On #YesAllWomen, and the Discomfort of ‘Good Men’

YesAllWomen

 

Following Elliot Rodger’s hate crime against women (yes, I know many news reports seem to have missed the misogynistic message he was sending, I know Wikipedia has decided to classify it as generic violence instead of violence against women, and I know The Good Men Project has decided it was really all about virginity, but make no mistake, it was a hate crime nonetheless), women all over the internet rose up with the hashtag #YesAllWomen, sharing stories of misogyny and sexual violence, pointing out how the little and not-so-little experiences that women are subjected to on a regular basis combine to create a society in which a killer like Rodger is made.

Somewhat predictably, there has been resistance from men reluctant to acknowledge the sexist culture that surrounds us; more specifically, they are uncomfortable with the idea that they, with their ‘harmless banter’ or only slightly sexist behaviour, could be complicit in a hate crime of such immense proportions.

One example of this is this piece by T.J Holmes, who believes that the hashtag is unfairly placing blame on men who consider themselves good men, who have never attacked women and probably never will, who are only guilty of what he sees as innocuous sexist behaviours, such as giving a woman their arm, or getting women to pass through doors before themselves. He states that “there is a huge gap between the man who catcalls a woman walking down the street and the man who opens fire on her”, and that #YesAllWomen has somehow led to a confused population of women who are unable to see the distinction between these two actions.

Yet, as someone who has followed the hashtag quite closely over the last week, I see no evidence of this “sense that all sexism is created equal”. There is nothing on the hashtag to suggest that shooting a woman is just the same as whistling at her on the street. What I have seen though, over and over again, is women asserting that we must connect the everyday sexism and harassment that women experience, with the underlying attitude of male entitlement to female bodies, thereby creating the conditions necessary for Rodger’s hatred of women to take root and flourish in that particular way. I have seen women point out how charged with fear many romantic / sexual interactions are for women, where it is often hard to tell if rejecting a man’s advances will lead to an uneventful evening, or an encounter with violence. I have seen women unite in their common experiences of being women in a man’s world, and call on men to take the responsibility of tackling the misogyny rampant in socialised masculinity. Nowhere have I witnessed the notion that a man who has regressive beliefs about being a “gentleman” is exactly the same as a mass murderer, which makes Holmes’ opening lines puzzling, to say the least.

And let’s not forget that we live in a world where women are brought up to expect and get over unwanted touching in bars and clubs, a world where a woman’s clothing and behaviour can be blamed for her rape, and where an unambiguously woman-hating killer is called a ‘madman’ rather than an extremist in a misogynistic society. Given this background, can you imagine that from now on, due to #YesAllWomen, any man who engages in sexist behaviour will be viewed and treated as no better than a mass murderer? Of course not. The idea that this is a serious concern for men is patently ludicrous.

I’m not surprised that many men are feeling uncomfortable after reading tweets on the #YesAllWomen hashtag. If one has lived one’s life completely oblivious to the systemic sexism that pervades everything we do, it can be a shock to suddenly realise that you, a well-meaning, kind-hearted man who would never hurt a fly, are complicit in a culture that has led to horrific instances of male violence against women. In fact, I’m glad of this discomfort. I would find it much more worrying if all men read about the harassment, fear and violence that women experience, and felt absolutely nothing. But don’t pretend that this discomfort is in anyway comparable to the actual lived reality of women’s oppression. Don’t ask women to censor their words and hide the truth because it makes some men feel unfairly blamed. Recognise how tiny sexist acts, while so seemingly harmless to you, can add up and add up and add up, to a culture where women are assigned inferior status, and hate crimes against women are a dime a dozen. Then take that discomfort and use it to drive change, rather than taking the easy path of denial.

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When Women and Girls Are Attacked by Men, We Blame Everything Except Male Violence

Last Tuesday night, two teenage girls from India went out into the fields, looking for a place to relieve themselves, due to the lack of toilets in their village. On their way, they were brutally attacked by a group of men, gang-raped, and murdered. Their bodies were found the next day hanging from a tree, in a sickening display of complacence that speaks volumes not only about the men’s arrogance and lack of shame, but also their sense of entitlement to female bodies. Activists in India have rallied in protest against the problem of sexual violence in the country, and villagers have condemned police inaction relating to the incident.

Yesterday, an article appeared in The Guardian, citing the lack of basic sanitation as the main reason for the death of the girls. It was the lack of toilets in their village, the article suggests, that resulted in the attack, never mind the perpetrators themselves, never mind the global ideal of masculinity that accepts, even encourages, violence in men, never mind the global culture of misogyny that normalises violence against women.

