income with his spouse? Should the partner who earns money for the family accommodate all the wishes and needs of the other partner? Does one partner have the right to decide what the other does and does not need (in other words, does a man have the right to decide when to give or deny a woman money)? Who has the deciding voice in spending and why?

The survey’s questions about forms of non-physical violence are theoretical for many people who believe that even the worst violence is not obvious. Russia lacks any forms of protection for victims of the most terrible domestic violence crimes. If you fall into a cycle of violence, you will remain a victim without solid support from the people around you. You will either be abused and killed or forced to protect yourself at the risk of being jailed. There is a vital need for a domestic violence law protecting victims and not their abusers. If this law is adopted (which I truly hope will happen), the path to change will still be very long. Much will depend on police officers, who will take statements and decide how to respond to them; on social services, which will have to respond to the very first signs of violence; and on ordinary people, who will have to decide if they are going to take the victim’s side or remain silent and hold the victims themselves responsible for their tragedy. One-quarter of the Levada Center respondents did not consider serious beatings by a family member as violence. Over half did not believe that verbal threats of physical violence (“I’ll kill you!’ and so forth) constitute violence, and over 60 percent did not believe that forbidding communication with friends or relatives is violence. But the tragedies of domestic violence victims that we know of started exactly in these ways—the victims were not killed or severely wounded right away; instead, it all started with these little things. But only the police, social services, and society have ignored these first signs of terrible disaster.

Wouldn’t it be worthwhile for us to install high heels in our squares, in front of our cathedrals, and around our homes?

Patrycja Pompala – expert of the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda

Photo from the Instagram of @vahittuna, the Turkish artist Vahit Tuna