Taking Refuge? Domestic Violence, ‘Race’ and Asylum by Erica Burman

Domestic violence affects all cultures and classes, but some communities – black and working class communities in particular – are more visible to the public gaze than others. It is understandable that minority ethnic communities are reluctant to address abuse and violence for fear of fuelling racism further.

Erica Burman

However recent research (Batsleer et al, 2002) we conducted with African, African-Caribbean, Irish and Jewish survivors of violence and service providers in the Manchester area highlights a potent interaction between sexism and racism that often leaves women and their children without any support. The question ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ that is so often asked of women in violent relationships in reality becomes one of ‘how can she possibly leave given all these barriers to accessing support?’. In this article we identify how state and service barriers trap women further and make their pathway to asylum even more elusive.

BEYOND ‘CULTURAL PRIVACY’ The situation of black and minority ethnic women facing domestic violence reveals a crucial collusion between notions of individual autonomy (enshrined in the public/private divide which until recently allowed a husband to rape his wife) and cultural autonomy (as our British brand of multiculturalism that lets communities do their own thing as long as they don’t bother anyone else).

This sort of ‘it doesn’t happen if we don’t see it’ mentality has as its addendum ‘…and we don’t want to know about it anyway’, since services – perhaps inadvertently – systematically discourage or exclude survivors from approaching them. All this reflects the general cultural climate of indifference including current policies of ‘don’t care in the community’. But on top of this, in the case of domestic violence there is a privileging of concern about ‘race’ over gender issues that isolates minority ethnic women facing abuse further. This is a strong claim to make, and runs counter to the current Home Office initiatives to put domestic violence on all service agendas. But take a closer look.

Domestic violence imports questions of power relations between men and women, and thus brings into focus how all communities are divided. Within minoritised communities (fulfilling the ‘they look after their own’ stereotypical assumption that mainstream services – conveniently – hold about some groups) some ‘culturally specific’ services have been organised. But – notwithstanding being regarded by mainstream funders as major providers to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities – these often provide very general or low intensity support. We found that culturally specific services are generally unsure of how to raise or deal with domestic violence. They are also afraid of alienating both their community funders and their clientele to do more than approach such issues ‘softly, softly’.

Equally, women from those communities report being reluctant to approach them because of the stigmatisation they and their families (including their children) will face if news leaks out, or even being told to stay and tolerate the violence by traditional community leaders and counsellors. Hence – apart from those services that explicitly espouse a gender-sensitive approach, such as the black and Asian women’s refuges – culturally specific services are structurally compromised in their capacity to raise or deal with abuse issues.

‘RACE ANXIETY’ AS OBSCURING GENDER Beyond indifference, mainstream services appear either unable to deal with the cultural and language barriers faced by some minority ethnic women, or more importantly feel themselves to be insufficiently culturally equipped to work with women from minority ethnic communities. They worry about being culturally inappropriate or (generating accusations of being) racist if they question or criticise particular cultural practices. . It is easy to see how all this feeds certain racist myths that suggest particular communities condone violence or are particularly oppressive to women.

The effect of (what we have come to call) ‘race anxiety’ is that cultural issues are accorded greater priority than gender issues. Yet no religion or culture supports the abuse of women. The problem here is to do with the ways our dominant culture reifies minority community practices that in fact have developed in interaction with the dominant culture. This also includes the seemingly ‘positive’ ways of representing minority cultures, such as romanticising or exoticising them. Either way culture is treated as static and is equated with religion.

However traditions are always less static and more continuously recreated than they appear. It was an interesting incidental finding from our research that the same stereotypes about cultural factors in the toleration or incitement of abuse were circulated about all four of the cultural groups we were investigating. Doesn’t this tell us more about the structure of racist assumptions than about specific cultural practices?

All this combines with a political climate of escalating racism – currently especially towards Muslims and Asians – that means that women who seek refuge outside their cultural communities to maintain their safety often encounter so much racism that they end up returning to the abuse. It is worth noting here that there is nothing new about this phenomenon. Irish survivors we interviewed talked at length about how ‘the troubles’ affected perceptions of Irish people that silenced them. They all had family members or close family friends who were interned as political suspects because they were Irish, and the effect of this meant that they felt unable to approach the Police for support against domestic violence. Equally, even when they did they did not always get an appropriate response. We interviewed an African-Caribbean woman who went to the Police to report her violent partner. The officer was more interested in checking whether this man had a criminal record that would warrant arrest than addressing her complaint. She was sent back home in the middle of the night without even an escort.

NO RECOURSE TO PUBLIC FUNDS Domestic violence challenges the separations between state and service provision, bringing together political asylum and mental health issues, and connecting public health with public order. For women from some minority ethnic communities, their efforts to seek refuge from violent relationships bring them up against the symbolic and physical violence of the state. For current British immigration law traps women further within violent marriages. Women whose ‘leave to remain’ arises from their spouse’s immigration or citizenship rights can be subject to deportation if they leave the marriage, and the threat of this is often used by abusers to prevent women from leaving.

