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Vol 3, No 17
14 May 2001
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Safe Haven?
Interview with Professor
Krisztina Morvai on domestic
violence in Hungary [Part 2]

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Click here to read Part 1

Central Europe Review: How do the police react when they are called in to respond to such a case [of abuse within the family]? Do they launch an official investigation against the perpetrator?

Krisztina Morvai: I can be perfectly frank and forthright in answering this question: as a general rule, the situation is an absolute disaster. There are individual exceptions to this rule, but that does not detract from the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, it is an unmitigated disaster. Battered women relate on a monotonously regular basis that they pleaded with the police to help and were greeted with variations on the following theme.

One officer might simply shrug his shoulders and reply: it is a private affair and we are not going to intervene. The next permutation encapsulates the police officer's pathetic and misguided attempt at humour. The woman calls the police, says she is in mortal danger; her husband is abusing her, would they help? The policeman replies: Madam, did you invite me to your wedding? No, I don't know you. If you didn't invite me, then why are you calling me when you have marital problems? Then there is another variant which also reverberates in the woman's ears: We won't come to the scene until blood is flowing.

So, if blood flows they will do something. What does that mean in practice? Very often the abuser deals out his blows with his bare hands, so, to all intents and purposes, there is no blood spilled; and this entails a form of discrimination seen through the eyes of a criminal lawyer, because blood flows when a battered woman stabs her tormentor. It is the woman who has to resort to a weapon, as she is not able to defend herself against the attack from the man with her bare hands.

The man uses his bare hands, his boots, his brute physical force, and blood does not usually flow, although he ruins her ears, her eyes, her internal organs, since if he tramples on her, there is no blood and so the police will not come. Of course, they immediately come if a stab wound is inflicted.

I have conducted interviews with women in prisons, some of which feature in my book, and there is one in particular where the female inmate recalls that the police came instantly as soon as she stabbed her husband, although all her previous pleas had fallen on deaf ears whenever she had gone to the station to beg for assistance. It took them two minutes to arrive at the house, and when they did the woman asked them if this was suddenly not a private affair any longer? It was a family matter, wasn't it? Ironically, the officer who had appeared on the scene was exactly the same one who had treated her supplications with such indifference.

I must point out that I am not vilifying the police. I am not an opponent of the police—the root of the problem is that they do not receive any form of training in such matters. What does the policeman see? On the extremely rare occasions when the police do respond to a cry for help, they do not go about their work in a professional manner: they fail to listen to the injured party's version of events on a one-to-one basis, they do not gather the evidence available to them and, most importantly, they do not remove the abuser so that he cannot continue where he left off and they do not offer any assistance to the victim. Then they are subsequently called out again a month or so later.

The standard reaction is to say: Madam! Your husband beat you up a month ago and you haven't divorced him yet? This is absolutely typical of the police approach. They assume that if the woman wanted to, she could simply divorce the husband. The police can be called out to the same family for years on end and they might conclude that the woman enjoys the beatings, because she could have divorced her husband if she had wanted to. It never dawns on them that their own behaviour might actually exacerbate the situation, because the abuser discovers that, even though the police turn up at his doorstep, nothing happens.

No police response

The police seldom put two and two together in this respect. They do not normally respond in the first place, but if they do, nevertheless they try to reconcile the partners, saying tut tut and then creating the impression that the woman is somehow at fault, by asking her: Why did your husband beat you? Because I didn't cook dinner! Then they try to see justice done by saying that she really ought to have cooked dinner—or not, as the case may be—and then they leave. What happens? The man basks in the glow of righteousness, because the police were there, but they didn't do anything, so he beats her up again: why did she have to kick up such a hysterical fuss over nothing? Why did she have to wash the family's dirty linen in public?

So what happens? The woman realises that if the police actually come, it puts her in an even more desperate situation than before. Gossip starts circulating in the village, amongst the neighbours. They don't call in the police either, because they know that nothing good will come of it, only bad.

Let's take a look at how the policeman experiences the events; if we can turn to his arguments for a moment. Once charges have been brought, the police often maintain that the women cannot make up their minds as to what they want. They make a statement indicting their husbands only to withdraw it. They ask for their husband to be let off, for the charges to be dropped and so on. What the police fail to take into account is that, throughout the whole proceedings, the woman is under the same roof as her tormentor.

Of course, she will withdraw her confession if she is kept in a state of constant fear and subjected to a barrage of threats. The husband beats her brains out and she goes to court apologising for having lied, that her husband is a sweet and gentle man who has never once laid a finger on her in anger, and that the case should be abandoned.

