We republish Maria Luca’s article in popaganda.gr on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a powerful testimony of a survivor of gender-based violence who received legal services from the Diotima Center.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I watched myself shrink and become useless. All he cared about was keeping me trapped, having someone in the palm of his arm, and lashing out.”
Anna is a young woman with big, beautiful eyes that mist and moistens when she relives the moments of horror she experienced because of her ex-husband. She had a hard time saying them and I had a hard time hearing them.
What if gender-based violence is the collective experience of femininities passed down from generation to generation, on the one hand, it is so normalized that it becomes undetectable, on the other, it traumatizes you to a nuclear level that its recall is repelled by the self-preservation mechanisms of the human psyche.
It is also one of those forms of violence that bring shame not to the perpetrators but to the victims. Abusers are never ashamed. They invent endless excuses for their actions and a whole universe of priests, media, government officials, and neighbors side with them. Abused women are ashamed.
This is why gender-based violence remains unspoken. It is hidden behind lowered blinds and black sunglasses. It is drowned in silent lonely tears. But Anna was determined to speak and even though she knew that this conversation would not be straightforward, it would have discontinuities, silences, and a shaky timbre. It would be like a knot.
She had decided to recount her own passage from nothingness to subjectification. Perhaps, because as Judith Butler explained, “the word is the completion of the act.” And in speaking, Anna attempts to complete her own escape from an unrelenting condition of violence and abuse.
“I came to Greece when I was 13 years old. I stayed at home for a year to learn the language, finished junior high school, and then went to technical high school. I wanted to be a nurse. I met him through mutual friends. I was 17 and he was 24. My father didn’t like that relationship.
He’d ask about him, and from what he learned, he didn’t get a positive impression. He prevented me from seeing him. Then I fall out with my family. I left home and went to live with him.
In retrospect, I realize he took advantage of it. He realized that I found myself bereft and weak and he trapped me in a house. I lost everything, parents, school, and friends. Before I knew it, I was isolated from everyone and everything.
He didn’t want me to go out or do things. He was unbearably jealous. Of course, he was gone almost all day. He’d go to work, come back to eat and bathe, and then leave again.
At first, I didn’t say anything. Then I started to complain. He would yell and swear. After a while, he started hitting me. I remember once I called his mother to see if she could help me and she said that’s how her son is.”
This was the beginning of the torture for Anna.
A pattern repeated in several stories of abuse. A second-generation immigrant woman, at a young age, begins a relationship with a man who cuts her off from her support groups, makes her vulnerable and dependent, demands control over her life, restricts her, and gradually reveals the repulsive face of violence, a violence that escalates, starting with verbal attacks and insults to reach the body.
The abusers are nurtured as pampered children of patriarchy that prizes bullying as a manifestation of masculinity, believes that women’s bodies belong to their sphere of domination, that they are created to fulfill their own desires, and that they have an absolute right to life and death over them.
“I was thinking that if we have a child it will calm things down. We got married in a civil marriage and I had my first child at the age of 20. Nothing changed. Not to say it got worse. The birth was the reason to repair the relationship with my parents.
We regained contact but I kept them at a distance. He didn’t want me to visit them often. I didn’t want to reveal what was going on. I felt that since my father was opposed to this relationship and I defied him, I was responsible for what I was going through.
But I think my mother understood why I was sad, I tried to hide it but she sensed it. Time went by. I had a second child. Again, no change. I was shut away to clean, cook and take care of the kids. He’d be gone all the time and when he came back he’d take it out on me.
He wouldn’t even respect the kids, he’d yell at me and hit me in front of them. Especially the older one has very vivid memories of that period. I was wondering what I was doing wrong. Consider that in the more than 10 years I’ve been with him, I’ve only gone out with his friends three times. And those he had sternly admonished me to keep quiet and not to react.
So I was sitting next to him like a potted plant completely. I was like, “What’s wrong with me, am I stupid?” I developed a terrible complex about myself and my image. The kids were growing up and they had to do different activities. So I was taking them to school, tutoring, etc. He would get angry.
