Writing about language, history and its affect on the problem of gender-based violence.
International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is today, the 25th of November. I hadn’t planned to write about it, but the coverage in UK based socials I follow has been disappointing. As the UK is the land of my birth, I feel quite invested in how it chooses to raise awareness about the significant problem of violence against women. By socials, I mean newspapers that I follow on social media, as well as cultural and activist groups. In the south of Spain, where I live, I often see government initiatives raising awareness about gender-based violence plastered over billboards, whereas in the UK it is mostly charity-sector and campaign specific. It seems the British don’t like to talk about it so much. Spain is the country I currently reside in, and I find coverage and statistics in the Spanish socials a little more extensive, but, it’s never quite enough.
For the past few days, I have been researching and reflecting on this. In 2003 Spain began recording femicides, and in 2004 passed laws that aimed to reduce them, putting funds towards programmes for survivors. Yet Spanish campaigners have pointed out that official records only account for murders by partners and ex-partners, not including other types of femicide, for example, committed by family members. The UK has also been criticised for its failure to record femicides thoroughly enough — often reporting them as ‘isolated’ and ‘tragic’ incidents. It’s hard to quantify the differences, and perhaps even fruitless to compare, as little progress has been made over the past 10 years in either country. Last year Spain passed the depressing milestone of 1,000 femicides since it began to record them under 20 years ago. Yet according to an independent census in the UK, a woman is murdered every three days as a result of gender-based violence.
Today we remember all the women killed by partners. It’s hard to write this, and it’s hard to read or think about it, but it’s still a highly disturbing reality. Of course, anything published about it online will provoke a fair few ‘what about men’ questions. There is no doubt that more awareness needs to be raised about domestic violence against men. Yet my argument is that violence against women cannot be reduced to something as clear cut as ‘women get killed by men’. My belief is that it also stems from a paternalistic sense of domination of what are perceived as the ‘weaker’, ‘irrational’ characteristics classically consigned to women.
I learned recently that men used to be able to imprison their wives for nagging. This was in fact reported by Lebanese-American journalist, Jad Abumrad, whilst recording his podcast Dolly Parton´s America. Dolly Parton had spoken about old country songs she learned growing up, which were about men violently murdering their sweethearts. Delving into the archives, Abumrad found that these songs originated in Ireland in the early 20th century and they were about true events. The men who wrote the lyrics immortalising these murders were similar to sensationalist reporters from the tabloids of today. They went from town to town, singing the songs in order to pique the interests of the townspeople, earning a quick buck along the way, and the songs made it all the way to the South-East of America. It was whilst doing this research that Abumrad discovered records of husbands sending their wives to mental institutions and prisons for the offenses of nagging, or reacting emotionally to being cheated on. Gender-based violence was state-sanctioned, and this is something that doesn’t exist in the history of domestic violence against men.
How often do you hear ex-girlfriends described as crazy? How often are typically ‘female’ traits attributed to a kind of madness? Men considered to be displaying these traits are similarly scorned, and at risk of violence. Trans people are under the constant threat of violence, purely because their very existence ruptures the centre of paternalistic thought.
What is paternalistic thought? Paternalistic attitudes instruct, rather than listen; disapprove, rather than understand; judge, rather than remain open to a new possibility. We all are guilty of this to an extent. I know that there is a paternalistic side of me too, that wants to judge, instruct, overpower. I know that this side of me needs to die a death.
On a daily basis we watch films, TV series or play video games that fantasise about power and domination. Women are dangled like carrots in the action, sometimes rising above it all, demonstrating tireless resistance in the face of adversity; or they are sacrificed and depicted as tragic victims. It often feels as if these are the only two possible routes to take. This is where paternalistic thought turns to violence. I am at times at risk of imposing these narratives upon myself. Will I play the heroine, or the victim?
Will I rise Phoenix-like from the flames, or fail; floating down stream, as in the famous painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais, hung with garlands of flowers, pure and intact? We also cannot forget that class politics runs deeply through these possibilities or choices. If we follow the paternalistic narrative, it will have the final say in who succeeds.
It is so easy to let the force of these ideas control our interaction with the world. Life is hard. We want it easy. We want TED talks by powerful women and to believe the impossible. We’d rather mythologise the brutal reality, making folk songs out of it, than take collective responsibility for someone’s misfortune. What if we began to recognise these stories in ourselves and others, beginning to unravel them?
What do we do without these fairytales? The unravelling is torturous and unclear, the road is long and hazy. Yet I believe it could pave the way to real equality. By reframing these stories, we have the opportunity to end the violence of paternalist thought, dismantling the Father Land from the shadow of colonial behaviour: its desire to indoctrinate and control.
I will stop trying to be strong. I am willing the world to see and accept the fatigue and fragility we hold in us. I hold my mother there, my sisters, my aunties and my friends; the men who refuse to fit the mould; those who have had a taste of what women and trans people face every day.
I hope we will stop instructing; inciting violence through the lens of history and tradition. History is a story, passed from hand to hand and town to town. History is there to be learned from, though never memorised as rote.