Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent

Rachana Johri, Bindu K.C. and Krishna Menon

Resisting Violence

Image of WISCOMP’s Resisting Violence annotated bibliography, reproduced with permission. Original art work by Linda Carmel

 

A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy. It pervades virtually all spheres of lives, happening most often in relational spaces. Without questioning the necessity of the law, it seems that the work of feminism must include a detailed analysis of the many moments in which women experience violence such as sexual harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions. 

Every violent act – whether it is a comment on the looks of a classmate, persistent messages from one student to another, or rape – constitute violence. Must all these be treated within a legal framework? And is ‘punishment’ the only imagination of justice? Perhaps more pertinently, does ‘punishment’ belong in a feminist approach to justice?

Feminists have had a rather contentious relationship with the law, and thereby with the state. In India, for instance, feminist campaigns have reposed great faith in the ability of law to initiate and establish equality and freedom on the one hand; on the hand, feminists have doubted and been skeptical of the very foundations on which modern legal systems are based. Consider the two moments where feminists in India have engaged with law – the Mathura custodial rape case and the infamous Delhi bus gang rape case. 

The Mathura rape case (1972) was undoubtedly a watershed moment in India; it signalled a radical shift in the focus of the women’s movement and feminist politics in India, and its engagement with the law. In 1974, the Committee on the Status of Women in India published its landmark report – ‘Towards Equality’ – and demonstrated an abiding faith in the ability of legislation to act as the major instrument for ushering in changes in the social order. 

The Supreme Court of India belied this faith when it pronounced its judgment in the Mathura rape case. Mathura was a sixteen year old girl who was raped by two policemen who were on duty.  She fought a courageous battle in the courts only to find that the Supreme Court of India cited the absence of injury marks on her body and her failure to have raised an alarm as evidence of consent for sexual encounters.  Following the judgement, sustained feminist campaigns resulted in many substantive changes in Indian criminal laws as passed in 1983.

In response the Mathura case, an Open Letter to the Chief Justice was authored by teachers of law at the University of Delhi Upendra Baxi, Lotika Sarkar, Raghunath Kelkar and Vasudha Dhagamwar. The letter represented a thrilling moment in the history of women’s movement and its long battle on the question of violence.

Thirty two years later came the Delhi bus gang rape case. This was a brutal and aggravated sexual attack perpetrated against  a 23 year student traveling home on a bus after an evening out with her friend. It horrified people across India and, indeed, the world.  She and her friend fought back only to be beaten mercilessly with iron rods, resulting in grave injuries that finally resulted in her death.  This incident resulted in  angry protests in the city of Delhi and elsewhere, compelling the government to review the existing legal framework – a process that resulted in further changes in the law.

Just months later, the Justice Verma Committee Report was released in response to protests across the country. This report laid the foundations of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, and became an occasion for feminists in India to engage deeply with the nature of law and the crime and punishment matrix. 

Law is not static; it is best understood as a process that unfolds rather messily and haltingly. While the legal dispensation might nudge along progressive change, its ability to render justice remains limited. While the law might nurse implicit emancipatory potential, it harbours within it the seeds of what might be called a ‘carceral’ and aggressive feminism that is hostile to conversation, dialogue, mediation and conflict resolution. The power of the legal statute combined with a rigid and unimaginative invocation of identity politics, can result in nasty and bitter and – dare we say – violent use of the law.  What do we do when groups of feminists argue with each other, and use the power of law to settle disputes? Can the law, as Pratiksha Baxi asks, translate sexual agency and desire into juridical categories?

Feminists in India have reflected upon other conceptions of justice and indeed the impossibility of justice within what is essentially a masculinist legal paradigm (see also Menon’s Recovering Subversion and Sethi’s commentary ‘Why the Mahmood Farooqui Judgment is Deeply Flawed’).  It is this kind of questioning that has led feminists in India and elsewhere to value emotions and account for the specificity in each instance, rather than be guided solely by universalising frames and principles based on ‘reason’ and empirical evidence. Such an orientation towards questions of legality and justice  would be concerned with setting limits to the use of law. It would value friendship, compassion and relationality as frames within which to examine the question of justice. 

