Thursday, 29 May 2014

From 'Not All Men' to rape threats - on feeling like I've had enough, but not stopping fighting.

The news over the last few days has been starting to get to me. 

There’s nothing new here. But sometimes the overwhelming-ness of it all, the absolute horror of living in a world where women are routinely killed, beaten and raped for being women, sometimes simply gets too much. 

And that’s what I’m feeling right now. 

Last week, as part of my day job, I researched the case of a Sudanese woman sentenced to 100 lashings and hanging for marrying a Christian man. Yesterday she gave birth to a daughter, shackled, in prison. 

Then, on Saturday, Elliot Rodger killed two women and four men. His YouTube videos and 141-page manifesto explained his motive. He wanted to kill women because he hated women. He said: 

"I'll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one."

Then yesterday I learnt of the woman in Pakistan who was stoned to death whilst community members looked on. Her so-called crime? Falling in love with someone she wasn’t supposed to. 

Then I read about a woman shot dead by her husband. Like most murders of women, this one didn’t make headline news. Men killing their wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers is just too commonplace a story to really count as news anymore. Fifty women were dead at the hands of men in the first four months of 2014. Fifty women, killed by men, because they were women.  

Today I read about the UKBA threatening to deport a family back to Nigeria where the girls are at risk of FGM.  The government’s promises on FGM ring rather hollow when they send girls back to be cut, just as Hague’s statements on rape as a weapon of war seem rather empty when his colleagues deport survivors of the crime back to where it happened.   

All of this violence has something in common. All of this violence is about male entitlement to women’s bodies. It is about men believing women do not have the right to do what they want with their own bodies. It is about denying women the right to bodily autonomy. 

Take the first example. Meriam Yehya Ibrahim is facing death because she married the man she wanted to marry. She made a free choice to marry the man she fell in love with. She is now in prison, awaiting death, for exercising her right to bodily autonomy. 

Elliot Rodger’s misogyny is rooted in the idea that women should have had sex with him, regardless of whether they chose to or not. He wrote that women should not have a ‘choice’ about who they ‘mate with’ – that the choice should be left for men to decide. His words echo the sentence pronounced by the Sudanese court. He did not believe women had the right to bodily autonomy. His refusal to accept that women have that right, that no one should tell a woman what to do with her body, led to the deaths of six people. 

As in Sudan, and as with Rodger, Farzana Parveen was murdered because she didn't believe someone else should choose who she married, and what she should do with her body. She married the man she chose to marry. Her family were enraged that she chose to marry him instead of the man they picked for her. They killed her for exercising her right. The thirty people who stood by and watched her murder gave their tacit acceptance to the concept that women do not have that right. They stood by, and refused to recognise Farzana Parveen had the right to love who she wanted to love, and had the right to live free from fear and violence. They stood by and refused to recognise she had the right to live

I don’t know why Harold Ambrose killed his wife. But the patterns are the same. It’s unlikely this was the first incidence of violence in their relationship. Another man who believed women shouldn’t have bodily autonomy. Another man who believed women shouldn’t have the right to live.

Organisations like Daughters of Eve have done a huge amount of vital work raising awareness of how FGM is a form of violence against women and girls within a patriarchal culture. Once more, it is about patriarchal control of women’s bodies. It is about denying girls bodily autonomy.

233 UK women will be raped today. None of their rapists believe they have the right to bodily autonomy. None of them believe women have the right to say no. None of them believe women have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. 

This week has proven to me once again that there is a war against women and we are all living in it. We are living in a world where women are raped, beaten and killed because they are women. We are living in a world where too many men do not believe women have a right to bodily autonomy. 

This would be bad enough on its own. 

But part of my utter despair this week is the response to all of this. 

A response that says ‘not all men’ as soon as any woman dares to speak about male violence against women and girls. 

You don’t need to tell us ‘not all men’. We know that. We know that not all men are rapists, or killers. We’re not fucking stupid. 

If you say ‘not all men’ when a woman discloses her horror at the violence committed against her and other women because they are women, you need to ask yourself why you are so defensive. And then you need to listen to what women are saying. 

‘Not all men’ is a derailing tactic. It forces women to stop talking about the violence committed against us, and instead start reassuring men. And then the conversation comes to a halt. The conversation stops being about male violence against women, and instead becomes a cookie hunt. 

These two things would be bad enough on their own. 

But there are more responses that have prompted my despair. 

The cousin of ‘not all men’ is ‘men are victims of violence too.’

Again, we know this. We’re not fucking stupid. 

Once more, this is a derailing tactic. It’s saying it is not ok to just talk about male violence against women and girls. It says it is not ok, it is not acceptable, for women to talk about the violence committed against us. It demands that we shut up, and start talking about something else. It tells us we “should” instead be talking about what happens to men. 

But why? Why can’t we talk about male violence against women and girls? What is so scary about that conversation? Why can’t you stand it? Why do you not want to talk about it?

Whenever someone derails a conversation about male violence against women and girls in this way, I can’t help but believe that they think that what happens to women doesn’t matter. That they think the lives of women and girls, and our right to live free from fear and violence, is unimportant. That they believe it’s certainly not as important as what happens to men. I can’t reach any other conclusion than that. 

These three things would be bad enough on their own. 

But there is one more response that has prompted my despair. 

And that is how when women write about male violence against women and girls, we are met with more violence. We are met with rape threats and death threats and sent vicious ‘fantasies’ of what men want to do to us, ‘fantasies’ which would not look out of place in Rodger’s manifesto. As Laurie Penny wrote in her response to the Rodger murders: 

I know for sure that just by writing this I will have exposed myself to more harassment, more threats, more verbal assaults.’ 

When discussion of male violence is met with male violence, you can’t ignore how pervasive it is in our society. And yes, ‘not all men’. And yes, women can be nasty online too. But do you know how frightening it is, let alone how disheartening it is, to know that when you speak out about violence, you have learnt to expect that someone will threaten to rape you? Do you have any idea how that feels? Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk about these issues anyway, without dealing with the knowledge that talking about it marks you out as a potential victim in the eyes of some men? Do you know how often we then hold our tongues, because to speak is dangerous, and the response is devastating?

I have had enough today. I have had enough of the violence. I have had enough of the derailing. I have had enough of the silencing. Enough, enough, enough. 

But I won’t stop. 

Yesterday my niece was born. As I held her in my arms, I told her that I was her ‘fun, feminist aunty’ (not a ‘fun feminist aunty’!). Silently I promised her that I would do everything I could to make sure she grows up in a world where we, as women and girls, no longer have to put up with this violence. I want her to grow up in a world where her right to bodily autonomy is not just respected, it’s not even conceivable that anyone wouldn’t respect it. I want her to grow up in a world where women’s bodies are not seen as objects that men feel entitled to. 

It shouldn’t feel like such a big ask, should it?

No matter how much I feel like I’ve had enough, I won’t stop fighting. I won’t stop talking about male violence against women and girls. I won’t stop questioning it. I won’t stop working to end it. Because not only does my niece deserve better, we ALL deserve better. Every woman and girl across the world deserves better than the headlines, and the non-headlines, this week. 

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