The case of the “adulterous woman”

For the past few days in Portugal, social media and the media in general have been seething over a court decision that reads like a throwback to the 19th century, or as a pronouncement from one of those countries where women enjoy the social status of a cow or a table. But we’re talking about a court in a democratic, European, 21st-century country  like Portugal, where the Constitution enshrined equality for men and women 40 years ago. This is a country where women are free, no avenues of self-actualization are closed off to them, and most of us live our lives without feeling discrimination.

But this Court of Appeals judge either ignores current law or fancies himself living in some kind of theocracy. He quoted the Bible in a secular country where, despite a Catholic majority, laws have nothing to do with religion, to state that the acts of a man who violently attacks his adulterous wife are completely justified by her actions.

The story begins in 2015, when the man in question, then separated from his wife, began harassing her. Strangely enough, another man, with whom she had had an affair, decided to engage in harassment as well. Both men insulted her and ended up causing her serious bodily harm. Although the court first found against them, it let the men out on parole; the state prosecutor appealed, claiming they should go to jail. And then the Court of Appeals decided to add its odd ingredients to the mix.

The contours of this case go beyond domestic violence. In fact the two men conspired and planned for the ex-lover to abduct the woman from a parking  garage , which he did. The ex-lover drove her to a place where the ex-husband waited and savagely beat her. She managed to get away. The two men acted in cold blood.

If you find the court’s leniency shocking, ponder the reasoning behind it. The judge finds adultery a strong justification for the husband’s actions, declaring that “adultery committed by a woman is a very serious offense to the honor and dignity of a man.” He continues: “The disloyalty and immorality of the woman caused the defendant to fall into a deep depression and it was during that state of revolt and depression that he assaulted her.”

The judge uses the argument of adultery as if it had any legal consequence — which it doesn’t — you can’t even use it as cause for litigious divorce. The court’s message is devastating, as you might say it condones domestic violence (this case has been framed as a matter of domestic violence from the start); it doesn’t just minimize violence, it practically legitimizes violence as it exculpates the aggressor.

Apparently the judge in question has handed down similar pronouncements before. Once he stated that “a woman who commits adultery is a false, dishonest, futile and immoral person, a hypocrite.” In another judgment, he dismissed a husband’s assault on his wife as she held their newborn baby, and in yet another he made excuses for a father who had kicked his four year-old son. Now he breaks with common decency and even what most of us consider sanity when he tries to justify his decision, showing how other “sources of law” deal with this subject. After mentioning how the adultery of a woman affects her husband, he goes on to show examples of societies and legal systems that advocate for severe punishment of this “capital crime.” “In the Bible,” he writes, “we can read that adulterous women should be put to death. Not long ago, our Criminal Law only slightly punished the man who, catching his wife in the act of adultery with another man, killed her right there.” Not long ago? He referred to the Criminal Code of 1886. But he doesn’t stop there: “With these references we intend to stress that the adultery committed by a woman is a behavior that society has always condemned in a strong way and still does – and honest women are the strongest voices against the adulterous ones – and this justifies our understanding of the violent behavior of a man who is betrayed, humiliated and scorned by his wife.” He even mentions countries where adulterous women are still stoned to death – a vindictive punishment that doesn’t seem to bother him a great deal.

Several NGOs, including feminist ones and the APAV, the association that supports victims of violence, have strongly protested the decision. Demonstrations in Lisbon and Porto have called for action against this violation of principle law, which do not allow for discrimination; nor do they countenance violent acts of any sort,  except for self-defense – and conspiring with a former lover of your ex-wife’s to abduct said ex-wife and beat her with a club hardly qualifies as self-defense.

We have recently learned that this was not the decision of a sole judge, but that of a court consisting of two judges, and one happened to be a woman. The female judge said she signed the decision made by her fellow judge without reading it, as she trusted him completely! But she too is responsible for it.

It seems likely the male judge was at some point wronged by a wife or lover and has since become an embittered enemy of womankind. But that’s his problem. Our problem as a society is that we have someone like him sitting in a court of law, making decisions that deeply affect the lives of ordinary citizens. The Council of Magistrates has already begun disciplinary procedures against him and I believe, as millions of other Portuguese citizens do, that he doesn’t belong in a court of law; maybe he’d be more comfortable in a country where laws align with his beliefs, wherever that country may be.

None of the above is, as I would wish, part of some obscure, absurdist play. Nor is it a joke. No. One day, a modern-day judge in a western country governed by secular principles decided that obsolete law and dubious psychological beliefs should guide him in his work. On that day, he made excuses for violence and opened the door to more violence in the future. Don’t let this happen again.