The Blame Game — We Need to Stop Blaming Women for Gender Inequality

One of the more slippery tricks that the patriarchy employs to uphold itself is to further the illusion that gender inequality is really the fault of women themselves, and a natural and inevitable state of affairs. If the gender pay gap exists, it is argued, it is because women lack the ability to negotiate salaries; if the duties of childcare fall predominantly to women, it is said to be because women choose to stay at home; if women are underrepresented in government, it is the female disinterest in politics that takes the blame; if women are attacked by men, it is once again presented as somehow the woman’s fault. This blaming of women is a handy excuse to avert one’s gaze from the problems of gender inequality; if it can be framed as something that is caused by the very people who are its victims, then it can be more easily dismissed and ignored, and members of the dominant group are spared feelings of guilt or responsibility.

Of course, blaming women for everything, or putting inequality down to women’s individual choices, obscures the very real discrimination that women face on a day-to-day basis, and conceals the societal pressures behind the choices that women make. Let’s explore three myths that seek to blame women for gender inequality, and see why they should never be allowed to go unchallenged.

 

Myth 1: Women are generally less successful in their careers than men are because they don’t negotiate for their salary, and are not assertive enough.

From jesadaphorn, freedigitalphotos.net

From jesadaphorn, freedigitalphotos.net

This myth is an absolute favourite of the business world, and is the foundation of countless ‘inspirational’ books for women such as Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”, Gail Evans’ “Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman: What Men Know About Success that Women Need to Learn”, Lois Frankel’s “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office – 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers”, among many others. The recurring theme is that women are currently going about their careers all wrong, and while there is usually a cursory nod to the existence of sexism, the gist of the message is that it is women’s behaviour that needs to change, and if only we could act more like men, gender inequality in the workplace would slowly disappear.

What makes this idea so popular is that there are indeed documented differences between the way women and men behave at work. For instance, in a study by Babcock, it was found that while 57% of men attempt to negotiate their salaries, only 7% of women do. And when it comes to communication in the workplace, Deborah Tannen has found that women tend to be more apologetic, gentle, and indirect. Such discoveries have been pounced on eagerly as evidence of women’s cluelessness in the workplace, as evidence of institutional sexism being merely a small factor in comparison to the enormity of women’s mistakes.

Certainly, women behave differently from men in the workplace. But is this difference in behaviour really a mistake on the part of women, or is it simply a way of adapting to the difference in the way women are treated and responded to at work? Study after study has shown that while men are rated favourably for behaving in an assertive, even aggressive manner, women acting in the same way are disapproved of and punished, be it through social sanctions like isolation and name-calling, or by being rejected for promotions and denied career opportunities. The same is true when it comes to negotiating salaries. Most women choose not to negotiate for a very good reason — they believe, rightly, that any attempt to negotiate will reflect badly on them, something that would not occur to the same degree if they were male. As researcher Hannah Bowles says, “This isn’t about fixing the women. It isn’t about telling women, “You need self-confidence or training.” They are responding to incentives within the social environment… You have to weigh that against social risks of negotiating. What we show is those risks are higher for women than for men.”

Another aspect of this myth that I find irksome is the assumption that the current dynamics of the workplace are immutable, even desirable. There is no link between confidence and competence, and if there is one, research suggests it is an inverse relationship, meaning that it may be the most incompetent individuals who seem the most confident (look up the Dunning-Kruger effect). Quieter qualities like cooperativeness and empathy are essential to good leaders, yet are sadly too often overlooked, or scorned as ‘feminine traits’. In a society where a culture of aggression, over-confidence and reckless risk-taking led to the financial crash, are these really the behaviours that we want to continue to promote?

 

Myth 2: Women take on more housework and childcare responsibilities because they choose not to work outside the home.

from freedigitalphotos.net

From tiverylucky, freedigitalphotos.net

This myth is annoyingly persistent, and it’s not hard to see why. To some, there is a pleasing symmetry and fairness in the idea of women and men occupying different spheres of work — she in the home, and he in the workplace, happily toiling away at their respective tasks. Yet, not only does this completely erase same-sex couples and non-traditional living arrangements, the idea that women shoulder the brunt of domestic responsibilities within the family in exchange for men working outside the home is completely inaccurate.

