not so hidden violence

While I’m in Ha Noi my friend Nhan is living in my house in Sai Gon and a few nights ago he sent me a text message about a neighbour on the other side of the hem who he had just seen savagely beating his small dog. Nhan had seen this happen twice and was quite upset about it but my comment back to him was that beating his dog was way better than when he used to beat his daughter in a similar fashion. A facetious comment to be sure but let me explain.

I wrote an article about the way this man beat his daughter way back on November 27, 2004 and you can find it here. This article was eventually published in The Guide magazine and elicited comment there as well as on royby.com but most especially from people who read it and spoke to me personally on the issue. Since that time many Vietnamese women have revealed to me their experience with domestic violence, of being savagely beaten by either fathers or husbands or even their employer (I refer to the story of Diem) and witnessing their mother or siblings receiving similar treatment. When Nhan sent me another message to say that my neighbour was once again beating his daughter, I decided it was time I did some research and revisited this topic.

Returning to my old neighbourhood in District 3 in Sai Gon and to the house in which I previously lived for nearly 3 years has been a great experience. But within the first week of being back in this space I was disturbed by the sound of a dog in great distress and one look out my front door revealed the source of the commotion.

My neighbour was engaged in savagely beating his small dog in full view of any passer-by and I’m not talking about him simply hitting the dog. I’m talking here about a man so enraged that he was picking the dog up and hurling it against the wall, then kicking it and stomping repeatedly on it where it lay screaming. He would then walk back inside his house muttering loudly and return again to hit, kick and throw the animal around with such force that I am amazed the poor thing has survived for this long. On average I would say that the dog is beaten like this maybe 4-5 times every week.

The look on this man’s face when he is beating his dog has to be seen to be believed. It becomes contorted to the point of looking demonic and is a reflection of the fact that he is not in control of his emotions. On one occasion I saw his wife try to stop him and he cast her aside violently and attacked the dog perhaps even more savagely than before.

During these recent times I had not seen or heard the daughter being beaten and had seen her around about the hem coming and going, now a young lady, no longer a little girl. I felt glad that she seemed no longer to be the victim of the hot tempered violence that once used to be visited upon her, hence my comment that better the dog bear the brunt of this man’s rage than his daughter.

However, according to Nhan, last night the father was once again beating his daughter savagely, at one stage even dragging her out into the alley where he beat her some more. These are not just acts of a father spanking a naughty daughter to teach her a lesson, these are acts of uncontrolled violence by a man who cannot control his rage and takes it out on victims who cannot retaliate. To me these are acts of supreme cowardice.

There has been considerable research undertaken in Viet Nam regarding domestic violence and a quick search reveals some interesting facts. Viet Nam has legislation that prohibits the use of any physical violence against women and children (Law on Marriage and Family, 1986; Penal Code of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 1989) and this type of violence is publicly condemned in the local media and by government officials.

Domestic violence in Viet Nam is officially regarded as a ‘social evil’ that may partly be a result of instability and uncertainty in the community brought about by the currently rapid modernisation process. However, as Rydstrom (2001) points out, the debate surrounding ‘social evils’ relates not only to new tendencies within Vietnamese society but to what is officially referred to as ‘backward’ (lac hau), ‘fuedal’ (phong kien) or Confucian thinking and behaviour. This refers to the pre-revolutionary period prior to 1945 which was dominated by Confucian tradition including a feudal and patrilineal organisation of society.

According to Le Thi Quy (1992), domestic violence in Viet Nam is on the rise and is an expression of the old ‘feudal’ and ‘backward’ Confucian ideals that still persist alongside official communist ideology:

Since the triumph of the August Revolution in 1945, a persistent struggle for equality of the sexes has been undertaken in all spheres, legislation, family, and society. This has led to a fundamental change in the position, rights and interests of women.

