Violence against women carries with it the warning that it can happen again; that it is inevitable; that the power to harm still resides where it originated, with the oppressor class—men.
The most enduring, pervasive and systemic force of terror in Nigeria is male terror. It is, also, for the same reasons, the most unchallenged, normalized and sanctified. If the scale and severity of violence against women were perpetrated against a different group, such violence would be considered genocidal.
We are, too often, as a society, caught in rituals of public mourning as the names of yet another girl, yet another woman, assaulted, abused or killed by a man, are made public. A man, most likely, who would have otherwise lived the rest of his days in obscurity. A man with no great virtues to recommend him or great flaws to condemn him. A man like any other who learns from his earliest days that no matter how unaccomplished he is, no matter how far he falls from the esteem of his peers, he can count, unfailingly, on his ability to inspire fear in a woman.
Take this ability from him and you take from him his deepest, most consistently affirmed power. The exertion and affirmation of this power maintains a reality we have come to believe is ‘normal’, that is, naturally occurring. A reality in which girls and women are subjected unceasingly to gratuitous violence. In our rush to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruptions the pandemic continues to effect on every aspect of our lives, we come up against the sutures, hang-ups and dysfunctions by which we define the normal order of the world. But what would happen if we considered male terror not as a malignant, yet manageable error in this set order but, instead, as very much a part of the world order? An organizing principle? The considerable rise in domestic violence cases during the lockdown is a testament to how the pandemic, as the author, Dionne Brand, writes, exposes ‘even further the endoskeleton of the world.’
Representing Male Violence
In representing male violence, and by extension, female pain, a few critical and unavoidable challenges present themselves. First, the challenge of position. The social dynamic of ‘allyship’ is intended to suggest power conceding itself or ‘taking on’ the burdens of those with less power. It is a compelling symbol, if only an unsatisfying one. It engages difference as something which might, through moral conviction, be crossed in order to speak with or for the other. I am not convinced by it. It ignores, as Amit Sarkar notes, how ‘when we use such imagery as breaking the silence, we may end by using our capacity to “unearth” hidden facts as a weapon’. Within my social location as a man, I cannot assume the ability to make such a transcendence or such an advocacy. The authority this location grants me maintains the silence I am intending to speak into or over. In the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha, I have found a useful model of ‘speaking nearby’ as opposed to ‘speaking for’ or ‘speaking about’. Yet it is evident that, in the act of representation, I reinforce the subject-position of those near whom I intend to speak.
Secondly, and a closely related challenge, is the crisis of re-enactment. It is common, when reporting acts of sexual violence, to refer to or repeat the details of these acts. Not only do I distrust my right-standing to do so, I cannot ignore the economy which makes images of female pain consumable and open to my gaze. I cannot ignore the cultural investment in the image of female fortitude. On her refusal to reproduce Frederick Douglass’s account of his aunt, Aunt Hester’s beating by her master, Captain Anthony, Saidiya Hartman writes:
What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes. Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield?
I am wary of the ease with which we attempt to re-enter scenes of sexual violence, of the ease with which access is assumed. Ostensibly, with such re-enactments, we are ‘raising awareness’. It is not entirely clear about what we are raising awareness, or to whom we are appealing.
Third, is the challenge of exceptionalism. Like the earlier two challenges, exceptionalism reifies the spectacular nature of female pain. There is a tendency in the galvanization of public outrage against male violence to focus on the individual merits of a particular case, usually one involving a ‘high profile’ figure, or cases that have made it to the news reel in quick succession. Such a practice relies on the reducibility of the irreducible. No one act of male violence reveals its totality. Such practice also ignores the varied and structural manifestations of power. Male violence exists in a continuum. It is not topical and has no temporal or spatial limits.
The lure of the specific event, the specific ‘case’, betrays our investment in the linear narrative, in the sequence of ‘problem’ followed by ‘resolution’. To address this I rely, in place of specific examples of male violence, on the shaky assumption of self-evidence and on the belief that looking at the world more closely and more critically can instruct us in ways language can only gesture at. These doubts, inconsistencies and conflicts reveal some of the ways this piece fails. It is to the source and consequence of such failures that I am trying to draw attention.
