Tackling Domestic Violence and Abuse in Faith Communities Conference

Today your illustrious web team got let out of the back office, and were unshackled from the daily grind of making this ‘ere site, to go and attend a day conference run by Kahrmel Wellness on Tackling Domestic Violence and Abuse in Faith Communities in Derby.  ‘Twas a goodly day with many things to think about; you might have already seen the couple of tweets we sent out whilst there.

Being as it’s an important subject, we thought we’d give you a bit of a rundown on the best bits, as it were.  The conference was free to attend, and least importantly, we got a lunch in the middle.  Before and after that, the speakers were a mix of professionals and faith leaders (such as rabbis and imams) talking about domestic abuse and the additional facets of spiritual abuse, migrant domestic violence experiences and immigration, child sexual abuse in faith communities, behavioural patterns of perpetrators, and female genital mutilation (FGM; which unfortunately included photographs, just before lunch…)

It would be really easy for us to say that cases of domestic abuse don’t happen within the pagan community.  It would be easy to say that we’re all wonderful people who respect each other’s choices and don’t try to control others.  It would be easy to say that it doesn’t happen here.  It only happens to other people.  Somewhere else.  All the paedophiles are Catholic priests, which get reported in the Daily Mail.  All the abusers who use people’s faith and core beliefs against them are in other faiths, and not ours.

It does happen here, though.  It’s a statistical certainty.

In a community the size of ours across the county, it’s most likely happening somewhere.  To someone.  Possibly someone you know.  And being perpetrated by someone else you know.  It could even be you.

Abuse doesn’t just include physical and sexual violence, though that can be and often is part of it.  It can also consist of emotional and psychological factors, financial and economic elements and incorporate forms of spiritual abuse.

The organisers of the event had a specific message to get across to delegates: that domestic abuse happens to people within your community.  And that as people within a faith community, we are all responsible for looking out for each other.  Religious orthodoxies, doctrines, scriptures and  tenets cannot be allowed to function as justification for abuse.  It’s fair to say that in this latter sense the pagan community is less susceptible because of our lack of central dogma and scripture.  But spiritual abuse, that is when abuse justifies itself through faith (for example a Christian husband telling a Christian wife that the Bible states that she must obey him, and is punished if she is perceived not to have), can happen in any faith, creed or belief system.  Take the example of a pagan in a relationship with an atheist: the pagan may be told that they cannot attend the sabbats, cannot practice within the house, or cannot socialise with other pagans by the abuser.  Compliance could be enforced by threats, violence, humiliation, ridicule, the withholding of money or door keys, the removal or damaging of tools and sacred objects from around the home, or any number of other sanctions.

The event was attended by, among others, an imam, Dr Musharraf Hussain (OBE) who talked on the Positive Use of Faith in tackling such problems, and the role that faith communities and leaders can and should play in supporting the victim.  One of the highlights for us, he talked about the role of moral codes withn faith communities (and, as an example of structure without feeling, he managed to squeeze in Star Trek’s Mr Spock, which is a subject close to our little trekkie hearts).

Other speakers included Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich from the Nottingham Liberal Synagogue on Enriching the Value of Women in Society, Justin Humphreys, Head of Safeguarding from the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service on Child Sexual Abuse in Faith Communities, and Kudakwashe Nyakudya and Sylvia Gilbert from the host organisation talking about the Experiences of Child and Adult Victims, the Behavioural Patterns of Perpetrators and a Model for Tackling Domestic Abuse in Faith Communities.

Dr Lisa Oakley from the Manchester Metropolitan University lectured on Defining Spiritual Abuse, Rumbidzai Bvunzawabaya (LLB) from RBM Solicitors lectured on the Experiences of Migrant Adult and Child Victims, and the last session before lunch was from Alison Byrne, a specialist midwife for female genital mutilation, Heart of England NHS Trust.  She talked on the aforementioned ladies’ bits, defining the types and categorisations of mutilation.

After lunch there were more speakers: Tina McCarthy from the National Centre for Domestic Violence detailed Legal Rights and Emergency Civil Injunctions, Mr Farid Arada (JP) explained the responsibilities of a Magistrate and took a sample domestic violence trial through step by step.  Finally Alan Charles, the Derbyshire Police and Crime Commissioner spoke on the Priorities of Policing, and Interworking Between the Police and Faith Communities before the conference day officially closed.