Do these two approaches have to be pitted against each other? As feminists we would caution against the setting up of yet another unfruitful binary. It is only through the difficult task of feminist engagement with the law, legal processes, legal institutions, legal education and the legal profession that the distance between these two approaches will be creatively negotiated. We see the sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence as yet another significant initiative in this direction.

Krishna Menon is Professor of Gender Studies, is and currently Dean of the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Some of her recent publications include Social Movements in Contemporary India (SAGE Texts 2019), ‘The “Right” Music: Caste and “classical” music in south India’ in Discourse on Rights in India: Debates and Dilemmas (Routledge 2018). 

Bindu K.C. is Assistant Professor in gender studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. Her teaching and research expertise are at the intersection of gender studies and English literature.  

Rachana Johri is a Professor at the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, where she teaches psychology, psychosocial studies and gender studies. 

 

Day Fourteen |Gender-based violence: a glimpse of feminist dilemmas in the academy

Cat Wayland, Kamya Choudhary and Radhika Govinda

Feminist cartoon day 14

Artwork by Samia Singh and used with permission and produced as part of the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project, a collaboration between Ambedkar University and the University of Edinburgh

The above image is a preview of a (web)comic focused on feminist struggles in the academy, that is currently under development. The (web)comic features 24 pages of beautiful original artwork by illustrators Samia Singh based in Punjab, India, and Shazleen Khan, in London, UK. It is based on roundtable conversations and panel discussions that took place at Ambedkar University Delhi, India in December 2017 and at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in February 2018 as part of the ongoing Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project

Some of the most poignant ideas and issues that emerged during the roundtable conversations and panel discussions pertained to sexual violence and sexual harassment of women, and how these are managed in the institutional space of universities. Feminist academics and activists speaking at these fora observed how commonplace sexual harassment and violence were, to the point that they could say with considerable confidence that there wouldn’t be a single woman who hadn’t experienced some form of sexual harassment or violence!

They noted that there were no doubt differences in the form and intensity of harassment and/or violence experienced; that this was informed by the intersectionality of race, caste, class, sexual orientation and so on; and that this could occur at the university and other places of work, or on the streets, or in more intimate spaces. Participants shared their experiences of sexual harassment, and even rape. These were moments for pause and reflection, for expressions of solidarity and support. 

There were other moments when participants expressed frustration and dismay at the ‘loving (and oft knowing) ignorance’ displayed by their colleagues, friends and family members about the everyday nature of sexual harassment and violence – the kind of ignorance which they processed through humour and irony. For instance, one speaker observed that they had been advocating for many years for these issues to be taken seriously but it wasn’t until the #MeToo movement emerged that more people started to take notice:

‘For the first time people who didn’t really know about it before are suddenly like, “oh is that what happens to women? Do you really have to assess your risk about when is it that you go home?” People are now listening in a way that they haven’t before and we said “[but] we’ve been trying to tell you this for years!”

Our intention is to capture these and more difficult moments and ideas on the pages of our (web)comic.

In honour of the 16 Days of Activism Against GBV, we wanted to showcase a panel from our (web)comic, which seeks to depict some of the dilemmas, challenges and contradictions that feminist academics are themselves confronted with when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment and violence in university spaces. Specifically, it engages with the notion that universities’ institutional responses to violence and harassment can often replicate and perpetuate paternalistic and patriarchal norms around women’s ‘safety’, in spite of also being spaces in which women can access emancipatory feminist education.

All-women colleges are considered one important way in which women from diverse backgrounds can access higher education in India. Some of these institutions pioneer rights-based and feminist consciousness-building, yet we are then left with the paradox whereby measures designed to mitigate the risk of sexual violence, such as housing in all-women’s hostels, end up enforcing new restrictions or replicating old patriarchal social norms.