In the course of my discussions with police officers, they themselves assert that they have tried to help these women, but that the women sabotaged the undertaking by putting themselves in a situation where it is no longer possible for the police to offer help. They cannot grasp that it is impossible to expect the victim to go on living under the same roof as the perpetrator and let the abuse continue. The proceedings can only bear fruit if the woman co-operates with the authorities—but she is unable to do so, because she lives in fear of death.

The police are not taught about this, they receive no training and are, therefore, ignorant as to what domestic violence actually entails. They do not know that it involves exercise of power over an individual. They do not know that it is a process during which the woman has to live in an atmosphere saturated with threats. They do not know that this has an effect on the children, they do not know about the cycle of abuse, that a serious episode is often followed by a so-called honeymoon period when the husband placates his wife, lavishing promises upon her.

The policeman cannot understand how they can look like the image of the perfect happy couple when he had been called out to them not so long ago. The woman tries to persuade herself that he can change or even that she is somehow at fault. You have to understand the mechanisms at play.

Women are taught from their formative years onwards that they are responsible for everything that takes place within the home; it is part of their socialisation. So, if her husband beats her, she has to try harder, to cook better, to be a better mother, etc. The police have to be taught about these factors as well, so that they can finally comprehend what is going on.

At our domestic violence clinic programme, I can see how the students of the Police Academy and the experienced officers begin to form an opinion on the issue, and it becomes apparent that they will not deal with cases of domestic violence in the same way as all the rest of their colleagues. Police officers are not immune to reasoning and will apply the letter of the law in these cases as well, provided they have been given the requisite training. Most police officers choose their vocation because they want to see the law respected after all. Of course, they have to be reminded to implement the law in this area in exactly the same way as they implement it in all other areas.

If someone has committed a crime, they have to be prosecuted; and if a crime has taken place, then the police must intervene, they are required to go to the family home in the same way as they would go to any other scene of a suspected crime, because it is simply not true that these deeds cannot be proven.

The misconception that it is impossible to prove these crimes is the result of bad conditioning, a bad reflex. The evidence is there for anyone who has eyes to see. The officer could say to the woman there, in front of him who has been beaten within an inch of her life, that I can see your T-shirt is torn to bits, please put on another one and I will confiscate it as evidence in the exhibit bag.

He would take a photograph of the woman's battered face and collect the handfuls of hair that have been pulled out and are lying on the carpet and the shards of the smashed ashtray. It is quite common for the husband to have smashed the plate containing his dinner against the wall, staining it. It is absolutely typical for the poor woman to slog away at work all day to come home, cook the dinner and then have the whole lot flung against the wall.

If I were a police officer, I would photograph all of it, as it all serves as evidence of what is going on in the family home. Once again, the police officers have to be trained to do all this. Then, of course, there is the most delicate issue of all: to get the message across that women are not inferior beings who deserve all the hatred, which also oozes out of every pore of the officials who refuse to offer them support. The latter have been socialised to believe that a woman who has been beaten had it coming to her.

How serious?

In the course of your research, what was the worst case you encountered? How serious is the phenomenon of domestic violence in Hungarian society from a statistical point of view? If there are no official statistics, does this mean that the powers that be are misogynists or that they do not take the issue seriously?

I think we should beware of mixing up the various cases here. The two I mentioned at the beginning are genuinely tragic. The nine women whose stories we heard represent a microcosm of domestic violence cases in general. Six or seven of them were also subjected to regular abuse during pregnancy. It is difficult to get your mind round the idea that these women were pregnant and were kicked in the stomach, hit, beaten, and the other children were eyewitnesses to what went on.

Rape is a recurrent feature of domestic violence. The women told of how they were raped, had abortions and went home only to be raped immediately again, although the doctors had advised them not to have intercourse for six weeks afterwards. These are the most recent nine accounts we have just finished listening to with the students.

They also corroborated another phenomenon we frequently come across; namely, that the abuser's ultimate weapon of domination and terror is the sexual abuse of the children. There are countless cases of sexual abuse of the wife's female children from her previous marriage. This has got absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the man being in a state of sexual arousal and seeking release for it. Instead, it is an expression of control and domination on his part.

He terrorises his victims by showing that he can do whatever he likes with them, including sexual abuse of the children. That he can get away with anything, there are no obstacles in his path. That he can do as he pleases, have his own way. How am I supposed to sit down and choose between these cases to pick out the worst? Each one is more serious than the other.