While women have been making greater gains in the workplace, with more than 40% of women now taking on the role of primary breadwinners, the division of labour when it comes to domestic chores has not shifted. Women working full-time do more than three times as much housework as men working full-time; even more appallingly, in households where the female partner is the primary breadwinner and the male partner does not work, domestic chores still fall to the woman. Women do not do the bulk of the housework because they spend less time in paid employment, they simply do the bulk of the housework, full stop.

The second part of this myth is the concept of a woman’s ‘choice’ to stay at home, combined with a man’s ‘choice’ to seek paid employment. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that might lead to this choice, starting with maternity and paternity leave. In the UK, women can generally take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, while paternity leave is only 2 weeks long (though this may hopefully be changed next year). When a heterosexual couple expecting a baby discusses future working arrangements, what makes economic sense? For the mother to stay home with the baby of course. And when one partner has to stay home permanently or work part-time, who will it be? Given that the mother has already spent close to a year caring for the child and is thus a lot more comfortable with the routine of childcare, added to this the fact that the female partner is likely to be earning less than the male partner, owing not only to the gender wage gap but men’s socialised reluctance to be the lower earner in the relationship, plus societal expectations of what a good mother should do, and society’s mocking of men who decide to stay home… given all this and more, it is hardly a surprise that most households fit neatly into the pattern of the man being the primary breadwinner, and the woman taking full responsibility for the domestic sphere. Can this really be said to be women’s free choice at all?

 

Myth 3: Women’s clothing and behaviour lead to sexual assault.

And now we come to the most painful myth of all. On average, 404 000 women are victims of sexual offences every year in the UK, compared to 72 000 men, and 98% of perpetrators are men, making this a crime that is heavily gendered. However, society seems to think that it is women who are to blame for this state of affairs, and up to us to prevent sexual assault. Even as a child, my friends and I were familiar with all the rules we had to live by, and these messages were drummed into us again and again — wearing short skirts leads to sexual assault; drinking leads to sexual assault; going out alone at night leads to sexual assault; taking lifts from strangers leads to sexual assault; flirting or ‘sending mixed messages’ leads to sexual assault; having many sexual partners leads to sexual assault. We were told, in subtle (and often not-so-subtle) ways, that if we were to do any of the things above, we were “asking for it”, and were being stupid, and had no one to blame but ourselves, for “what did we expect, really”?

Except it isn’t women who are causing rape and sexual assault. Women have been assaulted while wearing anything, from dresses, to jeans, to hoodies, to burqas. Women have been assaulted when drunk or sober. And women have been assaulted anywhere, be it a deserted alley, or the bedroom of a trusted friend, or at a crowded party. And there is nothing women can do to prevent these assaults, for they are not our fault. We do not cause them, and so we cannot stop them.

 

*******

These three myths are only a small selection of the myriad ways in which women are blamed for manifestations of gender inequality, and for gender inequality itself. From a young age, boys are taught to exert control over their world, through building, inventing, fighting, and being aggressive. Girls, on the other hand, are taught to internalise this control, to master not our surroundings but ourselves, through dieting, cosmetics, fashion, and being agreeable. Too often, then, women are told to change ourselves, and that if we do not succeed in this society, then it is we who must readjust, and not social structures and societal attitudes that are flawed. This habit of blaming women has gone on far too long, and it is only once we shift our focus from women’s ‘mistakes’ to analysing and overhauling unequal power structures in society, that any real progress can be made.

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Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value

Doctors

The gender wage gap has long been an issue of importance for feminists, and one that consistently finds itself on the UN and government agendas. Despite this, there is a persistent idea among many in mainstream society (mostly men, and some women) that the gender wage gap is simply a myth, that women are paid less on average because of the specific choices that women make in their careers. Everything, they claim, from the industry a woman chooses to establish herself in, to the hours she chooses to work, to her decision to take time off to spend with her children, and so on, leads to lower pay, for reasons, they confidently assure us, that have nothing at all to do with sexism. Now we could delve into, and rebut, these points at length, but in this post, I will focus only on the assertion that the wage gap exists partly because women choose to go into industries that just happen — what a coincidence! — to be lower paid.

