By Nurshirah Tabrani
Singapore society is plagued with incidences of intimate partner violence (IPV). From 2012 to 2018, more than 70% of those who filed for Personal Protection Order (PPO) or Expedited Order (EO) or Domestic Exclusion Order (DEO) in Singapore are women. However, we rarely hear women’s voices going through an abusive marriage. The lack of women’s narratives limits our understanding on the reasons they choose to remain in an abusive marriage. In order to capture the narratives of Malay women who have faced IPV, I conducted in-depth interviews with three Malay women: Siti, Nurin and Farah (not their real names).
Siti, a diploma holder in her late 40s, has two daughters aged 9 and 12. She got married in 2003 and stayed in the marriage for 12 years before leaving her ex-husband in 2015. Her divorce proceedings have been ongoing for four years and as of now, remain incomplete.
At the age of 38, Nurin, an ITE graduate, is a mother of two daughters aged 9 and 17. She has been with her ex-husband since 2004 and they got married in 2008. It was only recently when her divorce was finalised after much struggles with the Syariah Court.
An N-level graduate, Farah is 33 years old and has a son aged 7. She is currently unemployed and is hoping to proceed with divorce after getting a job. She had been married for seven years before separating from her husband in 2018.
Existing discourse on family and marriage in Singapore influences Malay women’s choice to stay in abusive marriages. Part of the discourse includes the notion of an ‘ideal’ family as one that is ‘intact’. It constructs a cultural conception of marriage as lasting forever and this has influenced women to remain in abusive relationships to preserve the family unit. Divorces are read as ‘broken marriages’, making the family ‘abnormal’ thereby not ‘ideal’. Additionally, marriage is seen as a personal choice, individualises failure of married couples to handle marital issues like IPV. Many women find it difficult to disclose abuse and seek help because of the perception that, because she had chosen to marry the abuser, she must therefore deal with the accompanying difficulties.
Nurin shared, “All my friends disagree when I am with him. Slowly one by one they just walked away silently. Because this is the choice I made, I cannot blame anybody so whatever, I just swallow.”
IPV is perceived as a domestic matter that should be resolved privately without external interventions. Additionally, discourse on family and marriage as propagated at the national and community levels constrains women’s choices to leave her abusive marriage, forcing her to confront issues of IPV alone.
Perceptions of Family and Spousal Relations
Siti, Nurin and Farah indicated that their expectations of marriage entail spouses sharing equal responsibilities. However, how their marriage is performed in their everyday lives indicate that gendered roles are rigidly defined and enforced. Husbands see to breadwinning while wives see to caregiving. This idea of gendered roles ties in with the notion of the ‘ideal’ family, subscribed by married couples.
Nurin’s idea of family and spousal relations is infused with gendered roles. During her childhood, her experiences living with her aunties shaped her idea of a ‘perfect’ family. Moreover, she was raised by a single mother and never had a father figure. Nurin was searching for a father figure for her eldest daughter who was about one or two years old then. Her eldest daughter is the child of another man from her previous relationship. In her circle of friends, Nurin’s ex-husband was holding a job and looked promising in helping her achieve her dreams of having the ‘perfect’ family. However, her ex-husband’s extramarital affairs destroyed her dreams of a ‘perfect’ family.
Farah’s husband demanded that she stay at home and see to household chores. She agreed as long as he performs his role as a financial provider dutifully. However, he failed to do so. Financial debts were incurred and strained the marriage.
Such narratives indicate that there is disjuncture between women’s expectations of family and spousal relations, and the lived realities of their marriage. This disjuncture needs to be understood vis- à-vis existing discourse on family and marriage in Singapore.
Knowing the women’s first encounter of abuse is important. It helps us to understand their rationale for staying in the abusive marriage. Siti and Nurin first noticed their ex-husband’s abusive behaviour during the courtship period.
Siti recalled, “He started hitting before marriage and continued. I wanted to break (the engagement) off but my dad was sick, after that he passed away. I am engaged, I am the eldest daughter, so everybody is waiting for a wedding to take place.”
