Image credit: Erum Jafar Siddiqui
Violence is something rarely discussed but so endemic. Violence against women and children has become the norm; accepted as human nature. What we have created is silence about violence, a culture of acceptance and of complicity. If we are going to truly tackle violence, then we need to look to men. Men are responsible for 95 percent of violence experienced by women, children and other men. But it’s not men on trial here; it’s masculine identity that encourages men to be violent or aggressive.
This process of violent masculinity begins at birth. If we are to address violence then we must begin to raise our sons and daughters differently: to unlearn gendered expectations. We raise boys to understand masculinity in a very narrow way. It becomes a hard small cage where we teach them to be afraid of fear, of weakness and of vulnerability, and to mask their true selves. We have created a man box. The ‘Man Box’ means that to be masculine men need to fit the mould: a mould that requires men to refrain from openly expressing their emotion, weakness or fear. The mould outlines that they are the protector, tough, athletic, strong and courageous. This is how men are socialized. We punish men for expressing their emotions; we have taught them that to do so is effeminate. The priority of men is to avoid the feeling of emasculation. In doing this the only socially acceptable emotion men can express is anger; anything else and you are considered weak. But anger demonstrates strength, power and an ability to dominate. This encourages men to internalize and see vulnerability as unnecessary and an intrinsic weakness. But what we have failed to teach men and boys how to respond if their masculinity is challenged.
Some men reading this may be feeling slightly defensive and I understand that. You may be thinking: ‘what you’re saying about men isn’t true. It isn’t true of me. I don’t feel that way. I’m opposed to all of this.’ I understand that not all men commit violence. What is becoming more prevalent is that we need to reexamine violence. If #yesallwomen has taught us anything is that most women and girls now have experienced violence in the form of sexual harassment, domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual assault or rape. In fact one in three globally. This violence is primarily committed at the hands of men: painting a picture of misogyny, male entitlement and female subordination. So if this is not what you stand for, these aren’t your values, then you need to communicate that to other men. These men through their actions presume to speak for you. So if you don’t agree, then you’d best let them know.
What we have created in this crisis of masculinity is a culture of silence. Most dangerously we have silenced survivors. That punishes them for speaking out. We question them when we should listen. We blame them when we should encourage their stories. We push them back into the darkness of violence when we should teach them survival, show them respect and lead them towards light.
I know this silence.
I’ve lived in India. In India, being a young white blonde female means that sexual harassment is going to be a part of daily life. I know sexual violence. I have been groped by hotel staff in India, groped by men passing on their motorbikes as I rode in a rickshaw to the office. I felt the jeers, glares and sexually aggressive comments in Hindi as I walked to work each day. Each time I felt a wash of shame.
Across India a rape is reported, let me emphasis, reported, every 20 minutes. I was one of the unreported cases.
In January this year my Indian boyfriend raped me. While I have experienced other forms of abuse before from men, I had never felt so utterly worthless. I was a possession, something for his sexual gratification. I screamed and I hit to try and get him to stop. I remember feeling empty and then nothing. I passed out from exhaustion and woke to him gently kissing me on the forehead ‘baby I’ve got to go.’ He left the hotel room and I was alone. I thought it was a dream. But as I started to wake I realised my chest felt bruised where his hand had kept me restrained, and the insides of my legs ached. I was an hour outside of my home in Delhi, away from what I knew and away from my support system.
I chose not to report this. I was scared, I know the pervasive victim blaming, the ‘rape tests’ that are still employed by doctors and I felt I would be further victimized. Instead I confronted him and told him how his actions had made me feel. He explained that ‘I thought I could get a yes.’ This is part of the problem, pushing for a yes, changing her mind about her consent.
When I shared my story with friends and family I was met with questions.
The question was asked of me. What did I do to possibly invite his advances? What did I do when he became forceful? What did you do? What did YOU do?
But the question I ask is different: ‘would you listen if I said no?’
It struck me travelling to work two days later, as I stood in the women’s only carriage: how many women around me had experienced violence? The answer would be overwhelming. That was the moment which made me determined to not let this experience cripple me in anyway but to be something positive, something that I could look back on and say thank you – not for the self blame, isolation and alienation that I felt, but for what that experience led to.
I don’t want to be angry with men. I don’t want to have to check over my shoulder constantly to be reassured I’m not being followed as I walk home. I don’t want to go out on a Friday night and be harassed. I want to hear more stories of male courage rather than dominance. I need to hear those stories.
You need it too: the men who choose not to engage in sexism and violence. We need to showcase traits of masculine identity that encourage non-violence, tolerance, and equality. We must teach boys and men that violence and aggression is not the only option for those who feel challenged or who are in struggle. We need to teach men and boys that vulnerability takes courage and is absolutely necessary for human connection. That violence is not human nature but rather a social construction. We need young men to challenge the system of privilege they have been born into, to ensure that the women in their lives do not experience this violence and the men and boys in their lives do not feel the need to live up to this masculine identity.
We also need to look at the language we use. We need to stop saying ‘don’t be a pussy’ and weaken the female gender, to stop joking about rape or ‘frape’ because we weaken the impact of that experience.
We need to start acknowledging violence for what it is. When we say ‘he touched her inappropriately’ or ‘he forced sex’ we avoid accountability and responsibility. Shying away from the language of violence does not to break its cycle; it does not help the child who has been abused, the woman who has been sexually harassed or the young girl who has been raped.
We have to end the environment of silence. What is truly damaging as a survivor of violence is feeling silenced: feeling as though you can’t discuss your experience. I understand that people don’t want to hear these stories or know what to say. Let me tell you: you don’t have to say anything. You can just listen and perhaps hold us when we cry.
I share this with you to start a conversation. Because we must and we can do more than just say ‘no’ to violence; we must actively change the environment that allows violence to flourish. To do this we must redefine masculinity and end the culture of silence. As Martin Luther King Junior said ‘in the end what will hurt us the most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Thank you for having the courage to share your experience and wisdom from such a harrowing experience, not only is the space for such dialogue limited in our social spheres, the language for even starting the conversation is also tainted with contempt and blame for the victim.
I absolutely agree on how our use of language also plays a key role in framing our perception of the female body. In every language the words for female characteristics and anatomy are misused as insults. Language plays a key role in how it frames and reflects our culture and values, even casual use of these adjectives reinforces misogynistic ideas and attitudes in both adults and children, perpetuating the cycle of violence.