Health

Atavistic misogyny and the epidemic of sexual violence

- By Walton Pantland

Men in Bangalore, India, protest against rape

A spectre of brutality is stalking the world, a murderous, hateful misogyny that destroys the lives of women. Our mothers, sisters, lovers and friends are threatened with a sexual violence that aims to keep them down, to stop them developing into their full human potential and participating in society. 

Sexism has been around for a long time, and despite decades of feminism, we are still very far from having equality for women. Even in developed countries, women are paid less, and are more subject to discrimination and violence. In developing countries, the situation is often worse: old paternalistic systems are intersecting with brutal neo-liberal globalisation, with results that are catastrophic for women. Young men, often poor and newly arrived in alienating big cities, are cut off from traditional value systems that might have taught them to respect women. Women are still subject to patriarchal norms that leave them vulnerable, and unable to assert themselves or their rights.

In a reaction against Western cultural imperialism, some people pick and choose the very worst and most regressive aspects of their own culture, and assert their ‘right’ to dominate and control women, and to punish them for perceived transgressions.

We’ve seen this most recently in India, where the gang rape and murder of a student has lead to an unprecedented and very welcome outpouring of shock and outrage. People are horrified by the brutality of the act, and the casual indifference of the police, politicians and religious leaders to the lives on women.

This is bad enough, but at least there is a powerful and assertive movement demanding change. This horrifying event has had a cathartic effect on Indian public opinion, and this is likely to lead to change.

In South Africa, and inspired by the same culturally regressive impulse, lesbians are frequently subject to “corrective rape”. The South African president, Jacob Zuma, has four wives, and was tried and acquitted for rape. He defends his conduct on cultural grounds, and sends out a strong message, from the very top, that it is man’s right to dominate women. South Africa has one of the highest rape rates in the world, and it seems to be scarcely considered a crime by many police officers.

And in Egypt, women played a crucial role in the revolution that toppled Mubarak, and seemed about to enjoy a flowering of emancipation. But extreme sexual harassment is stopping them from participating in society. Gangs of young men aggressively harass women to ‘keep them in their place’.

Lest we congratulate ourselves on our Enlightenment values and the great strides achieved by women in the West, let’s have a quick look at our own culture: we live in a highly sexualised society where women’s bodies are used to sell commodities. Girls are pressurised into sex from a very young age. We have had decades, or maybe even centuries, of sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic church, and the Savile case shows that rape culture goes right to the heart of the Establishment. We might be more sophisticated at hiding it, but at heart lies the same patriarchal impulse to dominate and control women.

In Greece, we have seen HIV positive women arrested and imprisoned, as the Greek state tries to scapegoat “fallen women” for the social collapse it is facilitating. These women are allegedly prostitutes – but no one has made any effort to include their clients in any portion of the blame.

So what’s going on? Has sexual violence got worse recently, or are we just more aware of it?

There seems to be an atavistic misogyny that lurks, like a troll under a bridge, at the base of many human cultures. I am not sure where it comes from, but the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible suggests it has been around for some time. The psycho-cultural roots of this hatred of women are still bearing bitter fruit.

Austerity and authoritarian capitalism have unleashed a new brutality on society. The soft veneer of the welfare state is melting away, and underneath it we see a cold system where everything is a commodity, and women can by bought and sold – and stolen, like a pair of trainers, an iPhone or a car.

In this new, harsh reality, old bigotries are reanimated and stagger back to life. The vulnerable suffer first: people of colour, immigrants, women, the poor, the disabled, LGBT people – and heaven help anyone who fits into more than one category.

Or maybe is has always been this bad. Maybe these horrors have always existed, and we have swept them under the carpet and refused to deal with the issues. If this is the case, we now have a unique opportunity: the high profile of stories like the one in India means there has never been a better time than now to tackle this problem head on, once and for all.

Unless women are free, we are all in chains. Our movement will not progress until it tackles this problem. If we want to successfully fight back against the economic system that is strangling the life out of society, we need women to be unshackled from a fear of violence.

So what can we do? 

First and foremost, we need to look at ourselves, particularly if we are men. Are we failing  to respect women? Are we helping to enable this poisonous culture by not speaking out against sexist and misogynist language? We need to listen to women, and ensure that our ‘solutions’ are not part of the same patriarchal, disempowering problem.

We need to look at our culture too: the culture in our unions and political movements, in wider society and in all the varied arenas we participate in. We need to have a society wide conversation about this problem, and commit to ending it. We cannot let another generation of women lead restricted lives due sexual violence.

Some solutions will come from the state: we need financial support for women’s shelters, and organisations that work with domestic and sexual violence. We need counselling services that take women seriously, and a police force that is sensitive and well-trained. This alone will lead to more women reporting rape, more prosecutions, and less of a sense of impunity from rapists.

Sexual violence is not a women’s issue, it is an issue for our whole society. If we want to move forward, we need to make serious progress in tackling it.

We can do this together.

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