“While we are in the courtship, he already slapped me, pulled my hair. But I got immune to it, saying to myself that I must stay because like so-called loyal,” Nurin shared.
Farah did not experience any abuse during her courtship. However, she noticed that her husband’s behaviour changed after marriage. She shared, “Firstly, he prevented me from having friends, cannot mix around with my relatives. Why I cannot go to the shop all eh, why my husband like this eh. Like (I’m) being controlled.”
After some time, Farah’s husband became physically violent towards her. It started because of financial problems as he was unable to earn a fixed income. “He cannot get rid of the stress at work so he comes back raging at me. I’m afraid when he is home, he beats me.”
These women’s narratives suggest that they did not leave their husbands at the first instance of abuse. Instead, they rationalise the abusive behaviours to maintain their marriage. The different reasons they have for staying in their respective marriages are borne out of the context in which they got married and the perceptions they have of the family and spousal relations.
Women’s faith is manipulated by their husbands in order to maintain dominance over them. The patriarchal culture of family and marriage institution combined with patriarchal reading of Islamic teachings can cause women to suffer a form of spiritual abuse.
Siti shared that although her ex-husband is a non-practising Muslim, he asserted dominance over her via misogynistic interpretations of Islam. She mentioned, “Even during honeymoon, he said ‘As a Muslim man I can divorce you on the spot.’”
Farah expressed the notions of ‘dosa’ (sins) as a reason which prevented her from disclosing the abuse and leaving the marriage. It stopped her from filing for divorce because it would mean that she was disrespecting her husband, transgressing religious obligations.
Negative Labelling of Divorcee
Female-initiated divorce within the Malay community is often perceived as shameful and implies an attack on men’s superior social status. Such women are considered as transgressive and exhibiting impropriety.
Siti avoided divorce and put up with the abuse because she did not want to be labelled as a janda (divorcee). She filed for a PPO three months into the marriage but withdrew it. She did not want to upset her mother for having a short-lived marriage. She shared, “(Society) has the idea that divorce is wrong. When my late father’s best friend came to our house, he got very upset with me because I got a divorce. “How can you get divorced, why don’t you work things out?””
Additionally, the notion of malu (shame) is inscribed to the failure of marriages. She added, “Malu to tell people; they always think that my marriage is perfect because we have everything we need. It is very embarrassing for people to know that this is the lifestyle I am actually going through behind closed doors.”
Ideology of the ‘Ideal’ Family
In Singapore, welfare policies and legislation reinforce the ideology of the ‘ideal’ family which citizens are expected to conform to. Values encompassing the ‘ideal’ family are often associated with women’s identity. This ideology deters women from leaving her marriage in spite of the abuse as she will be scrutinised for her failure to preserve the family unit.
Nurin withdrew her PPO three times because she wanted to keep her family intact. Her ex-husband knew about her desire to have the family intact and manipulated her into withdrawing the PPO. She mentioned, “I always think if I report him, there goes my family which I always want so much. I feel torn apart.”
Women’s economic dependency on their husbands is one of the barriers that limits women’s choices to leave abusive marriages. Women’s economic insufficiency puts them in a state of ‘helplessness’ because they do not have enough resources to sustain themselves or their children if they were to leave their marriage.
Farah faced difficulties in leaving her marriage because of her economic dependency. She shared, “I depend on him because I am not working. If I think far (long-term), I want to get out. But when I think near (short-term), can I live without my husband? Can my son live without his father?”
Ironically, financially independent women can trigger their husband’s aggression. Due to the husband’s inability to earn a higher income than his wife, he asserts his dominance in other ways such as controlling economic resources, subject his wife to constant surveillance and isolate her from her family and friends. Siti shared how her unemployed ex-husband abused her verbally, emotionally, financially, psychologically and physically. “He bought the iMac with my money but I cannot touch it. Verbally always telling me that I am very fat, ugly and stupid like I am a prostitute. I am not allowed to go out anywhere with my kids because there is a camera at home so he can see us. I was kicked. I was raped. I hated it.”