But if they do manage to leave then the Home Office ‘one year rule’ specifies that a women who has come to this country to join her husband whose marriage breaks up within one year has ‘no recourse to public funds’. She thus has no eligibility for welfare benefits or any claim on the public purse. Even more significantly, what this also means is that any service she seeks to access cannot claim any money for providing a service to her. Hence women’s refuges, which maintain themselves on the rentals paid through the benefit system for residents, can rarely afford to accommodate women ‘with no recourse to public funds’. Such women are thus absolutely excluded from all services, and in our research it was remarkable to document how they fail to figure in the public and provider imagination.

How is it that in our supposedly ‘civilised’, welfare-saturated society some of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups, women and their children seeking refuge from domestic violence, fail to qualify for state support? It seems that social inclusion only extends to those who have already been defined as included. And we should beware, as David Blunkett plans to extend the ‘one year rule’ to two years. Perhaps the British government will suggest divorce should be outlawed for all refugees – but it’s worth pausing to wonder if anyone would dare to call this fundamentalism.

Clearly there needs to be political opposition at every level to such measures. Perhaps bearing in mind the broader effects of immigration legislation might do something to mitigate the galloping xenophobia and racism towards asylum seekers. At any rate it is worth remembering that, far from the media stereotype of ‘benefit scroungers’ as a public burden, many women seeking refuge from violent relationships not only have typically lost what jobs and access to financial and community resources that they had, but are in fact totally excluded from public support.

We documented how all too often it was the culturally-specific domestic violence services, the Asian and Black women’s refuges and outreach services that bore the responsibility to raise issues of ‘no recourse to public funds’, and indeed tried to think creatively about how to generate some funds to support such women. It seems particularly unjust that these already hard pressed and under-resourced organisations should carry this disproportionate responsibility, but they have felt impelled to do so until others come forward to share this with them. The national organisation of women’s refuges is only beginning to start thinking about this issue. Readers of this magazine will already know that questions of Asylum connect many different spheres. Perhaps that knowledge can inform how we think about the links between personal and political safety, and state and community responsibilities for this.

PUBLIC SAFETY OR MENTAL HEALTH? Distress is always difficult for workers to deal with, and the distress generated by – often years of – being emotionally as well as physically abused is hard to imagine. Indeed the emotional features of surviving domestic violence tend to attract much less consideration than the physical. Services appear to be literally-minded. They respond better to what they can see – once again reinscribing the priority of physical health over mental health.

In fact we embarked on this study of domestic violence because of our previous work on service responses to women of South Asian background with issues of attempted suicide and self harm (Chantler et al, 2001). In this domestic violence emerged as a key contributory factor, along with immigration problems which, as we have indicated, exacerbate the abuse. Questions of (attempted) suicide challenge the traditional policy division between public health and mental health – after all, in terms of prevention of suicide surely having a satisfying job, enough money and a safe place to live are as likely to stop people from wanting to kill themselves than identifying any supposed internal predispositions to psychopathology! (And if your life is really miserable then is it so ‘mad’ to want to end it, or find maladaptive ways of coping with it?)

Similarly domestic violence challenges the boundary between public order and mental health. Rather than focusing on the psychological qualities, characteristics or personal histories of victims (as in the diagnostic categories of ‘battered wives syndrome’ or ‘self-defeating personality disorder) or even of abusers, policymakers and practitioners would be better off looking to support ways of genuinely broadening peoples’ sense of responsibility for each others’ welfare. Indeed in terms of ‘what helps’, it was clear from our research that family, friends, neighbours and even – perhaps especially because they were so unexpected – acts of kindness from strangers were all enormously important in enabling women to survive and leave violent relationships. We live in a culture where self-sufficiency and independence – both economic and psychological – are being ruthlessly promoted.

Western (through globalising) rational economic ‘man’ prevails over non-Western feminised other, and connection and relationship become increasingly hard to find or foster. Our services are continuously under pressure, so that increasingly even supposedly supportive services are structured to prevent people from approaching them for personal support. In such a context it is perhaps understandable that individual practitioners would rather avoid hearing about distressing experiences that they feel helpless to change and lack resources to support. We were saddened to hear that even some refuges are now no longer able to resource individual key working sessions with residents.

But ignoring or denying distress and abuse is not a successful strategy to deal with them. And failure to challenge either racism or gender oppression within all communities creates much more distress and greater demands for services. The position of minoritised women surviving and escaping domestic violence not only highlights key gaps in ‘safety net’ of service provision. It also indicates crucial and systemic connections between what is assumed to belong to the public and the private sphere, the international and the domestic that precisely show how such definitions are unjustly and arbitrarily applied to privilege the well-being, and even asylum, of some people over others. It is now time to change this.

The Research Report Domestic Violence and Minoritisation: supporting women to independence (Batsleer et al, 2002) is published by the Women’s Studies Research Centre, and is available from Janine Acott (Tel: 0161 246 2535; email: [email protected]) price £15. The previous report (Chantler et al, 2001) can be purchased at the same price from her too.
Erica Burman is Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the Manchester Metropolitan University, where she co-convenes the Discourse Unit and the Women’s Studies Research Centre.