In the course of the research I did for my book, I conducted between 60 and 80 in-depth interviews and looked through reams of court cases, as I remarked earlier, but I informed the students that even if the nine cases we listened to were the only ones that occurred in Hungary this year—although the sad reality is that they constitute only a tiny fraction of the true number—the situation would be catastrophic.

I cannot draw distinctions between more and less serious cases. In practice, every single case I have come across is extremely serious. Generally speaking, the women only take the momentous decision to flee when the lives of their children are also at risk, when they are confronted with the fact that there is no way out, no help, nobody to turn to. There is no alternative but to grab hold of their children, leave everything behind and escape into an uncertain future. Flee the mortal danger they are in. This is always tragic; always a disastrous event, always serious, and we do not have the faintest idea of the proportions the problems assume, what their order of magnitude really is.

The sociologist Olga Tóth, whose pioneering work deserves a mention, carried out a survey in this field. She estimated that approximately 14 per cent of all women are victims of domestic violence. The reason I shy away from such figures is that I do not know how the researcher words the question, as to whether the criterion applied is that the woman has been beaten once in her lifetime or whether she is abused on a more regular basis, but I do believe that the dimensions of the problem in Hungary are greater than anything that could be imagined.

Life in the provinces

I have been asked by some of my students in the past who came from villages themselves whether I had the foggiest about how people actually lead their lives in the provinces? The men take the bus from the village to the nearby small town to work. The bus stops in front of the pub so that the passengers can knock back a few in preparation for the stresses of the day ahead.

On the return journey, the bus drops them off in front of the pub where they start boozing and spending everything they have just earned. Word gets round the village that the men folk have come home and everybody starts quaking with fear. What will happen when he gets home? Will he beat us up? Will he smash the furniture? What will we be treated to this time? This is a mass phenomenon.

I have a vivid memory from the days when I was still writing the book. I was on summer holiday in a small village with my eldest daughter, and started chatting to the woman next door who asked me what I was going to do when I got back to Budapest. I told her I was going to visit women who had been sent to prison for murdering their abusive husbands, for the purpose of interviewing them. She replied as follows: "Dear Krisztina, you don't have to go that far away if you want to have conversations with women whose husbands beat them. You can talk to me or my neighbour and, unless I am mistaken, you can interview every single woman in the village."

Of course, this does not count as scientific proof, but I feel, nevertheless, that the accounts given by women has to be regarded as proof on some level. For this reason, I believe that if we were to travel to the provinces in the framework of compiling highly accurate qualitative tests, if we were to select villages and go from door to door in an effort to enter into sincere conversation with the female inhabitants, we would come up with chilling results.

I can give you a further example of a symptomatic experience which is quite telling. I had a student once who had come here for a year from the States. He was a young man and a Muslim—which was interesting, because he harboured very traditional notions of relations between men and women. He courted a young woman who lived in a flat on a housing estate with her parents. He was shocked to the core by what he witnessed here in Hungary in the course of the year in question. The girl's father was a wife-batterer and kept his family under constant intimidation. At that stage, the young man thought that this was an exception, but he came to realise that it was a recurrent feature of life throughout the estate. The exception was for the head of the family not to be a wife-batterer.

I read a theory by an American researcher, which reflects the state of play in Hungary perfectly, according to whom the whole phenomenon of domestic violence profits all men, even those who are not violent, because the non-violent man can pride himself on the fact. His non-violence is an asset in itself, something to be valued. We know nothing about whether he is hard-working or lazy, intelligent and worthwhile or not, just that he does not beat his wife—and this continues to be a point worthy of singling out for praise.

It is still viewed as an asset amongst the younger generation. The young man has to be held up for admiration for being a good sort, solid, reliable and not violent. Maybe if we were to ask for help from the midwives or the GPs [General Practitioners], we could persuade the women to open their hearts to us.

If we were to investigate the issue, we would probably hear from one woman that she knows a chap who lives on the third floor, that he is a decent bloke and doesn't beat his wife. That would be about what I would expect, with a slight exaggeration.

Once again, apologies for not quoting scientifically proven data, but the anecdotal evidence is far more important in this particular instance. You can draw conclusions from the percentages quoted in Olga's book, but we do not really know about the realities, and the only way to find out is to follow the course of action I proposed, as it is the only means of compiling convincing statistics. A representative sample of communities should be selected, including urbanised areas, such as here in Budapest, in large industrialised cities, such as Miskolc and in villages.

The question as to whether leading political figures are misogynist or whether they simply don't take the problem seriously is a good one, but I think the one depends on the other in this context.

