Nigella Lawson and the can of worms known as domestic abuse

Nigella Lawson at a Borders book-signing

Nigella Lawson at a Borders book-signing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As images of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being attacked by her art collector husband Charles Saatchi went viral online, it led to a maelstrom of debate that surrounds all narratives of celebrity domestic abuse.

The overt, more often implicit, blame was on Nigella for not “standing up for herself” and for going back to tweeting cutesy food pictures a couple of hours after the attack. Australian radio jockey Dee Dee Dunleavy went so far as to call for a boycott of Nigella’s books.

We think you are strong, beautiful and successful. We imagine your home is warm and smells of cinnamon, and if we dropped in we’d get a hug and a feed. We don’t like to think of you cowering from a thug. A man so boldly abusive he had no qualms about attacking you in public. Nigella, like it or not, you’re a beacon for women from all walks of life. If you want us to buy your books and watch your shows on how to run our kitchens, then we need you to make a stand on domestic violence.

This isn’t very different from the public outcry that greeted Rihanna’s decision to get back together with her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, with whom she had split up after he physically assaulted her. (She has since broken up with him.)

The outcry seems to be similar – you are role models, you should stand up for women’s rights, be leaders that other women can look up to.

Excuse me, but why?

Why is up to celebrities to forge a path that we will supposedly follow like bleating sheep? How about dealing with a situation in your life on the basis of your particular circumstances? And if you are not sure about the best course of action, maybe you should talk to friends or family or a therapist, depending on the scale of your problem.

At what can only be described as a traumatic time for Nigella, instead of showing her empathy or support, her “fans and admirers” are busy pulling her down. Instead of shaming Saatchi – the abuser, they are shaming Nigella – the victim.

There is no single answer to domestic abuse

In fact, I don’t think there is a single answer to any question. But, let’s come back to the topic at hand.

When I promised the husband to love and cherish him for the rest of my life, it was with certain terms & conditions attached. One was a zero-tolerance policy on physical abuse. No matter what the provocation or the situation, should he raise his hand on me, this marriage would be over. 11 years on, I still stand true to those words. It would be shocking and devastating if the husband ever physically assaulted me, I would be torn in more ways that one, but the outcome would still be the same – the end of the marriage.

But this is about me. This is my decision. It isn’t as black and white for a lot of women.

I have a few friends who are suffering or have suffered domestic abuse. Most of them have taken it for a few years without saying anything. When they do turn to me for help, my advice is always the same: “If I was in your place, I would have walked out no matter what. But you need to think about it from your perspective. Can you just walk out and to hell with the consequences? Because there are a lot of consequences (and practical considerations) involved – finances, children, society, the support of your parents, and what have you.”

It isn’t an easy decision to make. It takes a lot of guts to pack up your bags and leave. Some people may never be able to take that step. And that’s ok. It’s their life and their choice. And it is something that we need to respect.

No one can know what a marriage looks like behind closed doors. No one can know why a woman would choose to stay on in an abusive relationship – or even go back to one. And as unpalatable as this may be, there are also a lot of women who think that some amount of abuse is normal in a marriage.

Where do we go from here

As happens so often in high profile cases of domestic abuse, it is the woman who is bullied, not the man. It’s no different this time around. It is Lawson and not Saatchi who is under fire for being a bad role model. In fact, Dunleavy went so far as to say:

We think you are strong, beautiful and successful. We imagine your home is warm and smells of cinnamon, and if we dropped in we’d get a hug and a feed. We don’t like to think of you cowering from a thug. A man so boldly abusive he had no qualms about attacking you in public.

Just because you don’t like to think of her “cowering from a thug” is not reason enough for her to leave her husband. Saatchi later characterized the incident as a “playful tiff” during an intense debate about the couple’s children. No one, save Saatchi and Lawson, know what the absolute truth is. And no one, except Lawson, should have a say in deciding what her course of action should be.

Rihanna and Chris Brown concert, Brisbane Ente...

Rihanna and Chris Brown concert, Brisbane Entertainment Centre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Rihanna told Rolling Stone when she decided to go back to Chris Brown:

I decided it was more important for me to be happy. I wasn’t going to let anybody’s opinion get in the way of that. Even if it’s a mistake, it’s my mistake.

