Editor's note: Lyndal Khaw is an assistant professor of family and child studies at Montclair State University.
(CNN) -- On the eve of the Grammys in 2009, when news surfaced that singer Chris Brown assaulted his girlfriend, Rihanna, the cruel reality of violence against women came to the forefront. Police reports, narrative accounts and photographs told a chilling tale of what happened that night.
In the ensuing months, Rihanna's responses to the violence she received faced public scrutiny. Everyone hoped that she would do what most of us believed was the right thing to do: Leave the relationship. When she did eventually leave, there was a collective admiration for her ability to move on, which sent a clear message that violence against women is wrong. She was lauded as a role model to women and young girls, and became a celebrity symbol of strength and survivorship.
Fast-forward to today.
Rihanna is collaborating with Brown again. Some people are mad and disapprove of her decision to let Brown back into her life, especially given the "role model" status that had been assigned to her. Personally, I am not outraged. Before you think I'm a fan of Brown (I'm not), here's my rationale: Rihanna did not ask to be a role model, no more than she asked to be abused.
In the United States, one in three women experiences violence. Rihanna is unfortunately one of these women. Like other abused women, she is being judged unfairly for her relationship with her abusive former partner.
One of the first things people ask after learning that a woman has been abused is, "Why don't you just leave?" While this is a seemingly innocuous suggestion, it really isn't that simple. When a woman leaves and then returns to her partner or tries to stay on amicable terms, she can elicit a backlash. No wonder some people have commented that Rihanna must "enjoy being abused."
I don't know anyone who enjoys being abused. What I do know is that domestic violence is a vicious cycle. Leaving an abusive partner is a process that can take months, if not years. One woman I know stayed in her relationship for almost 25 years before she was able to finally leave.
Moreover, most women leave their partners more than once. Studies have indicated that a woman leaves her abuser an average of eight times before leaving permanently. We cannot be certain, but it is possible that Rihanna is still in the process of leaving. Thus, the fact that she and Brown are working together now after the incident of three years ago is not surprising.
However, the bigger issue is Brown's lack of accountability in all of this. Even in a society where many of us would agree that violence against women is wrong, we hold strong patriarchal values where males are seen as more dominant and privileged than women. We hold Rihanna fully accountable as a role model and place her decisions under harsh judgment. Yet Brown is not held as accountable for his ability to influence young men. Granted, even though he issued a public apology to Rihanna a few weeks after he assaulted her, his motives are less probed (certainly not by the same people who believe that Rihanna likes to be abused).
So the question everyone is asking should not be: "Why is Rihanna going back to (or working with) Chris Brown?" Rather, it should be: "What kind of messages are we sending our children when we focus on and denounce the decisions of women who have been mistreated but spare perpetrators the same level of scrutiny?" This blame-the-victim mentality has got to stop somewhere.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lyndal Khaw.