The Real Questions We Should Be Asking About #WhyIStayed

On September 8, 2014, TMZ leaked camera footage that showed American football running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée, now-wife Janay Palmer in a casino elevator. Since the video's release, Ray Rice's contract with the Baltimore Ravens has been terminated, and he has been indefinitely suspended from the National Football League. Undoubtedly, the question on everybody's mind as they watched the video was: Why did Janay Palmer stay with and marry the man who abused her?

Ray Rice's domestic abuse scandal has placed the much-needed yet often silenced conversations on gender-based violence and intimate partner violence back into the spotlight, including a discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Recounting many women's harrowing experiences with intimate partner violence, tweets hashtagged #WhyIStayed shed light on the complex reasons behind entrapment in violent relationships. These narratives from women tweeters focused not only on physical abuse, but also on the verbal, emotional and economic manifestations of violence that occurred in a relationship.

As I read the posts under #WhyIStayed on my Twitter feeds, I was reminded of the insidious psychology behind intimate partner violence. The tweets on #WhyIStayed testify to the fact that the choice to let go of an abusive relationship necessitates wrestling the emotional bondages of fear, shame and above all, love. It isn't just assault or the ensuing bruises and scars that victims of intimate partner violence have to overcome, but a fusillade of religious, cultural and financial pressures that they have to surmount as they reach a tenuous decision to stay in a relationship.

Scrolling down these tweets, I couldn't help but wonder: how many more women bear the same brunt of intimate partner violence? How many more women struggle to break the vicious cycle of violence and reconciliation that keeps them holding on to abusive relationships? And how many more women remain silent in the face of these flagrant human rights violations?

The worrying truth is that the tweets tagged #WhyIStayed constitute merely a microcosm of the global pandemic that is gender-based violence. The World Health Organization estimates that globally, 35 percent of women "have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime," and this statistic inevitably excludes unreported instances of violence.

And I believe that instrumental in perpetuating this pandemic of gender-based violence is the culture of focusing on the victim instead of the abuser. I think that while #WhyIStayed has successfully been able to put faces to heartbreaking stories of intimate partner violence, it reinforces these attitudes by encourging women to justify why they stayed in abusive relationships. Although I applaud #WhyIStayed for offering women the opportunity to amplify these often unspoken narratives, I worry that it places the responsibility of breaking out of the cycle of abuse on the victim at the expense of accenting the real problem: the attitudes that condone gender-based violence. #WhyIStayed dangerously assumes that the ultimate decision to leave an abusive relationship hinges on the action or inaction of the victim, as opposed to the cessation of the abusive behavior of the domestic violence perpetrator -- and isn't this the toxic rationale behind gender-based violence that stonewalls its extirpation?

Going forward, instead of asking victims why they choose to remain in violent relationships, we should be asking abusers why they abuse. Instead of evaluating Janay Rice's decision to marry her violent husband, we should be questioning Ray Rice's behavior, and the global struggle of gender-based violence that it demonstrates. I think that the dual responsibilities of acknowledging the real roots of gender-based violence and initiating discussion that correctly addresses the mentalities behind abusive behavior rest squarely on our shoulders, and we owe it to every survivor and victim of violence. Only when we finally actuate these shifts in mentality and conversation, can we accelerate enlightened, positive action to uproot the global struggle that is gender-based violence.