When you grow up with a controlling father who uses his fists to “teach you a lesson”, it becomes all you know. The fear of the next insult or assault – on you, your siblings or your mum – is ever-present, and you do everything you can to try to quell his anger.
This was certainly the case for Arman Abrahimzadeh, whose father, Zioalloh, is serving a 26-year prison sentence for murdering Arman’s mother, Zahra. It was a tragic end for an eternally optimistic woman.
“Outside the home, he was a gentleman, an intelligent, charismatic person who was a pillar of the community,” Arman says of his father. Behind closed doors, however, his family endured violence and emotional abuse so extreme they feared for their lives.
“He completely shattered our confidence,” Arman says. “When we were copping it, my mum would try to calm him down, but she could only do so much … and she would cop it as well.”
The court testimonies of Arman and his older sister, Atena, after his mother’s death are chilling. They remember their father dragging their mother by her hair; the lacerations on her hand after being shoved through a window; their father kicking Zahra while she lay on the ground unconscious; him refusing to allow them to take her to the doctor.
By the time Arman was a teenager, he realised how different his friends’ fathers were from his own. “There was no love or affection from my father. Not one bit,” Arman recalls. “I had never seen it before, so when I started seeing it at friends’ houses, I thought it was odd.” His parents wed in 1985 and separated in 2009 when Zahra fled with Arman, aged 21, and daughters Atena, 22, and Anita, 12.
“The physical abuse was common in our house but it was getting to the stage where my dad was playing psychological games; he was taking the psychological and emotional abuse to the next level,” Arman says. “He would express his hatred for us, and especially my mum.”
His father had complete financial control over the family, too, which made it more difficult for Zahra to leave. The final straw came when an argument escalated into something the family had never seen.
“My dad sort of snapped and said: ‘I’m going to kill you all,’” Arman says. Zioalloh ran to the kitchen and opened the knife drawer. “My sister and I tried to wrestle him away. He was trying to reach for the knives. He was screaming: ‘I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you!’ And that went on until we could wrestle him away and try to calm him down. He cornered us and said: ‘You can’t watch me 24/7. I’m going to lock you all inside and burn down the house.’”
Zahra and her children knew they had to get away to stay safe. “When you’ve got someone looking directly into your eyes saying: ‘I’m going to kill you, I’m going to burn you alive,’ it’s real,” Arman says.
They packed a suitcase each and drove to the police station to lodge an apprehended violence order (AVO). They stayed in a motel for a few nights before moving into a safe house run by Adelaide’s Central Domestic Violence Services. They told no-one of their whereabouts.
“We were relieved that we were out of the house, out of that danger zone, but we were constantly watching over our shoulders. We didn’t leave the house unless we really needed to.”
With an AVO in place, the family spent three months in the safe house and tried to piece their lives back together. Arman and his sister returned to their university studies, but their father secured supervised visitation rights with 12-year-old Anita, and he would repeatedly relay threats to her about exacting revenge on her mother for leaving him. He did just that in March 2010, during an event he knew Zahra would be attending. In front of 300 people, including his elder daughter, he ran at Zahra with a knife and stabbed her repeatedly in the chest. She was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital. Arman hasn’t spoken to his father since before his mother’s murder.
“When I see him I want to make sure I’m cool, calm and collected and paint a very clear picture of what we went through,” Arman says. “I want to put him through the same pain and agony that he put us through.”
ONE WOMAN EVERY WEEK
Arman and his family are not alone in losing someone they love to family violence. In Australia, one woman every week is killed by her partner or ex-partner and many more are hospitalised with brain trauma and other serious injuries. Worryingly, many of the injuries inflicted on women go undiagnosed and untreated, and police estimate that less than 20 per cent of domestic violence cases are reported. Men can be victims of domestic violence, too, but 84 per cent of those arrested for domestic violence are men. As horrific as the physical abuse can be, many domestic violence survivors say it is the emotional and psychological abuse that leaves the deepest scars.
“Many survivors of violence will say to you: ‘The bruises and the physical injuries I healed from, and that was the easiest part,’” says Moo Baulch, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW. “[The hardest part is] the psychological power and control, the manipulation, the making you doubt your own sense of self and your ability to make decisions – that really manipulative and systematic wearing down of someone’s self-belief.”
