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The Fight to End Violence Against Women

By Sarah Dunn

@sarah.l.dunn

 

International Women’s Day 2021 preceded a pretty unfortunate couple of weeks for women. The day itself is a tradition we have celebrated since 1975; then it was an unprecedented mandate to celebrate the potential of the female sex which was then yet to know true social or economic freedom.

In the 1970s, women could for the first time, be doctors, politicians, academics etc, and look forward to demanding a new respect from their male peers in the workplace. It's interesting to think about how the feminists who steered the women’s liberation movement would react to the last few weeks of international news. In some ways, the world has moved a long way forwards since then, and in some ways, absolutely nothing has changed for women at all. Fundamentally, International women's day is meant for the celebration of women who have excelled in their field, and those who are helping to empower the everyday women who are yet to break through the glass ceiling. In all honesty, the feminist movement has moved on in the last 46 years, and it’s clear that we no longer need this messaging encouraging us to support and empower each other. Our culture is saturated with images of female empowerment in music, films and television, as it should be, every day of the year. It is not women who need to change their behaviour to combat the remaining structures of patriarchy left in our societies, it's the behaviour of men that needs to change, and this is the mood we currently see circulating on social media.

The theme of this year's international women’s day was #choosetochallenge; challenge yourself first and foremost, and then challenge the stereotypes that hold women back. How can you challenge the barriers that obstruct you, when those barriers consist of hundreds of years of entrenched misogyny, rape culture, economic oppression and a lack of representation in government? This perpetuates the myth that women remain second class citizens because we are not pushing hard enough for our equality, it places the burden on us, almost suggesting that if women were just a bit more ambitious, it shouldn’t be too hard for us to change the fundamental power structures of society, without men having to do much at all. If only we tried a bit harder. Women have been campaigning for gender equality for decades; nobody is listening to us, and nobody who has any power to help us cares, beyond providing a patronising quote once a year on March 8th.

 

The Pandemic

The Pandemic has broadened the gaps of gender equality in society in five major ways, as documented by the European Commission. We are going backwards not forwards. Across the whole world, recorded acts of domestic violence are up and have been since the virus first left us confined to our homes. There were 25% more calls than average to the women's charity refuge in April 2020, and this increase in numbers is met by the seriously decreased capacity of women’s shelters across the UK, as a result of sharp austerity cuts during Theresa May’s government. At the first response level, it is mostly women who are risking their lives to fight the pandemic, as 76% of health workers across Europe are female.

Yet the COVID-19 decision-making bodies that are fighting the virus from the safety of zoom (and with considerably better pay than nurses receive) are typically male-dominated. Of 115 European COVID national task forces, 85.2% are mostly male, and only 3.5% reflect parity of pay between the genders.

Women shouldered the burden of the collapsing job market during the first wave, as we fill most of the hospitality and retail spaces that shut down in March 2020. In the summer period when these sectors opened for business, employment rates rose by 1.4% for men and 0.8% for women. To top it all off, the lockdown periods demonstrated the continued burden that falls on women to undertake domestic work and childcare. During the quarantine, women completed 23 hours per week of housework and 62 hours per week of childcare, while men contributed only 13 and 36 hours per week retrospectively. We are being shut out of the workplace and forced back into the home by a global health crisis, but surely, we can fix it by challenging ourselves a bit harder, right?

 

The Media

On this year’s IWD, the news was already focused on the upcoming interview with Megan Markle and Prince Harry, which would air in the UK 5 days later. Megan, whose femaleness and vocality, mixed with her blackness, is the perfect target for another kind of violence against women: harassment and demonisation by the press. She claims the British media made her life a living hell, almost as if to punish her for being a Black American in a space that has always been reserved for white aristocracy. 

All of the usual misogynistic tactics were deployed relentlessly against her, depicting her as shallow and demanding, and framing her as the female villain; a manipulative liar who uses the influence she possesses over her naive husband to seek attention and to isolate him from his family. Images of her holding her husband's hand were circulated captioned with the phrase “coercive control.” When she explained to Oprah that the relentless hate from the media drove her to the point of contemplating suicide, several prominent voices accused her of lying as a manipulative tactic to gain sympathy.