So here’s how the argument usually goes. Women, they say, gravitate towards lower-paid industries such as nursing, cleaning, teaching, social work, childcare, customer service or administrative work, while men choose to work in politics, business, science, and other manly, well-paid industries. Those who propagate this idea usually aren’t interested in a solution, since they see no problem, but if asked to provide one, they might suggest that women behave more like men, one aspect of this being to take up careers in male-dominated industries that are more well-paid (and respected, but they seldom say this out loud).

But is this really a solution, even a small one? What their analysis misses out is the question of how the average pay levels of different industries are decided in the first place. There’s demand and supply, of course, but another factor is the perceived value of the role, and what it means to society. Let’s examine a traditionally male-dominated role that is very well-respected, and well-paid, in many parts of the world — that of a doctor. In the UK, it is listed as one of the top ten lucrative careers, and the average annual income of a family doctor in the US is well into six figures. It also confers on you significant social status, and a common stereotype in Asian communities is of parents encouraging their children to become doctors.

One of my lecturers at university once presented us with this thought exercise: why are doctors so highly paid, and so well-respected? Our answers were predictable. Because they save lives, their skills are extremely important, and it takes years and years of education to become one. All sound, logical reasons. But these traits that doctors possess are universal. So why is it, she asked, that doctors in Russia are so lowly paid? Making less than £7,500 a year, it is one of the lowest paid professions in Russia, and poorly respected at that. Why is this?

The answer is crushingly, breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. Here’s a quote from Carol Schmidt, a geriatric nurse practitioner who toured medical facilities in Moscow: “Their status and pay are more like our blue-collar workers, even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”

What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. This means that anything a woman does, be it childcare, teaching, or doctoring, or rocket science, will be seen to be of less value simply because it is done mainly by women. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.

So it is not enough for us to demand access to traditionally male-dominated fields. Yes, we need to stop holding women back in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, and yes, we need to allow more women to take an interest in, and succeed in business and politics. But far more than that, we need to change the culture that imbues us with a sense of the inferiority of women, that tells us, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that anything a woman does is obviously easy, requires little effort, and is of minimal value to society.

The Disbelieving of Women

Earlier this year, two male television hosts from The Netherlands decided to go through simulated labour contractions to have a small inkling of what childbirth might be like. The video, which shows them writhing and screaming in agony, went viral on social media, attracting many comments from men who, it appeared, had just had the realisation that childbirth was indeed rather painful after all. The two Dutch TV hosts are not the only men to have done this. The narrative seems to pan out in a similar manner each time — the men begin their journey happy and intrepid, sometimes even cocky, and end up wracked with pain, expressing a newfound respect for mothers. The audience is delighted, and the videos make their rounds.

Yet, one question continues to bug me — why did these men feel the need to ‘experience’ it for themselves before they could acknowledge the extent of the pain of childbirth? What astounds me is that despite the well-known fact of the agony of childbirth, a common theme of doubt lingers among these men. Before undergoing the simulation, Zeno, one half of the Dutch duo, wonders, “Do you think the pain will make us scream?” Another video contains a pre-simulation quote from one of the participants — “According to women childbirth is the worst kind of pain there is. But did you know, according to men, women exaggerate everything?”

And there we arrive at the heart of the matter. Disbelief, the curse of Cassandra in Greek mythology, is a curse that has fallen on, and continues to plague women today. Represented in popular culture as either unable to fully understand or articulate her own experiences, or scheming and manipulative, or else histrionic drama queens, or simply irrational, society has been conditioned to take women’s words with a pinch of salt. The default reaction to anything a woman says seems to be to disbelieve her, unless faced with incontrovertible evidence.

Cassandra. From: Wikipedia

Cassandra. From: Wikipedia

If you are a woman who holds and expresses strong opinions, particularly online, you’ll be able to relate to this — the unceasing demand from men for us to present them with academic studies to back up our points. Now, not for a second am I denigrating the importance of using hard evidence in an argument, or the citing of one’s sources. Yet, when men are constantly asking women — and only women — for sources during casual conversation, and in a challenging, sneering manner at that, something else is certainly at work here, and it isn’t simply a passion for academic rigour.