Abuse can be physical, financial (one partner takes complete control over the family finances) or social (one partner is isolated from friends and family), emotional, psychological or verbal.
“Perpetrators are often very charismatic and good at making women doubt themselves; they minimise their behaviour and the abuse, saying: ‘This is normal,’ or: ‘It’s not me, it’s you,’” Baulch says. The long-term impacts on victims and their children – whether they’ve witnessed violence or not – can be dire. In addition to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that can last a lifetime, survivors often manifest extreme anxiety and depression, have difficulty forming relationships and endure long-term ramifications from their physical injuries.
Women often stay with a violent partner to keep the family together and mistakenly think their kids don’t really know what’s going on. “Kids living in violent households are impacted by both emotional and psychological trauma,” Baulch says. “Quite often they are seeing their mum put down, physically and sexually assaulted and threatened … we know now the impacts of kids growing up in these households is that they feel helpless, they worry, they are sad, they act out, they will go to school and there might be anger or numbness or they might have difficulty concentrating. There might be physical symptoms. There are a whole range of ways it can play out.”
The good news is that domestic violence is being talked about more than ever, a range of support services are in place and, thanks largely to the campaigning of Rosie Batty, whose son was murdered by her ex-partner in 2014, lessons on respectful relationships and how to recognise domestic violence will be included in school curriculums across Australia this year.
“I firmly believe we can shift this stuff within a generation or two if we work out how to really challenge attitudes of gender equality and the things that support violence against women,” Baulch says.
NO SILVER BULLET
In the meantime, it’s up to every one of us to empower women enduring abuse by giving them the non-judgemental support they need. Although some women absolutely need to get to crisis accommodation fast when they’re in danger, Baulch says many women don’t want to leave their home and shouldn’t have to – they just want the violence to stop. Programmes, such as Staying Home Leaving Violence in New South Wales, place accountability firmly on the shoulders of the violent offender and ensure he is the one who leaves.
Although we’ve made progress, Baulch says we still live in a victim-blaming society that asks why a woman doesn’t just take the kids and go. Solid, ongoing government funding is needed for a range of support services, Baulch says. “The responses that we know work are when the women and the kids are at the centre of the response, and she’s the one who gets to make the decisions about what the future looks like for them. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution or approach. It’s really about rebuilding her self-esteem so she can make safe choices about what is best for [the family].”
FROM HORROR TO HEALING
Lorelle Molde found herself in a violent relationship with a partner she met in church as a “naive” 16-year-old. Her boyfriend soon began to control what she wore, what she ate and how she acted. “He was extremely controlling and domineering and had a hold over me even early in the relationship,” Lorelle says. “I initially thought he was doing it to make me a better person.”
The first violent incident arose when she confronted him over pornographic material he’d hidden under their bed. “He hit me with an open hand across my head,” she says. Assaults became frequent and more serious, resulting in bruising, black eyes, lacerations and chunks of hair ripped from her head.
On their wedding day, he told her how ugly her hair and make-up looked, how her maid of honour looked better than she did. At home, he would throw eggs and tomatoes on the floor and order her to clean them up, force her into degrading sexual acts and withhold her earnings. Although his parents saw her bruises and she confided in his mother, she was told every marriage has “disagreements”. Turning to anyone else for help was difficult – he’d isolated her from her own family and friends.
“People feel sorry for you and want to rescue you,” Lorelle says. “They have all good intentions and it’s human nature to want to rescue someone … but that’s why so many women go back – because they haven’t made the decision for themselves.”
With the help of women’s refuges, police protection and counselling, Lorelle escaped her abusive six-year relationship after realising there was nothing she could do to make him change. She now runs DV Snapshots, an organisation committed to connecting businesses, governments and communities to drive change and raise awareness about domestic violence.
Arman and his sisters are also taking positive action, setting up the Zahra Foundation in honour of their mother to give women the financial and educational support they need to rebuild their lives after domestic violence.
“A big part of Mum’s character was that ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel’. She was always about moving forward and there will be better things ahead … that’s something we definitely want to capture in the foundation – it’s something we remember and reflect on.”