The death of Beáta Molnár, the 30-year-old woman murdered by her partner in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, brings the discussion of gender violence back into the public eye. Her dead body was found wrapped in trash bags, abandoned by the murderer near a gas station in the neighboring Bihor. And it raises the question: what can the community do to stop the death of the next victim and to actively struggle against domestic violence? Beyond imprisonment and exclusion, the responsibility to take better care of each other belongs to us all.
There are no words…
“There are no words”. That’s what I read in many sad and shocked posts about the murder of Beáta Molnár by her partner.
It is, indeed, very hard to find words for what the people close to her feel at this moment.
However, there are words for this murder: domestic violence, violence against women, the worst culmination of abuse, femicide.
And there were words for this, already when the perpetrator – who for now is, still in legal parlance,, “the suspect” – abused other former partners. For years, repeatedly. There were already words when one of these abuses came to public attention: a beating, in July 2020, that left a former partner of “the suspect” soaked in blood, on the pavement, in the middle of the street. Such a beating is called violence. But some people had other words for the violence: “just a slap”.
How many “just-a-slaps” have cost how many women’s lives?
In 2019 alone, 51 women died from domestic violence in Romania – one of the first statistics anyone can find on the internet. One woman every week.
“What could you do?”
Still, it seems you’re at a loss for words when someone you know is killed. A person you’ve spent several New Year’s Eves with. A friend you went out for a beer with. A woman you’ve heard sing, whose poems you’ve read. Someone about whom you knew that she had a partner who had severely abused several women over the years. Someone you’ve said little or nothing to.
“What could you do?”
“There’s nothing to be done… there are no words”…
Aren’t there, really, any words? For Bea, there is nothing left to do anymore. Nothing. To do. But couldn’t have ever been? I don’t believe so, there must have been something… But what? And how? Unfortunately, I don’t have a clear answer. But thoughts keep coming to me…
What else can we do?
There’s not so much you can do on your own. Neither women living in abusive relationships nor their (women) friends, at least as far as I can see, can do much on their own.
No, I’m wrong! Actually, the ones who survive do a lot of it alone. They survive… And survival is everything in abusive relationships!
But there will always be someone who dies a little with every slap and maybe someone else ends up in a garbage bag in an abandoned gas station, just like Bea, if nothing can be done about it….
I read memorial messages. I read angry messages. I share their anger. And despair. I haven’t talked to Bea about violence. But, before Bea’s death, I did talk to other women living in abusive relationships. We spoke between two people, sometimes between three. We came up with arguments for each other, tried to convince each other of the truth of each other’s story through persuasion, pain and tears, and each, by turn, felt feelings of misunderstanding and helplessness. We were told that we couldn’t understand, but that she would think it over and thank us. The friend I did talk to would be truly thankful for the support. Then she’d go home…
How many of you have sat down in private to talk about violence with friends in abusive relationships? I’m sure many. And yet it never seems to be enough.
But what would be enough? What could really prevent the worst from happening again and again?
Firstly: there is the word prison
This oppressive institution, prison, robs lives. Most often the lives of the poor, disproportionately of the racialized. Prison removes people from society, throws them out. In the name of justice, prison reserves the right to apply as ‘punishment’ the only collectively recognised and accepted solution, incarceration.
We know that violence against women is under-punished in most parts of the world. If the earlier beating of an ex-girlfriend had resulted in anything more than a suspended sentence and some community work for the killer, Bea would probably still be alive today.
Personally, I don’t believe in the effectiveness of incarceration. However, the idea that imprisonment could be a temporary solution, one that could save lives, should be taken seriously. But, in our current oppressive society, this is the normative and often the only so-called acceptable solution. And yet, I do not believe in the effectiveness of imprisonment. 1 year, 3 years, 10 years, 15, 20. What happens next? Or: what happens to the people locked up? For 1 year, 3 years, 10-20, the violence seems to stop, but it just moves to prison, where violence learns more violence. In prison, the violence actually turns into even more, potential and concrete violence, exercised against the imprisoned and against us.
Secondly: there is the word therapy
Beata Molnar’s killer, Ferenc Boné, received a suspended sentence for beating his former partner 2 years ago. With Boné’s suspended sentence came the obligation to receive psychological counseling. Until it was no longer mandatory. And he even skipped the free therapy sessions. He couldn’t be forced to do it after a while, even though it was a measure imposed by the court in Cluj. Therapy is useful in most cases, but it is extremely expensive. And even harder to access if the perpetrator rejects it.
I wonder what would happen if therapy were always free and non-stigmatised, if there were more professionals, if more people understood that it is for the benefit of all of us? And even then, not all perpetrators might accept to attend…
Thirdly: there is the word forgiveness
Someone wrote online that they cannot forgive a person who doesn’t regret their violent actions. She cannot, because she has a daughter. And I empathize, I agree. Forgiveness was, by the way, even proposed by the judge (sic!) at Bone’s first trial, for beating a partner before he killed Bea. “Screw the judge,” someone else writes. And rightly so!
I’m not sure what it means to regret one’s actions, maybe it represents something different for each. And in Boné’s case, it is not at all visible that he would regret anything. If collective forgiveness actually means to move on, to attend to our individual lives, not to set any conditions for the rehabilitation of the perpetrator, even to reintegrate him directly into the community – how can such so-called forgiveness bring about change? Isn’t it just a habit for our convenience? And doesn’t such a habit ultimately become a contribution to the death sentence of the next victim? As it turned out, sadly. Again.