There is a clear tension between the impulse to create safe and empowering spaces for women and the consequences of this strategy, which require instructions to create ‘rules’ that mimic familial patterns of control such as strict curfews, dress codes, visitation limitations, policing interactions, and so on. These rules end up treating women as ‘precious birds’ that need to be kept under lock and key. The displacement of patriarchal authority from the ‘threat’ of men on the outside to the paternal hand of the higher educational institution places feminist academics working in these institutions in a uniquely challenging and frustrating situation.

In August 2015, students came out to protest the imposition of curfews and other sexist rules on college-going women at Delhi’s Jamia University. They were soon joined by students in other Universities in Delhi and elsewhere in India. They called themselves the Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) campaign. In less than a year, it had successfully pressured the Delhi Commission for Women into challenging discriminatory practices against college-going women at Delhi’s 23 registered universities. Over the years, Pinjra Tod has continued to mobilise and act both online and offline. It has broadened the ambit of its demands from ‘breaking the hostel locks’ to claiming women’s right to freely and fearlessly occupy and even take risks in public spaces. 

Campaigns like Pinjra Tod and #MeToo demonstrate that it is not only important for feminists in the academy to address issues of sexual harassment and violence but how we choose to address these issues is equally significant. Through the pages of our (web)comic, our aim is to not only debunk the myths of who is a feminist academic or ‘why doing gender studies is not a waste of time’ but to also offer a peak into the everyday struggles, dilemmas and contradictions that feminists face when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment and violence and the spaces we are able to create for resistance and change in the academy. 

As a conceptual tool, the comic is rooted in core academic literature and scholarly debates, but exists in a more accessible format that will make it easier to understand and for academic and non-academic audiences alike to engage with the highlights from the project events. This is in sync with the feminist and decolonial ideas we are working with to create more democratic and decentralised forms of knowledge creation. Illustrations from both artists, Samia Singh and Shazleen Khan, will reflect their respective styles and the cover illustration will be a collaborative piece that the two shall develop together. 

Being part of the conception and creation of this unique artwork has made us reflect on our own respective privileges and marginality, and recognising the powerful opportunity we have at our hands to contribute in destabilising knowledge production on feminism and GBV has been a real joy! We hope we have been able to share a glimpse of that in this blogpost. The creation and development of the (web)comic is supported by a Student Experience Grant and genderED. We invite you to look up a web version of the full comic, which will be up in the new year on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog.

Cat Wayland (@cat_wayland) is a PhD student in political theory at the University of Edinburgh, working on methodology, intersectionality and the politics of knowledge production. 

Kamya Choudhary (@KamyaChoudhary) is a PhD researcher in International Development at the University of Edinburgh, her research focuses on the impacts and the sustainability of renewable energy applications within agriculture in rural India. 

Dr Radhika Govinda (@GovindaRadhika) is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She has a keen interest in identity politics, intersectionality, and gender and development, and is the UK Lead on an ongoing North-South, UGC-UKIERI-funded research and teaching collaboration, Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives: Questions of Identity, Pedagogy, and Violence in India and the UK.

Day Three | We, the Women Warriors, are Unstoppable!

Shalu Nigam

Shalu NigamImage reproduced with the  permission of Shalu Nigam

After a long wait, the National Crime Record Bureau of India has recently published its report pertaining to crimes in India  in 2017. According to this report, 104,551 cases have been filed under section 498A IPC, a criminal law dealing with `cruelty’ against married women by their husbands and in-laws. A further 7,466 cases have been registered under section 304B, which pertains to dowry deaths, while 10,189 cases have been registered under the Dowry Prohibition Act, a law that bans the giving and taking of dowry. In addition, 5,282 cases have been registered for abetment of suicide among women and 616 cases have been registered under the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, for breaching the civil orders granted under this law in favor of the victims of domestic violence.

The NCRB report further indicates that the conviction rate was as low as 9.5% under section 498A cases in 2016, but which rose to 15.9% in 2017. In cases pertaining to dowry deaths, the conviction rate is 41.1% in 2017. These figures indicate that majority of women who knock on the doors of the court are not receiving justice. Compounding this, violent men are being acquitted by the courts. 

