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 Four | #MeToo and the work of ending men’s violence against women

Karen Boyle is a professor at a striking UK university. This blog was submitted on 21st November.

MeToo2

‘ME TOO and her too and them too and him too’ by Cyndy Sims Parr and used under a Creative Commons licence

On 15 October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: 

Me Too. 

Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. 

(@AlyssaMilano, 15 October, 2017) 

Within 24 hours, 12 million Facebook posts using the hashtag were written or shared; within 48 hours, the hashtag had been shared nearly a million times on Twitter. 

In some ways, #MeToo exemplified the feminist possibilities of social media: each new post joined an existing conversation and allowed us to build a picture of what they had in common. This was not a million miles away from the consciousness-raising groups of the Women’s Liberation Movement, where women shared their experiences – including of sexual violence – in order to build an analysis of what they shared in a patriarchal society. But, where consciousness-raising typically took place in small, closed groups, #MeToo brought with it a more politically diverse and potentially global audience. 

However, I want to sound a note of caution about the way #MeToo is now increasingly referred to as a movement. To do this, I want to think about the relationship between #MeToo as a hashtag and Tarana Burke’s Me Too, founded in 2006. Burke founded the Me Too movement in response to a young woman’s disclosure of sexual abuse. At the time, Burke shut the young woman’s testimony down as quickly as she could. Yet, part of the reason for Burke’s reluctance was that the young woman’s testimony echoed her own experiences. For Burke, Me Too was (and is) about the pain and difficulty of recognition and solidarity, and the work this knowledge demands of us. 

When Milano tweeted #MeToo, she was not aware of Burke’s work. After the tweet went viral, Burke’s work was publicly acknowledged, following a by now well-established pattern of Black feminist mobilisation online. However, Burke notes that the mainstream acknowledgement has been limited: 

While it’s true that I have been widely recognized as the “founder” of the movement – there is virtually no mention of my leadership. Like I just discovered something 12 years ago and in 2017 it suddenly gained value. #metooMVMT #metoo 

(@TaranaBurke, 21 February 2018) 

Burke has consistently differentiated between the act of speaking out and the work that must follow on from that acknowledgement of personal experience in order to effect change. The media emphasis on Burke-as-founder obscures this, not least by emphasising her own personal story as a survivor. 

In my research on the media coverage of the Harvey Weinstein case, I have similarly found that the decades of feminist activism and research on sexual harassment and abuse preceding October 2017 have largely been ignored. Not only have spokespeople for organisations like Burke’s been largely missing from mainstream accounts, where feminism has featured it has too often been as a site of suspicion because of the (in)actions of prominent, individual feminists. 

What I want to emphasise, then, is the importance of understanding #MeToo not only as a social media trend, but as a mainstream news story. #MeToo was a response to a mainstream news story with Hollywood at its centre, so it is hardly surprising that #MeToo in turn became a major news story for global media outlets. Equally unsurprising has been the emphasis placed on the experiences of economically and racially privileged US women in this coverage. But this is a critique of the media, not of a movement, or even of the individuals using the hashtag on social media.

Louise Armstrong, who has written about media coverage of child sexual abuse testimony, argues that for the media “the personal is the personal” – and this can stop us seeing the bigger picture. There is also the risk that it makes stories about violence the stories only of the victim/survivors, as though the perpetrators somehow had nothing to do with it.

Even in the #MeToo era, men in public life have not been routinely asked if they perpetrated sexual violence, though after #MeToo went viral, there was a period where women in the public eye were almost routinely asked in interviews if they had a #MeToo story. This relentless focus on personal trauma compromised victim/survivors’ abilities to choose whether/how to tell their own stories, but also downplayed the expertise amassed by feminist organisations and researchers who have been listening to survivors for decades.

The feminist slogan “the personal is political” doesn’t mean that telling personal stories publicly is always or necessarily politically progressive – nor does it place an obligation on survivors to speak out. Unlike the women in consciousness-raising groups, those sharing #MeToo on social media since autumn 2017 haven’t necessarily had very much else in common, including how they make sense of their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. This is only surprising if we think of victim/survivors as a homogenous group. 

Of course, some women (and men) have been galvanised to political action by #MeToo, but a diverse group of people posting #MeToo do not necessarily constitute a movement. A movement, as Tarana Burke says, is work. Emotional work is part of this, but not all of it: the work this generates then includes advocacy, support, campaigning, policy development, research. This work takes time, and can be obscured by a focus on one-off statements.

For all of these reasons, I refer to #MeToo as a moment rather than a movement. As the women of the Tufnell Park Women’s Liberation Workshop wrote in the inaugural edition of Shrew in 1970:

We can be so written about and give so many interviews that we can be deceived into thinking that there is a movement when all we’re doing is dealing with the press and TV. (Tufnell Park Women’s Liberation Workshop 1970: 4)

Of course, dealing with the press and TV matter. But we should not allow the media to define our movements to end men’s sexual harassment and abuse of women.

Karen Boyle is Professor of Feminist Media Studies at the University of Strathclyde (@Unistrathclyde) in Glasgow, Scotland. She is the author of #MeToo, Weinstein and Feminism (Palgrave, 2019) and Director of Strathclyde’s Applied Gender Studies programme.

 

Day Four | #MeToo at Two

Bianca Fileborn and Rachel Loney-Howes 

#MeToo.png

 

#MeToo exploded onto social media in October 2017, exposing and taking down some powerful men in the entertainment industry, and sparking conversations about the prevalence of sexual violence and what can be done in response. Two years on, however, what has the movement achieved? And what more needs to be done to address the cultural, political and legal dimensions that enable sexual violence to occur? In this blog, we address some of the key impacts of #MeToo two years on, and consider how we might go about the long, grinding process of change. 

