Why Still Us?

By Clara Doña

Spending a great deal of our time in social networking has consequences. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – they all allow us to conceal different topics, opinions and feelings with one move of the finger; simply scroll down to your own personalised kaleidoscopic view of the world. On the other hand, a melting pot of news, other people’s lives and opinions, shared/re-shared memes and clips, and general cacophony often taps in to our empathy and even our own anxieties. This article is a result of the author’s own kaleidoscope of the current affairs on women in an attempt to gather all under the same question: Why are we women still made responsible for what is done to us?

These past weeks have been intense in Hollywood. The Western media has been in revolt against the Harvey Weinstein case (and the multitude of related ones that have started to pile up), placing #consent in the centre of attention, raising a chorus of voices that had previously been silent. But whilst Rose McGowan’s speech calls for a feminist revolution, the dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale speaks to everyone’s preoccupations about the roles of women in society, and London’s TFL puts up posters with a help number to report harassment on the tube. Given this somewhat fragmented context, I need to go back to the feminist author Virginie Despentes in her recent interview for ID when she argues that “rape is always a women’s subject’’.

‘’I want to see men gathering and, please, try to understand what’s wrong with you, how can you be a rapist.”

Virginie Despentes, 2017

While the discourses on persistence, struggle and objectification circulate implicitly and explicitly (through almost every feminist utterance) around the female collective, I do ask myself if us women haven’t spoken enough about rape. Understandably, shouldn’t the discourses on feminism be directed more thoroughly to men? And most importantly, shouldn’t be rape mainly a masculine subject?

Recent weeks have also been tumultuous in Spain due to the trial that will take place to judge the five members of “La Manada” (which I could translate accurately as “the gang”, even more accurately as “the mob” or, relating them to animals, as “the pack”). They are being prosecuted for raping an 18 year old woman last July during the celebration of San Fermín, in the Spanish city of Pamplona. Strikingly, the defence of the accused hired a private detective to follow the victim and found her to have a teenage routine that is unremarkable, in which she hung out with friends, went to lessons and smiled. As insane as this may sound, that was proposed to be used against the victim’s credibility. Many voices in Spain are rising up against this, with the claim that “now to be believed as a victim, you need to act as a victim.” Meanwhile, the news keeps acting as a death knell, with almost a victim to women’s violence per news programme.

Coming back to Despentes’ interview, she proposes the question of how giving women the power to kill their rapists would change the power dynamics of the act itself: “I don’t hate them [men], but I like to treat men like we are treated most of the time,” she says. In her magnum opus, King Kong Theory, Despentes also delves into the masculine culture of violence as having been constructed in a way that legitimises the idea that “men’s desire is stronger than him, he is unable to dominate it.” She goes on to say that “We still understand too often that ‘thanks to prostitution there is less rape’, as if men couldn’t control themselves, as if they had to discharge elsewhere.” In saying that there is no real correlation between testosterone and rape, Despentes implies that the cultural construction of gender roles and their continuous reinforcement is to be blamed for the issue in our hands. This is an idea that needs to be talked about more thoroughly; that rape and violence against women are not some sort of biological inevitability, but that they are rooted and sustained in the social – binary gender constructions, heteronormativity, and cultures of masculinity (and indeed femininity).

The construction of ‘women’ is ubiquitous in Western culture and the same attitudes, expectations and normative values are placed upon women again and again. In the most recent campaign by a well-known shoe designer for example, the model Cara Delevigne walks around a city at night. As classically frivolous and entertaining as the ad may be (groovy music, colourful photography and the joyful walk of a young woman in the city), it also shows the gaze and reaction of men to her sparkly shoes (and a bit more as the camera shows a shot broad enough to contain much more than her shoes). The ad seems to disguise those harassing gazes as the model responds to them playfully, whereas in realty, most of us would be unbothered or angry or even scared – it is rare that unsolicited male gaze is exciting or intoxicating as the ad seems to imply. The problem with this representation is that it sends the message that in response to a random ‘compliment’ from a stranger, a woman needs to smile, feel sexy, and almost thankful that someone is noticing her. And a heterosexual man needs to pay attention to the way a women looks, compliment her and follow her with his eyes as she walks away. This is just one example of women’s bodies are framed as willing recipients of the male gaze, but other instances abound, as I’m sure readers will agree.

Against the backdrop of a masculine culture of violence that Despentes argues against and the women blamed for the crimes committed against them, the gender divisive culture stands strong as ever, and the voice can become our best weapon to tear it down. I started this article by saying that social networking has consequences; perhaps those networks could be the microphone to make our voices finally heard.

