Wednesday morning, 14th February. 7.54 am.
The sun is up now, a pale molten disc behind the bare branches of the trees across the car park. I am third in the queue at the door of the prefab which houses the Carcavelos health centre. After me there are three more well-wrapped-up figures. It hasn’t been frozen, wintry weather by northern European standards, but it’s chilly enough this early morning, and nobody wants to catch a cold, on top of whatever else has brought them to the centre. None of us is under sixty, I think.
We are all waiting for the health centre to open, at eight o’clock, so that we can book appointments with our respective médicos de familia. You can do this by phone if you’re very patient and don’t care about the phone bill, but that won’t do if you need to see your doctor the same week, let alone the same day. This is what I need today, so that he can renew his requisition for physiotherapy on my tennis elbow.
The door is pushed open from inside, and we shuffle in past the security guard, each tugging a little ticket from the dispenser. These senhas are supposed to determine the order in which we are seen, but three or four of the people I have been queuing with head straight for the counter and begin competing for the attention of the two receptionists. I have virtuously taken a seat and waited for my number to be called, but after a while, book perched on knee, I ask aloud (quite loud) if we have a senha system here or not, and the embarrassed security guard steps in and sorts things out. My very un-Portuguese protest is the sort of thing which makes people here look at you as if you’ve just stepped out of a flying saucer (and reading a book in public doesn’t help.) However a white-haired lady opposite me nods once in silent approval.
Eventually my appointment is made for nine o’clock, so I have time to go home and have some breakfast beforehand. Back in good time at the centre, I am not seen till nine-forty, which gives me even more time:
- To endure the presence of a very active six-year-old boy, who marches round the small waiting-room unrepressed, shouting and stamping his feet, as his mother consults her mobile phone and from time to time remonstrates without conviction.
- To try to get on with my book. It is ‘No Name’, a bulky Wilkie Collins yarn which has been an enjoyable read, though confident authorial intrusions about things like “that strange complexity of motives which is found so much oftener in a woman’s mind than in a man’s” jar a little.
- To scan the notices and posters on the waiting-room walls. One of these catches my attention straight away. It shows the roughly sketched outline of a heart, about to be struck by a clenched fist. Beneath is written the following question (my translation):
“Has he ever hit you,
or imposed himself physically
in a way which makes you uncomfortable?” [i]
This is a bit of a mouthful (even more so in Portuguese) and also a bit of a coincidence, because I was present at a demonstration about domestic violence a couple of Sundays ago. The poster goes on to make the point that the violence always gets worse as time goes on, and that was what the demo was about, more specifically the fact that dozens of women are stabbed, punched or kicked to death in domestic attacks in Portugal every year[ii], and not much is ever done about it, nor about the other 27,000 cases of domestic violence which are reported annually in Portugal.[iii]
It was a drizzly day for the march, which was due to end up in front of the Portuguese parliament building, in the centre of Lisbon on a street which slopes down to the river. Our plan was to kill two birds with one stone, by having a quick spot of lunch at a little Lebanese snack-bar Veronica had wanted to show me for a while, then joining the marchers as they thronged by. The last march I had been on was ten years ago, against austerity and all that, so I had a vaguely-formed expectation of banners and shouted slogans, and megaphones, and passionate impatient young busybodies in gilets jaunes, and the shuffling of thousands of feet. In the event we nearly missed the march altogether. As we were finishing our meal I paid a visit to the counter to inspect the syrupy pastries on display, and caught a glimpse of small groups and clots of people drifting past along the broad street outside. Imagining that these were precursors of the march, in advance of the vanguard, banners and so on, I went outside while Veronica paid. In the event there were no banners, megaphones or passionate slogans, only three or four hundred people strolling along in the light drizzle, some under umbrellas, most bare-headed, silent or chatting or checking their mobile phones. By the time Veronica joined me on the pavement the last stragglers had passed, and we made our way down to the parliament building in our own time.
The Assembleia da Republica is housed in a large neo-classical palace, white as a wedding-cake and full of columns, pediments and so on. It is set well back from and high above the street, and can be reached by pedestrians via a broad flight of fifty or sixty wide steps, flanked by sloping lawns and formal gardens. The march had washed up at the foot of these steps, on the bottom three or four of which stood a row of glum-faced men and women facing the crowd, holding hand-written signs against their chests and wearing gags. I had been expecting a bit more energy, a speech or two, but it was explained to me that today’s demo was a silent protest. This wasn’t quite the case for us and the people standing around us (who were greeting, chatting, exchanging news and trying to manage their children) but it was definitely pretty quiet. Somebody told me later that on the same day the Church had organised its own demo about the same issue, which explained the low turnout, though I suspect the weather might have had something to do with it as well.
After a while some chanting of slogans was organised, but shortly after that the drizzle began to turn to proper rain, and we moved away down the hill towards the train station.
“Well I married me a wife, she’s been trouble all my life.”
On the way down the hill we pass three elderly ladies discussing the demo. As we pass, one is saying scornfully: “Pois! Metem-lhes os cornos, e acontece isto”. This can be approximately rendered in English as “Well what do they expect? They play around, and that’s what happens.”
Here we have the default narrative for femicide. The American Folk and Country music canons are packed with stories about cheating women, and loving men driven by their unbearable pain to murder them.
These songs tend to be centred on the murderer, to whom a very sad tragedy has happened, rather than on the woman, to whom a very painful murder has happened. The murderer deserves our sympathy, for his pain, his guilt and his destroyed life, the woman deserves everything she gets, insofar as she is considered at all. As Othello puts it to himself, in a bracing appeal to Elizabethan male solidarity: “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.”
The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” was the first song I heard on this theme (Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle cover of it was twice as good), and a few years later on, in the decade of love, it spread to rock music, with Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”, the Grateful Dead’s rocked up “Cold Rain and Snow” and Neil Young’s over-long-but-fabulous-anyway “Down by the River”, among plenty of others (web-links below for your predilection, if you have the time and don’t have a life). Me and my long-haired pals sang along to these songs with gusto and air-guitars, only dimly aware of the way they imprinted and perpetuated wife-murder in popular culture.
Presumably rap and hip-hop took things considerably further, but then they would.
I’ll leave things there for now.
[i] ‘Ele já lhe bateu, ou se impôs fisicamente, fazendo-a sentir-se desconfortável?’
[ii] more than five hundred women have been murdered in domestic violence in Portugal since 2004, (the most recent victims being the eight already killed by the end of January this year.)
[iii] Of these 27,000 cases per year, less than 7% of cases result in a conviction. A recent Council of Europe report warned about the extremely low conviction rates and strongly criticised the feebleness of investigations by the Portuguese authorities, given that domestic violence is supposed to be a priority crime, that the investigation doesn’t depend on the victim’s testimony, and that the identity of the perpetrator is clear from the first.