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One woman's sorrows
by Susan Loone

There is something stifling about courtrooms (the solemnity or coldness) that paralyses one's brains, enabling one to feel anything but detachment. Her ex-employer was sitting right behind her.

If he had leaned a little forward, he would have brushed against her hair. Through the three-hour session, he had remained expressionless. He sat there looking very distant, as if reminding himself that this was merely a dream, a nightmare from which he would certainly wake up from unaffected. maidpix1.jpg

He was dressed smartly in a blue shirt with a matching tie. My initial prejudice was shattered like a piece of glass thrown against a wall. I almost made the mistake many a starry-eyed woman would do and that is to deny the possibility that such a handsome-looking man was capable of violent acts.

I held her hand in mine. "Are you still afraid of him?" I asked, uncertain of my reaction if she were to say yes. "No" she answered, confidently. "I am not afraid of him."

Sitting in the magistrate's courtroom that day, I realised that the only element that separates me from my subject is my duty. As a journalist, I strive to stay away from my subjects so that I can tell my stories objectively. But there are times when my instincts would fail me.

This is not because my judgement had been clouded by emotions. At times, even the most heartless of journalists will be driven to passion or anger. In such situations, by the time I finish studying my subject, I am a part of him (or her) as much as he (or she) is a part of me.

I read the piece of paper and pondered over photos which summarise the woman's entire sorrows. My first instinct was to condemn the perpetrator of her wounds and pain. What kind of human being was this, what kind of man would be capable of such atrocities? And yet, given the present circumstances, was I in a position to judge this man?

There is something extremely vulnerable about Indonesian maids, Bangladeshi workers or foreign wives that makes them susceptible to accidents, violence or crime. I cursed the system, the structures that divide humanity into the haves and have-nots, as I discovered how similar all their stories were, and how in the final analysis, their only triumph lay in the fact that they had managed to escape a violent situation.

Story of woes maidpix2

She told me that she had started working for her employer since January this year. She claimed that she worked 18 hours a day. She was given no time to pray and no food for the whole day except a packet of instant noodles or plain rice, without even gravy, at nights. After only two weeks, she became the scapegoat for every problem that took place in that home.

The husband and wife started beating her for minor incidents such as the baby having mosquito bites on the legs. She became a punching bag, a cushion, the silent object where one would release one's frustration on. She was often caught in the midst of frequent fights between the couple. They burnt her with cigarette butts and would use rotan sticks, mop sticks, slippers and walking sticks to whack the hell out of her.

How she lasted several months, for the life of me, I could not fathom. But one day she couldn't stand the ordeal anymore. She pleaded to be sent back to her agent. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. Like a prisoner, she wasn't allowed to leave the house even in the day time.

But life has a way of liberating its own victims, of driving them to the edge of the cliff where there is only one thing left to do: you either fling yourself into the depths of eternity or learn how to fly. If such dilemmas did not occur, the status quo of the bad remains intact, the victims continue to suffer in silence and there is no question of empowerment or victory against the enemy.

So it was destined that one "fateful" day became the darkest day - and turning point - of her life. For reasons only known to the family, she was beaten viciously from evening till the wee hours of the morning. She fled when she was warned that she would be taken to task for causing the family hurt if she reported the incident. She managed to go to the nearest police station and was then sent to a shelter.

Judgment day

There are no similarities between a journalist and a victim of abuse but we were united that day by the anticipation of waiting for the man to be charged in court. She had waited for months for this special moment. I had waited four hours. So how can the magnitude of my anxiety match with hers?

She sat there wondering: what if he pleaded not guilty? What if the court decides to go ahead with the trial? What if they found him not guilty? What if he were acquitted and discharged?

"All I want is for the case to be over. I have to take control of my life again. I want to work again," she told me.

"Or else how am I to feed my husband and two children back home?" she asked.

She reckoned that truth and justice would eventually prevail. But the sceptic in me responded: would it really?

My scepticism did not arise so much as a result of my general perception of the state of the country's justice system as much as the fact that this woman was jobless, dependent on kindred spirits of a woman's organisation, therefore she could not afford a lawyer. Her only consolation was that a social worker and a volunteer were kind enough to accompany her to court.