This data shows that a large number of women are not safe in their own homes. They are being physically and psychologically assaulted, verbally and emotionally tortured, discriminated, sexually harassed, murdered, forced to commit suicide and attacked in numerous ways. Serious complaints of violence are normalised and trivialised, framed as ‘disputes’ or `ego tussles’. Myths and misogyny operate in  society and the courtrooms alike to deny justice to women survivors of violence.

 

The role of the Supreme Court 

 Despite the fact that a large number of women are approaching the police and the courts with their complaints of violence within homes, police are rarely arresting violent men and the courts are failing to hold them accountable. In some instances, the courts are actually making the problem worse. For example, in 2014, the Supreme Court decided the matter of Arnesh Kumar v State of Bihar. It delivered a sweeping statement that section 498A, a criminal law provision relating to domestic violence, is being ‘misused and abused by disgruntled women’ and directed for the dilution of the provisions relating to the arrest and bail of accused persons. 

Then, in 2017, in Rajesh Sharma v State of UP the Supreme Court passed a directive to police and magistrates that no arrests were to be made or coercive actions taken without ascertaining the veracity of the complaints lodged under section 498A. It suggested the formulation of Family Welfare Committees to scrutinise every complaint of domestic violence to ensure that no ‘false cases’ were registered. Without examining the on-the-ground realities, the court concluded that the law is misused by ‘vengeful’ women, and saw men as victims of this ‘cruel’ law. While himpathising (a term coined by Kate Manne) with the accused persons, the bench remarked that there was “violation of human rights of innocents”. In contrast, no compassion is shown towards the women who are abused, abandoned, burned, murdered, killed, raped and brutalised.

However, after protest by several women’s organizations and petitions filed in the Supreme Court, the Court heard the matter of Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar v Union of India in 2018. It ordered the Family Welfare Committees be done away with, while retaining the provision relating to arrest and bail for the accused persons. Even earlier, the Law Commission and several other state institutions too, have recommended the dilution of the domestic violence laws.

The legal system provides a platform for women to raise their concerns; however, there is a lack of commitment in implementation. Over the years, concerted actions have been taken by state actors to dilute the provisions of law. The system is being manipulated to serve the logic of the patriarchy, protecting the interest of the dominant group while reinforcing the prevailing biased stereotypical norms. The state more broadly is treating domestic violence as a social crime and using manipulative tools –including mandatory mediation – designed to compel women to arrive at a ‘compromise’ or ‘settlement’ with the accused persons without any assurance for their safety (and that of their children), and without punishing the abusive men. In many other cases pertaining to domestic violence, dowry deaths and suicide by married women, the courts have granted immunity to violent men by placing weight on the principle of ‘family harmony’, and in the process, disregarding the constitutional rights of women as citizens.

 

We, the Women, are Warriors and We Will Persist!

Yet the survivors, who may be seen as powerless and vulnerable, through their sheer grit, are demanding justice, breaking the codes of prolonged imposed silence, shaking the system and forcing it to respond. They are not feminists or experts but they are everyday women who, with their own sense of justice, and with scant resources or little support, are seeking a violence-free life for themselves and their children. They are fighting battles not only against abusive men but also against the patriarchal structures within homes, misogyny in courts, and androcentric culture and sexism in society. In doing so, they are reclaiming ownership of their lives with persistence, courage and resilience.

The law is currently implemented in a way that means complainants are being revictimised in the process. Despite this, women are using the law to reclaim their rights and resist violence. Those who are registering their complaints are negotiating their rights and contesting their claims while challenging the stubborn patriarchy. While writing their own stories of emancipation, they are shifting the inegalitarian structure within families, creating democratic spaces within society and –  in fighting to seek freedom, or aazadi, from violence – they are demanding the recognition of their dignity. 

For the state, as well as national and international organisations working on the issue of violence, it is essential to focus on women’s autonomy and agency in a patriarchal society and to provide support measures that help them to attain socio-economic self-sufficiency while countering ingrained misogyny. Many women are compelled to stay and bear violence because they lack any other options. There is therefore a  need to create a mechanism whereby women can access support that is specific to their circumstances. Until then, through their tough persistent legal and social battles, the simple message women are giving is this: “We, the women warriors, are unstoppable; unless violence is eliminated, we will persist”. 

