Category Archives: Violence against women
When “Democracy Now” interviewed two global feminists – Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues, and Congolese activist Christine Deschryver – on 2-14-17, Ensler said that “watching Trump and the people he surrounds himself with, we’re seeing the escalation of rape culture, a predatory mindset.” She added that if so many Americans “felt OK electing a self-confessed sexual assaulter” whose principal advisor, Steve Bannon, “is known to have beaten his wife, we know we haven’t really gotten to the root of rape culture in America. That predatory mindset is affecting everything. We’re gutting regulations on air, on water, and on the earth. We’re escalating extraction. We’re seeing a disparaging of immigrants. This is all part of a predatory mindset – one person in power who does what he wants without the consent of the people around him – exactly what rape culture is. You seize people’s bodies, you take them against their will, and you do whatever you want to them. We bomb Iraqis and destroy people in countries around the world, and then refuse to give them admission and safety.”
On the possibility of Trump signing an executive order that would deregulate conflict minerals, Deschryver said such an order would bring the Democratic Republic of Congo “back 20 years, legitimating all the perpetrators and rapes, and strengthening Central African dictators who want to resume plundering Congo, along with multinational corporations.” Ensler compared this process with the “way oil companies are using state violence in Standing Rock. She then described the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration as “an unbelievable outpouring of women demanding, speaking up for, and cherishing and knowing what their rights are. What did Trump do a day later? He destroyed reproductive rights and the support of NGOs who were offering a discussion about abortion around the world. That was his cynical, violent response to 5 million women and men rising around the world. And that is rape culture. It was like, ‘Really? You think you’re going to have power? Watch what I’m going to do the next day.’ So many of these executive orders are violent acts saying in no uncertain terms, ‘I do what I want, regardless of your needs, regardless of what you want in your body or your life, and I’m going to continue to do that.’”
Deschryver said this is why “grassroots women from all over the world have to be leaders, protecting Mother Nature, because we are Her.” At Deschryver’s project, City of Joy, in Bukavu, eastern Congo, “we receive 90 young women to heal their bodies and minds, and we train them to be leaders. Most of them were raped by militias, by the police, by their partners. And they’re all survivors of atrocities. They stay there for six months, transforming their pain to power. After that, some of them go to our farm to transform pain to planting. There we live with Mother Nature and give back to Her. I think City of Joy has to be an example for the whole world, because right now I think the grassroots women are the ones who’ve paid the most for everything that’s happened. Look in Dakota. Look in Congo, everywhere.” To read more about City of Joy, go to http://drc.vday.org/about-city-of-joy/
When Amy Goodman noted that Steve Bannon had called progressive women, quote, “a bunch of dykes,” Ensler said, “That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think this entire cabal are men who are terrified of women on every level, particularly powerful women. We only have to look at the censoring of Elizabeth Warren to understand that. They’re terrified of black people. They’re terrified of immigrants. They’re terrified of indigenous people. They are terrified of anybody who isn’t a white man or a white man billionaire or white man corporate. In many ways, this is the last major gasp of the patriarchal dragon, and last gasps can be deadly. But they’re not going to move us back to the past. Women aren’t going to stand for having rights being taken away. African Americans aren’t going to stand for it. Immigrants aren’t going to stand for it. We’re too far out to go back in. So now what we’ve got to do is go much further than we’ve ever gone before.”
The women then looked at the recent silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who tried to read into the Senate record a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King, opposing attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions when he was nominated for a federal judgeship. First, Amy Goodman noted that “Senator Warren was then prohibited from speaking for the remainder of the debate, which was hours-long. Male senators, her Democratic allies, like Senator Sanders, Senator Sherrod Brown, and Senator Merkley, were allowed to read King’s letter without rebuke. What’s also interesting is that when Coretta Scott King sent her testimony 30 years ago to the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Strom Thurmond, expecting it was going to be entered into the Congressional Record, he never entered it.”
