I’ve talked about intimate partner/domestic violence in this column before: It’s not simply a beating every now and then, but a pernicious pattern of brutal emotional and psychological assaults capable of life-long damage to a person’s psyche. Emotional abuse tends to begin first, and the physical shows up later in the relationship; usually, by the time someone seeks assistance for the first incident of physical abuse, their partner has been victimizing them for a while. Despite this, global conceptions of domestic violence are so narrowly focused on the physical indicators – a black eye, a scar – that when someone lacks them, we doubt their victimization.

Even worse, we also attach race, gender, power, and privilege to our assessment of someone’s “true” victim-hood; for instance, a black woman, a person in poverty, or a PhD candidate might have to fight harder for access to services and support than someone who’s white, middle-class, or not in academia. Somehow, deep within global narratives about domestic violence, the myth has been planted that it only happens to certain types of people.

How do you think of domestic violence?
How do you think of domestic violence?
Picture courtesy of typebnewhope.com/ribbonclothing.

I’d like to present a recent set of Chinese legal cases: in one, an American woman named Kim Lee married to a Chinese man; in another, a Chinese woman named Li Yan married to a Chinese man. In both of the cases in China, the women reporting domestic violence did so in the context of a legal system that seemingly doesn’t understand any of the above. According to the BBC, Li Yan’s case includes “police records, hospital records, witness testimony, pictures of her injuries and complaints to the ACWF (All China Women’s Federation)”, but the court ruled in August 2011 that this wasn’t sufficient evidence to demonstrate that she was the victim of domestic violence.

China also doesn’t have a specific law forbidding domestic violence: as Kim Lee’s abuser put it, “I hit her sometimes, but I never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.” Kim’s case shows how many people this system silences; she has consistently received photographs and testimonials from abused women across China since going public with her story. As an American, her use of the Chinese legal system was optional, but she says, “I did not want to teach my daughters, ‘No one can beat you because you’re American.’ I wanted to teach them, ‘No one can beat you because you’re a person, you’re a woman.'” She is now being praised as the woman who “gives domestic abuse a face and voice in China.”

The results of these cases are worth considering. Kim Lee is the first woman in Beijing to be granted a restraining order against her ex-husband, making her a legal precedent in many ways. Her use of the Chinese legal system is proof that a victim of domestic abuse can, despite the barriers, successfully obtain legal protection and divorce due to violence. The high-profile nature of her case will hopefully lead to change within the system so that other victims won’t have to fight as hard for protection of basic rights.

Li Yan, on the other hand, killed her husband in self-defense after he threatened to shoot her. Despite evidence of years of brutal abuse and the credibility of his threat to kill her, Li has been sentenced to death. Her case won the attention of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and international news agencies, and yet it’s following the same path as many Chinese women’s cases: no acknowledgement, no protection, and no support. Li’s case is also high-profile, yet it’s questionable whether China – and the world – will view her as anything other than a tragic example if she is executed. She, like Kim, has not taken the path of least resistance; she too has waded through an unresponsive and unsympathetic legal system to try and save herself. But unlike Kim, her outcome is uncertain and her legal legacy unknown.

Li Yan. Photo from theguardian.co.uk.
Li Yan. Photo from theguardian.co.uk.

These are two separate cases with separate details and evidence. But I believe it’s worth asking, despite Kim’s assertion that being American should have nothing to do with the right to be free of violence, if nationality affected the outcomes of these cases. Though I have no doubt that Kim worked incredibly hard to cooperate with the Chinese system, I wonder how much her nationality affected her ability to be a voice for victims of domestic violence in China – especially from the perspective of outsiders like myself. She gets to continue the fight for change in a culture that, in so many ways, isn’t truly hers. Li, fighting for her life in her birth country, may never have that chance. For me, this raises the question of how much we humans look for the “right” person to tell a story, no matter the circumstance. It seems profoundly unfair.

To leave you on a more optimistic note, however, I say this: less than thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have heard news like this. Domestic violence has been a serious problem for most of human history, I’m sure, but until very recently we didn’t talk about it as a global community. We tend to think of it as a women’s issue, but it’s a human rights issue. To have conversations about legal protections for victims is such a mind-blowing first step in the effort to make permanent change.

Keep fighting. We’re getting there.