Negotiations maidpix3

When the charge was read, he pleaded guilty. His lawyer applied for the charge to be compounded by a mutually-agreed settlement between the two. The application was important for the charge carries a maximum fine of RM2,000, a year's jail term or both. If the charge was compounded, it would also mean that he will be acquitted and discharged by the court of law.

The lawyer approached the social worker and said that his client had a "settlement" to offer.

She was requested to go to the magistrate's chambers, accompanied by the social worker. The prosecuting officer (PO) asked her to state how much money she wanted. She asked for RM50,000 and a public apology which the lawyer refused. His client could only offer RM10,000 and a private apology in chambers. His client's reputation was at stake, he could lose his job, the lawyer reasoned.

"I was treated like an animal, I was beaten up like a dog," she told the PO. This analogy of her tragedy she seemed not to forget. She repeated it whenever she could. And she told the PO she wanted nothing less than a public apology.

They left the chambers after 15 minutes. Several discussions took place between his lawyers and her social worker outside the courtroom. He had engaged four lawyers to plead his case. Except for the social worker and the silent volunteer, she had no one.

Public apology

It must be nauseating to look at a face that had done nothing but caused you misery. It must be so sickening to talk about your pain when all you want is to get it over with. It must be these frustrations, the helplessness that finally compelled her to make a decision.

She was asked for the second time to enter the chambers. His lawyer came to her and told her that his client's apology would read like this: "I am sorry for what has happened to you".

I reached for the social worker beside her and whispered: "That statement means nothing, it does not say that he has wronged her, what use would that be? Ask him to say instead: My wife and I are very sorry for having done all this to you".

Unfortunately, her social worker was not allowed to accompany her. I later learnt that it was the court clerk who made a fuss. Again, my mind reeled with questions. How could this be allowed to happen? How could a victim be allowed to be alone in the presence of the abuser, his lawyers, police officers and a magistrate without her own support system? In this case, the victim had no legal representation, how was she to negotiate in the presence of those intimidating figures?

I could foretell the outcome of the negotiations, I have had the benefit of having witnessed too many episodes of injustice and intimidation under similar scenarios. True enough, when the team came out, the magistrate ordered the man to make his apology public but worded carefully.

"I am sorry for what has happened to you," he said, not even looking at her. And that was that. For that, he was acquitted and discharged. He was free, unscathed, untainted, unrepentant. There was no need to repent for he was as good as having not committed a crime.

A heavy heart

The self-assurance that if one were not punished by the laws of men, the harsher laws of karma would someday apply did nothing to comfort me. I left the courtroom with a heavy heart. I had a good story but that wasn't enough.

I caught up with the woman outside the courtroom. She seemed pleased. "He deserves it," she said with a smile. "He deserves it."

"He gave me a sum of cash and now I can get on with my life," she whispered, touching the bulk of hard, comforting cash in the pocket of her jeans.

With that I finally left, there was nothing more to say. I wished her well as her social worker carted her away to a nearby bank to open a savings account.

On my way back to the office to file my story, I appealed to my better sense. What choice did this woman have, I ask myself? The man had won. He had the funds to engage the right kind of lawyers to fight his case. Whereas she had nothing.

Earlier, I had also learnt from the social worker that the police had no evidence of the instruments used to burn and beat her. The police had arrived too late at the scene of the crime and only managed to recover one side of a slipper that was used to hit her. Hence, the reason for such a lenient charge (which is compoundable), not a more serious charge carrying a heavier penalty.

"If you had seen her wounds, her injuries, on the day she arrived at the shelter, it was not so easy as simple assault," said the social worker.

"The charge is too lenient, it is disappointing," she added, showing me photos of the woman's black eye, cigarette burns all over her fingers, chest and back, the scratched face and blue-black hands.

The sad realisation that the world is divided by a chasm of knowledge, power and wealth, where the ones who came from the brighter side of life could get away with almost anything only served to convince me that no matter what some of us say, how strongly some of us would oppose the lure of materialism in defence of our dignity, our principles and ideology, in the face of temptation, others have no choice, others would have to weigh the burden of having to feed a few other mouths, to clothe a few other bodies, to educate a few other brains.

That there is sometimes no better choice than to forego justice and allow personal honour and sufferings to be negotiated, compromised and compensated with the luxury of money.

Copyright: Used with permission.
Photos courtesy of Women's Aid Organisation.

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