He thought I was looking for excuses to get out of the house. I was running out of patience. I decided to leave. I went to my parents. At first, he wouldn’t let me have the kids. One day our landlady called me and told me that my youngest was in a miserable state since I left, that he was not eating and not sleeping. I went and got the children. That’s when the worst started.”
Many women trapped in abusive relationships self-incriminate. Subjected to a systematic and methodical process of humiliation and devaluation of their personality, they lose their self-confidence. Their self-image is shattered and they feel that they are to blame, that the violence they receive is punishment for a fault of their own.
Either way, the social role of femininity is identified with obedience. That is why they usually silence their experiences, even though they are so loud and visible. Think about it, it’s the women you hear their voices at night, who wear long and closed clothes during the day, who “fell and got hurt”.
Awareness and removal from such an environment is not self-evident and usually not easily accepted by the abuser. For Anna, the fact that her family had not written her off, that when she made the decision, they were there to support her, played an important role.
“I was thinking about leaving for a long time but I chickened out. I was afraid of his revenge. For me, the important thing was that I had somewhere to go. At first, I was nervous about how my father, who had warned me, would take it. But they took me back and helped me. Then the chase began.
He would come outside the school and the kids’ tutoring center and embarrass me. He was screaming in front of people. He’d come to the jobs I got and I’d get fired because no employer wants trouble in their shop. But I needed a job.
The allowance that the divorce stipulated, he wouldn’t give it to me. My mother only worked, and she couldn’t support all of us. I had to work to cover the children’s expenses.
With my children, he waged the worst psychological warfare. He took them whenever he wanted, put pressure on them, turned them against me, and bribed them with expensive gifts. I struggled to find the money for the rent of our house, their food, and their tutoring. Buying cell phones and video games were not my priority.
With the little one, it didn’t work. He doesn’t even want to meet him and that calms me down. He had seen him hit me once and he stepped forward telling him not to hit me again. He’s still holding on to that. But with the older one, who is in his teens, I had a problem.
At one point he left and went to stay with him. I did everything I could to get him to come back. He came back but he was changed, repeating his own words to me, that I ruined our house, that I’m mean for not wanting his father, etc.
What worried me the most was when I caught him hitting his brother as if he was copying his father’s behavior. We are trying and with the help of a psychologist to correct these things. We’ve kind of brought them back into balance but it still needs work.”
Instrumentalizing children to hook them into an abusive relationship is a standard tactic used by abusers and one of the flimsiest arguments articulated to halt a woman’s path to freedom.
The “don’t mess up your house” or “how will your kids grow up without a father” mind-grinding is absolutely criminal and is intended both to subjugate desire and to reduce toxic masculinity to a textbook parenting manual.
As if it is better for children to experience the world through representations of gender-based violence as if this does not damage their psyche.
Anna then paused for a long pause, lifted her head, and took a deep breath, the kind we take as a precautionary measure to inflate our airways to withstand what we’re about to say. She recounted the two times she was in danger of losing her life.
“Twice I was lucky and saved myself. The first time I was at work, he had our child at home, he called me and asked me to go because the child was hurt. I dropped everything and ran. When I arrived, I found that my son wasn’t even there.
He attacked me, tried to rape me, I resisted and he hit me. In the struggle, my shoulder came off. I lost it. I passed out. I think that’s why he left me. The second time I got off work that night, took the bus home, got off the train, and walked home.
I realized he was following me in the car. I bent down and picked up a rock in my hands for something to hold. He stopped, started pushing me and cursing me, pulled my hair, took the rock out of my hands, and cut my head open.
Luckily a delivery guy stopped and yelled at him, and he disappeared. The guy called the police and an ambulance. I had 12 stitches in my head but at least I was saved.”
Initially, she sought to manage the situation on her own, assisted by her family. Many women do so either out of shyness as they are ashamed to confide their experiences, or out of lack of confidence because they may have approached authorities such as the police in the past and not been met with a response, or out of ignorance because they may not be aware of the full range of their rights and the structures that can act as facilitators.
She finally approached Diotima at the urging of her brother. “I was late in going. I didn’t want to be exposed. That’s how I was thinking about it. Then I was convinced. Most importantly, they offered me legal help, as it was difficult for me to shoulder the financial burden of the legal action.