 

Shalu Nigam (@ShaluNigam) is an advocate, researcher and an activist working at the intersection of gender, law, governance and human rights issues. She is currently practicing at the courts in Delhi and is associated with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Delhi, Indian Social Institute, Delhi, as well as the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi. She was awarded a Senior Fellowship by the Indian Council for Social Science Research, Delhi. She has published several books, the recent one is Women and Domestic Violence in India: A Quest for Justice. She has been a regular contributor to countercurrents.org and has published her essays in journals such as the Indian Journal of Gender Studies, South Asia Journal, Social Action, International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies, Women’s Link, Legal News and Views among others. You can read some of  her work here and here

 

Day Two | Abusive Language and Violence Against Women in the Public Sphere

Jennifer M. Piscopo, Occidental College, USA

Strongmen across the globe are ascending to the position of president or prime minister. Sexist and racist rhetoric is part of their brand, which followers find authentic and even unifying. Male political leaders who use swaggering masculinity to cultivate support express the growing global backlash to diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism. When powerful men use their platforms to abuse women, they send the message that abuse is okay. It also makes abusing women an integral part of a right-wing agenda.  

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has an impressive track record of demeaning women. He has called women Members of Parliament (MPs) by their husband’s names and described women journalists and athletes in terms of their bodies – he once described female volleyball players “glistening wet otters”, for instance. 

Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump uses adjectives like “fat” and “ugly” to demean women who have spoken out against him. He rallies crowds to chant “lock her up” in reference to his former rival, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro once told a congresswoman she was not “worth” raping, saying that she “didn’t deserve it”. 

Jennifer PiscopoLock Her Up” by James McNellis, 2017.

These leaders often reserve their most vitriolic comments for women of colour – attacks that often merge gender and race. Trump told four women Members of Congress – all of whom criticised his policies and his person – to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”. Three of them were born in the United States, while the fourth – Somali refugee Ilhan Omar – was painted by Trump and other critics as a Jew-hater. Similarly, Johnson has spouted racialised descriptions of Muslim women, variously portraying them as objects and criminals. 

These incidents are not isolated. When powerful men deliver abuse, the attacks receive media coverage. But many women with public profiles – from activists to athletes – receive hateful messages daily. The senders are not usually powerful men, but everyday people. 

A study examining 152 leading British women in politics, business, entertainment, the media, and sports estimated that each received about 200 sexually-explicit tweets a day. In another study of nearly 600 women journalists, 63 percent reported being threatened and harassed on-line and 26 percent reported physical assaults. Amnesty International documents various quantitative and qualitative studies, all demonstrating that high-profile women on Twitter endure significant levels of abuse.

 

Abusive language as political violence against women

Abusive language is a form of violence against women. Much of it may happen online, but virtual harms cause actual damage. Hateful messages and death threats cause stress and trauma. Victims experience diminished self-esteem and an inability to focus and to complete their work. They fear for their safety and for their family’s safety, and they face disruption to their routines caused as a result of increased security. Many leave Twitter. In Britain, female MPs received such profane attacks that they received police protection.

But this language affects many more than just the immediate victims: it also tells the larger audience of women and girls to stay out of public life. Mona Lena Krook and Juliana Restrepo Sanín call these “message crimes.” Whether world leaders or everyday jerks, abusers want women in public life to shut up and go away. 

Since abusive language aims to diminish women’s influence over politics, policy, and the public debate, these attacks are forms of political violence. In my research with Elin Bjarnegård and Gabrielle Bardall, we argue that political violence is gendered in three ways: in its motive, in its form, and in its impact. The abusive language aimed at women in public life has all three elements. 

In terms of motive, attackers are driven by hate towards women in public, not hate towards public figures irrespective of gender. The rates at which women and men endure abuse are simply not the same: visible women receive disproportionate amounts of abuse when compared to visible men. In terms of form, attackers use gendered language, including threats of sexual harm and sexual assault. 