Nowhere is the knee-jerk disbelief of women more apparent than in the public reaction to a woman’s reporting of rape or sexual abuse, particularly if the man in question is a celebrity or in a position of power. Despite all the evidence pointing towards the extreme rarity of false rape accusations, too many people automatically dismiss a victim’s story when she speaks up, preferring to believe the protestations of innocence coming from the accused instead. Often, not even a guilty verdict can convince them of the victim’s veracity; Ched Evans’ victim has had to endure anger and threats of violence, and is called a liar by complete strangers to this day.

This habit of disbelieving women is no trivial matter, and it has to end. Not only does it deny victims justice and deter other victims from coming forward, it also enables perpetrators to get away with their crimes, and reassures other would-be perpetrators that their chances of evading punishment are high. If our words carry no weight, then it serves to reaffirm and cement the second-class status of women in society, by invalidating our experiences and dismissing our interpretations of them as exaggerated, ill-informed, or straight-out malicious lies.

And you know what? If men can only believe in the agony of childbirth by watching another man go through a mini simulation of contractions, it’s a very sad state of affairs indeed.

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First published at The F Word.

Exotification – I’m Not Your Pretty Little Lotus Flower

“I love Asian women!” “Asian women are so hot.” “Japan, Korea, China?” “Asian women know how to treat a man!”

Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? If they do, congratulations, you’ve come across (or you are) a man — probably white — with so-called “Yellow Fever”.

As an Asian woman living in a country full of white men, I meet these guys a lot. You know, the ones who blurt out all of the above sound bites, who try to guess what ‘type’ of Asian I am, whose favourite actresses are Gong Li, Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi, who insist on discussing Korean/Japanese/Chinese dramas with me despite me not having seen the series in question, who tell me about all the other Asian women they’ve dated, who complain about how ugly white women are and why Asian women are so much better, and who try to get me to tell them that white men are so much better than Asian men.

Of course, such exotifiying sentiments are meant to be complimentary. After all, the patriarchy asserts, what could be higher praise for a woman than the approval of a white man?

Only…it isn’t praise. It is patronising and dehumanising, and inextricably bound up with the social power of race and gender. To them, ‘Asian’ is our defining characteristic, in a way that ‘white’ would never be used to define themselves. When the “Yellow Fever”ed men speak to me, they aren’t speaking to me, they’re speaking to their idea of an Asian woman, their fantasy made flesh. They’re speaking to every Asian woman they’ve ever seen in the media, every Asian porn actress they’ve ever leered at on their computer screens. My personality tries to push itself forward, but is rendered invisible, obscured by the lenses of racial stereotype.

And what a horrifically misogynistic stereotype it is too. Have a wander round any online dating site or Internet forum discussing Asian women, and you’ll notice that one of the most attractive things about Asian women, according to white men, is our apparent ability to “treat our man right”. But what does “right” entail? Well, to put it simply, “treating a man right” is to treat him as superior. Time and time again, Asian women are lauded for our supposedly meek and gentle natures, for our submissive attitudes, for our rejection of feminist values. (Hah!) Through their fetishisation and racist assumptions about Asian women, they reveal their attitudes towards relations with women in general: one should be quiet and meek, contented with a subordinate status, and eager to serve.

How, you may ask, do these men reconcile their ideas of Asian women with the existence of Asian feminists? Easy; they decide that she has been “brainwashed” by Western feminist values, has been contaminated, and has neglected her cultural roots. The fact that they assume submissiveness to be so inherent in Asian women that any feminist ideas must be mere parroting of the ideas of white women, is insulting in the extreme. Nor do I appreciate their assumption that Asian culture is static. I would love for them to cast their eye over their own cultural history, going back hundreds of years, and then tell me — what is “Caucasian culture”? And by rejecting the values their ancestors espoused, have they betrayed their cultural roots?

