Violence Against Women in Activist Circles

Tuesday, November 9, 2004


Written by Jenn Watt

Gendered violence comes in many forms, in many places. Among those forms and places is complacency toward sexism within so-called "activist" circles. In a way, this is the most dangerous type of sexism/violence because it is occurring in the community that claims to fight against oppression the most. For this reason, there is a tendency for activists and the wider community to neglect or overlook this blatant violence that would be condemned elsewhere. What is needed is a strong, critical examination of the attitudes held toward women and a purposeful condemnation of those who perpetrate this violence in our communities.

Before this situation is explored further, it is important to outline what can be considered violence. To many people, violence is physical, bodily harm that is inflicted upon one by another with intent. This is one definition (and certainly true), but in no way encapsulates the breadth of violence rampant in society. Violence can also come in the form of non-physical harm -- and can be unintentional. Examples of such violence include disallowing a person to speak, thus silencing her; creating uncomfortable/sexist spaces by posting degrading pin-ups or slogans on the wall; or referring to women as "chicks," "bitches" or "cunts." (Note: there is a movement of reclamation of these words, but it certainly has not occurred to allow society to feel better about using these words -- this is a totally separate debate, not to be discussed here).

Calling these sexist acts violence is admittedly a pretty risky thing. It is understandable that people would take exception to this, since violence is a very strong label and one not to be misused and devalued. However, I would argue that these sexist acts work to ingrain a set of values within society that can lead to acceptance of physical violence against women. Even if these acts never lead to physical violence, violence exist within these because they work to harm women mentally and emotionally by further perpetuating a system that declares women to be lesser than men.

As a disclaimer, I have to admit that I am purposely leaving transwomen out of this article. The reasoning behind this is that I feel transwomen have barriers above and beyond those within this topic. Violence in Western society highly targets women, but it is far worse for transfolk. When I use the word "woman" I am intending to include transwomen in that term, but because so many layers of oppression exist for people labelled "trans" I do not want to take on this topic without due space and time.

There are huge issues of privilege in the activist community. White men are often those who initiate direct action and advocate literal "smashing" of the state. Their anger at society and the systems that box us in and hold us back is admirable -- it is also much easier for them to pull off than for any other group that wishes to take action. Likewise, any comments/concerns/critiques of their behaviour as far as sexism goes, is often negated and ignored because they are "just so passionate" or because sexism is "unfortunate, but everywhere." Within the small circles of social justice advocates, sexism is almost a character trait: something frowned upon, but not acted on.

The disinterest in women's issues can be seen in multiples within Guelph. When Take Back the Night happened, there were only five men there. When the Violence Action Group began, there was only one man present at the meetings. When I had a column in the Ontarion last year dealing with women's issues, it was called a "special interest column" by one of the permanent staff members, despite the fact that women make up more than 70% of the student body at U of G. This, juxtaposed with the turnout for the Killer Coke Campaign last month, or the anti-corporate films shown by Science for Peace that always receive huge numbers. I bring up these examples not because they are unworthy of their popularity (these are all good work), but rather because they show where student/community interest lies. It also exposes the small number of allies available to those within the community who need help combatting sexism. It seems that often people are more interested in playing the international hero than examining what is wrong with our society, locally. People are uncomfortable with implicating themselves as part of the system, and instead spend most of their time trying to fix other people's problems rather than confronting their own.

It exhausting to continue to work on feminist projects on a campus that is so heavily populated with women and to receive so little interest. It is even worse to be part of a dynamic and amazing women's centre and realize that even our "allies" aren't interested in gender issues. It is always the same women and transfolk doing shit and the same women and (fewer) men who attend.

For those who spend large amounts of time working against capitalism, it is common knowledge that while it is good to have a food bank on campus, one cannot simply collect food to end hunger, but rather must address the causes of poverty itself - many of which are connected to capitalism. This is the same for feminists working on violence issues. Violence is a symptom of a system that continues to push women down, force them into gender roles and teach them that it is their fault that they need childcare while they work, or that they must work harder to earn the same wage, or that they must cover up their menstruation because it is "dirty." The root cause of violence is patriarchy and a manifestation of that patriarchy is sexism.

There seems to be very little recognition that acts demeaning women are violence. For example, recently a professor at the University of Guelph with a criminal history was charged for spitting in his partner's face, he was given one year probation. This is violence - it shows disrespect and symbolically places the aggressor in the position of power. In terms of the symbolism of violence, there is little difference between spitting on someone and kicking them. Rather, it is our society that tells us if there isn't a bruise, there wasn't violence.

Specifically focusing on activist groups, what is frustrating is the level of tolerance for violent acts in our communities. It seems as if there is no interest in pursuing an issue unless it is happening somewhere else, or it is something involving a big, aggressive protest in Toronto or Montreal. Last spring, a ridiculous judgment was handed out for a blatant sexual assault in Guelph. Women from the WRC and other community organizations spoke out and wrote furiously to the Mercury. Once the media stopped covering it, people began forgetting. At no time was there a public outcry from the bulk of the activists in Guelph. There were more people at City Hall on a Tuesday night protesting consumerism when Reverend Billy came to town than people who cared that women can now be assaulted without penalty.

Violence is not just something that occurs when someone is assaulted. Yet it is often as difficult as pulling teeth to get social justice activists to protest this overt, and widely-recognized form of violence. How are we, as feminists, supposed to pursue further education about sexism and subtle violence when so few men in our communities won't even support us in combating rape? How can I feel confident that people will care about childcare subsidies when some of my best friends won't even speak out against the objectification of women in the pin-ups their housemates refuse to take down?

People need to start looking at how they are affecting the feminist movement through their negligence and inactivity. There needs to be a sense of responsibility amongst activists that sexism cannot be tolerated. Yes, struggles against the occupation of Palestine are crucial, consumerism plagues the West, and we must support those who are being abused by our justice system. We also cannot neglect less flashy and exciting causes. A lack of childcare subsidies, curb-cuts, safe injection sites, HIV/AIDS clinics to name a few are all issues that are underrepresented in our circles, but they are all women's issues and all directly affect violence against women. You may not feel like a revolutionary taking them on, but you'll be taking responsibility for yourself.

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