We hear you Rihanna. This is your life. You owe it to yourself to be happy. As an outsider, just because we think we know all there is to know about your personal life, we have no right to dictate its course. We may believe with every fiber of our being that you’re making a mistake, but it is your mistake, and we need to respect that.

Most importantly, in my opinion, it makes no sense to make a female celebrity responsible for the choices of other women, while men are hardly ever held accountable. No one told Chris Brown he was being a bad role model when he beat up Rihanna, and no one is asking Saatchi to apologize for setting a bad example for young boys. They’re too busy bullying Lawson.

What you can do to help

If you come across a public display of physical abuse, please do NOT intervene.

You do not know what is going to happen afterwards and often the victim will fear that there will be even worse violence to come as a kind of payback for your actions. – Polly Nate, Chief Executive, Women’s Aid

If you have a friend who is in an abusive marriage, please support her, listen to her and offer her advice if she needs it. Above all else, respect her decision, whatever it is and however different it may be from what you would expect her to do.

Most importantly, I think all women should know their rights – though in a country like India, with its duality of India shining and an India forgotten, this is harder to do. As an upwardly mobile Indian, I think you should know your rights – what you choose to do is up to you, but unless you know the law, you cannot make a completely informed decision. To start with, do go through the overview of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 on Wikipedia.

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    • Thank you Tal. The kind of reaction these stories get in the media is shocking. Instead of offering support, so-called fans bully the woman and say nothing about men. And a lot of people don’t know how to deal with friends who suffer abusive relationships.

  1. I could not have said it better, Modern Gypsy. It always unnerves me when people blame the victim, instead of the perpetrator. The opinions and advice that you’ve posted should be read by all.

    • Yes, it is very unnerving. Remember the future over Rihanna’s decision to go back to Chris Brown? Why don’t people realize it’s her life and she could have her own reasons for wanting back with him?

  2. This is the first time I am hearing about this case and it is indeed shocking. I would obviously question why she was still staying with him but to actually abuse her and boycott her books instead of rallying around her to let her know that you would support her leaving him is so insane! Of course, no one knows the circumstances, but whatever they may be, why not target the man?! This again shows what double-standards society has!
    Thanks for a very thoughtful article, Shinjini!

    • Absolutely! As much as we may want to “save” people from abusive relationships, we really cannot. It is their decision to take. All we can do is to offer them support and be there when they need us.

  3. I agree with what you have written. I feel that even celebrities are human and they are just like you and me with the same fears and vulnerabilities. It is unfair to judge them like this.

    • Absolutely! Just because someone is a celebrity they don’t have to be leaders for women’s causes (or men’s for that matter). Admire them for what they are known for and don’t judge their personal life. At least that has always been my take on it.

  4. Really great post. I completely agree with you. Our society puts so much pressure on celebrities to be role models & we shouldn’t. Nigella & RiRi are just like any other abused woman. The people are tearing them apart for staying in an abusive relationship would never fix their face to say to their best friend or sister “You are a coward!”. Even if we think that we lend support & a shoulder. The same should be offered to celebrity woman who went stripped of the money, clothes, & clout they are no different than your sister who just needs to know someone is there for them.

    • Exactly! Why should a celebrity be a role model with every facet of his or her life? Nigella is a role model for “untrained” cooks. RiRi is one for believing in your dreams and working hard to achieve what you aim for. Why force them to be anything else? Why not just support them instead? Offer words of encouragement or support instead of this drivel? It’s shameful!

  5. Wow– really a fantastic post. While I definitely always felt that there was something wrong with calling out the abused in these circumstances, I have never seen my feelings verbalized as well as they are here. Thank you for sharing….

  6. I saw those videos, and it was extremely distressing. It didn’t look at all like a playful tiff like the way Saatchi puts it. But at the end of the day, it is her call how she wants to react to it.

    On the other hand, I do understand the frustration some people feel when an abused woman goes back to her abuser. Especially in India, where anyway the power dynamic between a couple is so skewed towards the man and the man’s family…that I can understand feminists trying to fight an uphill battle to rescue women from terrible situations see people like Darshan (Kannada actor who beat up his wife) without having to face any issue, and the wife milkily taking him back the next day.

    I understand about freedom of choice and all, but honestly, that act made me angry as well.

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