So please, men with ‘Yellow Fever’, stop objectifying, fetishising and exotifiying us. Instead, try seeing us as individual human beings with individual, unique personalities. Cool idea, no? And next time you have the urge to tell me about all the Asian women you’ve dated and how much you loved Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Memoirs of a Geisha — don’t.

What Does Physical Attractiveness Have To Do With Sport?

Picture the following scenes. It’s November, 2012, and President Obama has just won the US election. Amid the celebrations, keyboard warriors take to social media to comment, “Obama? President? What a joke, he can’t tap dance at all.” Or perhaps a group of students are in the classroom learning about Einstein, and wonder aloud, “Why is Einstein so admired? He clearly didn’t know much about hairdressing.”

Naturally, we recognise these to be completely absurd. One’s ability to tap dance has no impact on one’s effectiveness as a leader, and to be a theoretical physicist, hairdressing skills are unnecessary. To link them is simply ludicrous. Yet, this line of ‘logic’ was precisely what drove the actions of a horde of social media users in the wake of Marion Bartoli’s victory in the Wimbledon final.

While Bartoli, overwhelmed by happiness, hugged her family and friends, these men (for they were mostly men) took to Twitter and Facebook to express their anger over how “ugly” and “fat” she was. And judging from their tone and language used, there was some serious rage going on. Laura Bates of @EverydaySexism captured and tweeted a tiny selection of the comments, which you can see below. (Warning: abusive, violent and misogynistic language)

SexistTrolls

What is most bewildering is this idea that Bartoli “didn’t deserve to win”, and that she “shouldn’t have won”, due to the fact that she was apparently, to them, so unattractive. I’ve always thought of the Wimbledon Championships as a tennis tournament, and wasn’t aware that it was a beauty pageant as well. I can think of plausible reasons why an athlete might not deserve to win — perhaps they simply got lucky on the day, perhaps they constantly display unsporting behaviour, perhaps the referee/umpire/judge made a mistake. But an athlete being less attractive than their opponent is not one of those reasons, and to say so is every bit as absurd as condemning Einstein’s achievements on the basis of his hairstyle.

Of course, this weird logic only seems to apply to women, and Marion Bartoli is not the first female athlete to be judged on her looks instead of her skills. During the Olympics last summer, British weightlifter Zoe Smith had to defend herself from a bunch of sexist Twitter trolls, keen to share with her their thoughts regarding her appearance. After some pictures of Olympic triple-gold medallist Leisel Jones appeared in the media, showing her with a tummy that was (oh, horror!) not completely flat, the public was abuzz with criticisms. And we hardly need to be reminded that Serena Williams has always been on the receiving end of similar vitriol.

This isn’t confined to female athletes either; women in every possible field are somehow expected to meet with the approval of the male gaze, even when physical beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with their jobs. From politicians like Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel, to Professors like Mary Beard, to singers like Susan Boyle, it seems that beauty is a compulsory attribute for every woman to have, if we do not wish to be bombarded by misogynistic trolls publicly declaring their fury and hatred.

What does physical attractiveness have to do with sport? Absolutely nothing. And if we want to encourage little girls to pick up a racquet, to throw a ball, and to aspire to sporting greatness, then we need to stop cementing the notion that female athletes, and indeed all women, will only be successful and appreciated if they happen to meet societal beauty standards as well. Marion Bartoli is a tennis player who has just won her first Wimbledon title. Let us rejoice with her and recognise her for her sporting success.

The Objectification of Women – It Goes Much Further Than Sexy Pictures

When feminists decry the objectification of women, most people immediately think of the images that saturate our magazines, movies, adverts and the Internet, of women in varying stages of undress, dolled up and presented for the male gaze. Yet, while sexual objectification is a huge problem, it is, sadly, only a fraction of the objectification of women that permeates our world, from the moment we enter it.

Because it is all too obvious and difficult to ignore, we tend to focus on sexual objectification. The difference between the way women and men are portrayed in national newspapers and other media is stark— women are too often reduced to the sum of their body parts, heavily photoshopped to fit into an ever narrowing ideal of female beauty. It grabs our attention, we recognize that something isn’t right, and we confidently assert that this is sexism in action.

