Earlier this week, Sangeeta (the significant mother), premiered her new play, about domestic abuse.
After the performance, Rohit Brijnath, spoke to the audience about something he’d shared with us earlier. This morning, a version of it (without the emotion in the voice from that evening) is in the Straits Times.
Every day, somewhere in the world, someone’s daughter is being hit, slapped, kicked by a husband, a boyfriend, a lover. Every now and then we might see a picture on a poster of someone’s battered daughter but rarely hear or see the invisible wounded. Every so often someone’s daughter is told by a husband “I’m sorry”, by a family, “let’s compromise” and it goes unreported.Every time I hear this, I think: I hope I told my daughter differently, I hope she heard me.I have multiple identities, but clearly my most profound one is as father of a daughter. In morning trains, on my evening couch, at my daily desk, she – my only child – is the one I debate most in my head. How is my child? Where is her life going? Has she lost weight? Why hasn’t she written? Did I tell her enough about life and love and cruelty?Did I tell her about men who hit women? Yes. Do I still tell her? Yes. Did I tell her enough? I’m not sure.This struck me again a few weeks ago when a friend, Ms Sangeeta Nambiar, who wrote and recently directed a devastating, dazzling play on domestic violence, The Silent Shadow, called me. Ms Nambiar and I had once spoken about the conversations I have with my daughter and she asked if I would speak about them to her audience after her play – whose current run has ended but will be staged again on Nov 19 – last Wednesday.I didn’t want to. I am a writer of words whose friend is silence except for the raised, private voices in my argumentative head. The spoken word is foreign, yet I felt compelled to speak. Because as much as we see ourselves as an evolved planet, we still exist in a time when patriarchy and sexism and violence against women run strong and so every man, irrespective of his geography, needs to stand up and speak up for women.My daughter is grown up, joyous in a marriage to the very gentlest of men, and she is an academic by profession and a feminist by instinct: She teaches me and I hope I once taught her. As a parent I am no different from others: I want to protect my child, but I also always wanted her to protect herself. I wanted her to see herself as bright and tough and capable. Not confined by her sex to a role but a kicker-down of glass ceilings forged by idle chauvinists.I wanted her to educate herself and find economic independence, partly because no woman should feel imprisoned in an abusive relationship. The most awful predicament, after all, is the absence of choice. In my parents’ generation, when women often stayed at home with their secrets, I wonder how many led lives of silent suffocation.I mostly wanted my child to understand – through my attitudes and remarks and conversation – that women are equal, completely, and if a man ever strikes her she is not to feel shame or hide it but tell someone. Me, a friend, the police. Because it’s inexcusable and it’s not something you compromise over.This is not a favour we do for our children. This is our obligation. On where I stand on this, she must never be in doubt. Of my protection, she must never be unsure. A woman who recently escaped an abusive marriage told me: “I am lucky that I have supportive parents.” The unintended sadness in the phrase was inescapable; to have “supportive” parents is “lucky”?Men hit women all over the world in numbers that are startling. In Singapore, according to Family Court statistics, the number of personal protection orders given has risen from 2,019 in 1997 to 3,073 last year. But, as Dr Sudha Nair, executive director of Pave, the lead agency dealing with family violence here, says: “We at Pave think that people are now willing to come forward, so the numbers are increasing.”In the United States, notes the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime”.In Britain, the Women’s Aid website quotes a 2000 study that “though only a minority of incidents of domestic violence are reported to the police, the police still receive one call about domestic violence for every minute”.We are appalled by this, of course we are, because we are all decent and moral people. But still it continues and decent and moral people will occasionally shrug and say, maybe she provoked it, and, clearly he’s a good provider, and anyway, it was just a slap.It is easy to be outraged by the confronting image of a woman with a broken nose and swollen lip. But is the slap not worth a police complaint, not worth a churning between families, not worth walking out for? So what do I tell my child, to adjust and bear it and turn another Christian cheek and let it go?But just as we insist there must be zero tolerance in matters of sexual harassment, then a similar standard must apply for domestic violence. So it is my duty as a parent to empower my daughter to understand that even “just a slap” is too much. That even “just a slap” is worth her outrage and mine.We have to open dialogues with our daughters and never close them. When young, they hear but may not listen and so when older we must tread these paths again. One day, my child will have to instruct her daughters and might begin by telling them they are no one’s property.I never liked the phrase “giving the bride away” because she is not some possession handed over for safe-keeping from one man to another. She’s not a thing, she’s a person, she’s my child, who is never abandoned by me. And this matters because in cases of domestic violence, daughters can feel too embarrassed to come home and parents can refuse to let them feel welcome at home.Terrible triviality comes in the way of common sense. A daughter’s immediate tragedy and safety are submerged in distracting discussion on losing face in society, on the difficulty of getting remarried, on the trauma of police cases. But my child surely matters to me more than any of this and my child has to know this from me. She has to know, always, that she can come home for she is never a woman of a single, fixed address.I think my daughter knows this. Still, when I told her I was going to speak about fathers and daughters, she did say this to me: “Perhaps fathers should also start talking to their sons.” For they are doing the hitting.