Friday, 19 December 2014

"Women, Protect Yourselves." (And We Ask, "From What?")

Over the last month I've been in the process of moving into my own place and practising for life without domestic help (my maid leaves permanently next week and it's uncertain when I will find someone else), and so I've spent a lot more time out in the 'real world' than I normally would. I was told, and it made sense to me, that living on my own would be more difficult than the life I was used to, and in some ways I had prepared myself for it. One thing I failed to factor in though, was how unsafe I would feel while just going about living my life.

While I was still living with family, I was often driven around. I also had more disposable income and so could afford to take taxis regularly, but living on your own has its way of forcing you to trim the excess, so I've started taking danfo and the BRT a lot more. I spend more time walking on busy roads and go to the market more; I'm generally in public spaces more. The upshot of all this being out in the world is that I've experienced a lot more street/sexual harassment and sexist (micro-)aggressions in the last few weeks than the entire year prior. 

Leaving the house now requires a ridiculous amount of thought. My stress levels are higher when I have to go out because, depending on whether I feel up to standing up for myself or not, I have to carefully evaluate my outfits to ward off harassment. I have to think carefully about routes, be constantly alert when it starts to get dark, try to figure out whether it's safer to ignore catcalling or respond as politely as possible and walk away quickly... In the last month I've had one man pull out his penis and waggle it at me on the street, had a group of men call out to my two-year old daughter about her bum, been followed by several men, and (of course) had sexist slurs shouted at me.

Last night I had to go out around 9pm to buy insecticide. I didn't feel like changing out of the clothes I had on (a loose shirt and mid-thigh bodycon skirt), but I suspected how things would go. I wasn't disappointed. I hadn't walked 15 metres from my street's gate before someone had tried to initiate contact and then proceeded to insult me when I ignored him. Two metres beyond him a group of men on a balcony started to call down to me. Another metre or so in front, some teenage boys walked past me, leering, and once they were behind me began to heckle me. On my way back home one man followed me very closely for over 100 metres, alternating between cajoling and threatening whispers, walking closer to me in the darker parts and drifting away where there were security lights, until I got to my street's gate and the security guard blocked him.

As I walked home I realised that if I told someone about that distressing experience, I was more likely to get a "but why did you wear that skirt?" than a "but why would someone follow a non-communicative stranger home?" Women are told and taught to do everything they can to protect ourselves, yet no one ever seems to question why there is even a need for self-protection. People say, "women, protect yourselves" and stop short of the "from men" part of that phrase. This is why no matter what women do, we continue to suffer all kinds of violence; people choose not to engage with the cause of the violence.

Telling women that we ought to limit our choices and even our lives in order to ward off violence is not and will never be effective in preventing or protecting us from violence, because women's choices, bodies and lives are not the cause of violence. The sense of entitlement, superiority and ownership that men feel over women and our bodies is. The privileging of maleness and male desires over women's safety and agency is. The dangerous man-as-hunter norm that teaches men to ignore consent and the absence of it is. The sexual objectification and commodification of women's bodies for male consumption is. And until society starts to interrogate the reasons behind all of the 'should nots' that are prescribed for women 'for their protection', we will continue to see women 'fail' at protecting themselves.

It was never about women protecting ourselves. It has always been about the men we need to protect ourselves from. 

4 comments:

  1. I say this all the time.

    Men treat women the way they do, because they are socially conditioned to believe there is nothing worse than being a woman. This is in part why homosexuality among men is so abhorred and butch lesbians are so despised. To be gay is to become a woman. To be an assertive lesbian is to think yourself worthy of being a man when you're only just a woman. A lot needs to be changed. Lord, so much.

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    1. There's so much truth in what you've said. You might have inspired a whole new blog post. Thank you for your comment!

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  2. For a moment I thought I was reading Trudy. lol...

    Did someone really wag his penis at you? That's the height of incivility. Tim you know my thoughts on these matters, but I would like to add one more thing, which I hope you do not misconstrue as me standing in tandem with abusers.

    The way the world is, is very different from the way the world should be.

    A natural impulse of man is to be assertive, forceful - in men this is brash, direct and dangerous, but in women it is more subtle and indirect. The 'strong man', has been a phenomenon that has rued the psyche of men (man and woman: I use the generic term here) from the time the first men walked the earth. Men would do anything to get their way, and would even kill weaker men if by doing so he achieves his aim. In a world like this weakness is abhorred. And evolution has not being fair on women in the physical aspect. So they are preyed and considered property.

    But to stop this world of 'might is right' and 'the survival of the fittest', men had to come together to form a state. An impersonal person who can protect the interests of its citizens. This helped a long way in curbing the injustices done to weaker men, and women.

    But in times of trouble, disagreements and desire men automatically revert to their natural impulses, and in some cases render the state 'failed', speaking in political terms; or beat and rape a woman when overwhelmed by the sexual desires, in sexual terms (Please do not say that rape is not about sex, but power. I do not disagree if you think this. but I only say it to not derail you from the point I am trying to make)

    Just as there have been laws against murder, and a man would still eviscerate a whole village to achieve his aim; there have been laws to protect women, but men would continue to do as they like.

    But where these two (murder and rape) become different is that, murder is abhorrent, universally, but injustices against women is still mainstream in some cultures and those cultures that are not so misogynistic, violence against women could be rationalized.

    You demand for the cause of these violence to be addressed. I spent a good number of months addressing this issue, and one thing I know is as long as talking about sex is deemed a taboo, and men still see women as an agent for their sexual pleasure ad as property ( an example includes the bride-price, that looks like a shady deal, between father (owner) selling to buyer (groom) the merchandise (bride)) , such discussions would be practically impossible. And victim blaming would run rampant.

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  3. Your comments are always intriguing, Tam, although I must say that gendered descriptors of behaviour (aggressiveness, subtlety etc) are part of the problem, as is the language used to frame issues (e.g. saying that men are 'overwhelmed by sexual desire'). To address your conclusion, I think it's important to navigate our society's taboos and do everything possible to get people to engage with problematic norms. So keep addressing the issues in the best way you know how, and hopefully one day the world as it is and the world as it should be will be one and the same.
    PS: Based entirely on current and some historical evidence in the public arena (I haven't really studied States and their formation), I can't agree with your assertion that states were created to 'protect' the interests of citizens. If anything, states always appear to be a mechanism dedicated almost solely to the reinforcement of structural oppressions as benefiting a select, powerful few, rather than helping to curb injustice.

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