In terms of impact, the victims extend beyond the women targeted. They signal to other women and girls the costs of a public profile. And women and girls have received this message. A respected U.S. survey firm found that 70 percent of women, and 83 percent of young women, identified online harassment as a major problem, compared to just 54 percent of men and 55 percent of young men. Indeed, programs that train women candidates now include lessons that prepare women to handle abuse. Their tips include immediately reporting the abuse to authorities, using humour to diffuse the situation, and writing op-eds to call attention to the problem. 

 

Stopping abusive language 

Documenting and denouncing abusive language have not stemmed the attacks against publicly-visible women. The anonymity of online platforms combined with social media companies’ commitment to free speech means that attackers behave with impunity. Abusers even become leaders of powerful countries. 

The vicious and sexist abuse of women in public life has become so normalised that solutions focus not on holding perpetrators accountable, but on helping women cope. In the candidate training program, women politicians are told to be brave. A British MP, herself standing down because of online abuse, recommended that women MPs create circles of support

The women and girls of the world deserve better solutions. When the #MeToo movement brought down prominent men like Harvey Weinstein, the effects reverberated across the globe. Sexual harassment suddenly bore real consequences, even for powerful men. Likewise, voters must reject male political leaders who bully those weaker than them, especially women and racial and ethnic minorities. In the current political climate, protecting women from abuse cannot be divorced from resisting the right-wing forces that reject diversity and inclusion more broadly.   

 

Jennifer M. Piscopo (@Jennpiscopo) is an Associate Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. Her research on women’s political participation and representation has appeared in over 15 academic journals. With Susan Franceschet and Mona Lena Krook, she co-edited The Impact of Gender Quotas (Oxford University Press, 2012). An international speaker and consultant, she has collaborated with international organizations such as UN Women, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the Carter Center. Her op-eds have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. 

Welcome to the 16 Days Blogathon 2019!

Introduction to 2019 Blogathon

Welcome to our annual blogathon to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign. We are now in our third year of bringing together some of the most important voices from civil society, academia and government around the world. Once again, the blogathon marks a collaboration between GenderEd at the University of Edinburgh, the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney and Ambedkar University, Delhi

From refugee policies putting women in danger of gender-based violence to the undermining of women’s reproductive rights at the UN, to the Counting Dead Women projects (such as in Australia, the UK and in the US), there is much to suggest that the world is as grim a place as ever for women, girls and their rights. As UN Women note,

“Violence against women is the leading cause of death and disability of women no matter their age”.

Along with the writers whose work you will read over the coming days, and the more than 6,000 organisations who run 16 Days campaigns every year, we are united in our commitment to women’s equality and share a desire to see a world free from sexual and gender-based violence. 

From Monday 25 November 2019 (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day), we will be posting blogs that explore some of the most pressing issues in gender-based violence. Our remarkable contributors look at the many ways in which gender-based violence interacts with health, trans identities, migration, sexualities and disabilities. They write about political rhetoric that invokes gender-based violence, and the promises and limits of legal systems. They write narratives and poetry, and explore the potential of thread and comic books to tell different stories – or to tell stories differently.

Through their blogs, we travel from Scotland to Myanmar, and from the Pacific to South Africa via India and beyond. We see how gender-based violence exists in all spheres – from past to emerging and ongoing conflicts, in houses and on university campuses, and in the smallest of villages to the largest of cities. It affects women and girls of all ages, of all backgrounds, from all places.

We will be posting updates on Twitter from @UoE_genderED and @HumanRightsUNSW and look forward to sharing these stories with you over the next 16 days. We hope that you will share them further.  

We couldn’t have asked for a better person to open our 2019 blogathon than Eve Ensler – best-selling author, playwright, anti-violence activist, and initiator of V-Day and 1 Billion Rising. In her powerful blog, Eve reflects on the crafting of her 2019 book The Apology, in which she wrote the apology that she knew she would never receive from her abuser: her father. For our first blog of the year, we are therefore delighted to introduce Eve Ensler’s piece, ‘My father never apologized for sexually abusing me. So I wrote his apology for him’ (reposted with kind permission from NBC News).

