Domestic violence and our bystander culture

Last August, a woman was gunned down outside my agency’s headquarters in New Jersey. She was shot 16 times through the back, in front of her two young children. Inevitably, it was established that she was a victim of domestic violence. At the time, she had attempted to do all the right things to leave her violent home for a place of safety – she had a restraining order against her abuser, was in the process of obtaining a divorce and even enrolled in nursing school to ensure financial independence. However, all this was ultimately not enough to save her life.
The bullet holes that remain on our front door serve as a grim reminder that one in three women globally are victims of domestic violence and sometimes, as in this case, such abuse can be fatal.

We can examine this woman’s story through the lens of individual institutional failures – failures of the justice system, failures of law enforcement or the shortcomings of social service and child protective services. But at the end of the day each of these institutions failed this woman. They failed her children. And they failed every other victim of domestic violence who will consider this woman’s murder, despite her numerous attempts to seek safety, as evidence of a failed system and reason enough to remain silent and endure an abusive relationship.

Perhaps the most overlooked institutional failure, however, is our bystander culture, which accepts silence towards gender-based violence. As is often seen in cases of domestic violence or sexual assault, there is a general fixation on the victim’s character and judgment. For example, a woman is often considered weak if she stays in an abusive situation or blamed for ‘encouraging’ a perpetrator to rape her in cases of sexual assault because of her choice of clothing or demeanor. Neither assumption can be regarded as truth, and both highlight our insistence as a society to focus on the victims instead of the perpetrators. We avoid holding perpetrators of violence accountable for their actions by constantly focusing on what the victim could have done to avoid being harmed. What we fail to realize is that by doing so we end up becoming bystanders to abuse. Instead of criticizing women for the decisions they make to essentially negotiate their personal safety and the safety of their children, we should take a closer look at whether we hold our respective communities accountable as healthy systems of support in order to connect victims with education and resources on domestic violence.

Recently, Naazish Noorani, a 27-year-old mother of two children, was murdered in her hometown of Boonton, New Jersey, blocks away from her sister’s home. The most recent reports of the murder allege that her husband is being held for her murder. Reports indicate that her husband was abusive. Neighbors recalled instances of the police frequenting the couple’s Boston apartment for domestic disturbance calls as a result of heated exchanges between the couple. In an affidavit released last week, Noorani’s family revealed that they were aware of several instances of physical abuse, as well as Pervaiz’s extramarital affairs. Another report reveals that another woman filed assault charges against Pervaiz in February after he allegedly pushed and smacked her. The charges were later dropped because the victim failed to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office – an occurrence that is actually quite common for victims of domestic violence.

A month ago, Noorani sent a chilling text message to her brother:

“Can’t talk to him cuz he abuses me … I’m so tired of this. … Someday U will find me dead, but it’s cuz of Kashi … he wants to kill me.”

If Noorani’s life could be played back, how many additional telltale signs would we be able to identify as warning signs of abuse? How many times did she reach out to someone for help? How many red flag instances would we be able to spot where friends, neighbors and family members considered intervening because of something her husband said or did, but then stepped back after convincing them that it was a matter between a man and his wife? How many Naazish Noorani’s have we come across in our lives – and how often do we opt to rationalize violent behavior by convincing ourselves that the sanctity of marriage is far more important than the physical well being of our daughters, sisters, and mothers?

It is important to note here that some women will never seek out support or additional services. In fact, some may even turn down support from community or family members, which seems to be what many relatives of Noorani claim was the case when they tried to help. What is critical to understand is that in order to provide adequate support to victims of abuse, we must: 1) be educated on the complex dynamics of domestic violence, 2) learn to become active and empathetic listeners and 3) be able to connect victims with local social service agencies that can provide them with professional assistance as they navigate the social service, legal, and justice systems to seek safety.

Before we can do any of that we have to be able to own up, as a community, to the fact that domestic violence is a problem that gravely impacts our community just as any other. Domestic violence, by definition, is a pattern of coercive, controlling behavior that includes physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can entail intimidation and manipulation that manifests itself in many ways aside from physical abuse – by threatening to take away children, threatening to have a woman deported or ‘shamed’ by being sent back home to her parents or isolating her from her family and friends to strategically cut her off from her support networks. As abusers often engage in a pattern of behavior, also called the cycle of violence, many women mistake apologies or peaceful times at home as indications that things will get better at home. This lack of awareness about what domestic violence, as well as the cyclical and often escalating dynamics of domestic violence, lead many women to feel trapped and unsure of what to do. Without adequate intervention some of these women, as in the case of Noorani, end up paying with their lives.

As mentioned earlier, one in three women will face some form of abuse in her lifetime. Statistically, these women will consider leaving their abusive partners seven to fourteen times before actually leaving – if they even try. The reasons for this seeming indecision is not what is generally perceived as a woman’s inability to make decisions sans emotion – it is actually just the opposite. Financial dependence, a lack of awareness about resources and laws that protect them, the desire to provide a two-parent home for their children and a lack of awareness about the cyclical dynamics of abuse all end up being reasons women often internally negotiate with themselves to stay in their abusive situations.

A fear of homelessness is another factor that many women consider when choosing to stay. The fear is very real considering a recent survey conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless revealed that sixty-three percent of women in homeless situations are actually victims of domestic violence. This not only illustrates the grim reality of the consequences of leaving abusive homes, but also the inability of social service and government housing programs to provide adequate alternatives for women fleeing violent partners.

Now consider compounding the process of a woman constantly negotiating her safety in a domestic violence situation with cultural and religious stigmas prevalent in many Muslim and immigrant communities. The lack of awareness about the dynamics of abuse, silence and indifference from community members, friends and family can be detrimental to a woman’s decision to seek help. If a woman is unable to find adequate support to leave her abuser, she is unlikely to leave at all.

Domestic violence is not an issue where you can afford to be a neutral and uniformed bystander. The lives of our daughters, sisters, mothers and friends are far too precious to gamble away by such indifference. So what can you do?

Become informed. The best kind of bystander is an informed one. Find your local domestic violence agency and sign up to become a volunteer. Learn about the dynamics of domestic violence and about the resources available for victims in your local area.

Listen. 1 in 3 women are subject to some form of domestic violence in their lifetime. It is very likely that you have or will come across several women in similar situations. If you do come across such a woman in your life, listen to her. Validate her experience and serve as a source of non-judgmental support. Always present her with options and never with frustration over why she may not be ready to leave.

Be the resource. Connect her with local domestic violence agencies so that she may receive additional support and much needed services ranging from 24 hour hotlines, emergency shelter, crisis counseling, child care, job readiness, legal advocacy and transitional housing.
(Photo Credit:

Qudsia Jafree is a domestic violence counselor at the YWCA-Eastern Union County, NJ. For more information on getting involved with the YWCA, contact:

If you suspect that you are in an abusive relationship and would like to learn more about seeking help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

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