Through this, Megan shared an experience with the thousands of women, especially teenage girls, that are disbelieved about their physical pain or mental health problems. At doctors surgeries and hospitals, women are constantly told there is nothing wrong with them, and that what they are experiencing is all in their head, their pain is not real pain. Not pain like a man would feel.

The interview also reignited the cultural criticism of the tabloid press, whose sins had been brought under a harsh light in January by the New York Times documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears.’ The film discusses how Spears was forced to maintain both a highly sexualised image to sell records, and a virginal persona to protect her from moral condemnation. As a sixteen-year-old girl, she was never given the freedom to curate her image. When she grew up, her body became public property, and she was harassed by the media who questioned her ability to be a mother to her children, driving her to a mental breakdown for which she was demonised further. Under her father's conservatorship since the breakdown, she still lacks the legal freedom to buy a sandwich without permission. The film is a visual demonstration of the media destroying a life with weaponised misogyny.

A guardian report has since compared Spears’ experience with those of other women who were betrayed by the media alongside her: Monica Lewinsky, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anna Nicole Smith, Lindsey Lohan, and Paris Hilton - who was the victim of what we now call revenge porn. These women were hated and condemned by women just as much as men at the time. These are the women feminism left behind, and is just catching up with now, twenty years later. 

 

The Workplace

Right now, we are all talking about the violence that women experience from men daily, and the conversation seems to be around you whichever way you turn. Earlier in the month Britney Higgins, an ex-staffer of the Australian parliament alleged that she was raped inside the government building in 2019. Just like Megan Markle, she was branded a “lying cow,” and received a tirade of the kind of victim-blaming that was supposed to be eviscerated by the #metoo movement.

Meanwhile, in the US, the governor of New York has been exposed to a creepy old man, who hires young women he finds attractive, offering them a valuable career in exchange for unwanted touching and uncomfortable comments about their appearance. An accuser that claims he kissed her inside his office without her consent, was first the target of a smear campaign that accused her of being a racist bully at work, before becoming the recipient of a half-hearted apology from Cuomo who claims it never happened.

The kind of apology typical of this situation - I apologise for any upset or distress I caused with my behaviour blah blah blah.

 Interviews with people that have worked under Cuomo describe an atmosphere of toxic masculinity, verbal abuse, misogyny and bullying, a stark contrast from the romantic image of him as a COVID hero that was prevalent only a year ago. 

It begs the question, how many of our male authority figures are presiding over an office atmosphere in which women are only allowed to flourish if they surrender to unwanted sexual attention?

 For men, an aggressive workplace demeanour is a sign of strong leadership and competency, but women in the workplace tend to be labelled bullies if they do not work hard to appease everyone. Several prevalent men in politics or public office probably behave just like Cuomo behind closed doors. The fight for equality in the workplace is far from over.

 

The Streets

The biggest story of the week: the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by an off duty police officer, caught the attention of women all over Britain. How can we be celebrating the achievements of women across the world, when a woman is not safe to walk alone through central London at night?

Women are sick and tired of having to fear violence or sexual harassment in the streets. Sarah’s death struck a chord with this fear, and with utter frustration over the sense that women need to keep themselves safe from men who perpetrate violence. 

Men are responsible for nearly all of Britain's violent crime - so it is something in our culture, not the behaviour of women that needs to change. Women do not need to be more careful when alone in public, men need to stop raping and killing us, and when they do, they need to receive the appropriate response from the criminal justice system.

Women are tired of being portrayed as victims. Two women die of femicide every week in the UK. Nearly 1500 women over ten years have been killed by men, usually their ex or current partner.

Older women who are killed by their sons or husbands, gain little attention; their death is often put down as an accident, and not included in crime statistics.

Every year Jess Phillips MP reads aloud the names of femicide victims in the houses of commons, watching this is a haunting experience that exists as a reminder to us all of our collective loss.

Women are victims everywhere you look – so many films and television shows rely upon the gruesome rape or murder of an innocent woman to stir up the drama. The destroyed bodies of women are casually inflicted upon us, normalising the violence and maintaining the cruel fallacy that women are somehow the natural prey of men. 