“Right,” agreed Ensler. “The only way Coretta Scott King’s letter could be entered was through the voice of white men. I think it was really disturbing that happened, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Warren to take her seat. It was an incredibly infantilizing moment, his attempt to take a woman of such stature and voice and power and reduce her to nothing. We’re not going to take our seats. That’s not going to happen now. The attempt by this administration to reduce women, to make women feel small, to feel that they don’t exist, to embarrass and shame them, won’t work. We’re past that point. As terrible as all this is, what’s really exciting is to see what this is evoking in people all across this country and around the world. We’re not only going to persist, we are rising up. That’s what we’re seeing this year in One Billion Rising, a global campaign through dance and resistance to fight all the forms of violence, whether it be the violence of racism or climate change or economic deprivations or workers’ rights. We’re seeing more risings this year across the planet, more militant risings, more joyful risings, more fierce risings, more specific and determined risings, because what we’re all feeling is not only are we going to not give up on the rights we have, but this is an opportunity to reformulate our progressive world into a much stronger, more unified, more visionary, more prophetic movement than we’ve ever had before and to really understand that the struggle for antiracism, the struggle against the destruction of the Earth, the struggle for women, the struggle against oppression – these are all one struggle that we’re part of. I’m very encouraged, in the little towns and places all across America, to see people in Texas standing up for Muslims, to see artists doing beautiful posters. There’s more creativity, more outpouring that’s going on right now. I want to finish by saying I think the resistance is the creation. As we’re resisting, we’re beginning to not only mobilize ourselves into a unified force, we’re actually creating the vision of the world we want.” For more on One Billion Rising, go to http://www.onebillionrising.org
“After 15 years of our movement, we were able to put out a call that was an invitation for women and men to rise and dance and resist violence against women across the planet. And that call was taken up, with each community making it their own. Each community took it to the places they wanted to take it and created this global solidarity and force of energy that really made violence against women central stage. Five years ago, we put out this global invitation for women to rise and dance at the places where they wanted to see justice, where they wanted to see violence end. It was massive, and every year, it’s grown and grown. It’s now in 200 countries. Twenty-two states in India are rising, 131 cities in Germany, 90 cities in Poland. We’re seeing all kinds of people – trans women, workers, indigenous people – everyone’s beginning to use this idea of dance resistance, because dance is so powerful. People are being traumatized every day by these executive orders, by horrible statements, by hateful, aggressive reactions. And I think one of the things we have to be very careful about is that we don’t get hooked on a cycle of trauma, retrauma, trauma, retrauma. We have to also come into our bodies and dance and feel our sexuality and feel our joy and feel our energy, because that will give us the fuel to keep fighting and keep resisting and keep creating the way we want to go.”
Deschryver added, “I think Eve had the idea when she was visiting Congo, and she saw all the raped women dancing. That’s what we do in Africa. It’s a way to express our feelings. We have One Billion Rising in Congo, and we rise also for Mother Earth, because Congo is the second lung of humanity. Without the forests in Congo, I think there is no more life all over the world. And we rise also for and with the women. All over DRC they use the word ‘rising’ in English. Every time they see something they disagree with, it’s like, ‘OK, we will rise for this.’”
Ensler: “In New York, on February 14th, we’re having an Artistic Uprising for Revolutionary Love. We’ve joined forces with a wonderful woman named Valarie Kaur and Reverend Barber, who have launched this campaign called Revolutionary Love. And we’ll be rising in Washington Square Park from 6:00 to 9:00. There are 25 amazing artists, a gospel choir, drummers, singers, and poets. And we really want everyone to come, because, really, we need art more than we know. We only have to look to Melissa McCarthy, her brilliant portrayal of Sean Spicer, and see the way artists and irony are changing consciousness.”
After reading “We Have No Choice: the Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl” by Ben Taub in the 4-10 issue of the New Yorker, I’m struck yet again by the incredible suffering caused by unnecessary poverty. Unneccessary because it’s created by capitalism and capitalism’s evil stepsisters, economic imperialism and war. Taub’s article focuses on teenage girls from Benin City in southern Nigeria, thousands of whom risk death and endure forced labor and sex work each year to try to get to Europe, where they believe they can earn money to help their poverty-stricken families. And this is just one example of people around the world risking everything to try to survive in the cruel world created by our current system.
Migrants leave Africa from the coast of Libya in 30-foot rubber dinghies. “Officially,” Taub says, “at least 5,098 migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, but Libya’s coastline is more than a thousand miles long, and nobody knows how many boats sink without ever being seen.” Blessing, Taub’s 16-year-old subject, got to this point six months after leaving Benin City. “In recent years, tens of millions of Africans have fled areas afflicted with famine, drought, persecution, and violence. Ninety-four per cent of them remain on the continent, but each year hundreds of thousands try to make it to Europe. Last year, more Nigerians crossed the sea than people of any other nationality. Nigeria is Africa’s richest country, but the money that’s set aside for public infrastructure is often embezzled or stolen by government officials. As Nigeria’s economy has grown – spurred by oil extraction, agriculture, and foreign investment – so has the percentage of its citizens living in total poverty.
