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The caged bird sings

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Just where is ‘A Woman’s Place'?

A Woman's Place badgeBy Isabelle Kerr

Back in the 1980s I had a badge that read “A Woman’s Place is Every Place”. We were revolutionaries, steeped in the struggle. We weren’t getting back into that kitchen, that was for sure. No siree. We had a world to change …..

Fast forward 30 plus years and my “A Woman’s Place is Every Place” badge came to mind this week as a number of things happened almost all at once. As we were enjoying a beautiful May bank holiday weekend, I read an excellent blog in the Huffington Post by a woman called Gretchen Kelly. Her piece The Things All Women Do That You Don’t Know About’ highlighted the many strategies women use to make ourselves invisible to the everyday harassment and sexism we experience. The comments, touching, ‘jokes’ and ‘banter’, the groping that we’re all supposed to happily accept because it’s ‘just a joke’ and it’s a compliment and if we can’t just laugh it off then we’re probably feminists and definitely lesbians and anyway who would want an ugly bitch like us …. you get the picture I’m sure because how often has it happened to you?

I posted the link to Kelly’s blog on Glasgow Rape Crisis Centre’s Facebook page because it’s so relevant, so much part of the continuum of violence and abuse that is invisible to men who don’t experience it, but all too evident, as research suggests, that most women have in their time.

Back in the office after the holiday weekend I saw an article in The Guardian about Labour MP Jess Phillips who had been involved in the launch of the #ReclaimTheInternet campaign. In the aftermath of her speaking out in support of the campaign, Phillips received 600 rape threats from internet trolls in one day. This was only days after I’d watched a short video on the BBC website where MPs Diane Abbot, Jo Swinson and Hannah Bardell spoke about the cyber abuse they’d experienced. Diane Abbot said:

We have regular rape threats, we’ve had pornographic pictures of black women with my head superimposed emailed to every member of parliament, my staff get abuse, I’m called a nigger and a bitch and an animal. We’ve had hashtags ‘Kill Diane Abbot’.”

Jo Swinson also had similar experiences, saying that she’d received:

Comments about really kind of sexualised violence, things that people would like to do to me and I remember in particular being concerned that when I had seen that because I’d had a Google news alert and a Google blog alert for my name, that I knew my mum also had alerts for me and that if I’d clicked and seen that, that my mum had also seen the same stuff. And that really wasn’t pleasant to think about.”

Social media is a social space just as workplaces, schools, colleges, cafes, restaurants and pubs are social spaces. Yes, of course we should be as safe on social media as well as in other social spaces, only we’re not safe there either, are we? Our space, online and offline, is being eroded, reduced, squeezed until we’re made not only silent, but invisible. Yes, of course images of women are everywhere, stories about women are everywhere but take the time to look at those images, to read those stories and a disturbing pattern will emerge.

Thursday morning and I’m wondering what happened. When did that confidence that “A Woman’s Place is Every Place” disappear? I feel despondent. The reality is that we cannot move forward in real terms until we are able to live without the burden of male violence and abuse. Gretchen Kelly’s piece so very clearly showed that a huge amount of women’s time and energy is taken up trying to dodge, evade and avoid unwanted male attention. Male attention that we want isn’t a burden; we like it, enjoy it and welcome it. And that’s the difference, it’s attention that WE WANT. What we don’t want are the gratuitous comments about our bodies (or indeed our body parts), the demands that we ‘cheer up’ or ‘smile’, the uninvited touching, the groping, the coercion …. I could go on but I think Kelly says it so much better in her blog.

Some studies that I’ve seen over the past few years and that have stuck with me show that the scope of male violence and abuse – or indeed the fear of it - is phenomenal:

  • In 2010 a YouGov study showed that 29% of girls aged 16 – 18 years had experienced unwanted touching and 71% had heard sexual name calling in school
  • In 2012 the Everyday Sexism Project was launched online by Laura Bates. She had no concept of the volume of traffic the site would generate or the ‘horror stories’ she would see. Two examples are “When I was 12 a man cornered me in an aisle of the local public library and ejaculated on me” and “I am lucky. I have only ever been outright solicited publicly for sex once in my life.”
  • In 2013 the National Union of Students study ‘That’s What She Said’ explored the role of Lad Culture and the impact on women students. The study highlighted some extremely disturbing practice, with the normalising of sexual violence evidenced across the report. The report also quoted the website Uni Lad’s article ‘Sexual Mathematics’ which stated “If the girl you’ve taken for a drink …. won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rapes go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds. Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise’.”
  • Also in 2013 a news article in The Guardian highlighted the practice of ‘underhanding’ where a man stands behind a woman and tries to put his fingers inside her. The word is defined in the online ‘Urban Dictionary’ as “The practice of going up behind a woman and putting your fingers inside her without her consent, as part of a dare or contest. A form of sexual harassment.”
  • And still in 2013, employment law firm Slater Gordon carried out a survey on sexual harassment in the workplace and found that 60% of working women said that a male colleague had behaved inappropriately towards them with 21% of these saying that the behaviour was persistent. The women said that 24% had been harassed by a superior and that 5% had then lost their jobs because of this. The study also showed that 10% of those women had been turned down for promotion after the harassment.
  • In 2015 Girl Guiding UK carried out research which showed that 75% of girls and young women aged 13 – 21 years said anxiety about experiencing sexual harassment affected their lives in some way. The same study showed that 67% of the young women felt that popular culture tells boys that they are entitled to coerce or abuse their girlfriends.
  • Also in 2015, The Independent ran an article about the website ‘When Women Refuse’ where women report their experiences of saying ‘No’ to male advances. A random example from the site shows what many women experience. “I was 18 and working as a waitress at a chain restaurant. He was twenty+ years my senior and working in the kitchen. He took an interest in me and by that I mean when I talked to him he would ask me questions and write down my answers. I lied every time except about my age hoping that he’d back off. He would touch me as I walked by and tried to kiss me hello on a few occasions which I dodged. When he explicitly asked me to “hang out” I refused. He told me he’d wait for me in the parking lot after work. I left early that day. The next night he locked me in the walk in freezer until I talked to him. I quit my job the next day.”
  • In 2016 Action Aid UK carried out research showing that 75% of women had been subjected to violence and harassment in cities across the world. In the UK the study showed that 70% of women in the North East of England and 72% in London felt unsafe on the streets and on public transport.
  • Also in 2016, End Violence Against Women commissioned a survey by YouGov which showed that 85% of women between the ages of 18 – 24 had experienced sexual harassment in public.