Signed, Co-curators of the 16 Days blogathon

  • Fiona Mackay, Director genderED, University of Edinburgh
  • Louise Chappell, Director Australian Human Rights Institute, University of New South Wales
  • Rukmini Sen, Director Center for Publishing, Ambedkar University Delhi
  • Caitlin Hamilton, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Australian Human Rights Institute, University of New South Wales
  • Natasha Dyer, PhD candidate, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh 

Day One | My father never apologized for sexually abusing me. So I wrote his apology for him.

Eve Ensler talks about her new book, the apology from her father that he could never make…

Eve Ensler

When I was five years old my father began to sexually abuse me. This went on until I was ten, and then the daily physical battery and terror began. This life of endless brutality and invasion rearranged my chemistry, forced me out of my body, repressed my ability to think and made me terrified of love.

My father never told me why he did what he did. He never explained how he became a man capable of this kind of sadism and he died without apologizing.

In recent months, I have read the accounts of several men accused of sexual violence. Their words often focused on the pain and repercussions they had experienced after being accused rather than thinking of the pain of their victims or admitting what they had done and how they had worked on themselves to understand their own histories and behavior.

It then occurred to me that I had never heard a man make an honest, thorough, public accounting of his abuse. I had never heard a man openly apologize. I wondered what it would be like to hear an apology like this, what impact it might have on me and other survivors and how it might help end the scourge of violence altogether.

And so I decided to write the apology from my father that I always needed to hear; to find the words and the language, to outline the anatomy of an apology that could possibly set me free and act as a possible blueprint for other men seeking a pathway to atonement, accountability and reckoning.

As I wrote “The Apology” I felt as though I began to hear my father’s voice. He told me of his childhood, how he was adored rather than loved and how adoration forced him to live up to someone else’s idealized image of himself rather than being able to be his authentic, imperfect human self. He told me of the ways that patriarchy and toxic masculinity had forced him to push feelings of tenderness, vulnerability, tears, doubt, uncertainty and wonder underground, and how they later metastasized into another persona called “Shadow Man.”

This disassociated self was capable of sexually abusing a five-year-old girl and physically torturing and gaslighting her thereafter. He told me in ruthless detail everything he had done to me and why. He allowed himself to feel the pain, heartbreak and betrayal he had caused in me. He reflected deeply on his past in order to understand what had led him to these terrible actions. He explained his behavior rather than justifying it. And through his agonizing detailed admissions, he expressed deep sorrow, remorse, guilt and self-hatred. He took responsibility and he made amends.

In the book, my father also confessed to me that to apologize is to be a traitor to men. That there is an unwritten code of silence that is not to be broken without unraveling the whole story of patriarchy.

But he also told me that what he had done to me had poisoned his soul and consumed him in the next world. He was desperate to tell the truth, to make an apology so he could get free.

Until I wrote this book, both my father and I were caught for nearly 60 years in an ongoing vise of pain, rage, guilt and shame. We were consigned to a particular terrible time in our history. Me, defined as victim; him defined as perpetrator.

Because my father owned his actions and apologized in the book, my suffering was honored and made real. I experienced justice and respect. I heard the words I needed to hear that released the resentment, pain and hurt. I was able to have a deeper understanding of his history, wounds and motivation, and because of that the ongoing, haunting question of why was finally resolved. I was able fully let him go and move on.

Of course I wrote my father’s apology for him. But I must say it was a profoundly healing and liberating exercise. Because my father has lived inside me my whole life, I was able to move him in a new direction, from monolithic monster to apologist, from terrifying entity to broken, damaged little boy. In doing so, I gained agency and he lost his power over me.

In the process, I also discovered how central apologies are to the next stage of our human evolution. We must create pathways for men to do this critical work of atonement, and men must be brave now and willing to come forward — risking being called gender traitors — in order to free the suffering of their victims and themselves. The time of reckoning is here.

This piece was first published by NBC news and reproduced with permission.

Eve Ensler is a Tony Award-winning playwright, performer and activist best known for “The Vagina Monologues.” Her critically acclaimed memoir “In the Body of the World” was published by Metropolitan Books in 2013. Her most recent book is “The Apology.”