Perspectives | Women's Rights

How do we judge women who kill their abusive partners?

By - 07.12.2020

Intimate partner homicide as public debate.

Suzana Zogiani-Sekiraqa, a 35-year-old from Prishtina, and a mother of two, was sentenced to 25 years in prison, for killing her husband in 2018 by hitting him with an ax up to 11 times in their apartment in Dole, France. She is currently serving her time in Kosovo’s women’s prison in Lipjan. 

Two weeks ago, she shared her story and spoke about her difficult life with her husband’s family in Kosovo and the troubled marriage that continued in France where they immigrated illegally. Providing her account of what led to such a violent crime, Suzana spoke out against the authorities for their disregard of the systemic violence she was subjected to by her husband, pleading for a less rigorous sentence.

This passive-aggressive questioning would deepen his rage further against her. Now she will serve more than a decade in prison and is adjusting to a harsh reality, to yet another “home.”

“Even Hitchcock would envy her for constructing such an imaginary screenplay,” reads part of the statement by the judicial panel of the Basic Court in Prishtina, referring to Suzana’s claim that she acted while in state of severe mental shock after — despite the abuse she was subjected to by her husband — witnessing him sexually abusing their son. 

 “A crime is a crime,” remains a common moral reasoning when intimate partner homicide happens. I heard this phrase countless times in 2017 while investigating the cases of women who kill their husbands or partners, and whether such crimes differ among the numerous cases of femicide we witness in Kosovo on a yearly basis. The research demonstrated to a great degree what studies related to intimate-partner homicide generally show. From the World Health Organization, academic literature to research data worldwide, numerous studies make a direct link between domestic violence and intimate partner homicide. 

A freedom removed twice 

I spent a day in a women’s prison, talking to women who have committed violent crimes against their husbands and looking into their files. Three of the women prisoners I interviewed back then described lives that were led by harsh traditional gender norms. Where men view their wives as punching bags, where they can express their most violent anger; an object to use and humiliate.

One of the women, a 42-year-old sentenced to 11 years for cutting her husband’s throat while he was asleep, described her life before marriage as calm and quite joyous. Unmarried and childless, she had a good life in a village in Kosovo, and used to travel often to Western Europe visiting her brothers where they lived with their families. She said: “As a woman I had a lot of freedom in my family to travel around.”

According to her, the 57-year-old husband her family chose for her turned out to be a violent man, who would not only subject her to physical violence, but would find pleasure in torturing and slut-shaming her. “Why did you blush, why did you smile?” He would ask her after he sent her anonymous messages from a different phone number while both were in the same room. 

This passive-aggressive questioning would deepen his rage further against her. Now she will serve more than a decade in prison and is adjusting to a harsh reality, to yet another “home.” 

Suzana’s story

Similarly, Suzana had been struggling to find herself a home. Amid a toxic environment at the house of her husband’s parents where she used to live, subjected to violence by her husband, with a sick baby who suffered a terrible fall, she moved back with her parents, “Until they got fed up,” says Suzana, adding that she was advised to go back to her husband and make it work. 

Searching for a safer home and a better life, Suzana fled the country illegally with her two children; her husband followed them later. While she took care of the kids and their home, she also attended French language lessons and then enrolled in university to study psychology. In the meantime, she claims her husband chose “the wrong road” by involving himself in burglary and counterfeiting for organized crime; “a road” that enabled the abuse against Suzana and the kids to grow stronger. 

The entitlement men feel toward their wives’ bodies is the entitlement they feel in taking away their lives.

An organization that helps victims of domestic violence in Dole, France, anonymously confirmed to KohaVision, that Suzana sought help several times: “She explained in detail the insults, constant criticism, intensive control and observation, humiliation, threats, prohibition from money, the destruction of her personal things and documents, brutal grabbing, threatening with a knife, hair pulling, slapping and punching her. When she spoke about violence, Mrs. Zogiani-Sekiraqa was always crying and trembling. She used to tell us that when her husband was aggressive, her son was always present and that the boy was always a direct victim of her husband’s violence.”

