The phone rings twice before she answers, after reaching for it in her purse, “Hello?” She was on the bench behind me in a moderately packed van used as public transportation in Moldova. Inevitably, I became witness to a conversation that made my heart go out to this woman. And I wanted to scream, “Ditch that man and never look back!”
From my side of the conversation, I heard: “I picked it up right away.” (pause) “No, it didn’t ring ten times.” (pause) “I did pick it up right away.” (pause) “I said I’m on my way to university.” (pause) “I’m in a van, that’s all.” (pause) “Why do you talk to me like this?” (pause) “You don’t talk to me like this at home.”
This ensued for about ten minutes. My abuse-detecting antennas picked up controlling and manipulative talk, mistrust, repeated accusations, and verbal abuse on the other end of the line. That is the kind of input that generates the kind of response I witnessed from that young woman. I know because I have seen it time and time again. It is commonplace in my culture.
I managed to grab the woman by the hand as she was making her way out of the van, “Run from such a guy and never look back!” I said. She smiled, kind of sheepishly, taken by surprise. She managed a half-mouthed “thank you” and went on her way.
On another occasion, I witnessed a man walking down the street with his young girlfriend. All of a sudden he turned and slapped her. She continued walking with him, her head down. There was a time when I would see such an encounter and think, “She must have said something to deserve that,” or, “This is just how it goes for a couple.” Maybe I would have simply ignored the scene, seeing it but dismissing it as normal behavior.
But now, my heart breaks. “What kind of behavior is that,” I wonder, “to hit your girlfriend, in the middle of the street? And what kind of response is this—to continue walking with him, as if you deserved it, conveying guilt with your body language?”
It is the behavior of a desensitized nation—a nation where hierarchy deems some people more important than others. It is the behavior of a people who inherited inequality and abuse as a societal norm. It is the kind of behavior reinforced at home, tacitly affirmed by the church, and stemming from deeply ingrained low self-esteem.
In my home country of Moldova, these messages are everywhere. They are not, for the most part, explicitly taught. They are simply the status quo that nobody questions.
One reason a guy can afford to be abusive toward his girlfriend (or his wife) in public is because he knows he can get away with it. Not only that, he will also be looked upon as a man who knows how to be in charge and make his wife “straighten up.”
No one seeing this abuse will object because the saying in Moldova goes, “An unbeaten wife is like an unswept house.” A police officer will overlook abuse because he is of the same mindset as the perpetrator. A priest will mind his own business because he believes that Scripture teaches a woman must submit and be quiet. Moreover, I know of many cases when policemen and clergy have not only remained silent about abuse but have actually cruelly beaten their wives.
One reason a girl lowers her head and continues to walk beside her boyfriend who just hit her is because she believes she is “just a woman” who must have deserved it. She should have kept her mouth shut and not angered him. Didn’t her mom teach her just that? “Be quiet. Don’t aggravate him,” her mother insisted.
If a girl is to be looked upon favorably and praised as a good candidate for marriage, which is a female's primary purpose in my culture, then she must be a good housewife. She must know how to cook well. She should not be “lazy” and should work hard at cleaning the house, washing the dishes, doing laundry, feeding the animals, and taking care of the kids. And she must give up her freedom in order to meet the needs and desires of her husband and family.
For the most part, Christianity is not helping the rampant problem of abuse in Moldova. Regardless of the numerous instances in the Bible that teach all people—both men and women—to “put each other before ourselves,” “submit to one another,” and “love one another as Christ loves us,” the message for men is one of superiority over women. A man is the “head” of the family, churches often teach. Rather than recognizing that the word “head” had a much different definition in the ancient world than what we might assume today, churches teach that it means the one in charge, who gives orders, and who “has a special place.” Everyone submits to his authority, and he has the right to do all that he chooses, because his wife and children are his possession.
This sets up a system in which a man can behave as it best suits him or his personality, without accountability. If he prefers to be controlling, he will be controlling toward his family. If he tends to be irresponsible, passive, selfish, or uninvolved, he will be just that toward his family. The system, perpetuated by incorrect theological assumptions, provides no way for men to grow in their love and service to others. This is tragic in itself, but the most dangerous consequences are for the women and children.
For women, submission is the rule. A woman must “know her place” and tolerate any kind of behavior from her husband. Take, for example, what one Christian survivor of abuse wrote:
My former husband believed that a wife should submit to everything: [his] psychological abuse, [his] porn [use], the way he reared our son via poor role modeling, his willingness to commit adultery, etc. He didn’t believe that he should be held accountable at all, and any disagreement was a sign of disrespect.
It is commonplace in Moldova for a father to assert himself as superior to the rest of his family. He can, and must, be aggressive to teach everyone a lesson about who is in charge. He is there to be pleased. He must not trust a woman, so he will test her by asking probing questions and making accusatory remarks, denoting open distrust. At the dinner table, he receives the biggest and best piece of meat. His wife tiptoes around, trying to appease him if he is upset. The kids must keep quiet and out of his way. He is rarely accessible. If he is in a good mood and wants to play, the children must play by his rules—otherwise they may be dealt with harshly, called names, or made to feel stupid.
He will not be involved in cooking, cleaning, or washing dishes. Men who are involved in these household chores are shamed. A common saying goes, “She put her skirt over his head.” He is seen as weak and controlled by a woman.
It is in this kind of culture girls learn at a very young age to accommodate a man, to play the game of making him feel most important. Her mother models this to her, even if she is only doing it for survival.
It is not surprising, then, that we witness that low self-esteem—the deep seated feeling of inadequacy, low value, of not being enough—is common among women in my country. A woman's low status, reinforced by the way she sees her mother and other women put down, mistreated, and called names, helps her to believe that she is inadequate. Yet I believe the system encourages low self-esteem in men, too. The pressure on men to be tough can be debilitating. And, because it is not culturally acceptable for men to cry or express emotion, a boy has few options but to hide his true feelings with toughness, arrogance, and aggressiveness.
These are deep-seated messages that play in the background of the lives of Moldovan men and women like a script, constantly powered by the environment around them. So, when a man and woman meet, can you fathom the outcome?
If we want to change this broken system, we must cut straight to the root of the problem: the persistent belief that women and men are unequal. We must find ways of educating each other about this, so that we can name unhealthy attitudes and behaviors for what they really are. Then, we each must make a resolute decision not to be treated or treat others as less than those made in the image of God.