They know the laws and are doing everything they can to protect me. We asked for interim measures and won them. Of course, when he breaks them, the police often don’t intervene but the girls go after it. Now I’m waiting for the court to get 100% custody of the kids.
We sent my sons to a therapist. They suggested that I go too. But I don’t want to lie. I haven’t been yet. I don’t have time because I work too much. Mostly I’m not ready. There are things I don’t want to remember. However, I know I can call them when something happens and they can guide me. It’s valuable.”
I know the effort Anna is putting in seems like a mountain that overwhelms you just to hear it. It’s certainly not a painless task to break the cycle of violence and find a way out. But it can be done.
It can happen, and it deserves to happen because it’s about your life, the one life we have to stake and waste in the depths of fear and despair. It’s a path to freedom that you earn day by day, discovering your battered strength under bruised layers of skin.
You become a subject again, taking control of your body and giving value to your life again. At the top of the mountain the horizon stretches out before you and you can dream again. Anna laughed awkwardly when I told her she was very young and beautiful.
She is, however, because she came out of the cocoon of helplessness. She put up a fight to save her life and save her children. And that draws only admiration.
“Yes, I feel proud that I was able to get out. For so many years I felt useless. That’s how it made me feel. Because I had never worked I thought I would never make it. And he kept trying to belittle me, to convince me that I was incompetent, that I could only mop and cook. But here I am.
I rely on my strength and raise my children on my own without deprivation. If I had stayed there I would have risked being killed and my children would have grown up learning violence, learning that this is the way to treat women.
For the first time, I did the right thing for myself. And that’s what I want to say to women who might read this interview, don’t settle for violence, fight it. They will not be alone. There are people out there who are willing and able to help.”
There are many more stories in Anna’s story, stories of women who remain submerged in the spiral of abuse and search for bubbles to bring them to the surface, stories of women who struggle with setbacks and adversity, stories of women who have won, who have proven that toxic masculinity is not irresistible.
Maria Apostolaki, legal services coordinator at the Diotima Centre, having followed the development of many cases handled by the organization, summarizes her experience: “Why doesn’t a woman leave an abusive relationship easily?
Having provided legal services to women survivors of gender-based violence for the past three years at the Diotima Centre, I have found that the reasons that trap a woman in an abusive relationship are many, and leaving is neither simple nor easy.
The feeling of “helplessness” and inability to control oneself, the fear of the “next day” but also of social stigmatization, especially if there are children, the lack of a supportive environment, and the financial dependence on the abusive spouse/partner are some of the reasons that lead many women to endure chronic abuse in the form of physical, sexual and psychological violence, but also the deprivation of resources and opportunities.
But many of these women manage to escape and it is important to talk about these women who at some point break their silence, leave fear behind, seek help and leave.
This usually does not happen overnight, but on the contrary, once the woman discloses the phenomenon, it is very important that she has psychosocial support and of course access to legal assistance, as we must not forget that all forms of violence in a partner/spousal context are prohibited and strictly punished by Law 3500/2006 and the Criminal Code.
In collaboration with the specialized counselors and lawyers of our Centre, women draw up an escape plan from abuse that is tailored to their needs and legally assert their rights.
This process is itself empowering as they are transformed from emotionally traumatized ‘victims’ into resilient individuals who claim a life free of violence, deprivation, and exclusion, for themselves and their children.”
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and every day 137 women are murdered around the world by their partner or a relative. Yes, people who kill women because they are female and rapists have the keys to our house.
Anna’s story is a reminder that every day is a day to end violence against women, every day is a day to fight against patriarchy, a day to break down the door and step out into the light.
* If a woman is being abused she can call, the toll-free, SOS line at 15900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. From there, she will receive immediate assistance for violence emergencies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (25/11), the women’s organization Diotima Center and Makeup & Digital Artist, Eleana Demopoulou, join forces in the #PAINted campaign. #PAINted uses color to “speak” about all forms of gender violence: verbal, physical, psychological/emotional, economic, and sexual violence. Forms that often leave no visible scars, yet cause multiple traumas to the individuals who experience them. By painting pain, we give visibility to an “invisible phenomenon” that escapes statistics, as it is often masked by convenient myths and social tolerance, and as a result, goes unreported.