The authorities in France were aware of the violence Suzana suffered from her husband. In July 2018, the Court of Lyon sentenced him to two years probation under police surveillance after he apologized and promised to take his anti-drug addiction therapy, and take care of his family. But it only took two months for his promise to fall short. It was on September 3, 2018, that the police in Dole were provided with pictures of a big clock ruined while Artan was smashing Suzana’s head against it. 

Suzana’s depression, which she claims resulted from her difficult married life, is a common feature of the women who escape spousal violence in Kosovo and seek help from the institutions. “Almost all the women that we have had in the shelter during these two decades, are in heavy mental therapy, due to the violence they endure throughout the years,” said one of the shelter staff in Prishtina when I was researching the poverty women in Kosovo are forced into by their spouses. 

My other research on marital rape, when neither of the partners have been killed, shows the kind of unequal power relations among couples, of the violence and the lack of autonomy over their bodies the women face in their marriages. The entitlement men feel toward their wives’ bodies is the entitlement they feel in taking away their lives. 

Thus, one obvious commonality between women who have killed their husbands and those that have been killed by them is the violence they endure in their marriage, lack of a safe home, the economic instability and dependency, and the societal expectations that still demand that women “ make the marriage work.” 

Institutional neglect and indifference

How we make sense, as a society, of an extreme case of domestic violence such as Suzana Zogiani-Sekiraqa’s case  — as well as other cases of violent domestic homicide  — goes hand in hand with how the institutions regard domestic violence and women’s rights. And there is written proof that the state institutions still do not regard the fight against domestic violence as an urgent priority.

The first monitoring report on the implementation of the Strategy and Action Plan on Protection from Domestic Violence 2016-2020 from the Ministry of Justice — which is not available publicly   — shows this. Progress in addressing and fighting domestic violence, is mainly reported by the number of trainings conducted with police officers, prosecutors, investigators, judges, and other relevant professionals or those involved in the field.

However, the objectives that require solid efforts that would bring about significant change have not been achieved. No progress reported on the employment of domestic violence survivors by the Employment Offices at the local level, which would help so many women to escape violent homes and start a new one for themselves and their children. 

No annual statistical bulletins on the number of cases reported and handled in a multidisciplinary way, data that would help understand the pervasive nature of domestic violence and come up with comprehensive programs and approaches to effectively tackle it. No national periodic studies on domestic violence, its prevalence, profile of perpetrators of domestic violence, and the profile of the victims. The aspects that would not only broaden the debate of this pandemic phenomenon, but would also help institutions do their job better, and even easier. 

Yet, one of the most disappointing observations from this report shows that the institutions lack the capacities to even understand the activities, obligations and responsibilities of the Strategy and the Action Plan. This same observation is noted in studies from civil society that show that many officials who work with victims of gender based violence mainly recognize the physical form; a bleeding, bruised woman, or one with broken limbs. Regarding other types of violence, such as psychological, economic, sexual, few know what to make of them. 

This incompetence of the majority of Kosovo’s justice experts renders many of us naive in having better expectations. It also explains the Hitchcock joke in the official verdict in Suzana’s account. Choosing to make fun of her allegation does not only demonstrate lack of ethics but also utter irresponsibility in regard to a highly sensitive topic, a taboo for Kosovo’s society, that is incest and child abuse. 

A joke does not help the public to deal with and make sense of violent domestic crimes, of violent marriages and unsafe spaces that breed fear and agony; with social norms that still celebrate aggression as a male behavior, but reacts to female aggression with controversy and intolerance. Particularly for a mother who kills. 

A constructive institutional approach understands how traditional gender roles shape our lives as women, how it denies our agency and works toward dismantling family hierarchies and harmful beliefs. It offers its people the means to deal with the trauma and makes room for meaningful cooperation with academia and civil society experts for a deeper understanding of violence and the unfathomable forms it manifests.

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.