Blessing’s family used to own a house and a small plot of land. Her father was a bricklayer, but he died in a car accident when Blessing was a little girl. The family was close to penniless, and Doris, Blessing’s mother, was left to raise her four children alone. Blessing’s older brother began repairing cars in the marketplace, and her sister Joy went to live with an aunt. When Blessing was thirteen or fourteen, she dropped out of school and started an apprenticeship with a tailor, but he wanted money to train her, and after six months he let her go. Despondent, she believed she had no future. Through friends, she learned of a travel broker in Lagos, who said he could get her a passport, a visa, and a plane ticket to Europe. Once Blessing found work there, he promised, she’d earn enough to support her whole family. Doris sold the house and the land, and gave the money to the broker, who promptly disappeared. Blessing, who blamed herself for her family’s troubles,” found another “deal,” and left “without telling anybody.
In 2003, Nigeria passed its first law prohibiting human trafficking, but a UN report published the same year concluded that the industry was ‘so ingrained in Edo State, especially in Benin City and its immediate environs, that it’s estimated that virtually every Benin family has a member involved.’ Madams in Italy have their surrogates in Nigeria take girls to a local shrine, where a juju priest performs a ritual” believed to guarantee the girl’s death if she doesn’t keep her end of the agreement.
“Before Blessing disappeared, she met with a Yoruba trafficker, but balked when she discovered that the woman wanted her to become a sex worker. Soon afterward, her friend Faith introduced her to an Igbo woman with European connections, who was elegant, well dressed, and kind. The woman promised Blessing and Faith that she’d take them to Italy, pay for their journey, and find them jobs, so that they could pay her back. Blessing dreamed of completing her education and buying back the home her mother had lost. She climbed into a van, along with Faith, the woman, and several other girls, and began a perilous journey north. Avoiding territory controlled by the terrorist group Boko Haram, they crossed an unguarded part of Nigeria’s border with Niger. After several days and a thousand miles, they reached Agadez, an old caravan city at the southern edge of the Sahara, where by 2014 the value of the migration trade had surpassed that of any other business in the city. Migrants arrive in Agadez with the phone number of their connection man, usually a migrant turned businessman of their same nationality. Once a week, Tuareg and Toubou drivers go to the migrant ghettos, collect cash from the connection men, and load 5,000 sub-Saharans into the beds of Toyota pickups, thirty per vehicle.” They then drive northeast through the Sahara to Libya. “Before leaving Agadez, migrants are given the phone number of a connection man in southern Libya. A recent report commissioned by the UN estimated that nearly half the female refugees and migrants who pass through Libya are sexually assaulted, often many times along the route. A young Nigerian told me he’d witnessed female migrants being murdered for refusing the advances of their Libyan handlers. Last spring, Blessing, Faith, and the madam left Agadez, crossed the desert, and made it to Brak, just north of Sebha, where they stayed in a private home. Their journey through the desert had been a blur of waiting, heat, thirst, discomfort, beatings, dead bodies, and fear. The madam continued to promise the girls education and lucrative work in Italy, but it’s unclear whether she was ever in a position to decide their fate; women who accompany girls across the desert are often only employees of traffickers in Italy. One day in Brak, the madam sold Blessing and Faith to the owner of a connection house, to work as prostitutes. ‘It’s not what you told me!’ Blessing cried, starting to sob. She hadn’t sworn a juju oath, but the madam threatened to kill her. In Benin City, Blessing’s mother received a phone call from a Nigerian woman with an Italian number. It had been three months since her daughter had disappeared, and the caller told her that unless she paid 480,000 naira (about $1,500) Blessing would be forced to work as a prostitute. That Sunday, at the weekly traders’ meeting in the market, Doris explained Blessing’s plight and asked for help. Although Doris’s shop was already running on loans, the group approved her request, charging 25% interest. Godwin, Blessing’s brother, dropped the cash off at a MoneyGram exchange service, using the details given by the woman on the phone. After that, there was no further word.
