Family Groups - Mothers
However, history shows it is not unusual for
women to be violent. Catherine II of Russia was intelligent,
learned and cultured, and she vastly strengthened the Russian
But she was also cruel and merciless towards
all who opposed her — including her husband, Tsar Peter
III, whom she succeeded on his murder. She is said to have
kept one of her lover’s heads in a jar by her bed.
"Bloody" Mary I was a Roman Catholic
queen in a newly Protestant country. Mary ordered the burning
and torture of over 300 Protestants.
Elizabeth, Countess Bathory was a sadist who
perpetrated incredible cruelties upon her servants and peasant
girls, murdering over 650 of them during her reign of terror.
Recent news headlines have further highlighted
that, in spite of their stereotype as gentle nurturers, women
have the capacity to be as violent as men. Just look at the
case against Private Lynndie England who allegedly tortured
Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.
In Malaysia, violence against men by their wives
is nothing new as well — it is just rarely reported,
because men are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit what’s
happening to them. Child abuse statistics also indicate women
hurt their children as often as (or more often than) men do.
The most common by far are the maid abuse cases
that are surfacing. Stories of ill-treated, abused and tortured
maids are always floating around. But complaints are rarely
registered, until something extremely traumatic happens.
So, what’s going on? As more women are
being detained for violent or abusive offences, it has led
us to wonder what could possibly have made them resort to
There are many different theories, from a coarse
and violent culture in general, to violent women portrayed
in movies (think Terminator 3) to the waning of religious
influence, more broken homes and more mothers pursuing a career.
Who knows for sure?
On the psychological side of things, some of
our local experts share their views.
Dr Rabin Gonzaga, president of the Malaysian
Mental Health Association, says that the risk factors associated
with women’s violent behaviour are not that different
from those associated with men’s violent behaviour.
"Low threshold for managing anger, depression,
stress and marital problems are equally valid psychological
predictors of violence, regardless of race or gender,"
he says. However, it has been shown that in certain circumstances,
women’s reasons for committing violence are unique.
For example, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) has
occasionally been used to explain women’s violence,
sometimes even in court. American research suggests around
five per cent of women do suffer severe emotional disturbance
prior to a period, but sceptics say that it cannot alone account
for most female violence.
"PMS can range in severity from mild to
incapacitating, in both a physical and psychological sense,"
says Dr Gonzaga.
"PMS does occur, but it doesn’t occur
in all women, and it doesn’t mean that all women who
get it are mentally ill."
Another "females only" explanation
for violent behaviour is post-partum depression (PPD).
But again, the experts are not buying it.
"PPD develops because of the dramatic drop
in oestrogen and progesterone pregnancy-sustaining hormones
that occurs with childbirth," explains Dr Prashant Nadkarni,
a consultant obstetrician-gynaecology based in Kuala Lumpur.
"But we believe that it is extremely rare for it to result
He notes that PPD is characterised by changes
in sleep and appetite patterns, increased irritability, a
decrease in concentration and feelings of inadequacy, guilt
and worthlessness. It can happen after the birth of any child,
not just the first child.
Dr Nadkarni also says there is a wide disparity
between the number of women suffering from PPD in Asian and
Western countries because of the higher levels of support
"In Malaysia, women usually have the support
of their extended family or their maids to help them with
the baby and the house," he says. "In Western countries,
where most women live in nuclear families and have a weaker
support system, they often snap under the intense pressure
of caring for their newborn, juggling household chores and
sometimes even a job."
Dr Gonzaga adds that most people suffering from
depression don’t harm other people, unless it is a severe
case, for example, if the patient suffers a degree of psychosis.
He points to the example of Texas mother Andrea
Yates, sentenced to 40 years’ prison for drowning her
five children in the bathtub. But while childbirth is the
spark for such "post-partum psychosis", only one
in 600 women are likely to be afflicted, in contrast to the
14 per cent affected by postnatal depression.
Another of the supposed "common sense"
views about violence is that experiencing it will lead to
the subsequent use of violence.
But Dr Gonzaga says this is not inevitable.
"How do you then explain the majority of abused people
who don’t become violent?" he asks.
"Everyone experiences pain and discomfort
which can lead to aggression. Those who do not become excessively
aggressive and violent are those who have learnt, probably
from a young age, not to be aggressive," he says.
He stresses that the most common feature among
abusers is an imbalance of power and control. Abusers, says
Dr Gonzaga, tend to target people who are vulnerable or are
defenceless, like children, maids, the handicapped or the
He adds that it is important to note that abusers
choose violence to get what they want in a relationship.
Associate Professor Dr Nor Zuraidah Zainal,
a consultant-liaison psychiatrist adds that anti-social personality
disorder and conduct disorder are also strongly linked to
violent or aggressive tendencies in women.
"These factors become most apparent in
teenage years and if not identified and treated, continue
into adulthood," she says. "Unfortunately, in the
majority of cases, treatment is available only after the violent
offence has been committed and the woman has been imprisoned."
Dr Bharathi Vengadasa, a clinical specialist
and psychiatrist, also cites poverty, unemployment, isolation,
single parenthood and substance abuse as possible triggers
for violent behaviour.
While local statistics are not available, in
Singapore, at least 30 murder and suicide cases have been
reported since 1973. In 23 of them, the mother was responsible.
Most of the women had trouble coping with their children and
were overwhelmed by financial or marital problems.
However, Dr Bharathi stresses that no single
theory or explanation for women’s violence can ever
be satisfactory. "You can have a mental health problem,
without being diagnosed with a mental health disorder,"
she says. "But even if a person has a biological predisposition
to mental illness, it doesn’t mean they are abusers."
"Most women feel the strain even with most
mundane day-to-day living pressures," she adds.
"Women who feel stressed out playing the
multiple roles of employee, wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law
should take a step back and look at their lives in perspective."
She suggests that women talk it out if they
feel they’re on the verge of a breakdown. "You
are not a superwoman," she says. "Ask your husband
to help shoulder the household burden or work out alternatives
with him. The stresses in your life are a family matter, not
Otherwise, seek counselling or see a doctor.
Counselling is available at organisations like the Women’s
Aid Organisation Tel: 03-7955-4426/ 7956-3488, All Women’s
Action Society Tel: 03-7877-0224, The Befrienders 03-7957-1306
and the MMHA Tel 03-7782-5499 or email: email@example.com.