And we’re right, of course. Yet, an overemphasis on the ‘sexual’ aspect can obscure the much more problematic aspect of ‘objectification’, the iceberg of which sexual objectification is the visible tip. After all, being presented in a sexual way doesn’t always mean objectification. Sexy pictures of men, in contrast to sexy pictures of women, frequently portray them as sexual subjects, actors exercising their sexuality, instead of objects meant to gratify someone else’s sexuality.

Who is the subject, and who is the object?  Source: CNE

Who is the subject, and who is the object? Who is acting, and who is acted upon?
Source: CNE

So, what do I mean when I say that sexual objectification is simply the most visible part of objectification? Well, let’s start by differentiating between subject status and object status. While a subject is active, with agency, an object is passive, being acted upon. This dichotomy is reflected in our grammar; when we hear, “Fiona stroked the cat,” we recognize that ‘Fiona’ has subject status, while ‘the cat’ has object status. Now in an ideal world, we would find ourselves randomly cast as either subject or object at different times, depending on the situation, with no problems. However, in society’s dominant narrative, subject and object status is heavily gendered, with men granted subject status the vast majority of the time, and women severely objectified.

These messages start right from the cradle. A study by Janice McCabe showed that male characters in children’s books far outnumber female ones, and that even when characters (eg. animals) are gender-neutral, they are often referred to as male when parents read them to their kids. This pattern is consistent in children’s TV shows, where only a third of lead characters are girls. The Smurfette principle, where only one female character is present in an entire cast of male ones, still holds true for many TV shows, with ‘female’ seemingly a characteristic of its own.

Having been brought up on a diet of stories revolving around boys and men, this male-centeredness continues to dog us throughout our lives. The vast majority of films produced tell the stories of men, with women cast as girlfriends, wives, or mothers, or in other periphery roles. In a typical year, only about 12-15% of top grossing Hollywood films are women-centric, focussing on women and their stories.

It isn’t just the media that does this. In everyday conversation, male pronouns dominate our speech and ideas. Every dog we see is a ‘he’, every stick figure a ‘he’, humans thought of as simply ‘mankind’. There are exceptions, though. Boats, cars, bikes and ships always seem to be ‘she’, but this is hardly exciting once we realise that they are all objects, and possessions of (usually) men, at that.

Anyway, the cumulative effect of all this is that we are socialising generation after generation to view the world, and the women in it, from the point of view of men. As a result, only men are seen as full and complete human beings, not women. Women are objectified — this means we are denied agency, and are seen from the outside, our own consciousness, our thoughts and feelings, utterly overlooked.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Tomb Raider’s executive producer, Rob Rosenberg, finds it natural to assert that players “don’t project themselves into [Lara Croft’s] character,” that they think “I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.” Even though they are actually playing as Lara.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that Stephen Hawkings can declare women to be “a complete mystery”, and have newspapers gleefully latch on to this, declaring women “the greatest mystery known to man”. It is a common refrain for men to bleat about not understanding women, but this is because they have simply never tried, because society has trained them to never look at life through the eyes of a woman.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that when society is presented with a case of male violence or sexual abuse, everyone looks at it from his point of view: “Oh, he must have been provoked to have done that,” “He was a nice man who just snapped,” “He must have been confused by her signals,” “Maybe he’s been falsely accused, how terrible to have to go to jail for that.” With every victim-blaming, rape / violence apologist comment, society reveals through whose eyes it looks, and the answer is invariably the man’s.

It is because society tells us that women are objects, not subjects, that even good men, when speaking out against violence against women, tell other men to imagine her as “somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, or somebody’s sister,” it never occurring to them that maybe, just maybe, a woman is also “somebody”.

It is frightening to consider just how deeply entrenched objectification of women really goes. We must certainly combat sexual objectification, but the battle will not end there. Women are objectified in more profound ways than we realise, and we must tear down every entwined shred of the patriarchy, in order to achieve our modest goal of being recognized and treated as human beings.