Politicians must act

In Hungary, no issue related to women can be serious by dint of its very nature. I believe that the legislators—the politicians, in other words—are labouring under a serious misapprehension if they shun women's issues out of fear of losing the confidence of the electorate. In my experience, men take the problem seriously and I shall enlighten you as to why.

There are huge numbers of men in Hungary who are disciplined voters, they go to the polling booths, they are intelligent, in positions of power and so on and who, as children, lived through the hell on earth of domestic violence, who take the matter seriously and who firmly support the notion of setting the ball rolling at last.

Whenever I give an interview on TV or radio, the vast majority of callers are men, they always take a positive view of the points I have made and very many of them admit anonymously that the reason they are taking an interest is that they themselves watched their fathers behave in this way and they are appalled to learn that the phenomenon is so widespread and common. That things persist in being this way in Hungary.

These men who are drawn from every conceivable part of the political spectrum could certainly be mobilised. Political persuasion does not determine whether you will be fated to suffer the evils of domestic violence. The men I mentioned would look upon it as a major plus if politicians were to stand up and say that they would tackle the issue. Politicians are slow on the uptake and are scared stiff of losing votes, whereas I am convinced of the opposite, that they would only stand to gain votes.

No connection to position in society

Is domestic violence linked to social position and level of education or is it spread evenly across Hungarian society as a whole?

This is the area about which we have the least data at our disposal. We only know from the specialised literature—and partly on the basis of our experience—that it is not linked either to level of education or financial circumstances.

One of the reasons it is difficult to prove this assertion is that better off women do not turn to the so-called care system. Very few of them seek temporary accommodation in Mother's Shelters, because they come from a more privileged background. They can sub-let a flat if they have to take to their heels. We never come across them when we go to the Mother's Shelters and there are no statistics about whether women university graduates have sought refuge in Mother's Shelters.

It is true that we have found female doctors and artists in the Mother's Shelters and there was even one woman graduate who had been persecuted by her Protestant minister husband until she left home. At the domestic violence clinic, we have also come into contact with clients who are university graduates. We have also been faced with numerous cases in which women and children have been driven out of the detached house the family owned by the violent abuse of the husband. Domestic violence must not be confused with poverty and homelessness as this creates the wrong impression and leads to the emergence of an entirely erroneous attitude.

Unfortunately, nobody in Hungary comprehends that it is not first and foremost a problem of homelessness, not even at official level. By muddling poverty, homelessness and being underprivileged into the equation, they are incapable of fathoming the situation of the unfortunate mother of five who had to take refuge here, but who owns a detached house. In her case, the aim is not to put her and her family up in some kind of temporary lodgings in four years' time, but to restore her rightful property to her so that she can move back in and live there in peace free from abuse.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of the women we meet in the course of our work own their homes or have independent leases, so it is a myth that they are drawn from the fringes of society. I feel fully entitled to say this, on the basis of experience.

How has the seriousness of the problem changed since the collapse of Communism? Has it worsened due to the enormous gulf which has opened up between rich and poor in the wake of the changeover to democracy?

Once again, I would point to the social tensions that have followed in the wake of the changeover to democracy. Many people, men in the main, have—as a result of losing their jobs—had to contend with financial and other difficulties, especially that of no longer being in a position of power. They have become unsure of themselves, lost confidence and are stressed out.

This is not really the issue at stake, however. Instead, we should be asking the question as to why they feel they have a god-given right to take this tension and stress out on their wives. Why the wives, why not their bosses or some other man in a position of authority? There is no causal link between wife-battering and the problems typical of post-Communist society. I always protest strongly when anyone argues that wife-beating is fuelled by social tensions, that the changeover entailed such changes that the men, poor dears, have no option but to batter their wives. I reject any suggestion of a causal link, as I said.

Perhaps the men would lay the blame for their behaviour on precisely these changes if they were to be asked to explain their motives for beating their wives. It is because I have so many worries and cares, I am unemployed and so on. The real reason, however, is that he thinks, indeed he knows full well, that he can get away with it and doesn't have to suffer any consequences.

Interestingly enough, the number of assaults on police officers has not increased since the collapse of Communism. Nobody would ever dream of asserting that social tensions have reached boiling point, and this is why the unfortunate, stressed male population has to go on the rampage, beating up policemen on the streets. They don't. Even in spite of being so terribly stressed, the poor souls. They don't, because they know they will pay the price for it. That they will end up in jail. There are not even the remotest consequences of beating up your wife.

Was wife-battering an issue prior to the changeover?

Absolutely not. I am not aware of a single publication dating from before the changeover identifying the phenomenon as a problem. It would be a fascinating research project to examine the editorials of women's magazines and see on what level it cropped up, how it was presented.