Blessing was delivered to another connection house in Brak. A few days later, armed men put her and several other migrants into the back of a truck, covered them with a blanket, and stacked watermelons on top, to conceal them from rival traffickers. The truck set off north, toward Tripoli. Faith stayed in Brak, because her family didn’t pay. The drive to Tripoli from Brak takes all day and is plagued with bandits, who, like the connection men in Sebha, rob black Africans, beat them, hold them captive, demand ransoms, and murder, sell, or enslave those who disobey orders or are unable to pay. Packed on top of one another in the trucks, and concealed under tarps and other cargo, the passengers can hardly breathe. Sometimes, after unloading the cargo in Tripoli, the smugglers discover that they have suffocated. [Taub has already described how migrants are dumped in the desert to die whenever traffickers have a problem with jihadis or the military.]
Blessing was taken to a large detention center, a concrete room in an abandoned warehouse somewhere near Tripoli. For months, she stayed inside with more than a hundred people, huddled next to other Nigerian girls for safety. Arbitrary beatings and rapes were common. Sometimes the migrants were given only seawater to drink. People routinely died from starvation and disease. Finally, late one night guards roused the migrants and ordered them into a tractor-trailer. The truck dropped them at a beach west of Tripoli. Armed smugglers crammed them into a dinghy, and sent them out to sea” with only enough fuel to reach international waters, where they depended on European ships to rescue them. Sure enough, “the Dignity I, a boat operated by Médecins Sans Frontières, was patrolling a stretch of the Libyan coast – eight hours east, eight hours west, just beyond territorial waters – searching for migrants.” It picked up Blessing and the other migrants on her dinghy. “More than 11,000 Nigerian women were rescued in the Mediterranean last year, according to the International Organization for Migration, 80% of whom had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. Italy is the entry point; from there, women are traded and sold to madams all over Europe. Madams coach the girls to say they’re 18 or older, so that they’re sent to Italy’s main reception centers where migrants can move about freely. Otherwise, they end up in restrictive shelters for unaccompanied minors. ‘Sometimes I feel as if we are the smugglers’ delivery service,’ an MSF staffer said. But at least 2,300 people were saved from 18 rubber dinghies on the day Blessing was picked up, and, without the work of MSF and several other NGOs, many of them would have drowned.
The Dignity I headed for the port of Messina, on the eastern coast of Sicily, a journey of two and a half days with 355 migrants on board, the youngest three weeks old. In Messina, humanitarian workers introduced themselves to some of the girls they suspected of being under eighteen, but none of them accepted help. The UN refugee agency had sent a representative, who carried flyers outlining the migrants’ legal rights, but they were printed in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Many people who might have been eligible for asylum told me they’d never heard of it. The Egyptians and Moroccans were pulled out of line and directed to sit under a blue awning, where they remained for the rest of the afternoon, likely unaware that Italy has repatriation agreements with their home countries. Most of them would be taken to Sicily’s expulsion center, in Caltanissetta, and flown home. The other migrants were led to a line of buses. Many migrants were temporarily kept at Palanebiolo, a makeshift camp in a former baseball stadium on the outskirts of Messina, before being distributed among other centers throughout Italy. Many contracts to provide services for the migrants are connected to the Mafia. The government allots reception centers 35 euros per migrant per day, but the conditions at Palanebiolo and elsewhere indicate that the money isn’t spent on those who stay there. A few years ago, in a wiretapped call, Italian investigators heard a Mafia boss tell an associate, ‘Do you have any idea how much we earn off the migrants? The drug trade is less profitable.’
