This post is part of the Violence Against Women awareness month, and it’s about those rephresensible, spineless women who just lie back and take what is dished to them. These women support violence against women more effectively than any other pro-violence group, because they have gendered authenticity on their side. They are women, patriarchy points out, and they don’t seem to mind the abuse. This is because they have their eyes trained on a more glorious goal: family, children, and the ‘true’ achivements of the female sex. “Look at my mother”, their wife-beating sons might say to their resisting partners. “She had it a lot worse than you, but do you see her rocking the family boat because of it? She is a real woman — she has her priorities right”.
And it’s not just the sons. A young (female) lawyer, brought up single-handedly by her mother, once told me she respects her aunt much more than she can ever respect her mother, because: “My aunt knew what was truly important in life. She stayed with my uncle — who had a drinking problem on top of his temper — because my cousins needed both a mother and a father. My mother was shallow and selfish — at the first sign of trouble, she ran. She didn’t even stop to think WHY my father would get so mad all the time, she would never admit at least part of it was her fault”.
So, women who have not considered walking out, for whom the rainbow of bruises is not yet enuf, are effectively holding up a blazing sign that reads, “Being victims and martyrs are essential to being female. You’re not a real woman unless you have the scars to show for it”. This might have earned them a dingy shrine in the dusty corners of patriarchy — the ever-sacrificing Seeta is the Hindu Indian ideal of womanhood, for example — but I doubt that’s warm comfort when they’re nursing fractured necks, broken limbs, depleted savings accounts, or post-rape soreness. And yet these women only have themselves to blame for the situations they find themselves in. Unless they become fully-matured adults who can take responsibility for themselves, their victimhood is entirely voluntary, and their pitiful lives are no one’s fault but their own. Right?
Wrong. Utterly, viciously, condescendingly, thoughtlessly, and ignorantly incorrect.
It’s quaint how we’ve been gradually civilised into not punishing the physically disabled for their special needs — some of us have even evolved to accepting the mentally challenged and their special needs — but when it comes to the socially disabled, we think it perfectly normal to blame them for their lack of agency. Context and possible constraints cease to matter. One’s own (relatively superior) situation becomes the standard against which others are judged, and found wanting. So if a woman of one’s acquaintance is abused, and one’s ’empowered’ response is to quickly tweet or tap out a post about this woman’s appalling lack of feminist will, then the time for some shame and self-reflection is, I think, long overdue.
Being an ’empowered’ woman doesn’t mean being entitled, discriminatory, and elitist about one’s privileges (such as they are). It means breaking the myth of feminine subhumanity and being accepted as a full, rounded human being. And a vital part of being human is understanding how our resources, priorities and problems can be almost incomprehensibly diverse. A woman who stays in an abusive relationship or household doesn’t necessarily do it because she is regressive, spineless, or too stupid to realise she has a choice. There is a very real possibility that she doesn’t have a choice. Violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum, independent of the other facts of a person’s life. A woman who takes abuse lying down probably lacks the financial independence to walk out. Perhaps she has an even more abusive past, and thinks the current deal a lesser evil. Perhaps she isn’t even aware that coercion and violence are not ‘normal’, as her culture or family has taught her, and that there are ways of escaping. Perhaps she is terrified of the harassment she will face as a single woman, or of the pity and charity she will be forced to beg for. Perhaps she lives in a Bollywood film and has deathly sick relatives who need her abuser’s support. Perhaps she is a child. Or perhaps she genuinely believes, despite awareness to the contrary, that sufference is the lot of womanhood.
Our feminist halos would shine brighter if we took the time to find out how and why, to tailor our activism to local needs, and to extend a helping hand or a sympathetic ear, instead of sitting around and telling each other how these pathetic women are lowering our collective Girl Power street cred. Be the change you want to see (as a wise man once said), but more importantly, I think, respect the change others want to see, and try to make it happen if you possibly can.