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About the author

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Clara Doña is a Spanish recent graduate of an MA in Comparative Literature at UCL. Her interests move from gender issues to philosophy, by way of Judith Butler and women’s poetry. She dearly appreciates reading in the early morning and writing late at night.​

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Image 

Artist unknown. Via feministartwork

Learning Curves: My Experience with Sexism in Further Education

By Jack Ford

Childhood is a critical time – our early experiences shape the way we look at the world and everything in it. From what food we enjoy, to our tastes in music and indeed, our attitudes towards other races and sexes. Our early interactions with people who are different to us can be hugely influential, and for some, bad environments can form negative opinions.

The divide between boys and girls becomes apparent from a young age, as children of different genders are often discouraged from mixing socially. Boys are encouraged to be active and adventurous in their play, whereas girls are kept passive and prescribed notions of femininity. However, this segregation is broken when young people desire romantic relationships – the invisible, cultural line is crossed when a boy asks a girl out, or vice versa. Perhaps this lack of early integration ingrains in us the idea that the opposite sex is only to be approached when there are amorous feelings involved, which just isn’t the case at all.

This idea came to me last year, when I made some observations on an Access course for young adults. The students, about three quarters male, were intelligent and very articulate, but unwilling to apply themselves and often boisterous and reluctant to do any of the work set for them.

During my time there I began to notice early on that some of the male students had unhealthy attitudes towards women. One in particular would never take instructions from female tutors. I can’t say for certain why, but it seemed like he refuted their being in a position of authority. Another would regularly tell sexist jokes either involving body parts or their usage, sometimes both.

These attitudes were best personified in one student who I’ll call Aaron. A young man in his late teens, Aaron was smart, funny and industrious, but fairly early on I became aware of his unsavoury views on women. He would brag about the number of girls he had been with and made weak jokes about how we shouldn’t look at his internet history. When there were excursions – the course had regular outings – you would often catch him using his phone to film passing women, strangers to him that he liked the look of. He was reprimanded for doing this, but that didn’t stop him.

This came to a head at the end of year presentation, where students and tutors along with families, friends and even representatives from the university that sponsored the course gathered to celebrate the year’s achievements. All students were asked to make a small speech. When Aaron took to the mic, he delivered a standard speech where he listed his achievements and started thanking all the course tutors, finishing with a young woman of whom all he said was, “She’s gorgeous.”

The room erupted in awkward laughter. A couple of his mates wolf-whistled. Perhaps this bolstered him, because he described her as either “beautiful” or “gorgeous” five more times. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe he had done that. I couldn’t believe he was continuing to do it. I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t stopped him. It was so uncomfortable to witness that I had to leave the room. It was baffling that he would think that this attitude, broadcasted to everyone, was acceptable. I couldn’t imagine how the teacher he was speaking about must have felt, objectified in front of a large group of people. I asked her about it afterwards and she said it was fine, but she did look a little shell-shocked.

To my relief, some of the others agreed with me that this wasn’t OK, but not everyone. I even complained, but by then Aaron had finished the course and there was nothing that could be done. So instead, I pushed for the teachers to include some education on gender equality and discrimination as part of their curriculum.

I argued that one of the aims of the course was to prepare students for being in the workplace, and if any of them said some of the things I heard them say about women at work, they would have found themselves either at a tribunal, or fired (although the unfortunate reality is that so many incidents of gender based harassment in the workplace go unchallenged by employers). The teachers heard me out, but declined my proposal. This was understandable, I wasn’t a tutor and it wasn’t my place to tell them how to run their course. Their continued reluctance to penalise sexist behaviour is one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave the course. (And to be honest, it was a relief.)

This is my experience with witnessing sexism in further education, and of course this is not an isolated incident. Last year The Women and Equalities Commission were told that young people nowadays are experiencing a culture where sexual harassment has become the norm. In addition to this, while sexual harassment and sex crime is down a lot from what it used to be, in the last two years the rate has risen.

There is no one answer to resolve this, but there are definitely more actions that can be taken to combat this institutionalised problem. In March, a proposal was put forward to make the teaching of relationships and sex education compulsory in all schools. This is legislature we need to get behind. Teaching this to children who are at a pivotal age will lay the foundation for them to realise that sex, gender and difference are serious issues. Although young boys and girls are segregated, this type of education should include education which goes beyond binary concepts of gender – as well as discussing issues such as harassment, consent and equality.

The gender divide is a problem that exists in all cultures, and it’s about time we cross gender lines to come together and do more to see each other as equals. Until then, we will keep producing more Aarons, more people who think it’s still OK to publicly objectify women because the world they were brought up in, a world which said that they could.