Sex work isn’t a crime in Italy, but it attracts the attention of the police, so trafficking networks try to get residency permits for every girl they send to work on the streets. Italian police wiretaps show that Nigerian trafficking networks have infiltrated reception centers, employing low-level staffers to monitor the girls and bribing corrupt officials to accelerate the paperwork. An anti-trafficking agent from the International Organization for Migration explained that, at centers like Palanebiolo, ‘the only thing the girl has to do is make a call and tell the madam she has arrived – which city, which camp. They know what to do, because they have their guys all over.’ In Palermo’s underground brothels, trafficked Nigerians sleep with as many as fifteen clients a day; the more clients, the sooner they can purchase their freedom. ‘There’s an extraordinary level of implicit racism here, and it’s evident in the fact that there are no underage Italian girls working the streets,’ Father Enzo Volpe, a priest who runs a center for migrant children and trafficking victims, told me. ‘Society dictates that it’s bad to sleep with a girl of thirteen or fourteen years. But if she’s African? Nobody cares. They don’t think of her as a person.’ Twice a week, Father Enzo loads a van with water and snacks and, in the company of a young friar and a frail old nun, sets off to provide comfort and assistance to girls on the streets. ‘In Italy, we’re very good at the process of emergency reception – the humanitarian aspect,’ Salvatore Vella, a prosecutor in the Sicilian city of Agrigento, told me. “But after that? There’s no solution. Let’s be honest: these reception centers, they have open doors, and we hope they leave. If they go to France, for us that’s fine. If they go to Switzerland, great. If they stay here, they work on the black market – they disappear.’”
Taub describes a Nigerian mafia selling drugs and managing the sex trade in Palermo, a nearby Sicilian city, under the auspices of the Italian Mafia. “The most powerful group, called Black Axe, has roots in Benin City and cells throughout Italy, and has carried out knife and machete attacks against other migrants. According to Vella, the Sicilian prosecutor, violence against Nigerian prostitutes is rarely investigated, because ‘the tendency, here in Italy, has been to not look at criminal organizations as long as they’re only committing crimes against non-Italians.’ Besides, ‘during a trial, I have to call up the interpreter to testify. Her name and birthplace are written into the public record, and the trafficking networks are so well established that, with a Skype call or a text message, they have the ability to order their associates to go into a small village in Nigeria and burn down houses with people inside them.’
After two months in Italy, Blessing, Cynthia, another Nigerian girl, and a 16-year-old girl named Juliet were the only migrants from the Dignity I still at Palanebiolo. Blessing told me that several girls from the boat had left the camp in the company of their traffickers. Blessing wanted to leave the camp, too. She missed her mother, and was eager to pursue an education in Italy. Minors are supposed to be enrolled in schools, but the girls had been left in Palanebiolo because all the centers for underage migrants in Sicily were full. In Benin City, Blessing’s schoolbooks are piled on a shelf in her former bedroom, now occupied by her younger sister, Hope, 15, who’s dropped out of school to help her mother at the shop. In order for the family to keep the apartment, Godwin helps with the rent, $30 per month. The debt Doris took on to free Blessing in Libya continues to mount. ‘I don’t know how my mummy will recover that money. But I can’t go and sell myself, even though I need money for them,’ Blessing said. ‘I better go to school. I promised myself, and I promised my mum.’ Blessing dreams of building her mother a house that’s surrounded by a wall so high that thieves break their legs when they try to scale it. The compound will have an electric gate. ‘My mum, I will spoil her,’ she said. ‘The reason I’m here now is my mummy. The reason I am alive today is my mum. The reason that I will not do prostitution is my mummy.’ Tears streamed down her face. ‘I am my mummy’s breath of life.’
Blessing, Juliet, and a Nigerian girl named Gift walked down the hill singing church songs and drawing smiles from locals. The sky was gloomy, and soon it started to drizzle. But they kept walking, farther from the camp than they’d ever been. Eventually, they reached a pebble beach, a few miles north of the port of Messina. The rain stopped, and for a moment two bright rainbows shone over the short stretch of water separating Sicily from the mainland. ‘It comes from the sea,’ Blessing said of the double rainbow. ‘Look at it now. It is going down.’ A cloud shifted. ‘It’s finished now,’ Blessing said. Gift nodded. ‘It’s gone back to the sea.’ The girls prayed. Then Blessing stepped into the water, spread her arms wide, and shouted, ‘I passed through the desert! I passed through this sea! If this river did not take my life, no man or woman can take my life from me!’”
Just as the 1-21-17 Women’s March on Washington started me wondering where women stand now, Rebecca Solnit’s 2015 book Men Explain Things to Me came into my hands to provide the answer. Solnit starts her book by relating an experience in which a man talked over her on a subject in which she was an expert and he wasn’t. Reflecting on the incident, she realized that this common experience is one end of the misogyny spectrum, with rape and murder at the other…The tendency of some men to dominate conversations and undervalue/question women’s contributions, Solnit says, “crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. Credibility is a basic survival tool. For example, getting a restraining order requires the credibility to convince the court that someone is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert control over their right to exist…At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible. I believe women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, from the mid-1970s on…I think we’d understand misogyny and violence against women better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape, murder, harassment, and intimidation – online, at home, in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear. Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.
