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“Abuse isn’t always physical, so says the law” Lucy Mangan on the legal precedent for psychological abuse

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Gemma Doherty was forced by her boyfriend Mohammed Anwaar to run every day on a treadmill until she had burned off 500 calories, so that she would look more like his favourite model. He only let her eat beetroot and tuna, he smashed her phone, made her wear shapeless clothes, kept her away from her friends and sent his own into her workplace to check whether she was flirting with men when he couldn’t see her.

Doherty’s experiences are unique, alas, only in one way. But a very important way. The charges she brought against him have just resulted in Anwaar becoming the first person to be convicted of “coercive control” under a law brought in only a few months ago that is designed to cover all the things abusers do to their victims that are not physically violent.

This new law was a sign of an astonishing shift in thinking. The dismissal of women’s experiences of violence has been an ingrained part of our heritage for so long, and is still so prevalent, that it was hard to believe we were really at a point where ‘mere’ psychological damage would be recognised. It felt almost too good to be true.

But here we are, with a 12-month sentence already under our belts. I realise this is, in many ways, an odd thing to be cheered by. “Additional form of abuse habitually suffered by women now punished!” is a matter of attenuated gladness, to be sure. But I’m a firm believer in celebrating our gains when we get them – otherwise how else do you get the energy to go on and make more?

This prosecution tells people what up until now has generally taken years of bitter individual experience to learn. Most of us, at one time or another, have gone out with someone who just… isn’t right. Who just can’t let you be you. He generally starts with suggestions. “Why don’t you… wear darker colours/shave your legs more often/stop drinking/eat better?” Only because *you’ll* be happier that way, you understand? He is only ever thinking of you. That’s why he wants you to stay in with him, as well. And then on the nights when he’s not in, too. You can get on with tidying the house, or doing something else constructive. Not on Facebook – he saw what you said on there the other day and didn’t like it – or chatting to your mum (you see too much of her anyway – God, don’t you know she drives him mad?). And gradually you start avoiding all the things that make him angry and start to think of all the things that used to make you happy as “disobeying” him. He has colonised your wardrobe, your home, your body, your mind. You. He’s never laid a hand on you, but you are not free inside your head and so you are not free at all. But you don’t have a name for it. You think you are uniquely unlucky, stupid or some unholy combination of the two.

Now there is a statute and a case you, or the people who know you, can point to and say, “This is a thing. It is a bad thing. A thing that people can and should and are being punished for.” So be glad. Be energised. And if it’s happening to you, be strong and be honest. The law is now there to protect you. Be free.


Visit womensaid.org.uk or call 0808-2000 247 for more information

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