Don’t get me wrong — I do believe that basic sanitation is crucial. It is of the utmost importance for reasons of hygiene, leading to cleaner surroundings, safer food and water, lower rates of diarrhoea and illness, lower risk of snake bites, and lower mortality rates. Access to toilets provides privacy and dignity, and having a toilet in schools can encourage girls to continue with their schooling after hitting puberty. And with around 2.7 billion people around the world without access to basic sanitation, the problem is a pressing one.

Neither do I deny the fact that many men choose to attack women when they are seeking a secluded spot in the fields to relieve themselves. Yet, to focus exclusively on the circumstances surrounding the attack, while ignoring the main source of the attack (the perpetrators), fits into a pattern that feminists have been decrying for decades — society’s propensity to treat male violence as an accepted fact of life, to make allowances for it, to try to avoid it, and to attempt to redirect it. None of these can keep women safe.

Around the world, men have been raping and murdering women in every conceivable situation. They have carried out violence against women in their own homes, on the street, in clubs, at parties, in hostels on a school trip, on public buses, in school toilets, in high school hallways, at concerts, while camping, during piano lessons, in taxis, during a football game, the list goes on. Women can avoid going to dark and secluded areas, we can stay at home, we can take all the precautions we have been told to take. No wearing short skirts, no going out alone at night, no getting drunk in public, no trusting a strange man. But as long as men continue their violent behaviour, as long as they continue to rape and murder women, then — naturally — women will continue to be raped and murdered. They will be raped and murdered no matter where they are, no matter what they happen to be doing at the time.

The global epidemic of male violence against women must end, but we will never end it by refusing to place our finger on the key issue at hand, the link between socialised masculinity and violence. If we continue to ignore this, then the only world where men no longer attack women will be a world where women and girls do not exist at all.

Who Owns Our Bodies?

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Source: whoneedsfeminism.tumblr.com

Who owns your body? Well, you do, of course. But if you’re a woman, I’m afraid society doesn’t quite see it that way.

Earlier this week, Angelina Jolie made headlines when she disclosed her decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy, to reduce her risk of breast cancer from 87% to less than 5%. While many were supportive of her choice and courage, hordes of outraged men (and some women) took to Twitter and Facebook to mock and condemn her for it. Among them were comments expressing sympathy for Brad (“Poor Brad”), jeering at Brad (“Serves him right for leaving Jennifer Aniston”), sadness for themselves that Angelina’s breasts had been removed (“There is no God”, “The best thing about her is gone”), as well as downright commands that she reverse the procedure (“Please put the boobs back on your chest”).

Here’s a small selection, credit to @isawfireworks on Twitter:

TwitterScreenshot

Let’s think about that for a little bit. Here is a woman, who is a world-famous actor, director and screenwriter, with Golden Globe and Academy awards to her name. Not only does she have a great career and a loving family, she is a UNHCR ambassador, and has invested her time and effort in bringing humanitarian aid around the world. But apparently, none of that matters. The greatest thing about her, that she should never let go of, no matter what the cost to her health, are her breasts.

We’ll come back to this later, but for now, let’s move on to another incident that ignited social media in the UK this week. UKIP, a far-right political party, has always been associated with offensive views, and yesterday saw them the butt of many a joke as it was revealed that one of their biggest donors believed that women wearing trousers were being deliberately hostile towards men. In fact, he believed this so deeply that he wrote an entire book about it, entitled ‘Women in Trousers: A Rear View’.

Here are some priceless quotes:

“Women have big bottoms, they are meant to have big bottoms. Countless women who would look lovely in dresses or skirts are embarrassingly unattractive in trousers.”

“Walk along any street and you see women using trousers like a uniform every single day. This is hostile behaviour. They are deliberately dressing in a way that is opposite to what men would like. It is behaviour that flies against common sense, and also flies against the normal human desire to please.”

Fortunately, his remarks were met with hilarity and ridicule, but as pointed out in the blog HerbsandHags, his comments are merely an extreme example of what many men truly feel — that they have a right to be pleased by the female body. Any, and every, female body.

And that is what links the incident of the hostile trousers with the backlash against Angelina Jolie. It stems from the idea that women’s bodies are public property, in particular, men’s property, and thus everything that a woman chooses to do with it is viewed as a way of pleasing them, or as an affront to them. It is for this reason that strange men on the Internet feel entitled to chastise Angelina Jolie for prioritizing her health over their right to ogle her breasts, and it is for this reason that whenever a woman is unhappy about her weight, random men think it a great comfort to her to proclaim, “It’s fine, I prefer larger women.” Because, didn’t you know, women’s bodies exist primarily for male pleasure.

The unspoken notion that it is not women, but men, who possess the rights to our bodies, is a dangerous one. Today, I was dismayed to find out that three men in Sweden had been cleared of rape charges, despite the horrific nature of what they had done, and the fact that they clearly had not had consent. (Read more about the case here. TW.) The judge’s verdict? “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent.”