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About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

 

Gender and the Psych Ward

By Lindsay Riddoch

The psychiatric acute ward is a place that most of us don’t spend much time thinking about, and definitely attempt avoiding ever having to face. As a microcosm simultaneously of society, and of what we deem unacceptable within it, it provides a unique and powerful insight into what we’re getting wrong. We know that more women appear to suffer from mental health problems than men, and that the system incarcerates a disproportionately high number of black men. Both of these topics have lately been often discussed both in the health system and across broadsheet journalism. While we have these discussions in theoretical and philosophical terms, however, real people’s lives are playing out behind the locked doors of psychiatric wards up and down the country.

Much as the psychiatric ward attempts to place ‘madness’ firmly outside the realms of society, there’s something you realise very early on if you ever come to inhabit this micro-world. No individuals ‘madness’ is individual. It did not grow outside of a society, but instead found its very roots in it. The reality of this is constantly played out before your eyes on wards. People express their anger with rampant racism — more uses of the ‘N’ word than you could imagine. People are paranoid that the government is spying on them — using the very real situation of the snoopers charter as evidence. Women are terrified that the doctors are going to rape them. You can track the biggest fears associated with OCD through homosexuality to paedophilia — whatever is given the spotlight as the worst thing someone could be, is what people start to fear. People’s pain takes the form of the society in which it was created. And it was created. Human beings are not born in this level of pain, some sort of interaction between an individuals psyche and the world which they are inhabiting explodes into a cacophony of psychosis, mania and depression.

If madness expresses itself in line with society — or against it — then surely those who are most frequently held in its grips will be those that society pushes to the brink. As a white girl, I will not try to take this argument any further with regards to black men, as it is not my area. However when it comes to women there is a very disconcerting trend. You find a certain kind of women in psychiatric hospitals. Women who have been abused, usually by a vast array of people, and who therefore desperately try and hold onto control in whatever way they can. They are labelled crazy, manipulative, attention seeking. Yet these women are, potentially, reacting in the most sane way possible to the insane circumstances they find themselves in. Yet, they wind up locked in a psychiatric ward while the men that did this to them walk around freely. These women are told they are maladaptive, unsafe, out of control, and once again have their very basic freedoms taken away from them.

There are so many of these lost women who have never found their voice because their reaction to the power that is taken away on a daily basis landed them in locked psychiatric wards. They scream every day for someone to hear their voice, and we as a society either berate or pity them. We either tell them they’re badly behaved, or that they are ill. We don’t stop long enough to hear their stories. We give them therapy to change the way they approach the world but don’t give them the housing or jobs that they need to change the world.

This is all part of placing the root of their emotions squarely inside them — and outside of society. We blame women for their emotional reactions — labelling them over-emotional — when in actual fact our emotions are the expression of the often powerless situations we find ourselves in. This fact is intensified in the volcanic atmosphere of the psychiatric ward. It is terrifying to see so many victims of (much as I hate to use this phrase) the patriarchy be re-assaulted by the controlling power of (predominantly) white male psychiatrists. Constantly screaming to gain one ounce of power back, they have their basic freedoms taken away all over again.

I am not a believer in the fact that the whole psychiatric system is an assault on human rights. It is my opinion that the Mental Health Act and its ability to treat people against their will, is a bastion of our belief in humanity. We will not let people drive themselves to their own death, no matter how much we may dislike their way of being. In accepting this, however, we must also accept the power that our ability to ‘diagnose’ emotion creates. To see ‘mental illness’ and our ability to label emotional suffering within the medical model as part of our forward thinking intersectional liberalism is dangerous. The labelling of emotional reactions is not as simple as validating someone’s suffering. It becomes a way to demean, control and restrain usually the most vulnerable. It is not, therefore, something we should take lightly.

Over the last few months, the micro-world of the psych ward has become my world, and on my journey I have met so many inspiring women. People who have been knocked down time and time again, and yet continue to fight to survive. Their fight for survival looks strange from the outside — it looks like cuts on arms or rageful fits at three in the morning. It looks like shrieks of terror at the mere sight of a doctor or threats to kill oneself yelled at the top of voices. It is, nonetheless, an inspiring fight. Mental illness cannot be a panacea for all of the worlds problems. We must understand that these women are survivors of whatever has happened to them. We must continue to treat them, but we must do so while acknowledging the injustice that has been done to them. If we are so intent on medicalising emotion and behaviour then we should seek to treat the perpetrators before they can create any victims — rather than treating the survivors when it’s already too late.

