By Remla Parthasarathy
This week, like other weeks in previous Octobers, I deliberately let dirty dishes stack up in the kitchen sink. Days of crusted-over plates, cups, bowls and utensils have been stacked haphazardly, creating a dangerous Jenga-like structure that overflows onto both sides of the countertop. When I’m finally ready, I turn on the hot water, soap up the sponge, pretend I don’t have a dishwasher and roll up my sleeves to begin.
For most of the year, doing dishes is just another amongst a long list of household chores I hate. But in October, I transform the act of dishwashing to something akin to spiritual cleansing.
This October is the 30th anniversary of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence is one of the most pervasive problems in our nation, impacting as many as 1 in 4 women in the U.S. and 1 in 3 in the world. It crosses social and economic boundaries, and defies simple categorization. It is a social issue, a criminal issue, a medical epidemic and a human rights violation.
Since the mid-1990s, I have worked in the field of domestic violence, mainly doing systems advocacy. It is challenging work with few visible markers of success. I wish that purple ribbons, worn in recognition of domestic violence awareness, were as ubiquitous as pumpkin spice and pink breast cancer awareness ribbons.
I understand why domestic violence isn’t as popular a cause. Domestic and dating violence victims aren’t always seen as innocent victims the way victims of breast cancer are. People have a hard time understanding that targets of abuse don’t ask to be abused by their significant others. Many still think victims provoke the abuse, engage in the abuse, deserve the abuse. They still believe that if it really was that bad, victims would just leave.
People forget that victims carry the same hearts in their chest as they themselves do, and love and compassion are not easy emotions to set aside. Most importantly, people don’t understand that it’s not a simple matter of leaving a relationship – it’s a matter of escaping a potentially dangerous, even deadly, situation.
I don’t let the dishes bathe in a water-filled sink. I wash them one at a time under an open faucet, and set each cleaned dish aside on a wiped counter to drip dry. The longer it takes, the better. It gives me time to think, and cleanse myself of the weariness I’ve accumulated this past year.
On Oct. 8, Alina Sheykhet, a University of Pittsburgh student, was killed. Her ex-boyfriend was charged with homicide. She had sought a protective order against him after he climbed up a gutter of her home and broke in through the second-floor window because she stopped answering his phone calls. She is one of the average three women killed daily in our country by a current or former partner.
Recently, dozens of women have come forward with sexual harassment allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. This type of rampant sexual abuse, as well as sexism and sexual objectification encountered everywhere by women in our society, stems from the same attitude and belief system that allows domestic violence to exist: The belief that one is entitled to assert power to control others. And the only way to end this? Create social change.
As I put away the last dried dish, I say a silent prayer for Alina and all of the other victims of domestic and sexual abuse. A feeling of accomplishment flows over me that I imagine sharing with victim advocates everywhere. First there is a large towering overwhelming mess; then it is gone. I know it is just symbolic, but the visible success reminds me that change is possible.