I have vague memories—and I would be very curious to discover whether they would be backed up by the results of such a research project—that wife-battering was accepted as if it were part of the deal, a natural phenomenon. That men beat their wives, full stop. Which is quite unbelievable when you consider the illusions or nostalgia people cherish, the distorted picture of how that society was somehow a paragon of equality. That it fought for women's rights or something along those lines.

What it did stand up for was women toiling outside the home for eight to ten hours a day whilst, at the same time, running the household with all the drudgery that involved and bringing up the children as well. It did not fight for women being vested with enough dignity to be viewed as a person who cannot be beaten and abused. That was never on the agenda.

Blaming the abused

Do battered women stay with their husbands in order to keep a roof over their heads or to avoid being plunged into even worse financial straits?

What lies behind this question is a desire to know why the women don't leave. This is a question often directed towards the victims: why do they not just get a divorce? If their husbands are abusive, why do they not just give him the heave and dissolve the marital bond? I loathe this question, because it is not a question but a value judgement in disguise, masquerading behind a question mark. We are not asking, but pronouncing the following: if the battered woman really wanted to leave, she could escape, she could break off the relationship and thereby put a stop to being battered.

This shifts the blame from the abuser to the abused. We basically maintain that it is the woman's decision as to whether abuse will take place or not, as to whether she will live out her life in the shadow of violence or free from it and I believe this is fundamentally wrong. What we ought to be asking is why the wife-beater deals out the blows, why he does not engage in any efforts to change, to mend his ways, where he gets the authorisation to beat her from?

As I keep stressing, what we have to achieve is a situation in which it is not the woman who is compelled to leave the family home, but the abuser.

What I have learned is as follows: in the early stages of the relationship, the woman does not seek a divorce, because she feels that she is to blame, as I already pointed out. Her socialisation prompts her to try to figure out why she is being abused, she can see that her husband is extremely upset and sincerely believes that it is because she is not a good enough cook, is not able to run the home properly, that the children really are naughty, make a lot of noise and get on her husband's nerves or whatever. She persuades herself that she has to undertake even greater efforts to make her husband calm down.

We ought never to lose sight of the fact that these women do not deliberately choose abusers as husbands. They marry these men out of love and their husbands
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were not wife-batterers in those days, or they are very clever about keeping it quiet. At the outset, the woman is in love with the man in question, would like to salvage the relationship and works very hard at accommodating him in the hope this will end the abuse. Then we reach the stage where the intimidation, the terror become permanent and when the woman makes any allusion to a wish to divorce or that she intends to walk out on him, the man becomes far more aggressive than before.

In order to understand, you have to have an insight into how the abuse cycle works. It is not a matter of the man constantly terrorising his wife, humiliating her as a useless good for nothing, threatening her and beating her up because he does not love her, and then breathing a sigh of relief that he no longer has to put up with living with such a monster when she finally throws in the towel and says, alright then, I want a divorce. Quite the opposite.

He beats his wife, because he keeps her under his thumb, he exercises complete domination over her, he perceives her as an inferior being, as a mere object and when the wife turns round and says she is leaving, he retorts: no way, if I have to travel to the ends of the earth I will find you, I will do you in and the children and your mother as well. The woman has very solid objective grounds for lending credence to these threats. Every single study substantiates that the most dangerous phase in these relationships is when the couple splits up and immediately afterwards.

The abuser cannot come to terms with the fact that this object has a will of its own and is capable of taking an independent decision. The contents of the court files shock the reader to the core. The case is one of premeditated murder and you read in the verdict that the victim went to the police station on the morning of the day she was killed, because she knew instinctively that her husband would take her life—and that is exactly what he went on to do. The women have a gut feeling that they have to watch out and have something to be afraid of. Fear is the other primary motive holding women back from breaking free.

Of course, there are major financial worries at stake as well. Imagine the situation: here we have a woman who stands accused by society of exposing her child to living in this hell by refusing to pack her bags and go. When she finally does, she hears the following: how could you have been so irresponsible as to sacrifice the child's separate room, the roof above his head, his clothes, his school books?

You have to leave everything behind, to uproot yourself completely. The child's friends, your own secure livelihood. Then society asks how could she have gone into a sublet flat with the child? Or into a Mother's Shelter? What kind of mother is she? Wherever she turns, she is always the one at fault. It is a terrible conflict.

A Catch 22.

Yes, as you say, a Catch 22.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 14 May 2001

Read Part 1 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Professor Krisztiva Morvai

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