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Depp-Heard defamation trial: Shedding new light on domestic violence cases?

While the trial has been unusual in the prominence it has given to male victims, whether it will affect future cases remains to be seen.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
4 minute read

The ongoing defamation case brought by actor Johnny Depp against his ex-wife and fellow Hollywood star Amber Heard has opened up a deep division among those following the court proceedings, with one camp firmly in support of Depp and the other entrenched behind Heard.

The war between fans has been evident on social media, with hashtags like #justiceforjohnnydepp, #johnnydeppisinnocent and #istandwithamberheard making the rounds.

The support for Depp in particular, though, marks a milestone of sorts in an arena traditionally dominated by sympathy for women as victims of domestic violence.

It also comes against the backdrop of the “MeToo” movement – a campaign against sexual harassment popularised by actor Alyssa Milano following her exposure of sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein.

But will this apparent turning of tables have any impact on the public perception of future cases involving claims of domestic abuse by women?

Jernell Tan of the All Women’s Action Society expects no significant change to come.

“Trivialisation, dismissal and victim-blaming in the experiences of women victims and survivors by the public have always been present, even before the emergence of Depp’s testimony alleging domestic abuse,” she said.

“The same applies to the presumption that cases of gender-based violence – especially rape – are false allegations made by women and girls, which is based on the longstanding myth of the ‘lying woman’ and more often than not discredits victims and survivors.”

Depp, widely known for his role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, is suing Heard for US$50 million, saying she defamed him when she claimed she was a victim of domestic abuse.

Heard meanwhile has counter-sued for US$100 million, arguing that Depp smeared her by calling her a liar.

Tan said the perception of women as the victims in cases of domestic violence is shaped by current realities which make them more vulnerable.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she referred to the system of patriarchy which she said results in the legitimisation of violence against women and girls as a way to control their attitudes.

But it’s not just women who suffer the effects of this system, she added.

“This same patriarchy is also detrimental to men and boys, whereby they are punished if they fail to adhere to a narrow spectrum of masculine behaviours involving toughness, dominance and invulnerability,” she said.

“In fact, male victims of gender-based violence in general experience higher levels of stigma, ostracism and victimisation by third parties as a result of this, which impedes help-seeking behaviour and further compromises well-being.”

Sociologist Sharifah Fatimah Al Attas meanwhile said that the idea of masculinity which runs counter to the notion that women can abuse men is ingrained in society.

“The current case which shows that men can be domestic violence victims is a reminder,” Sharifah, of the International Islamic University Malaysia, told MalaysiaNow.

“Even when men are at the receiving end, we have to take the stance that we believe the victim.”

She said the case also shows how the public responds and how narratives are formed.

“It relates to our expectations of how victims are supposed to behave,” she said.

“But victims don’t always behave the same way. They don’t always look the same. People who are going through trauma from abuse might not always respond the way we expect.”

Lawyer Mohd Ridhwan Husin, who has handled many shariah cases, said there was no difference in treatment between men and women in relation to domestic violence.

However, men whom he estimates make up about 21% of domestic violence victims, more often than not prefer to forgo reporting the cases due to their egos, he said.

“Physical, emotional, economic, sexual and social violence – all these are enshrined in the country’s law,” he said.

“Protection from domestic violence is available to any party regardless of gender. Victims can obtain temporary or permanent protection orders to prevent continued abuse.”

Ridhwan, the assistant secretary-general of the Malaysian Syariah Lawyers Association, added that domestic violence is not limited to abuse between husbands and wives, but can also involve children and the elderly.

Tan meanwhile said that Depp’s testimony would be instrumental in highlighting and validating the experience of male victims who are rarely taken seriously.

“It will be the first step to creating a safe space for all victims, regardless of gender,” she said.

She also stressed the importance of public discussions, education and awareness to maintain a balance in being multidimensional and inclusive.

Ridhwan said the Depp-Heard trial might not affect cases involving domestic violence against men in Malaysia, given the strength of the stigma attached to being afraid of one’s wife.

“Traditionally, Malaysian men don’t like admitting to being beaten by their wives,” he said.

“They are afraid that they will be seen as weak.”

In any event, he said, most of the cases involving the abuse of men veered more towards economic, emotional and even sexual abuse, unlike the focus of physical abuse at the Depp-Heard trial.

Sharifah meanwhile cautioned against using a single case as a benchmark for all instances of domestic violence.

“Just because a woman might be lying about abuse in this case doesn’t mean that all women will lie in all cases,” she said.

“The role of society in general, whether we are giving support as family members of the victims or if we are policymakers, is to ensure that if victims are looking for support or help, they will be believed, regardless of their background.”