Fourthly: there is the word sanction
Sending to prison should not be the only form of sanction. When forgiveness is not possible without sanction, something else can be done about people who do harm: something communal. Because going out for a beer and pretending that nothing has happened can be a death sentence. But to exclude, reject and marginalise: these can be forms of self-defense for our communities.
Individual self-defense and the defense of our community are very important and can save our lives. Exclusion, rejection and marginalisation are not punishment. They are forms of community sanction. Maybe we have examples when it works, especially in our friendships and in less serious situations. However, community rejection exercised as a sanction can only bring about change if it is based on trust. Where is that trust, where are those deep and lasting friendships – especially between men – in an individualistic, fragmented, broken society? Even without the change brought about by sanction, exclusion means continuing to defend ourselves and our community. And it can be life-saving, hopefully.
Fine, but if we keep someone too far away, won’t the abuses be repeated elsewhere and so perhaps we contribute from a distance to someone else’s death sentence? And then how can you keep someone far enough that the violence doesn’t continue in your community, but close enough that it doesn’t repeat elsewhere either? This seems to me to be one of the most important questions about the situation of perpetrators.
A fifth thought for which there is no single word
How can victims of abusive relationships be kept close, so close that we take care of them, that they don’t go through violence again?
Is it possible? I’d like to think so, though it often doesn’t happen, and that is infinitely disappointing. As I have experienced before, it is not possible to get very far on your own. But together? A community is made up of individuals, but it is more than just a collection of individuals. What does this mean for violence in our patriarchal societies? We are taught that domestic violence is a personal matter, something that does not concern us, something we do not get involved in… But still, sometimes, we try: in groups of two or three we sit at the table with either the person being harmed or the person who harms. It may help, one way or another, but often such an intervention does not stop the “just-a-slap”. So what would be the community attitude that could prevent aggression? What would be the community relationships that would prevent the violence from happening again? What would that community look like?
Stopping violence is a common cause. Bea’s death and the deaths of 51 women a year in Romania make it a common cause. It’s a little bit everyone’s responsibility, but it’s entirely no one else’s but the perpetrator’s. The social order is largely responsible, but we can’t do anything about it quickly, only through slow change. And then, again, we come to the issue of communities, the ones that can lead to greater social change.
Right now, everyone’s attention is on the news that Bea has been killed. The shock and grief is understandable. Will we be able to take better care of each other tomorrow, to avoid any violence (against women), however small? What would it take for us to learn to practice this care?
PS.: In Romania gender-based violence is normalised – as we can read in the One Falls, We all Fall! Manifesto of international feminist solidarity written and published by local intersectional feminists in 2019 after the murder of Alexandra Măceșanu, a 15 years old teenager, kidnapped, held against her will and raped by the 65-years old Gheorghe Dincă. Even though Alexandra called the police three times before her murder, the police only responded with sarcasm and arrogance and did not stop the rape and killing of the young girl.
“These events have highlighted the atrocious sexism of the Romanian police force, the carelessness of authorities regarding abuse suffered by women and a media culture that makes a spectacle out of suffering” – points out the manifesto.
Just as in 2019 with the killing of Alexandra, Bea’s murder once again reminds us of the prevailing violence of patriarchal societies. In Romania “1 in 4 murders take place within families, around half of citizens believe that rape can be justified in certain circumstances, and that 81% of the cases of violence occur at home – both in the countryside (53% of cases), as well as in urban areas (47%); in 81% of the cases women are victims of violence and in 92% of the cases men are the abusers. 1 in 4 Romanian women have been physically or sexually assaulted by a partner, and yet only 4% of these acts of violence reach court. In addition, Romania is one of the main countries of origin of victims of human trafficking in Europe, with one third of these victims being minors” – show the statistics gathered in the manifesto. However we should not consider Romania a “special case” with regard to gender-based violence: the statistics might differ in other places, but the violence happens, women are killed, nevertheless.
In 2019 Gheorghe Dincă was portrayed as a monster in Romanian mainstream media and public opinion. It was easy to present violence as happening only because “monsters” like him exist in rural areas. Formerly, Ferenc Boné was an assistant professor at a university and a member of the cultural circles of Cluj-Napoca. Contrasting racist and classist imaginaries of the perpetrators and proving that violence happens in educated and urban societies as well, it is worth pointing out, but falling into a discourse of a “monstrous” killer would, however, not further the struggle against gender-based violence. When a so-called “monster” becomes infamous, the public might see violence as an exception, as something only possible in special, almost “un-natural” cases.
What I believe is crucial, is to pay attention to how we got there that Alexandra and Bea were killed, what has happened before? The violence perpetrated by both killers did not start with the murders of these two women, but years before. It only remained unnoticed, ignored as “just-a-slap”, swept under the curtain or forgiven without sanctions and tangible community solutions. How could we learn to notice violence also when there is still time to act in favour of the victims?
The One Falls, We All Fall! manifesto called for transnational anti-racist and anti-classist feminist solidarity against gender-based violence, and it listed eight demands that could help prevent violence on institutional and educational levels. Needless to say, after three years, no improvement could be observed in any of the areas mentioned there. We could once again, and many times again in the future, take the streets to make those demands. And we should! But meanwhile, I believe, auto-organized community solutions must be explored as well. Each manifesto, each article, each survivor speaking up, each community discussion, every sanction, could be taken as startings points.