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December 7, 2023 - Comments Off on Breaking the Silence: Unraveling the Cycle of Emotional Abuse in Pakistani Society

Breaking the Silence: Unraveling the Cycle of Emotional Abuse in Pakistani Society

Anmol Irfan

“Bas Larka Thappad Nahin Marta Ho, Baqi Chal Jata Hai” (As Long As the Boy Doesn’t Hit Her, The Rest Is Okay). This is a sentence a now 28-year old baker Ayman Shahid* vividly remembers hearing over a decade ago when her family was discussing marriage culture and the potential divorce of someone in her extended family.  Fifteen then, she remembers feeling extremely uncomfortable hearing that line, but a quick glance from her mother told her she wasn’t to contradict that sentiment at that point. She shares that it’s one of the things  that has stayed with her throughout the last 13 years, and has shaped many of the conversations she’s had about gender justice since.

“I think subconsciously, that one sentence ended up shaping the relationships I chose to be in, both in good ways and bad,” shares Ayman* adding, “I knew that something was wrong with that statement, but because I was never taught what, I could never put a name to things in my relationships that made me uncomfortable.”

While Ayman still describes herself as being lucky enough not to be in any serious physical or emotional harm through her relationships, she says that her childhood shaped her to stay in situations where she felt uncomfortable. Mostly because she’d never been taught enough about healthy relationships to understand what an unhealthy one meant and never knew anyone who had complained. In fact, instead of being able to find help in online spaces, she once recalls scrolling through an online women’s group reading personal experiences women had shared of emotional control and abuse they faced in different areas of their lives. While initially she started wondering if she could also speak about her own experiences in a similar way, the majority of comments, which were advising the posters to have ‘sabr’ (patience) and think of people in worse situations than them, made Ayman change her mind. “It made me think if people are dealing with things so much worse than me, then I should be thankful and not complain,” she says, adding, “It’s only now I realise that things could’ve gotten so much worse and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything because I didn’t know how to help myself at that point.”

That one statement that shaped the 28-year-old baker’s romantic relationships is commonly heard across Pakistani society. Such comments are often peppered with similar beliefs along the lines of how young people these days are not as resilient anymore and that they give up on relationships too easily. Or even that ideas of mental health and abuse are ‘westernised.” For all the progress we think we’ve made, most Pakistanis will still reject the idea of emotional abuse being a real problem in all kinds of relationships in our society. Even for those who are well-meaning and do recognise emotional abuse as a major issue that people can be a victim to, that acceptance isn’t enough. That’s because while we may acknowledge that emotional abuse is a form of abuse, we are so conditioned into accepting so many ways in which emotional abuse takes place that even as we acknowledge its existence, we are unable to see it happening around us.

Emotional abuse can occur in many different forms and can be part of or linked with financial, spiritual and even physical abuse. Psychologist Nayab Chaudhry, who’s recently been seeing clients dealing with issues around abuse in parent-child relationships, marriages and in the workplace, says that the same people who will acknowledge physical abuse won’t do the same with emotional abuse because the latter doesn’t leave a visible mark.

Linking it to how society views mental health, Nayab says, “In the case of bipolar disorder, it’s only when there's a manic episode, and until and unless someone picks up a brick and hits someone, and other people feel they are in danger, that it becomes an illness that gets acknowledged. In that same bipolar disorder, the depressive episode doesn’t get acknowledged because it’s not seen as harming someone else,” while adding that as a society, we often ignore what people are going through until that harm spills over to us.

Even as we have started talking about abuse, we are still limited in our understanding of it in two ways: one, as Nayab points out, that abuse needs to leave a physical mark to be called out as abuse, and secondly that it only happens as part of intimate partner relationships. Instead, she wants to draw attention to the fact that for most people in our society, their cyclical relationship with emotional abuse begins in early childhood.

These stereotypes around emotional abuse only being linked to intimate partner relationships are also furthered by what we see online. A Google search on emotional abuse links to multiple pieces on domestic violence in relationships but very little about the emotional abuse that children grow up with. Zohra Ahmed, a human rights lawyer and founder of The Jugnu Project, an organisation that helps survivors of domestic violence, say, “You can’t just look at a person and ask why they’re choosing to stay with an abusive partner; those behaviours are created in childhood.” She further elaborates that as a society, we tend to see a lot of control in desi families, and what that does from a very young age is tell children that “their “no” does not have value.”

As a society, what we often characterise as “discipline”, “respect”, or even “tradition” in raising children turns into taking away children’s autonomy and, in many cases, can lead to or even justify abuse. It also creates long-lasting cycles of abuse that become very difficult to break, which are then furthered by the social conditioning that leads us to believe that we shouldn’t intervene and help survivors because “kisi ke ghar ka mamla hai (it is their private matter).”

