Today I watched a woman being hit by her partner and I couldn’t stop it. I wanted to write down what happened partly as a reminder of how common domestic violence is and partly as an apology to the victim that I should have been able to help. I have lots of excuses for why I didn’t do anything, but ultimately they are just that…excuses.
I sat on the tram to work this morning and a couple got on that were arguing enough for me to look up, despite the music playing in my earphones. A few seconds later the guy, who had the girl pushed up against the wall of the tram, raised his fist and punched her in the chest. It was a small, rapid movement, unnoticeable to any one who wasn’t looking directly at them, but I almost felt the blow as he hit her. I watched them intently, not sure what the best course of action would be next. My initial reaction was to yell at him, but I remembered that I am in a country where I don’t speak the language (excuse number 1). They started to walk further down the tram away from me and my second reaction was again to yell at him. But then I thought, you have to think about the woman – she wouldn’t want to draw attention to this, to have her personal life shouted about in a tram. I bet she is already embarrassed about the whole incident. I know screaming out would be the feminist thing to do, but would it be the best thing for her? (excuse number 2) So I thought again, what to do, what to do. I got out my phone and decided to take a photo of this guy. But what would that do, besides likely provoke him to attack me. We already know this guy doesn’t mind hitting women.
So I decided on a different course of action. I would go to the other end of the tram, where the couple were now sitting, quietly ask the woman if she spoke English and hoping that she did, I would, as gently as possible, ask her if she needed any help. If he decided to become aggressive with me then, well I was fairly happy to take my chances. I waited until the next stop as I am on crutches at the moment and staying upright whilst trying to walk on a moving tram isn’t the easiest thing to do (I think we are up to 4 excuses now…). The woman sitting opposite me kept looking at me and looking at them, shaking her head and muttering something in German. Right before the stop I stood up and said to her “I’m sorry I only speak English, but I am going over to ask her if she is alright”. She stood up too and I thought ‘Yes! Solidarity! She is going to back me up!’ She wasn’t backing me up. She was getting off the tram. So here I was, hobbling up the tram aisle towards this couple and before I could reach them they got off the tram via a door further ahead of me. I was stunned for a minute. What should I do? Do I jump off the tram and confront them there? But the moment of indecision had been enough time for the doors to close and the tram to set off again (keep counting those excuses!).
I was horrified. I talk a good talk about feminism, but when action is needed I completely dropped the ball. I tried to console myself by reasoning that even if I had managed to speak to her, she probably didn’t speak English and probably would have told me to mind my own business if she did. It didn’t help. I know enough women that have experienced domestic abuse to know the sort of environment that she is going home to. That thought alone brought me close to tears. And the more I thought about it, the angrier I got at him, at the other people on the tram who did nothing, and at myself. I thought about the punch. It was swift, sharp, almost a practiced move that was on a part of the body where bruises wouldn’t show when clothed. And I thought about every other person on that tram, male and female alike. Half of them didn’t notice, but there was a big group that did. There was almost a gasp that ran through our section of the tram and everyone turned to stare. However, apart from some head shaking and disapproving clucks and murmurs, every single person sat there and let a man beat his partner in public.