Climbing the Mountain of Oppressions

By Jane Derishu

During the last Shabbat dinner in the house of one of my aunts, I got into a conversation with my cousin and his girlfriend. With my values and beliefs, I always tend to trigger quite a lot of “entertainment” in my right-wing, chauvinist, racist, nationalist family, and often they ask for my opinion about social issues in a way that makes me feel like a child who says funny things.

The good news is that each generation within our family becomes more progressive; the bad news is that they do it in very small steps.

In fact, as we were talking, my cousin’s girlfriend told me that her mother always tells her she will accept her no matter what. However, there is one thing that she will not accept: if she were to marry an Arab man. My gendered mind immediately asked itself whether an Arab woman would be fine, but since I had already brought negative energy with me when I refused to take part in the Kiddush, I decided to choose my battles for the evening and I saved the comment for myself. When I asked her what was wrong with an Arab man, I received a horrified look from both her and my cousin, which clearly asked ‘Are you crazy?’ My cousin’s girlfriend added ‘They beat their wives’, as if no non-Arab woman had ever been a victim of domestic violence. When I told her that there are Jewish women who also suffer abuse, she told me it is not the same.

There are so many things wrong with what she said, irrespective of the racist aspect. Putting aside her perceptions and representations of Arab men and women, what bothered me for a few days after this conversation was her tendency to create hierarchies between oppressions. I continued to struggle with the questions: Can we quantify suffering? Or can we quantify oppression and decide that a certain person is more oppressed than another? That a certain culture is more oppressive?

Maybe when we talk about privileges, it’s a bit simpler to measure it, but every time I try to create a hierarchy between oppressions, I find myself stuck. Is the gender-role division worse than sexual violence? Perhaps the reason I cannot answer this is because oppression is individual. One person would feel that sexism is the most oppressive aspect in their life while another would feel the same for a different form of oppression. Now, I want to be cautious and clear. I am not arguing that oppression is subjective. There are mass oppressions but I do claim that oppression is experienced in an individual way even if we experience the same oppression. If I sit with my amazing ‘Feminist Friend A’ and someone makes a sexist or racist comment, there is almost a 100% chance that we will both notice it and will probably talk about it later, but at the moment it happens, each of us experience it separately.

And so I am ashamed to say that in a way I agree with my cousin’s girlfriend that it is different but that this difference is not due to culture or religion or ethnicity, it is much deeper. It is different for each person. EACH WOMAN KNOWS HER OWN OPPRESSION. I really believe this is the case. It is not possible to compare between cultures because female oppression is not cultural, it is universal and individual at the same time. Oppression is experienced differently by every woman, even if we experience the same kind of oppression. I believe it is also related to the gap between knowing and experiencing. We can “know” (I put it in quotation marks because knowing is a very complicated term, especially in a feminist context) that there is oppression which is based on gender, race, ethnicity and so on, but when we experience it, it becomes individual even when we know it affects a larger group and that other people have experienced the same. For example, I know that the existing wage gap between men and women is oppressive but I feel oppressed when I receive sexist comments, when people (even feminists) comment on my clothes or when I’m told to limit myself in certain spaces.

The arrogance that comes with comments about oppression in other cultures should disappear along with those comments. Not only because it uses dehumanisation in order to muffle oppression that is right in front of us, in our own “culture”, but also because it is not relevant. A woman (she might even be Jewish…) who is abused by her partner is not more oppressed than I am because of her culture (whatever the concept of culture means) — we are oppressed in different ways. For this reason I will stand by her when she struggles. I will believe her words when she claims she is oppressed, because she is the only one who knows how it feels to live her life as her, while I am the only one who knows how it feels to live my life as me.

In gender studies, I’ve been taught that the worst crime in the world is to generalize oppressions. Saying that all women are oppressed is not feminist (or at least worth an F grade). I am still struggling with this postmodernist narrative (conservative me), and in order to solve this dissonance I started to believe that oppression cannot be generalised, not because it is relative due to time, place, culture and so, but because we experience it on individual bases and it’s quite hard to generalise individual experience.  

So please, when a woman tells you she’s oppressed, trust me, she knows what she is talking about; she knows her own oppression.

A Thought on the Cologne Attacks

By Emily Morrison

The New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, which involved the sexual assault and robbery of women and girls, have become a game-changing factor in the European debate over asylum seekers and refugees.

Despite the fact that, five weeks after the event, many elements of the attacks remain unclear, the immediate aftermath saw almost instantaneous protests from far-right groups condemning the incidents and calling for a halt to all immigration.