There is a reported rape in the United States every 6.2 minutes [the total number of rapes may be five times that number – one a minute], and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. There’s a pattern of violence against women that’s broad, deep, horrific – and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or with lurid details gets attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, and on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.
So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year, meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular kind of terror.
It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to see where violence comes from and think about we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly, the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite their availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90% of the time.
Here’s a single incident that happened in my city while I was researching the subject in January 2013, one of many local incidents that made the local papers that month in which men assaulted women: “A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man’s sexual advances while she walked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood late Monday night, a police spokesman said today. The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her. When she rejected him, the man slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm.” The man, in other words, framed the situation as one in which his chosen victim had no rights or liberties, while he had the right to control and punish her. This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you. Murder is the extreme version of that authoritarianism, where the murderer asserts he has the right to decide whether you live or die, the ultimate means of controlling someone. This may be true even if you are obedient, because the desire to control comes out of a rage that obedience can’t assuage. Whatever fears, whatever sense of vulnerability may underlie such behavior, it also comes out of entitlement, the entitlement to inflict suffering and even death on other people. It’s a system of control,” acted out by men of all nationalities, races, and social classes.
“A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Center for Disease Control. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States. ‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined,’ writes Nicholas Kristof, one of the few prominent figures to address the issue regularly.
Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice – and we hardly address. The usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. There’s no good reason (and many bad reasons) colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.
There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online, and in marches. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they’re still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power. Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free or enslaved together. Surely the mindset of those who think they need to win, to dominate, to punish, and to reign supreme is far from free.”
Solnit goes on to point out the connection between misogyny and other forms of oppression, using the example of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, “the extraordinarily powerful head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global organization that’s created mass poverty and economic injustice, sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid and immigrant from Africa, in a hotel’s luxury suite in New York City…Her name was Africa, his was IMF. He set her up to be pillaged, to go without health care, to starve. He laid waste to her to enrich his friends. Her name was Global South. His name was Washington Consensus. But his winning streak was running out, and her star was rising…The IMF’s assault on the poor is part of the great class war of our era, in which the rich and their proxies in government have endeavored to aggrandize their holdings at the expense of the rest of us. Poor countries in the developing world paid first, but the rest of us are paying now, as those policies and the suffering they impose come home to roost via right-wing economics that savages unions, education systems, the environment, and programs for the poor, disabled, and elderly in the name of privatization, free markets, and tax cuts…His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.”
Next Solnit theorizes that the real reason many conservatives oppose gay marriage is that it represents marriage equality. “The phrase ‘marriage equality’ is ordinarily employed to mean that same-sex couples will have the rights different-sexed couples do. But it could also mean that marriage is between equals – not what traditional,” patriarchal marriage has been. “A marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian – one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it’s a relationship between people who have equal standing and are free to define their roles themselves.”
Solnit devotes a chapter of her book to the ways women have been made to “disappear.” Taking their husbands’ names and wearing veils are the first two examples of this. “Veils go a long way back. They existed in Assyria more than 3,000 years ago, when there were two kinds of women: respectable wives and widows who had to wear veils, and prostitutes and slave girls who were forbidden to do so. The veil was the marker of a woman for one man, a portable architecture of confinement.
In Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ from 1976 to 1983, the military junta ‘disappeared’ dissidents, activists, left-wingers, and Jews, men and women. The first voices against this disappearance, the first who overcame their fear and became visible, were those of mothers of the disappeared. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo began appearing in front of the presidential mansion at the Plaza de Mayo in the capital, Buenos Aires, and, having appeared, they refused to go away. Forbidden to sit, they walked. Though they were attacked, arrested, interrogated, and forced out of this most public of public places, they returned again and again to testify openly to their grief, and to demand that their children and grandchildren be returned. They wore white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their children and the date of their disappearances. Motherhood was an emotional and biological tie that the generals in charge of the country couldn’t portray as leftwing or criminal. It was a cover for a new kind of politics, as it had been for the US group Women Strike for Peace, founded in the shadow of the Cold War in 1961, when dissent was still portrayed as communist. Motherhood and respectability became the armor, the costume, in which these women assaulted in one case the generals and in the other a nuclear weapons program and war itself.
