Yesterday was International Women’s Day, or for those of us who like to be historically factual about these things, it was International Working Women’s Day. But since the definition of women’s work has been broadened to represent the actualities of life and the concept of the gendered division of labour has been deconstructed, the abbreviated version does now suffice.
So in honour of IWD, I would like to share an article I have written about current manifestations of an old issue. The issue I have chosen to write about this year is the role of women in the movement and in particular how men support or diminish that role.
Decision-Making Processes: Thoughts On
One of the arguments I constantly find myself in these days is the debate around the use of violence as a means towards an end. Usually this conversation happens within the context of political situations, although recently I have had a couple of conversations with friends about the use of violence in domestic situations.
The most public conversation about this occurred after the National Front demo last year. I wrote about that strongly at the time and I don’t want to discuss my arguments about the logic of using violence in that particular situation. What I do want to discuss in relation to that, however, is how oppressive that conversation can be.
I proudly describe myself as a pacifist. I do not believe it to be naive and idealistic to demand a world without violence against people and the planet. I believe that the human capacity for violence is not only controllable but indefensible. While I have never been the victim of major overt violence I have been affected by it. I have screamed and cried while I watched my father assault my mother. I have cried at the graveside of a friend of mine killed in a fight. I have had to interfere in physical assaults amongst my friends and within my family. The memories of every single one of these incidents makes me feel physically ill. But I don’t see pacifism as choosing to lie down and die – to be a pacifist is to stand up and live.
I also proudly describe myself as a feminist. I have dedicated, and will continue to dedicate, a large proportion of my activism towards the emancipation of women. When asked how I believe women are oppressed in our society, my number one answer will always be, “through violence”. Violence is the tool that is used by men to oppress women. A patriarchal society relies on violence against women as a way of trading and maintaining power. The idea that women are no longer considered possessions and are now people in their own right has not eliminated structural discrimination against women. In fact, many feminists will argue that the emancipation of women has enabled men (as a group, I’m not talking about you individual ‘enlightened’ men out there) to justify different and more insidious forms of violence against women – that one can wait for another day.
In my life I have been involved in many women’s groups. For those of you who have experienced women’s groups, you will be familiar with conversations about how being within groups that condone violent behaviour can be an incredibly isolating experience. Covert threats of violence is something that affects women in a different way to men. And not only is covert violence a difficult thing to identify, but for some women it is an impossible thing to challenge. The normal response, in my observational experience, is for women to stop speaking.
Now, many people within the left and within environmental movements think that, because they’re ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ thinkers, they do not engage in sexist behaviour. But more often than not, it is those that staunchly defend their ‘non-sexism’ that are the most sexist. In my experience, some of the most sexist, misogynist men I have met have been within left wing movements.
So to explain what I mean by sexist behaviour I would like to encourage you the reader to take a moment and think about the gendered dynamics within the groups that you operate in. Who holds the important roles? Who dominates the conversations? Who is most likely to be a spokesperson for your group? Who makes the decisions? These are questions you’ve probably all heard before, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important and it doesn’t mean they can’t be asked again. These questions are important because they relate to power structures. All groups, even anarchist groups, have formal and informal power structures. In situations where power structures exist, so does violence.
But in particular I would like to discuss the issues of violence in discussion around strategy. I have participated in a number of discussions recently in which the topic has been strategy. Mostly the strategy has been in relation to how to engage with ideas or people that we find morally abhorrent. What has disturbed me is that the use of violence has constantly come up as an option. And even when it isn’t explicitly mentioned, the language that is being used to discuss these strategies is inherently violent. I have found this to be incredibly exclusive and I am sure others have had this problem. What I have observed is that the gender balance in these strategy meetings and discussions is overwhelmingly male. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this.
I have tried to challenge the violence in these discussions on a number of occasions and have met with a number of reactions. Sometimes positive, but mostly negative. When I have gone so far as to challenge the conversation from a women’s perspective, I have been talked over, patronised, ridiculed and fobbed off. This is the insidious violence inherent in the movement that needs addressing. In fact, it is a demonstration of the very violence under discussion. The thing that is most frustrating is that more often than not, it is the role of women to make these challenges.
To take the risks of putting yourself in an unsafe position to challenge your own oppression by people who are supposedly on ‘your side’ is hard for some women. And the questions that men in these groups need to ask themselves are, if a line is drawn between an acceptable and an unacceptable level of violence, where does that line get drawn and who draws it? In groups, who are the ones that are deciding where that end point is and are they the ones with the most power?
My challenge today is to all those men in the movement to use today, International Women’s Day, as an opportunity to take stock. Look around you in your groups and check out the gender dynamics and then have a think about the level of overt and covert violence within your groups. When you’re thinking about your options for strategies, how many are you actually considering? Are your options only to confront or to ignore? Or are you using a bit more imagination and considering other options.
If anyone tries to tell you that you can’t be less sexist, racist, homophobic etc., they’re lying. Until we learn to talk and listen to each other properly, we will always confront these issues. And even then we will continue to confront them. The only difference is, it won’t be as difficult to reach solutions when we communicate with respect.