The public assault last week on Nigella Lawson by her husband Charles Saatchi shows how widespread is the malaise of male violence

Perhaps you have seen the shocking, upsetting, paparazzi photos of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson sitting in a restaurant with her husband Charles Saatchi, whose hand is forcefully closed around her neck. The incident has prompted huge public dialogue on the question of why such a successful, independent woman would put up with even a moment of such abuse.

It goes without saying that Saatchi’s assault of Nigella is no isolated incident. It is unusual only in that it occurred in a fancy restaurant and was captured by paparazzi. The World Health Organization has just released a report confirming that 35 per cent of women around the world have been raped or physically abused by a man; and 80 per cent of the time the abuse happens at the hand of a partner or spouse.

About this particular situation, this is what we know: Nigella and her husband apparently had an argument at an outdoor table of a posh London restaurant. Somewhere down the line, and on more than one occasion, his fingers ended up clenched around her neck. Photos posted of the incident sparked outrage across the Internet, leading her husband to dismiss the altercation as a mere “tiff.” Photos of a tearful and distraught Nigella suggested otherwise. So did the fact that she reportedly left home with her children the next day.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this was not the first incident of abuse. Why would someone — especially someone like her who is a celebrity writer, journalist and broadcaster — put up with even one such transgression? Having worked with battered women for decades, I can offer some reasons why: She may want a father for her kids. She may honestly love all his good qualities and hope against hope he will change. She may feel like it’s her fault. She may not have the courage to leave. She may be afraid, legitimately, that if she leaves, he will find her and kill her. Or hurt the kids. Or worse, succeed in taking them away from her.

I do not pretend to know what’s going on in this individual relationship, or to have the authority to psychoanalyse it. What I can do is cite the pervasive cultural attitudes that allow misogyny, gender inequity, and gender-based violence to exist and persist worldwide. Perhaps some would argue that we have, in fact, progressed in the discussion on domestic violence — at least no one is saying that she provoked him or that she deserved it. But by asking why she doesn’t leave, we are in fact continuing to blame the battered woman for the violence in her life. In this case, because she’s successful and financially independent, we are implying that it is still Nigella’s fault that she’s getting abused because she chooses to stay.

So while it’s understandable to ask, “Why does she stay with such a jerk?” those questions are also symptomatic of a culture that routinely excuses this type of violence and places the burden on the woman.

Instead, we really need to ask ourselves two far more important questions: Why was Saatchi choking his wife in the first place? And why didn’t anyone intervene? The key question must be why do men commit so much violence against women? And when they do, why does society continue to allow it?

For one thing, we don’t hear much about the many, many women who do leave, before anyone takes photos or they wind up in headlines or morgues. But, more to the point, we need to shift the question and the responsibility to the abuser in the equation. If we excuse and diminish the role of the abuser, we excuse and diminish his responsibility. We give a pass to him and, beyond that, to the limiting, damaging culture of masculinity — what it “means” to be a “man” — that devalues women and men and makes violence inevitable. That allows a Saatchi to dismiss a public assault on his wife as merely a “tiff.”

All of that said, in fact, this incident was not entirely excused. Thanks to the power of the Internet and social media, what happened to Nigella was not ignored. It did provoke a response. The response needs to expand and grow to move beyond simply what individual women in cases of domestic violence can and should do. It needs to be a conversation about what men should NOT do. Such as abuse women.

And most importantly, the response needs to snowball into a global dialogue about what we should all do — because it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we all pay the price for the current pandemic of violence against women. What’s urgently needed is a rethinking of masculinity and femininity beyond power and hierarchy so that we can move beyond the Nirbhayas and the Nigellas and truly build that imagined world of equality, dignity and peace.

(Mallika Dutt is the Founder-President of Breakthrough, a global human rights group that challenges violence against women through media and community mobilisation.)

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