“We live in a collectivist culture where we are always taught to think about the family first.  When it comes to any choice we are making, we have to think about the group first, and our parents also think the same way,” says Nayab. She adds that learning to give up your boundaries in favour of the “collective” from an early age leads to issues in adulthood on when and if to set boundaries when to remove yourself from uncomfortable situations and how to identify harmful behaviours both from others and from yourself as many people end up continuing abusive cycles.

Psychotherapist and Clinical Trauma Specialist Maliha Saya, says oftentimes abusive partners - who can form narcissistic personalities - are projecting their own trauma onto their partners and end up being part of the cycle of emotional abuse. She connects this with the result of not being taught how to deal with our emotions. “We’re not taught to deal with anger or how to express it, so we learn how to scream and yell,” she says.

It’s not just about anger. “Even in happiness, we’re not allowed to express that. For example, if I, as a girl, get into a good university, I’m not supposed to be happy about it and just put it on luck or downplay it. I can’t acknowledge my achievements,” Maliha adds.

The same control people have lived under their whole lives becomes justified in their heads, and they then use it against those whom they have power over when they are finally in that position. And while an abuser has no gender, coming into adulthood, there is a gendered aspect to emotional abuse in Pakistan, especially in the way women are expected to deal with it.

“When your daughter comes to you telling you she’s in a bad situation, you tell her not to cry and to have ‘sabr’. Not only do you take away that emotion of crying, but you also tell your daughter she can’t stand up for herself,” Maliha says of how women are always taught ‘adjust’ and to compromise, which makes them more vulnerable to becoming victims of abuse, because in some way they’ve been told it's okay.

This control directed specifically at women can come in many forms. It can look like everything from policing their actions, both physically and online, to controlling what they wear, to even being degraded or put down for a skill.

“As a woman, ever since childhood, you’re told to always stay in control because you can’t have a reputational black stain or you’re done. You’re taught to feel like a possession that's passed on from one family to the next,” Zohra says, adding that she’s seen - in many of the survivors she has worked with - how emotional abuse is the first step in increasing abuse in a relationship and even leads to physical abuse.

Isolation is also a key tactic in emotional abuse. It’s common for abusers to express anger at their victims being part of safe spaces online, and in our society, we’ve seen a very common trend of men, in particular, creating noise around how spaces like Soul Sisters Pakistan are harmful and that they ‘ruin good women.’ Lack of education and digital literacy and inaccessibility for many women also further increase their vulnerability as they become dependent on fathers, brothers and husbands to navigate online spaces which restricts them more instead of giving them the freedom to find help.

One frequent element is isolation, where they isolate survivors or victims from people they can confide in, and in most cases, this is very hard to note because the abuser will say these people aren’t your well-wishers,  but once you start talking to someone, you realise there’s more signs, so if someone is isolating you posing themselves as your protector question them, talk to people, don't question yourself,” says Nayab.

“Another emotional abuse tactic is conditional love, where you are teaching them that if you do what they can to please you, they’ll get positive reinforcement,” Ahmed adds, saying this will turn these children into adults who will easily bend over to control because they only know how to please others in relationships and not themselves.

But if recognising abuse is hard, helping a survivor get out of it or getting the help you need can be even harder. It’s easy to think that with such a digital world, you can reach out to a therapist online or find a safe space. But that’s easier said than done. In fact, digital conversations or even reaching out to someone you may think is in danger can be risky because abusers will often spy on or control the digital movements of the person they are abusing. This can also be through spying, in which case the victim doesn’t even know it’s happening, which can add more psychological pressure.

In the long term, both Maliha  and Nayab recommend changing the way we raise children and how we teach them to navigate emotions. “We need to focus on building children’s EQ as much as we do their IQ,” Saya says.

In the shorter run, breaking the cycle of abuse can be a lot trickier. The legal route is possible, but with women in Pakistan often not being financially independent, both legal help and therapy can become inaccessible. This is made worse by the biases present even with legal and medical professionals.

To help navigate these biases, Nayab suggests, “Take this topic up as a phenomenon, to check how someone responds, without giving personal details, to gauge whether they’d respond well and be empathetic.”

That’s one of the reasons why the Jugnu Project - along with giving survivors access to mental health treatment - also helps those who need it set up businesses so that they can achieve financial independence and free themselves of the situations they are stuck in. It’s also important to find the right kind of help, and looking at an expert’s credentials and experience with survivors can be key. But short term solutions will only go so far until we change our mindset as a society as a whole.

“We don't give our children or adults a shot at becoming whole, and it takes a lifetime to understand that trauma, and by that time, we’ve already passed it onto the next generation,” Zohra says.

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine

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