When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling women students not to go out alone after dark. Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy: that men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, because of the violence of one man.
Every woman who appears wrestles with forces that would have her disappear, that would tell her story for her or write her out of the story. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.”
Solnit’s next chapter, on the liberatory thinking, both political and artistic, of Virginia Woolf, has much to say about the uncertain times we’re living in.
“‘The future is dark [obscure], which is the best thing the future can be, I think,’ Woolf wrote in her journal in 1915 as the First World War began to turn into catastrophic slaughter on an unprecedented scale.” In 1938 Woolf discussed war and its roots in Three Guineas. She began the book by answering the question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” with the statement, “As a woman I have no country,” a stand much like that of the international communist movement, urging loyalty among workers of all nations in times of nationalist wars.
Solnit includes the thinking of writer, filmmaker, and political activist Susan Sontag in this discussion. Sontag wrote that people who haven’t experienced war can’t understand the reality of it, and may be numbed by reading about it or looking at war photographs. Like Woolf, Solnit says, Sontag called on us “to embrace the darkness, the unknown, the unknowability. She doesn’t imagine the contradictions can be ironed out; she grants us permission to keep looking at the photographs; she grants their subjects the right to have the unknowability of their experience acknowledged. And she acknowledges that even if we can’t completely comprehend, we might care.”
When Solnit visited Sontag, the latter “made the case that we should resist on principle, even though it might be futile. I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you can’t foresee or even imagine, perhaps long after your death. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting.”
Next, Solnit addresses “the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.” There have been so many mass shootings in recent years that I had to go to Wikipedia to recall this one. I found this: “On May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara, before taking his own life. The attack began when Rodger stabbed three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to a sorority house and shot three female students outside, killing two. He drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death inside. He then began to speed through Isla Vista, shooting and wounding several pedestrians and striking several others with his car. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle and came to a stop. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Before driving to the sorority house, Rodger uploaded a video to YouTube in which he explained that he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and to punish sexually active men for living a more enjoyable life than his.” In an email to friends and family, he also described “his frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend, his hatred of women, his contempt for racial minorities and interracial couples, and his plans for what he described as ‘retribution.’”
Solnit thinks the subsequent discussion of this event on Twitter was significant. Apparently, some men were saying they “weren’t the problem.” Solnit recalls that “an exasperated woman remarked to me, ‘What do they want – a cookie for not hitting, raping, or threatening women?’ Women are afraid of being raped and murdered all the time and sometimes that’s more important to talk about than protecting male comfort levels. Or as another woman tweeted, ‘Sure #NotAllMen are misogynists and rapists. That’s not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are.’” A bit more from Twitter: “#YesAllWomen because I’ve seen more men angry at the hashtag rather than angry at the things happening to women. #YesAllWomen because if you’re too nice to them you’re ‘leading them on’ & if you’re too rude you risk violence. Either way you’re a bitch.”
Solnit declares: “Language is power. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it. Vernacular phrases – ‘Catch-22,’ ‘monkeywrenching,’ ‘cyberbullying,’ ‘the 99 percent and the 1 percent’ – have helped us to describe and reshape our world. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. One of the compelling new phrases of our time is ‘rape culture.’ The term came into widespread circulation in late 2012 when sexual assaults in New Delhi, India and Steubenville, Ohio, became major news stories. As one definition put it: ‘Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape culture affects every woman. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape.’
The term ‘sexual entitlement’ was also used in 2012 in reference to sexual assaults by Boston University’s hockey team, though you can find earlier uses of the phrase. I first heard it in 2013 in a BBC report on a study of rape in Asia. The study concluded that in many cases the motive for rape was the idea that a man has the right to have sex with a woman regardless of her desires. In other words, his rights trump hers, or she has none. This sense of being owed sex is everywhere. Many women are told, as was I in my youth, that something we did or said or wore or just the way we looked or the fact that we were female had excited desires we were thereby contractually obliged to satisfy. Male fury at not having emotional and sexual needs met is far too common, as is the idea that you can rape or punish one woman to get even for what other women have done or not done. After the killings in Isla Vista, the term ‘sexual entitlement’ was suddenly everywhere, and blogs and commentary and conversations began to address it with brilliance and fury. On that Friday in Isla Vista, our equilibrium was disrupted, and like an earthquake releasing tension between tectonic plates, the realms of gender shifted a little. They shifted not because of the massacre, but because millions came together in a vast conversational network to share experiences, revisit meanings and definitions, and arrive at new understandings.”