So what did we think?  For that I’ll hand you over to Tiro for a bit.



As well as the fascinating, and frequently somewhat disturbing, information we received on domestic violence in faith communities today, it’s fair to say that Amalasuntha and I were struck by one of the positive aspects of today’s event: that there were a large number of attendees from various public- and voluntary-sector organisations who are already well practised in dealing with domestic violence and abuse. Part of the aim of the organisers today was to highlight the specific characteristics of abuse that occurs within faith communities, and the problems that can arise in trying to engage with victims because of these contexts.

Amalasuntha has spoken about the concept of ‘spiritual abuse’, as described at the event. This is something that agencies are frequently called upon to deal with, but may not previously have fully recognised as a separate issue. Spiritual abuse might, for example, occur when an abuser uses scriptural teachings to rationalise and justify his (or her) abusive behaviour: “The Bible says you should love, honour and obey me.” The abuser may assert such a divine mandate; or they may threaten divine retribution if their demands are not complied with.

As we’ve already pointed out, a relatively decentralised faith community such as paganism might not be especially prone to the worst elements of a faith so perverted: certainly, as mentioned, there will be pagans who are suffering – and perpetrating – some degree or another of abuse. But for the most part we do not have the communal context that, for example, a Muslim or Christian might have. It would be more difficult, perhaps, for a pagan abuser to threaten his (or her) victim with shame or dishonour in the eyes of their congregation. More difficult, but still not impossible. We may lack a large-scale uniformity, but it’s not difficult to find examples – on websites and forums, journals and magazines – of individual testimony describing threats of ostracism from covens or other group units. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as immune to these problems simply because we don’t have a hierarchical clergy structure or fixed and persistent places of worship.

Speaker Kudakwashe Nyakudya described a two-type model for DVA in faith communities: Type 1 DVA being what we might think of as ‘standard’ abuse, of an individual by another individual. Type 2 she described as that abuse that is perpetrated on the individual by a group or community. The family who beat a woman for “bringing shame”. The community which hounds a victim because of some perceived slight against ‘honour’; or which shelters and defends an offender. Or perhaps a coven which compels a victim to stay with her (or his) abuser lest by leaving they “break the magickal bonds”.  Speaking for myself, I was actually heartened to hear from representatives of various faiths – Jews, Muslims, Christians – stating quite clearly that such abuse is not required or excused by their scriptures. All gave examples of the positive messages contained within their holy texts, and rejected those passages taken out of context or misinterpreted to justify the mistreatment or oppression of women – or anyone. All spoke of the common elements of faith: the need for compassion; the need to help and support each other.

It would be easy for those opposed to religion on the basis of its misuse by some to reject this; to say that because it can be perverted for evil ends, so it must be intrinsically evil. But not for the first time, I was struck by the range of elements all these religions have in common; elements which we, as pagans, largely share. We may not believe in Heaven or Hell (as opposed to Hel, of course); we may not believe that a man once turned water into wine, or was God Incarnate on Earth. We may not believe that a man was once given stone tablets inscribed with ten sacred laws. We may not believe any of these things literally, perhaps. But we pagans do, I think universally, believe that we as human beings have a responsibility unique in Nature; that there is a universal order of which we are perhaps a part, and that – whether we believe in God or gods, in a divinity male, female, both or neither – we share with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and without any religion at all, that same responsibility to help, care for and support each other in this life. To be, in better, more concise words, excellent to each other.

“Peace Out” would seem appropriate here.

This has been rather a long post.  Our intention here is not to imply that any given individual known to us is suffering or is perpetrating domestic violence: we sincerely hope not.  But we are a community, if a somewhat chaotic one, and it can be difficult for a person to raise such issues in any group close to them.  So, if you or anyone you know is affected by problems of these kinds, and you don’t feel able to speak openly in the community, know that there are organisations out there who can advise and assist you.  You can speak in full confidence to Women’s Aid, Victim Support, the National Centre for Domestic Violence, or the Samaritans (although please note the Samaritans are a listening service, and cannot tell you what to do).  Or you can contact your local police by ringing 101 or, in an emergency, please dial 999.



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