Debuk: Whose women? // Ratna Kapur: Men and the Conspiracy of Silence Around Sexism

the phrase ‘our women’ , whether it’s uttered by white supremacists, national politicians or minority ‘community leaders’, is demeaning and dehumanizing. We are not ‘your women’. We belong to ourselves.

This week in Yorkshire, a local man named Thomas Mair killed the Labour MP Jo Cox on the street outside a public library. He shot her, stabbed her and kicked her as she lay bleeding on the ground, and witnesses report that he shouted ‘Britain first!’  ‘Britain First’ is the name of a far-right political organization; Mair, it turned out, had a history of involvement with racist and white supremacist groups. Jo Cox, on the other hand, was a vocal campaigner for the rights of migrants and refugees. The police have confirmed that she was deliberately targeted—Mair didn’t just go on a rampage and shoot whoever got in his way. Yet people who knew him described him as a quiet, non-violent man, considerate of his neighbours and devoted to his mother.

Almost exactly a year earlier, on June 17, 2015, another white supremacist, Dylann Roof, had entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine Black worshippers dead. As he opened fire, he reportedly shouted: ‘I have to do it. You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. And you have to go’. In Charleston, two thirds of the dead were women. But they were not the women Dylann Roof was talking about.

As many people commented at the time, ‘you rape our women’ was the cry of the lynch mob during the era of racial segregation in the US. And coded versions of it now function as dog-whistles for Europe’s increasingly popular anti-immigrant parties. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, recently warned that if Britain stayed in the EU there would be an influx of Turkish migrants: ‘the time bomb this time’, he said, ‘would be about Cologne’. He was alluding to the organized attacks on women that took place in the German city last New Year’s Eve, perpetrated by men described as North African. Farage is too canny a politician to utter the actual words ‘they’re coming to rape our women’, but everyone knew that was the implication.

Writing in the wake of the Charleston shootings, the sociologist Lisa Wade characterised these references to raping ‘our women’ as ‘benevolent sexism’—treating women as precious but fragile creatures who depend on men to protect them. I’m familiar with this concept, but I’ve never been keen on the term. When men say ‘our women’ they are staking a claim to ownership, treating women not merely as men’s property, but as the exclusive property of men from a particular racial, ethnic or national group. This is not an act of benevolence towards women. It is a move in a contest between men. Men who are jealous of their prerogatives, and outraged by the idea that other men might try to usurp what is rightfully theirs. That’s also one of the reasons why mass rape is used as a weapon of war: men humiliate their enemies by raping ‘their’ women.

Writing from Bosnia in 1998, the human rights lawyer Sarah Maguireremarked on the way local politicians and officials used the phrase ‘our women’. They used it frequently when praising Bosnia’s many rape survivors for the dignity and resilience that allegedly explained their reluctance to testify against their rapists. ‘You know’, said one politician,

it’s amazing about our women. You can beat them and beat them and the only thing that happens is your arm gets tired. Women don’t break.

What Maguire saw was not unbroken women choosing to keep a dignified silence, it was women who felt exposed and unsupported. They feared that their testimony would provoke reprisals against their families, and they did not believe the authorities would protect them. But it isn’t just ‘the enemy’s women’ who are targets of male sexual aggression....

Former ministers in France have recently launched an attack on sexism in politics. The group consists only of women and includes current IMF chief Christine Lagarde. The women presented their collective voice in an op-ed in a French weekly,Journal Du Dimanche. Despite their political differences, they unanimously agreed on one thing: sexism simply has no place in any society. “Like all women who reached circles that were once exclusively masculine, we have been forced to fight against sexism. It’s not for women to adapt in these circles; it’s the behaviour of certain men that must change. It’s enough. The immunity has finished. We will no longer shut up,” the article said. 

This bold move is refreshing in the arena of politics, where successful women are usually expected to tolerate what has been described as “casual sexism”. These range from casual jokes to an institutional and systemic sexism that assumes that an all-male political establishment or absence of women at the upper echelons of power is simply normal. The demand for more visibility and presence is regarded as favour rather than an entitlement or right.

Different forms of sexism
Casual or everyday sexism is subtle and more difficult to tackle than explicit sexual coercion, blatant bigotry or overt forms of sexual harassment. It is the experience of more indirect forms of discrimination on a daily basis that women are expected to tolerate – it includes subtle everyday slights and gendered expectations in the workplace, where women are expected to perform maternal or domestic tasks. And yet it is equally humiliating, subordinating and infuriating.  What is most evident is that actions to counter it, it seems, must always be taken by women – though in India there are no signs of women in the political establishment coming together on any shared platform regarding sexism. 

But what is more troubling is that despite the presence of liberal men in positions of power and in nearly every profession, there is no sense of responsibility that they need to take any affirmative action to call out other men on their behaviour or to take the lead in bringing about the requisite institutional reform that can produce positive change. When measures are adopted in the name of women’s rights, these are invariably protectionist, implemented most often as a reaction to a particularly appalling event or act of sexual violence, or as a cultural intervention to restore women to a position of “honour and respect” that they enjoyed in some mythical past. This is not the recipe for increased respect or freedom for women. Safety and security measures have almost nothing to do with gender equality, which is a right, not a privilege. And culture has become a stultifying edifice invoked by those who seek to safeguard their own privileges and positions of power.

France’s female politicians have taken an important step in encouraging all victims of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual aggression to speak out and complain. The fact that Lagarde has lent her support to this opposition to rampant and pervasive sexism is particularly significant in light of the disgraceful behaviour of her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was forced to resign after he allegedly attempted to rape a hotel employee in New York. And it follows on the heels of complaints by nine women accusing the deputy speaker of the French national assembly, Denis Baupin, of sexual harassment as well as the admission by French finance minister Michel Sapin of inappropriate behaviour towards a female journalist.

Need for men’s intervention
In India, the focus on sexual violence and criminal law has almost completely overshadowed the ways in which sexism is pervasive, institutionalised and experienced by almost every single woman across religion, ethnicity and caste in this country, though the experience is intensified because of these differences. It exists on university campuses and in the workplace, within the political arena including the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, as well as in the public and private sector. The fact that many women do not speak out is partly out of fear of damaging their careers or losing their jobs.

But what is so egregious is the absolute silence amongst men – even those who claim to be liberal, progressive men – who either fail to provide a supportive environment or remain complicit in the silence. They may be fully aware that their colleague – a fellow doctor, professor or senior counsel – has indulged in these offensive and humiliating practices. These men are as implicated in the culture of sustaining and perpetuating institutional and systemic sexism where “respectable” senior colleagues in the legal profession, medical profession as well as academia are exonerated for what under any circumstances would be deemed as offensive, disgraceful and shameful behaviour.  

Without this support it is left to women to either organise against it or to simply adapt to it. Sexism flourishes not simply because some men get away with it. It flourishes because most men refuse to call out their colleagues, friends and family for indulging in it. Sexism is not exclusively a woman’s problem. It is first and foremost a problem of complicity amongst men. Sexism is widespread, persistent and insidious discrimination that will not be repaired through more laws or sexual harassment policies.

Women who refuse to participate in this culture of silence or decide to complain pay a heavy price. It remains appalling that in the 21st century women continue to have to fight for their humanity – the very right to be treated as humans who are entitled to dignity and respect. Yet it is also simply impossible for women to bring about this change on their own.. 

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