In April 2022, when Johnny Depp took the stand in his highly publicized defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard, the actor denied Heard’s accusations of sexual and physical abuse and instead cast himself as the victim in their turbulent relationship. Ultimately, the jury ruled in Depp’s favor, awarding him US$15million in punitive and compensatory damages. The trial drew attention to the fact that there is no such thing as a “typical victim” of domestic violence. It can happen anywhere and to anyone, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, religion, or socioeconomic status. But in a society that expects men to be tough at all times, the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the subject of abuse, in general, are made worse by the fact that male victims refrain from speaking out due to a fear of appearing fragile. This is especially challenging in the Arab world.
“Many Middle Eastern men were taught to not cry, not show emotions, not speak about their feelings, even,” says Mina Shafik, a clinical psychologist currently based in Dubai. In addition to studying and practicing in the USA, UAE, UK, and Egypt, Shafik has acquired diverse experience with mediating, intervening, and resolving issues of violence, conflict, and alcohol and drug abuse in different parts of the world. “Imagine a man coming to report domestic violence happening from a woman. In this culture, it would be as if he ‘lost his masculinity.’ The man reporting is now showing emotions, vulnerability, and getting abused by [what is still perceived as] the ‘weaker sex,’” she says. “The situation becomes very shameful to men, enough so that they become afraid to talk about it — even to their friends,” she continues.
It is crucial to recognize that domestic abuse is a gendered crime. Women — particularly non-white women — are at a higher risk of violence because of their unequal status in society. According to the World Health Organization, intimate partner violence is one of the biggest risks to women’s health around the world, with a third having experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. In Arab countries specifically, that number rises to 37% of women, though indicators point to this percentage being even higher based on data collected by UN Women. In most cases, those responsible for this violence are the heads of families such as fathers or eldest brothers, and for many women, more time at home during the pandemic has made things worse.
Figures suggest that depending on the country, as many as one in three victims of domestic violence are men. While the prevalence of violence against men and its risk factors have gone under-investigated to date, a 2020 report reviewing international studies of domestic violence found that most affected men had also been violent towards their partners themselves, and up to 40% of them reported being abused or mistreated as children (Depp made similar claims about his own upbringing). This reveals just how complex each case can be, and how the root of intimate partner violence is much deeper than it appears on the surface.
Her Highness Sayyida Basma Al Said, the Omani royal who is also a clinical counselor and hypnotist trained in post-traumatic stress disorder, is an adamant believer that family environment is the first school for every child, which is why it should be the starting point for better understanding conflicts that can emerge in relationships later on in life. At Whispers of Serenity, the clinic she founded in 2012, HH Sayyida Basma and her team believe teaching boys to embrace and discuss their emotions from an early age can improve how they interact with romantic partners in the future. “When boys don’t express their feelings, when they grow up like this, they start having a lot of mental health issues. So, keeping all these things inside of them all these years could make them violent towards their spouse, or could make them extremely vulnerable [to abuse] themselves,” she explains.
According to Magdelina Pulido, a clinical psychologist, specialist in anxiety and depression disorders, and resident of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, stereotypes about masculinity further exacerbate the hesitation among male victims to identify themselves as such. Cultural and religious components must be taken into account when considering how gender dynamics influence intimate partner violence, and in the Arab world, that context is key to understanding why men who face both physical and psychological abuse don’t seek professional help when they need it.
“Violence and being a victim of it is a taboo, and sadly it still is after so many years of fighting to make this visible,” Pulido says. She also points out the importance of widening the scope of how we view violence beyond what happens between a couple, offering examples of what she is seeing more recently which occur when a parent asserts control over their children’s marriage prospects. “When a young man falls deeply in love with a woman, maybe both of them are of the same religion and background but the mother doesn’t approve.”
The fact that not all violence is physical is a major contributing factor to a pervasive culture of silence, particularly among men. Shouting, humiliation, jealousy, controlling behavior, even attempts to sabotage another person’s job are just some examples of the types of psychological violence that go undetected because their effects are less obvious than a bruise or a black eye. Victims may not even realize it themselves at first. “In my experience, I have encountered men who reported domestic violence or intimate partner violence. Usually, the violence is emotional abuse rather than physical. In the sessions, it takes the male client a while to report that he has been abused. Additionally, a lot of emotional abuse victims don’t recognize they are being abused. So they don’t come to therapy specifically for that reason,” she explains.
HH Sayyida Basma says the pandemic led to an increase in male clients seeking mental health support, and when it comes to opening up about issues of domestic violence, she’s noticed them requesting female therapists because they’re concerned about judgment from their male counterparts, even if those men are trained professionals. “A long time ago we started support groups [for men] and we are going to restart them now, just talking to them about how they can look after themselves and how they can help themselves. In terms of male clients [who are victims of abuse], we have quite a few who do go through this with their spouse or from a relationship. I personally have seen quite a few, so that’s why I can actually say, yes, it does happen, and I do see these cases.”
HH Sayyida Basma, Pulido, and Shafik are in agreement that making male domestic abuse visible is essential for progress in this area. The best way to encourage more victims to get the help they need in the Middle East is to keep the dialogue going so men feel less alone in their suffering. “We need to keep talking about this,” HH Sayyida Basma asserts. “Whoever they are, whatever gender, they are victims, and any victim of abuse needs to be looked after.”