However, any struggle has its difficulties, in particular, the struggle against backward perceptions and customs which have existed for centuries. It is then understandable that today, forty years after the liberation from the colonial and feudal yoke, vestiges of the Confucian attitude of ?honoring men and despising women? still linger and have even regained vitality in some places. This attitude creates a kind of terrible violence against women. (p. 263)

The Vietnam Women’s Union carried out a study in 1997 that showed domestic violence to be widespread which was recorded in a World Bank (1999) commissioned report that found domestic violence in Viet Nam occurs in both urban and rural areas and in families of all income levels. According to the report it exists because of deep-rooted attitudes regarding socially and culturally prescribed roles, responsibilities and traits of men and women in family situations where women are generally regarded as subordinate to men. Men are regarded as having a ‘hot’ (nong) ‘character’ (tinh cach) with little emotional control, a trait that is exacerbated by alcohol drinking, whereas women are seen as being the ‘cool’ (lanh) headed one who will ‘endure’ (chiu) thus retaining the peace and ‘harmony’ (hoa thuan) of a household.

I have to say that my cursory glance at the research confirms pretty much what people in Viet Nam have told me about domestic violence and some family situations here. When I have spoken to neighbours about what I might do to relieve the situation in my neighbours household there is shocked disbelief that I would contemplate any action and after a warning to keep out of other’s family matters the discussion quickly ends. I have been assured that going to the police is not an option, regardless of the fact that what this man is doing is against the law. I have been told many times that in a Vietnamese family the father can do as he pleases, it his right.

Well, that leaves me in an uncomfortable position. This is truly a case of morals versus ethics. On the one hand my own code of morality cannot abide one human being savagely beating another (let alone the dog) who cannot defend herself and has no recourse to prevent the violence that is meted out to her. On the other hand, I am living in Viet Nam where it seems that ethically this type of behaviour is generally accepted despite the official position. So what can I do apart from write about my frustration?

The last time I wrote on this topic I received one quite scathing comment from an ex-pat lady who considered that I was weak and should take a stand to prevent my neighbour beating his daughter. Perhaps she is right but I’m not sure that an intervention on my part would be the successful option. I have a feeling that, just like police in Australia who are called to domestic violence situations, the whole family would most likely turn against me and support the father. There are all sorts of psychological reasons why this happens but the victim is usually embarrassed and also aware that more violence could occur at a later date exacerbated by an outsider.

Yet another comment offered the suggestion that perhaps there was some sort of preventative measure that could be taken by getting to know the family members and offering support. I guess what this person meant was a type of counselling intervention. However, there is the language barrier to consider, my Vietnamese is nowhere near good enough to be able to strike up a casual conversation about such matters, and I am sure that any approach on my part, particularly toward the mother and daughter, would be viewed with great suspicion if not downright hostility. But I’m wondering if the Vietnam Women’s Union may have some type of counselling service available. Certainly a course in anger management for this man is called for but I doubt that he would find such a thing acceptable.

Meanwhile, this is but another example of cross-cultural differences that are often so frustrating to live with. My frustration with this one is mainly to do with the acceptance of the situation by the wider Vietnamese society. Having said that, it seems clear to me that more and more women here are saying no to domestic violence and seeking divorce as an option, but for this young lady and many others like her, there is no option but to wait until she is old enough to leave home independently or get married.

I’m quick to acknowledge that domestic violence is a worldwide problem that occurs in all societies and I’m not picking on Viet Nam per se. My motivation for writing this article is brought about through having to witness a classic example of such violence on my doorstep and because of the number of women who have told me their stories of beatings and violence both as children and adults.

References:

Le Thi Quy (1992). Some views on family violence. Social Sciences, 4, 81-87.

Rydstr?m,H. (2001). Like a white piece of paper: Embodiment and the moral upbringing of Vietnamese children. Journal of Ethnos, 66, 394-413.

Rydstr?m,H. (2003).  Encountering “Hot” Anger: Domestic Violence in Contemporary Vietnam. Violence Against Women, 9, 676-697.

World Bank. (1999, November). Vietnam: Gender-based violence (Study commissioned by the World Bank from researchers of the Institute of Sociology). Hanoi, Vietnam: Author.