I haven’t mentioned the horrifying number of women and girls who experience physical, sexual and psychological abuse in their homes or in other private places. Where is that “Every Place” that is a woman’s place? Wherever it is, it certainly isn’t safe.

Finally while I was writing this blog the internet was alive with a story about a young woman who had been raped, while drunk and unconscious. This happened at a ‘frat party’ at Stanford University. The man, Brock Turner, was disturbed by two cyclists, was chased and held by one of these cyclists while trying to escape the scene, the police were called and the woman was identified by the attending officers as being an ‘unconscious female … breathing but completely unresponsive’. There were witnesses, he was found guilty on three felony sexual assault counts of ‘assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman; sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object; sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object’. Turner faced a maximum of 14 years in jail for the offence but instead the judge decided that such as sentence ‘would have a severe impact on him’ and gave Turner a six month sentence instead.

The woman’s victim impact statement was read out in court and circulated widely across the internet. It was a harrowing read but it showed how Turner’s career, his achievements as a swimmer, were so much more important than what had happened to the woman he’d raped. His future was the priority, not hers.

This was followed by a letter from Turner’s father stating that the six month sentence was too long for “20 minutes of action”. Equating those acts of sexual violence with “20 minutes of action” was widely criticised. But Turner’s father’s letter wasn’t the only one petitioning the judge. A letter from a friend of Turner’s also criticised the verdict. It stated, “…. where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists?” Actually, I think it is.

And that is the point. There is no safety because society believes that there is no danger apart from the danger we, ourselves are complicit in. The culture of victim blaming is universal, and not only of victim blaming but victim shaming. A woman who makes a complaint of rape isn’t responsible for ‘ruining the poor man’s life’. The person responsible for that is the rapist himself, his actions, his behaviour and his belief in his entitlement to that woman’s body. The reality for all women is that rape on campus, in homes, workplaces, at parties, on poorly lit streets and in broad daylight happen precisely because the men who commit these acts are rapists. They fundamentally believe that they are entitled to take, use and abuse a woman’s body if they wish. We must stop making excuses for them and face the truth.

Survivor Julia Dixon, who has spoken out about the lenient sentence her own rapist received stated in response to the Stanford case:

We judge perpetrators on their potential, while we judge victims on their past.”

So how can we change the world to really make a woman’s place every place? A starting point may be to look at the word ‘equality’ and realise that it doesn’t mean that women will be taking over the world and forcing men to live like second class citizens, feeling unsafe, being subjected to violence and abuse every day, being treated unfairly and having laws that mainly favour us. If that’s what men fear and believe that it would be unthinkable for them to live like that, why is it OK for women? Because that’s certainly the way we live now.

Perhaps we need to accept that we may need to be in this project for the long haul. We are not going to erase inequality, misogyny and gender based violence until we all recognise that it’s happening and that it’s wrong. Feminism has become a dirty word and in fact there’s an online campaign featuring pictures of young women holding up a card stating “I don’t need feminism because ….” Why don’t you need feminism? Don’t we need equality? Don’t we need safety? One of those pictures shows a young woman with a card which reads “I don’t need feminism because my boyfriend isn’t violent.” I am glad of that, because we all deserve a partner in our lives that isn’t violent, abusive, coercive or controlling but that isn’t the case for all women. I’d ask that young woman to look more closely at what is going on around her and at the undoubted everyday sexism she experiences and to ask herself if she really doesn’t need feminism in her life and in the world.

I don’t need feminism because …” isn’t cool or trendy, it’s dangerous. It speaks of our contentment with the oppression we live with day to day. It reinforces the notion that feminists want to create some kind of matriarchal dystopia rather than enjoy the benefits that equality can bring not only to ourselves but to the men of the world as well. Unless we continue to fight for equality, we will have to settle for nothing but the status quo and that’s not an option. We need to have more of those badges to remind us that woman’s place IS every place and it’s worth fighting for.

In a world where one third of all women experience some form of gender based violence in their lifetimes, that status quo isn’t just damaging to us all, it’s fatal.

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