Sometimes words can be just as harmful as actions
A couple of years ago, I read some really sad news about a double murder of a woman and her mother. In 2018, Raneem Oudeh and her mother Khaola Salem were murdered by Oudeh’s ex-husband Janbaz Tarin as they walked down a quiet residential street in Solihull, England.
Oudeh had previously broken off her relationship with Tarin after finding out that he had a secret wife and three children in Afghanistan. Tarin had turned threatening and when Oudeh was killed she was actually on the phone to the police for the fifth time in less than two hours.
Commenting on the crime, Bas Javid, the West Midlands Police Chief Superintendent at the time, said: ‘Tragedies like this are extremely rare’.
That was when I realised that something was profoundly wrong with the way we spoke about violence against women. Even those with seniority and power were making huge mistakes. But what exactly are those mistakes?
1. Murders of women by their partners are rare
In the same year that Janbaz Tarin killed Raneem Oudeh and her mother, 165 UK women died at the hands of men. A significant number of these women were killed by a partner or ex.
Well-worn statistics tell us that two women every week are killed by their partner in England and Wales alone. Recently, studies into the killings of women by men in the UK have also started to record levels of ‘overkilling’ – or where gratuitous and excessive force beyond that needed to kill the victim is used. Fifty-six percent of the killings of women by men in 2018 involved overkilling.
These are pretty harrowing statistics; they tell us that the murder of a woman by her partner is not simply something that happens once in a blue moon – they are frequent occurrences in our society, and many women live in constant fear of this happening. The statistics on overkilling also indicate that much of the time, these murders are calculated, deliberately brutal and are perpetrated by those who undeniably wish to kill. There is no way that we can frame any of these murders as ‘accidents’ – most are distinctly premeditated.
Besides, all murders of women stem from a wider crisis of violence against women. With one in three women in England and Wales aged 16-59 experiencing domestic abuse in their lifetimes, we cannot shy away from the fact that violence against women is in fact the opposite of rare.
By describing what happened to Raneem Oudeh and Khoala Saleem as rare, Bas Javid makes it seem as though violence against women is not a systemic crisis that society as a whole should be worrying about. Instead, he makes what happened seem like a niche occurrence that is of no consequence for the rest of us. But it is society’s collective problem to stamp out something that is undeniably endemic within our social fabric.
2. When a woman is murdered by her partner it is a ‘tragedy’
This might seem controversial, but I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with and convincing people not to use the word ‘tragedy’ to describe instances where women die at the hands of men.
The word tragedy has connotations of something inevitable. Tragedy as a genre has always focused on tales of chaos and calamity where terrible accidents of fortune come about as a result of a single fatal flaw. Tragedies are about sets of events triggered into motion that cannot be hindered. Calling the murder of a woman by her partner ‘tragedy’ is to say that it was not preventable.
We often find that the word ‘tragedy’ crops up in many situations where disasters occur, but often these disasters are not inevitable.
After the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington, Theresa May described what had happened as ‘an unimaginable tragedy that should never have happened and must never happen again’. She described something that we know was linked to systemic failures to remove dangerous cladding as a ‘tragedy’, as though the fire was inevitable. Though she said it must ‘never happen again’, her sentence structure totally removed the sense of it being anyone’s responsibility to prevent such disasters going forward.
The word tragedy is often used when we should have taken responsibility for something but didn’t. It is used as a means of absolving ourselves of guilt and future responsibility. It makes us feel better about ourselves and stops us from putting in the vital but difficult work that is needed to make our society safer.
3. That there’s nothing we can do about it
Nothing could be further from the truth! There is so much we can do to prevent these crimes. It will take a lot of hard work, but this really should be high on society’s list of priorities.
Mass re-education is needed in order to change attitudes surrounding domestic violence, and sex and relationships education in schools needs to improve significantly so that people can recognise what abusive relationships look like and identify any red flags. There also needs to be a concentrated effort to root out misogyny wherever it is found in society. Things like the gender pay gap may seem totally unconnected to violence against women, but if we pay women less for the same work, then we suggest that they are less valuable. Suggesting this in any way whatsoever can make women’s lives feel cheaper than men’s.
Many killings of women by men are preventable. Often, the woman has been in touch with police and probation services. Raneem Oudeh had actually secured a court order against Tarin. The night before she and her mother were murdered, Tarin followed them to a Shisha bar and slapped both victims in the face. He was thrown out and Oudeh called the police, telling them what had happened and explaining that she had a court order against Tarin. Fundamentally, not enough was done to prevent what happened to these women, even though Tarin clearly posed a high risk and had already made threats on their lives.
We can do more and we can do better, so saying otherwise is ultimately just another way to dampen any sense of responsibility we might feel.