In the UK, UKIP’s Nigel Farage spoke out saying that Germany’s welcoming of over 1 million refugees had been “the biggest post-war policy error of any European country.And in Cologne itself, the attacks were described by one police chief as, “a new dimension of crime.”

But are these attacks, however awful, really anything new?

Arguably, many dimensions of the assaults are far from novel. Reactions to the crimes, from the seemingly indifferent attitude of the police — both at the time and in the aftermath — to victim blaming on the part of politicians and the stereotyping and ‘othering’ of the perpetrators, make them typical of society’s response to sexual violence. Even the scale and possible coordination of these attacks are not without precedent.

Throughout the EU, and indeed around the world, both reporting and conviction rates for sexual violence remain some of the lowest for any crime, in part due to inadequate response and support from the justice system.

Media portrayal of sexual violence is often similarly unhelpful. Skewed reporting often features a high level of victim-blaming, and a disproportionate coverage of crimes which involve immigrants or ethnic minorities as perpetrators.

Moreover, the implication that these are ‘new’ events suggests that sexual violence and harassment are an uncommon occurrence in Western society, which is — sadly — far from true.

In Germany, sexual harassment and violence are by no means isolated to these New Year’s Eve incidents. Sexual assaults on women during Oktoberfest, for example, are common but have received scant media coverage. And, across the EU, more than one in 10 women experience some form of sexual violence by an adult before they are 15, rising to 1 in 3 experiencing some form of sexual or physical violence from a man in their lifetime.

What is atypical, however, about the events in Cologne, is the fact that they have been reported on and in the public debate which they have sparked.

However, rather than opening a dialogue to question either institutional responses (or lack thereof), or the broader causes of sexual violence, these attacks have prompted a wave of harsh anti-immigration measures — ranging from possible deportation of criminals in Germany, to the unprecedented closing of borders and even the banning of male immigrants from swimming pools.

The reason, of course, is the culture and ethnicity of the alleged perpetrators.

The rhetoric surrounding these crimes has largely claimed that they are an “inevitable” consequence of “uncontrolled” immigration into Europe from people with a culture and norms that are fundamentally different to ours.

This is unsurprising in the current climate of widespread Islamophobia, in which ‘extremism’ has virtually become a synonym for Islam, and religious leaders and believers in Europe are called on to condemn acts by people to whom they have no affiliation, in countries thousands of miles away.

Even more typical is the way in which this important issue and abhorrent crime has been hijacked for political aims.

The irony that the leader of a party who refused to vote for measures to end VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls), is protesting on an apparently feminist agenda in the wake of these attacks would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.

Similar tactics have been used throughout history. Protecting women has been used to justify many policies, from bombing Afghanistan in 2001 (while of course ignoring the treatment of women in a nation in neighbouring Saudi Arabia), to lynching in America in the 1930s.

Such an approach is not only hugely damaging for immigrants and refugees — the vast majority of whom will be law-abiding members of society — who will suffer the consequences of an immigration crackdown; it is also unhelpful, to say the least, in preventing sexual violence.

Affirming that sexual assaults are carried out only by a certain section of society, or can be avoided if women carry pepper spray or stay away from certain areas, implies that women can avoid becoming victims of sexual violence. We can make sure we are not drunk. We can avoid flirting with men. We can avoid going out alone. We can ban immigrants.

Moreover, this increasing polarisation of the immigration debate between those who want to close borders and those who want to be more welcoming, has hindered debate on the details of immigration.

While the vast majority of refugees will not commit crimes, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that many do come from countries with different gender norms and this is an issue which must be addressed to ensure integration.

So how can we address this? Countries such as Finland and Norway, who rank in the top 5 for integration of immigrants, offer courses in which they discuss and clarify differences in gender norms in their host countries. This is something that could, relatively easily, be included in language lessons for new immigrants. Arguably, such classes would be useful for society as a whole and could even be included as part of the broader school curriculum. This would hopefully lead to the change in different societies’ views of such crimes that the elimination of sexual violence requires.

Going forward, we must ensure that anti-immigration groups are not able to further exploit these awful attacks for their own aims. Indeed, the unprecedented focus and condemnation of sexual violence could yet provide an opportunity to open dialogue and change attitudes and opinions on sexual assault. This opportunity needs to be seized.

While this is by no means an easy task and requires investment and work, we should be encouraged by the start of a backlash against the hijacking of this issue. While the anti-immigrant protests in the wake of the Cologne attacks did attract 1,700 people, a feminist-organised counter-protest actually attracted similar numbers. And both feminist and immigrant groups in Germany and across Europe are becoming increasingly vocal in their support of refugees and their condemnation of violence. It’s too early to be confident about this correction in public mood but it’s some progress.