Weak Social Support
It is difficult for women who are abused to reach out for help because support from family, community and state is not readily available. This is referred to as the phenomenon of social violence. It stigmatises women and leads to their isolation due to women being cut off from former support or due to them being avoided by others. Social violence reinforces tacit acceptance of abuse and prevents them from receiving formal support such as law enforcement or health services.
Farah was unable to turn to anyone for help. She could not even confide in her mother-in-law. Furthermore, at the onset of her marriage, both of Farah’s parents had already passed on and her only sister lives in Malaysia. She said, “She likes to listen to her son say things that are not true. That is why I cannot tell everything to my mother-in-law.”
Moreover, Farah could not seek help from her next-door neighbours because their doors are always shut. Nurin shared similar constraints with Farah when seeking help from neighbours. She shared, “Even when one neighbour saw I was beaten by him, he (ex-husband) shouted ‘You don’t get involved ah, this is my family matter!’ So, the neighbour was also scared of him.”
Gaps in Law Enforcement
IPV is also trivialised in legal discourse. Singapore’s legal system and law enforcement agencies continuously uphold the family unit above women’s safety. It treats IPV as a private matter thereby silencing abuse on women within the household.
Farah faced difficulties making police reports or calling the Family Service Centres. She recalled, “Even that time he hit me, my handphone was taken, after that the house phone wire he disconnected. Then he locked me.”
According to Farah, she faced difficulties in making a police report. On one occasion, she approached a police officer whom she met on the streets when she went out for a stroll. The officer told her that the abuse must happen on the day the report is made. Police reports can still be made even if the abuse occurred a long time ago. However, the police did not explain this to Farah and gave her an impression that it is a requirement for the abuse to happen on the day the police report is lodged. This reflects gaps in the operational policing of domestic violence whereby police officers tend to limit interventions in cases involving abuses between married couples.
Siti is often locked out of the house by her ex-husband. When she went to the police for assistance, they declined to accompany to her flat as there was no violence taking place at that time. She mentioned, “The police did nothing, it was just a report. “Unless the violence is taking place, then we can go with you.” Do I have to wait for violence then I call you?” Siti’s encounter with the police officers indicates that there remains to be a problem of police intervention in cases of IPV. There is ambiguity amongst police officers to intervene in cases of IPV which is considered to be a private crime.
I have identified six constraining factors that limits women’s choices to leave an abusive marriage. Knowing these various constraints helps to pinpoint how and where interlocutors can intervene to make better choices possible. There is a need to rethink women’s choices in a just society. How a woman decides to perform her role as a wife and/or a mother, are choices subjected to a wider patriarchal discourse. This patriarchal discourse inhibits them from making other favourable choices because it is perceived as deviating from the ‘ideal’. In order to empower women, perceptions on family and spousal relations must first change. To do so, there needs to be a rebranding of family and marriage institutions that no longer permits patriarchal ideology to take root. Gendered roles must not be normalised, the notion of the ‘ideal’ family has to be discarded because various forms of family units exists such as single-parent families, married couples without children, cohabiting couples and so on. Religious discourses must continue to uphold the stance to support family and marriage institutions that elevate the status of women within the household and make no room for misogynistic interpretations to take place. To empower women is to increase their capacity to make choices without being subjected to patriarchal ideology. When women have more capacity to make choices such as entering the workforce, to divorce her husband, to remain unmarried and to not have children, society needs to value those choices and not judge them. This would require us to cease our prejudices against the role of women in the family, community and society. IPV stems from gender violence and gender violence is a symptom of gender inequality. Gender inequality takes root because of patriarchal ideology. Patriarchal ideology remains if society does not empower women to increase her capacity to make choices and not judge her for making those choices.
 Intimate partner violence (IPV) is used instead of domestic violence because this article only focuses on violent acts of husbands on their wives. The term intimate partner can better demonstrate the power relation between a husband and a wife within a society where gender violence exist.
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Nurshirah Tabrani is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Malay Studies. This article is part of a chapter from her thesis, Constraints, Confrontations, Choices: Malay Female Survivor’s Agency in Intimate Partner Violence.
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, October 2019, Volume 14, Issue 4
Photo Source: The Karyawan