The Power of Silence in Enabling Domestic Violence

Source: GRIID

Source: GRIID

Society has long known the power of words. In 1838, Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, a phrase that has proven its own point by marching its triumphant way down the generations. Books and speeches have been immortalised as turning points in history, ideas that have taken root and changed the world. And as the power of words has been celebrated, the power of silencing has emerged as a crucial tool of the patriarchy, a way of keeping women underfoot. This is why old texts like the bible contain the following lines – “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34), and “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12). It is why many cultures around the world require women to be demure and soft-spoken, speaking infrequently, and why, even in what we think of as the progressive West, outspoken women are regularly labelled ‘shrill’ or ‘hysterical’. It is a pattern cut from the same cloth, a way of ensuring that women’s views are kept hidden away, that we are kept compliant in the face of a system that has always been stacked against us.

Of course, it isn’t only women’s words that are erased. Any man bold enough to speak out against the patriarchial order is mocked for it, called a ‘gender traitor’ or ‘pussywhipped’, sometimes even leading to social exclusion. Given the immense social pressure to go along to get along, it is no wonder many choose to stay silent, no matter how much they may disagree with the rape joke that has just been told, or how much they dislike seeing their friend sexually harass a passing woman. And in this way, by meting out punishment to its critics, the status quo maintains itself.

And when it comes to domestic violence, the silence can be deafening. There is an overwhelming tendency in society to see it as a personal problem between two people, something they should sort out for themselves, and that it isn’t our place to judge the relationships of others. Our judgment centers around the woman in the relationship—we wonder why she doesn’t leave, speculate on her individual character, all the while viewing it as her problem to bear, rather than as a crime plain and simple, committed by the perpetrator. But here’s the key thing. Whenever we portray domestic violence as somehow less bad than random violence against a stranger, we’re furthering the idea that being in a relationship automatically gives a man the right to a woman’s body, and that being with him is tantamount to consenting to be hurt in that way. I feel this is really important, so I’ll say it again: Whenever we think that a woman who just doesn’t leave is responsible for what a man does to her, and that he is less culpable than if he had beaten a stranger, we’re implying that being in a relationship with him is akin to giving consent for whatever he might do to her. In other words, we’re equating a relationship with ownership, and decide that what goes on within it is nothing to do with us.

We need to break this silence, and decry domestic violence as an epidemic that is everybody’s problem. In the aftermath of the Cleveland kidnapping horror, it has emerged that warning signs aplenty were ignored—Castro’s long record of violence against women, neighbours’ calls to police treated lightly, and not followed up on. Could it be that, given that these incidents were taking place in a house, it was seen as ‘just’ domestic violence by the police? A personal relationship problem, and not a ‘real’ crime?

If you follow my blog or regularly read feminist writings, you’ll be familiar with the fact that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. Yet despite this staggering statistic, it is still largely marginalized as a ‘women’s problem’, and virtual silence in the mainstream about it as a pressing social issue. Male celebrities (especially white male celebrities) who have committed domestic violence, like Charlie Sheen, John Lennon, Mel Gibson, and Gary Oldman, have been subject to a ripple of condemnation, before the curtain of silence fell again. And while many brave survivors have spoken out about it, the onus cannot be placed solely on them. Every single one of us has a part to play in breaking the silence that has served to protect perpetrators for so long.

domesticviolenceuk.org

So what does ‘breaking the silence’ entail, exactly? Well, we could start by firmly disagreeing whenever someone makes a joke about violence against women. We could write to our MPs, asking them to make tackling DV a priority, and to increase funding for women’s shelters and other support services. We could volunteer at said services. We could contact companies selling products that promote or trivialize domestic violence and let them know how abhorrent we find it. We could air our views online, take to Twitter, write a blog, post on Facebook. We could challenge those who make excuses for violent men, and publicly refute those who mock or blame the victims. And we (especially the men amongst us) need to be far more vocal in challenging other men, and ask what it is about male culture that continually churns out men who abuse and control women.

None of this is easy. But if we keep turning a blind eye to the rampant problem of domestic violence in society, and insist on seeing it as isolated cases of relationships gone sour, if we excuse celebrity men for their actions and stigmatize the victim instead of the perpetrator, then the culture of male violence against women will continue to flourish in the silence of our complicity.

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* If you know a friend or family member who is experiencing domestic violence, please see this guide from Women’s Aid on what you can do to support them.