Solnit acknowledges that progress in the fight against misogyny can be uneven, but concludes, “There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights…Revolutions are made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies…
Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out, or that if there is you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have. We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it still generates a significant percentage of calls to police and enforcement has been crummy in most places, the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter aren’t going to return.
Feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles telling women who we are and what we may and may not aspire to. Casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too. ‘Careerism,’ for example – the pathological need to have paid employment – is an affliction that only affects women, apparently. Then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them. Get back in the box, famous ladies. Conservatives are now largely fighting rearguard actions, however. Thanks to demographics, their regressive conservative push isn’t going to work – the United States isn’t going to be a mostly white country again. Neither are queer people going back in the closet or women about to surrender.
Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought. As could an inquiry into the men perpetrating most of the violence, the threats, and the hatred and the culture that encourages them. Perhaps this inquiry has begun. A nationwide movement organized by mostly female college students, many of them survivors of campus sexual assault, has sprung up, to force change in the way universities deal with such assaults – as has a movement to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military that’s succeeded in forcing real policy changes and prosecutions.
There’s more that we need to be liberated from – like a system that prizes competition, ruthlessness, short-term thinking, and rugged individualism, that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption – the arrangement we call capitalism. It embodies the worst of machismo while it destroys what’s best on Earth. Men fit into it better, but it doesn’t really serve any of us. Look to movements, such as the Zapatista revolution, which has a broad ideology that includes feminist as well as environmental, economic, indigenous, and other perspectives. This may be the present and future of feminism that isn’t feminism alone. The Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and are still going, as are myriad other projects to reimagine who we are, what we want, and how we might live.
Alternative Radio recently featured a 3-17-15 presentation by Chris Hedges, American journalist, activist, author, and Presbyterian minister, entitled “Extractive Industries and Sexploitation,” Here’s the description of it in Hedge’s words: “The scourge of male violence against women won’t end if we dismantle the forces of global capitalism. The scourge of male violence exists independently of capitalism, empire and colonialism. It’s a separate evil. The fight to end male violence against women, part of a global struggle by women, must take primacy in our own struggle. Women and girls, especially those who are poor and of color, can’t take part in a liberation movement until they are liberated. They can’t offer to us their wisdom, their leadership, and their passion until they are freed from physical coercion and violent domination. This is why the fight to end male violence across the globe is not only fundamental to our movement but will define its success or failure. We can’t stand up for some of the oppressed and ignore others who are oppressed. None of us is free until all of us are free.”
Right on! Though, actually, Chris, we have been taking part in liberation movements for hundreds of years, offering our wisdom, leadership, and passion. And we don’t need you to free or liberate ourselves (that happens in our own minds and hearts). A bunch of you males need to free/liberate yourselves of your prejudices and preconceptions about us, and your need to feel better than and/or dominate us. That would help us all in our efforts to make needed changes — I definitely agree that if women don’t/can’t take a full leadership role in our various movements, they’ll fail; the world will not be saved.
Here’s the connection with the extraction industry, as explained by the Vancouver Post at the time: “The extraction industry and the prostitution of women are both the results of global capitalism, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Chris Hedges said in a controversial speech on Friday. Hedges delivered the keynote speech at Simon Fraser University’s State of Extraction conference in downtown Vancouver, Friday evening. In a packed room of more than 300 attendees, the former New York Times war correspondent spoke for 90 minutes, drawing parallels between exploited sex workers and the exploitation of the the extraction industry.
“Prostitution fits perfectly into the paradigm of global capitalism. No one chooses to die of silicosis or black lung disease. No one chooses to sell his or her body on the street. You go into the mines, like you go into prostitution, because global capitalism doesn’t offer you a choice. In every boomtown that rises up around extraction industries, you’ll find widespread sexual exploitation by bands of men.”
As I’ve said before, and will say again, all of these issues, all these “isms” are connected, and must be fought at the same time. Women and people of color are exploited by capitalism and by sexism and racism, respectively, and women of color are subjected to a triple whammy.