You see, when we are not considered to be the legitimate owners of our bodies, then our decisions regarding them become unimportant. Thus, the Swedish woman’s desire to not have something done to her body was seen as less valid than the rapists’ desire to carry it out; Angelina Jolie’s desire to have surgery was seen as less valid than men’s desire to leer at her breasts; and women’s desire to wear what they like is seen as less valid than men’s opinions on what they should be wearing. These vary in severity and the horror of their consequences, but it is the same pernicious mentality that underlies them all.

Who owns our bodies? We do. And it’s time the world knew that.

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.

Reeva Steenkamp and Media Representation

Gallo Images/Getty Images

Gallo Images/Getty Images

If you had heard nothing about the murder of Reeva Steenkamp prior to seeing the front page of The Sun on Friday, you might have thought they were running an advert for an erotic horror film. The decision to portray Steenkamp in a highly sexualised manner, coupled with a Hollywoodesque dramatization of her murder scene, sparked outrage, and already petitions have sprung up demanding an apology from The Sun, and to end media sexism in general.

The disrespect that The Sun has shown towards Steenkamp is maddening, and it is far from the only offender. In publication after publication, she is portrayed as no more than a sex object, something to titillate their readership as they read about the main focus of the articles— the downfall of a world-famous athlete. The trial has not yet begun, but already excuses for Pistorius have come thick and fast. ‘Oscar was such a nice man, and not violent at all!’ Never mind that the South African police had confirmed that they had been called to Pistorius’ address before to deal with ‘domestic incidents’. Excuses for violent men…now haven’t we seen this all before?

Of course, the chasm between the focus on Pistorius and Steenkamp in the media and public conversation is partly attributable to their differing levels of fame. Yet, when one looks at the wider picture, it fits into the same old pattern of reporting on gendered violence. It is the male perpetrator’s psyche we fixate on, and his tragedy that we buy into. The female victim is simply a symptom of his downfall, easily replaceable.

What so many news outlets seem to forget is that Reeva Steenkamp is the hero of her own story. Her identity is not ‘Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend’, nor is it ‘his victim’. She was a model, a law graduate who was about to pursue a legal career, and an advocate against sexual abuse and domestic violence in South Africa. And to her family and friends, she was much, much more.

Reevatweet1

Reevatweet2

Reevatweet3

Quotes from friends:

“the sweetest, kindest, just angelic soul”

“a very inspiring individual, very passionate about speaking about women and empowerment.”

“She was a lovely girl and her career was just taking off. She had a big heart and was at the forefront of many pro bono projects. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s a tragic loss.”

“I’ve known Reeva for years and she was an incredible, beautiful soul. It’s shocking. An amazing girl has gone too soon.”

So instead of sensationalizing Pistorius, let us grieve for Reeva. And let’s not allow her support for women to have been in vain. 1 in 4 South African women are survivors of domestic violence, and everyday, 3 are killed by their partners. Reeva Steenkamp cared about this. Shouldn’t we?

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – What Will You Do Today?


Today, the 25th of November, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1999.

Here are some sobering facts, taken from the United Nations site:

  • Up to 70 percent of women worldwide experience violence in their lifetime.
  • According to World Bank stats, women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.
  • In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, 40 to 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by their partners.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, an average of 36 women and girls are raped every day.
  • Between 500 000 to 2 million people are trafficked annually. 80% of them are women and girls.
  • More than 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, and 2 million girls a year continue to be at risk.

And lest we fall for the illusion that this is merely a problem in the developing world, here are a few stats that are a little closer to home:

In the UK, 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, and an average of 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

In the US, approximately 1 in 5 female high school students reports being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner. 74% of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.

Even Sweden, one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, has a problem with gender-based violence. An Amnesty report in 2005 highlighted how incidents of domestic violence against women were climbing, and the country was urged to take steps to curb it.

This is a global problem, and it has to end. Whether it’s ritualized violence like female genital mutilation and honour killings, organized violence like trafficking, or interpersonal acts of rape and assault, it all stems from the same notion – that women are not so much human as objects, to be bought and sold, to be brought under control, to serve, to please, and to be disciplined when we step out of line.

Collectively, we have spawned these norms, and collectively, we can change them. But we must do more than simply not be violent ourselves. We need to question and change the underlying attitudes towards women, question and change the link between violence and the assertion of masculinity. For the men reading this, you might be interested in The White Ribbon Campaign, which brings good men together to call attention to these issues, and to help the next generation of boys and men learn that violence is never the answer.

Too often, people don’t realize just how much power they have. Do something today to help raise awareness of the plight of women throughout the world, and make your voice heard. You may already be in the ranks of the brave women and men who work against violence everyday, but even if you aren’t, simple things matter– write on your Facebook wall, start a discussion with a friend, drop a letter to your MP, tweet about it– you’ll be surprised at the impact it can have.