 

The Police

A vigil for Sarah Everard which was held on Clapham Common on the 13th of March, ended in violence as police moved in at sunset to clear the crowd. The response from the protestors and the press was shock and horror, as they watched grieving women be dragged away in handcuffs by officers who trampled on the flowers that had been laid out for Sarah. 

The irony of the fact that the MET used violence against women, to end a demonstration in the name of violence against women, was deepened by the fact that it had been a MET officer in the first place that killed Sarah.

This event served to confirm the suspicions of a large group of women that the police force is fundamentally misogynistic, and since the protest, documents have been released by the press that reveal the number of officers that have been investigated for committing sexual offences while they were on duty. All of this demonstrates a level of contempt for women, and it has been met with absolute disgust.

This just should not have happened. Protected by the existence of the COVID legislation which prevents mass gatherings, they claim that there simply was no choice when it came to their approach to the vigil.

Violence from the police against marginalized individuals is not a new phenomenon and one that has gained mass attention recently, especially with Black Lives Matter. We must fight just as loudly when we see acts of violence from the police to Black, Brown and Indigenous individuals.  

The command to shut it down most likely came straight from Patel herself (who unsurprisingly hates protest in all forms) and favours the police using force against demonstrators, even if she pretends to be shocked and appalled on Twitter afterwards.

A cold person, with little sympathy for the plight of the oppressed, she is the child of immigrants who favours processing asylum seekers on an island thousands of miles away from the UK, so that most migrants will be turned away without ever setting foot on British soil. She is an enemy to feminists everywhere because she perpetuates the myth that to be a woman in power, you have to act like a bully.

 The history of the women's movement involves a lot of protest. It is the method with which the feminist movement gained the most success in making the legal changes that improved the position of women in society. The suffrage movement used violent action, and the later campaigns in search of “equal pay for equal work” used strike action to demonstrate the contribution that women were making in the workplace.

It's understandable then, that women especially are raising the alarm over the new policing bill currently being debated by MPs, which includes an increase in police powers to combat street protests, even peaceful protests, due to COVID restrictions.

Peaceful protest is a human right, and many fear that the government will use this time in which there are strict controls, to rush through a selection of legislation that they know would usually be met with mass demonstration. The bill aims to make the existence of protests more convenient for businesses and local authority, by restricting demonstrations to designated time slots and approved areas, as well as only permitting people to march in the name of topics that are deemed appropriate by law-enforcement.

 

Racial Violence

The violence in London was swiftly followed by a mass shooting in Atlanta Georgia, which despite targeting Asian massage parlours, is yet to be officially declared a hate crime. Eight people are dead, including six Asian women. Asian women, who are relentlessly fetishised by western culture, often tragically fall victim to the pattern of male violence.

Patriarchal culture never teaches men how to handle feelings of pain and conflict, encouraging them instead to always appear strong, driving them to violent outbursts. Sexual violence especially, is often an attempt to reassert power over women as a punishment for pain that the man feels they are responsible for - the 2021 film “I Care A Lot” explores this issue when the protagonist, played by Rosamund Pike, responds to a threat of violence without fear, claiming that when men have nothing left to argue with, they without fail “call you a bitch and threaten to murder you.” This weaponised misogyny, which absolves men of any responsibility for their behaviour, is another symptom of the same culture that encourages young girls to cover up their bodies in American schools in order not to ‘distract’ their male classmates. Young boys are never pressured like girls to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions - this is the fundamental cultural change that needs to happen to stop the endless cycles of femicide and rape culture.

 

So where does this leave the women's movement in 2021? The oppression we face today looks very different to just over one hundred years ago, when we had finally smashed enough windows to be welcomed into the British democratic process. Women remain the recipients of countless acts of violence, and our freedoms are restricted by the fear of this violence. The violence is ever-present, with women of colour and trans women disproportionately affected by and often plagued with dehumanising rhetoric. Our methods of protesting against this violence are being stripped away from us, and yet women are not discouraged, and there is a sense that these discussions are only really just getting started. Women have been fighting for their equality for decades, and the fight will inevitably continue for many more decades to come.

 

If you want to read more, or even get involved, here are some useful links: 

https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/s/the-right-to-protest

https://www.sistersuncut.org/

https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/

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