Susan McKay: ‘Crime of passion’ myth fails women victims

Notion of women as a commodity feeds into societal attitudes to violence against women

Oscar Pistorius: “This case involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.”

Oscar Pistorius: “This case involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.”

 

‘This case involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions,” said the judge in South Africa. “A young man overcomes huge physical disabilities to reach Olympian heights as an athlete and in doing so becomes an international celebrity, he meets a young woman of great natural beauty and a successful model, romance blossoms, and then, ironically on Valentine’s Day, all is destroyed when he takes her life.”

It reminded me of something a woman said to me a few years ago after her daughter’s partner stabbed her to death. She was describing how he had presented himself to her daughter as if he was madly in love with her, showering her with gifts and flowers. “He wooed her,” the young woman’s mother said, freighting the word with all the bitter sorrow and betrayal in the world.

Last week, as Oscar Pistorius was convicted in South Africa of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, here in Ireland Stephen Cahoon was convicted of the murder of Jean Quigley. He was in a relationship with her and claimed in court that he had “seen red” and lost control when she told him he was not the father of the baby she was expecting.

The judge said his evidence was “utterly inconsistent” and acknowledged to the murdered woman’s family that it must have been hard to listen to the accused trying to blame his victim. Police described him as a “dangerous sexual predator”. He said he’d had “crazy girlfriends”.

Recently I was listening to the radio as I drove from Belfast to Derry to chair a discussion of Brian Maguire’s exhibition J’accuse at the Void gallery. The news was on and I listened to a report on the conviction of former IRA man Pearse McAuley for assaulting his ex-wife. Pauline Tully’s victim-impact statement was harrowing. She described how she was certain she was going to die during the brutal attack. It went on for several hours and was witnessed by the couple’s young sons. She was very seriously injured. As he stabbed and beat her, McAuley screamed that if he could not have her no one else could. She said she was haunted by his violence and would live in fear of him returning.

Respectful and moving

Maguire’s exhibition includes a room full of portraits of women who were raped, murdered and disappeared in and around the city of Juarez in Mexico. The paintings, against the plain white walls of the gallery, are powerful, respectful and moving. He made sure the mothers of the women were happy with them, and gave the families a copy.

According to UN Women, “femicides are a pandemic in Mexico”. More than 60 per cent of women in Mexico have suffered some form of physical or sexual violence at the hands of men. According to a feminist observatory, six women a day are killed. Convictions are secured in only 2 per cent of cases. A climate of impunity prevails. The crusading Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho, who has set up refuges for women fleeing domestic violence and traffickers, says the prostitution trade helps to normalise violence against women.

Ireland is a far, far smaller country but Women’s Aid here (not including Northern Ireland, where figures are collated separately) got 11,000 calls to its helpline last year. It estimates that one in five women in this country are subjected to domestic violence. About 10 women in Ireland, in the North and the Republic, are murdered each year by a spouse or partner. Prostitution is thriving, mostly involving vulnerable migrant women.

Attacks on women are sometimes described as crimes of passion. Cahoon claimed he had been taunted. McAuley claimed his violence was motivated by jealousy. His wife was his and his alone. As in prostitution, the notion is of women as a commodity.

Women as chattels

The tradition of romantic love sadly has its roots in this notion of women as chattels. Bridie McGrellis, whose daughter was murdered by her husband in 1997, recalled on a recent anniversary that on the day Caroline was married to John Crossan she did not look radiant in her traditional white dress.

“She was standing there like a corpse.” Perhaps the wooing was already over and the abuse had begun.

Pauline Tully bravely delivered what was truly a passionate message after her ex-husband was jailed. “I just want to say, domestic violence is totally wrong no matter by who, or where it is perpetrated,” she said. “I would encourage anyone who is a victim of domestic violence to do something about it, look for support and stand up for themselves.”

The Women’s Aid national freephone helpline is 1800-341900

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