Shona Robison MSP, Minister with Responsibility for Equalities, recently stressed the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to preventing domestic abuse and to challenging public attitudes. She was clear that, ‘There is never an excuse for abuse’ and firmly blamed the perpetrators not women and children. Her party’s vision is for a Scotland where women have ‘genuine equality, free from violence and abuse’, that now was a ‘time for reflection’ and that ‘Ministers will listen’.
Sheriff Mackie’s recent judgement in the case of Bill Walker, a former SNP MSP, reveals how far Scotland has come in dealing with domestic abuse but also how much more careful listening is needed by everyone. Mackie’s written judgement provides a timely opportunity for reflection.
Walker was convicted of 24 criminal charges – of physical acts of violence and threats. 24! Mackie acknowledged, ‘There was evidence showing the accused to be controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling towards the three complainers, his former wives.’ However she went on, ‘Whether I accepted that evidence and however abhorrent, unacceptable and abusive such behaviour might be it does not amount to a criminal offence.’ So what then can be done about such men?
With Scottish domestic abuse prevalence rates of around one in three women, almost 60,000 incidents reported annually, and Glasgow’s domestic abuse courts stretched to their limit, it is very likely that we personally know of an abusive intimate relationship. What do we do? Do we do what the SNP did at candidate selection time? Nothing? Walker had not then been charged with or convicted of any offence, allegations of his abusive behaviour presented no apparent barrier to his ambitions for public office…end of. His ex-wives begged to differ.
If you learned that a friend was abusing his partner, what would you do? As a society we have traditionally been passive bystanders with non-intervention justified by statements like ‘what goes on between couples is their business…she made her bed…’. The long reach of the Victorian oversimplification of men and women inhabiting public and private spheres respectively may still be partly to blame. Intimate relationships remains a key site of 21st century Scottish women’s subordination due to the attitudes of perpetrators and to a society still largely standing back. Doing nothing or minimizing abuse is tantamount to collusion as the Catholic Church, the Benedictine Order and the BBC are discovering. Listening to those experiencing abuse is best.
Observe also Sherriff Mackie’s puzzlement, ‘…why a woman stays in or returns to an abusive relationship is a complex issue not easily understood by the rational observer.’ Complex? Yes. Hard to understand? No. Such victim blaming is common. Again, years of empirical research show that women, quite simply, are too frightened to leave. Staying put is often the safest option when living with such a ‘controlling, domineering, demeaning and belittling’ person who is given to regularly assaulting his family – remember those 24 assault convictions? Women live like hostages in such relationships. Many women in Scotland are killed by a current or former partner around the time of separation – staying put is therefore a perfectly rational choice. In spite of finding the complainers’ choices hard to understand however, the ever rational Mackie did find the women’s evidence credible, they were believed. Thank goodness.
Domestic abuse is a public matter. Walker’s ‘non-criminal behaviour’ controlled his wives by frightening them. Many women live with such fear 24/7, it follows them when they go out to work or education, into personal and social relationships; it restricts their freedom to socialize or pursue their creative interests. Men like Walker are thirled to an outmoded view of women’s role in relationships and in society and have an exaggerated, narcissistic sense of their own entitlement. Dominated as they are by oppressive domestic regimes, many Scottish women are not free citizens. Such liberty restrictions also deny women full equality in a democratic society. The personal is political, the private is public.
So here’s to you Ms. Robison, to your party, to your Government’s vision for women’s equality in Scotland and to changing public attitudes. Domestic abuse is not happening way over there, to those people, in those communities. It is happening in plain sight, supported by outmoded attitudes and expectations which restrict women’s freedom. Scotland should be proud of her internationally recognised approach to tackling domestic abuse. However, we could all, SNP workers and members included, usefully reflect on our personal attitudes and values. As we race towards the independence referendum, domestic abuse should be recognised as an important political issue for democracy. Such abuse is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality. If asked, any rational person would likely agree that domestic abuse is a terrible thing and ask what can be done. When it is suggested that we might begin by taking a close look at how we, as men and women, treat each other in daily life, chances are they may fall silent and walk away muttering, ‘that’s none of your business.’