When the #MeToo movement emerged on social media in October 2017, it almost broke the internet. Within 24 hours, the hashtag had been used over 12 million times, with survivors of sexual harassment and assault from around the world speaking out about their experiences, while others used it to express their solidarity and support. As we pass the two-year anniversary of the hashtag, what, if anything, has the movement changed? And what still needs to be achieved?  

In terms of the initial successes of the online version of #MeToo, in addition to the widespread use of the original hashtag, it was also translated into a variety of different languages, used in over 80 countries, and used a means for mobilising more specific local feminist agendas. In Argentina, for example, the #MeToo movement provided local activists with an opportunity to mobilise on the issue of abortion. The hashtag also generated some legal changes and investigations. Countries such as France, for example, made catcalling (street harassment) a crime in August 2018, with on-the-spot fines issued to offenders by police. The Australian Human Rights Commission also announced they would conduct an inquiry into workplace sexual harassment in June 2018

One of the key successes of the movement was that it provided survivors with a new platform to speak out about their experiences of sexual violence. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media created new opportunities to collectively speak out about violence from multiple different geographic, political and cultural perspectives. It is well known that survivors’ experiences are routinely undermined or denied legitimacy in the criminal justice system, as well as by the general public. Too often, survivors are blamed for causing the violence, with many accused of lying or having ‘regretted’ consensual sex. 

The sheer scale and response to #MeToo, however, gave survivors a powerful framework for speaking out, as well as offering recognition and validation in a way that official criminal justice mechanisms regularly fail to provide. While there are issues relating to whose experience is seen on social media and subsequently who is then recognised as a legitimate survivor, at a macro level the #MeToo movement provided survivors with an unprecedented opportunity to share their stories. 

While the hashtag movement provided an important outlet to give voice to (some) survivor’s experiences, it is more difficult to know what has been achieved in terms of tangible structural and social change. Certainly, there were multiple public calls to address the structural causes of sexual harassment and violence, as well address the barriers for survivors accessing legal representation (for example, #TimesUp). However, in some instances, initiatives and organisations set up in response to #MeToo have come under scrutiny. Measuring social change is always difficult, and one of the key problems with the #MeToo movement is that it lacked (or lacks) clear goals, leadership, or indeed a united message. 

Not long after the movement exploded online, it emerged that the term “Me Too” was in fact first coined by Tarana Burke, an African-American activist who has dedicated her life to supporting and advocating for sexual assault survivors. The revelation that #MeToo was in fact a movement spearheaded initially by a woman of colour generated a significant amount of backlash, and opened up a dialogue about the all-too-frequent erasure of the advocacy work of women of colour in the area of sexual violence, as well their experiences of gender-based violence. 

From the outset, the movement was accused – as the feminist movement has been historically – of focusing too heavily on the experiences of young, cis-gendered, able bodied, white, middle class, heterosexual women. There were (and remain) serious questions as to whether and how women and survivors from marginalised groups might benefit from #MeToo. The oversight of the work of women of colour, such as Tarana Burke, and the plethora of women of colour around the world who have been working tirelessly supporting survivors and lobbying for funding increasing and social change, illustrates that the public face of anti-sexual harassment and violence remains that of privileged white women. 

While creating space for survivors to speak out is undoubtedly important in many respects, it is less clear whether the widespread discussion generated by #MeToo has been fruitful in shifting attitudes and behaviours. Although this type of change is slow-burning – and it’s unlikely that any single activist movement will generate the social, cultural and structural shifts required to end sexual violence – the evidence so far suggests that #MeToo has had limited success in this regard. As Australian masculinities scholar Associate Professor Michael Flood notes, studies in the UK and the US were conducted in 2018 to capture the effect of the #MeToo movement on men’s knowledge about #MeToo, their attitudes towards gender inequality, inappropriate behaviours, and their willingness to listen to and believe women. Results were mixed, and inconclusive at best

Concerningly, #MeToo was also subject to significant backlash and polarisation – something we’ve seen in response to second and third-wave feminism before. The movement was accused of going “too far” inciting a witch hunt against powerful men. Others have criticised the movement for placing experiences of sexual harassment on par with survivors experiences of sexual assault and rape. Canadian legal scholar Dr Heidi Matthews has further suggested that the movement has generated a sex panic – or at least lumped risky (but wanted and consensual) sexual practices in the realm of sexual violence. 

We argue however that rather than buying into the backlash, we should take the opportunity #MeToo has generated to broaden our understanding of what sexual violence is, and to engage in more productive conversations about consent, pleasure and heteronormative masculine entitlement. Ultimately, this is what will help to drive change and work towards the prevention of sexual violence in all its forms.

Dr Bianca Fileborn is a Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social & Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. Her work examines the intersections of sexual violence, space/place, culture and identity. Bianca is the author of Reclaiming the Night-Time Economy: Unwanted Sexual Attention in Pubs and Clubs (Palgrave), and co-editor of #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change.
Dr Rachel Loney-Howes is a Lecturer in Criminology, School of Health and Society, University of Wollongong. Her work explores the use of digital media for anti-sexual violence activism. Rachel is the author of the forthcoming book Online Anti-Rape Activism: The Politics of the Personal in the Age of Digital Media, and co-editor of #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change.  

 

 

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.”