The Complicity of Language
In its willful ignorance, hegemonic power avoids conscious confrontation with the world it creates and denies responsibility for its consequences—it even assumes the position of victim. This is obvious in the words we use to talk about sexual violence against women. When we use the slogans ‘Stop Raping Women’ and ‘Say No To Rape’ we are committing a violent language. As in when we refer to rape as ‘defilement’, we are removing the perpetrator from the scene, blurring the relationship between the subject of the abuser and the action of the abuse, declaring that the victim alone must bear witness and the burden of that witness.
The poet and scholar, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, writes that ‘the passive voice is the language of the state…It generates the mythology that violence of the state is inevitable.’ In political commentary this use of the passive voice is often referred to as the ‘past exonerative tense’, observed in the words public figures use to absolve themselves of guilt. The phrase ‘mistakes were made’ is a common example of this. Like the slogans mentioned above the phrase pretends to give us information when all it gives us is orphaned fact, without name or origin. The question of who has done what to whom is buried. Language that obscures the use of power and the agency of the powerful renders victimhood as the natural state of the victim, presents such victim as the central or active participant and prioritizes male innocence.
If men commit the act and if women are acted upon, why is it left to women to claim the subject position?
June Jordan addresses this in her essay, ‘Problems of Language in a Democratic State’, explaining how this distortion, internalized by victims of sexual violence, is exemplified in the difference between ‘I was raped’ and ‘He raped me’. Of the former she asks, ‘What should we conclude from that most sadly passive use of language?’ ‘For rape to occur’, she goes on, ‘somebody real has to rape somebody else, equally real. Rape presupposes a rapist and his victim. The victim must learn to make language tell her own truth.’
There is a direct link between the language with which we think and talk about sexual violence and the inefficiency of the legal system as a primary and often sole recourse. State interests rely on this inefficiency and propagate, through the legal justice system, a passive understanding of harm and harm reduction. A culture of passive language breeds a culture of passive responsibility. Our inability to precisely locate harm results in limited and often counterintuitive visions of redress.
How do men usually respond to this truth when it is told? Those in the minority who seem aware that a problem exists often rely on blasé talking points at best, and at worst present to women who, of course, know better; who know the truth, the insulting notion that these reprehensible actions are the work of a few rogue agents. The truth, which bears mentioning here, is that every assault, every abuse, every murder by men of women serves a sociological, ontological and economic function. They are not merely random, individual events which taken together show a pattern. They are manifestations of capitalist patriarchy, which the socialist theorist, Zillah Eisenstein, describes as the ‘mutually reinforcing dialectical relationship between capitalist class structure and hierarchical sexual structuring.’
‘Men Need Women to be Afraid’
The production and distribution of male terror is essential to male self-recognition and group acceptance. Men need women to be afraid. Men need women to be afraid in order to feel like men, and men need women to be afraid in order to be seen as men by other men. There is no thorough reckoning with gender violence without this admission.
Violence against women carries with it the warning that it can happen again; that it is inevitable; that the power to harm still resides where it originated, with the oppressor class. This awareness is so deeply inscribed into our experience of social space that men feel themselves to belong naturally anywhere. An ease and self-contentment which has for any woman in the same space the constant, unspoken threat of violence. All forms and instances of harassment constitute this framework, they serve as reminders of power and also as a means of subverting the supposed neutrality of the built environment.
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes that ‘a place is the order (of whatever kind) in accord with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence…an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability’. In other words, a place is quite simply any organization of discernible elements that can become occupiable or habitable. Whereas a space ‘exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus, space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it.’ Spaces become places as a result of the interactions that occur within them.
The material aspects of a church building, for example, do not catalyze its function as a religious institution; this designation is determined entirely by how it is used. Space, de Certeau claims, is ‘practiced place’. We construct and impose meanings on the places we use. We decide what is allowed and allowable within a space, as well as who. We decide who assumes authority in certain spaces and at certain times. We decide when this authority is passed to another, and when it is revoked.
‘We’ here suggests that this construction happens collectively, and it does. However, it is also true that, as humans, we are socialized into extrapolating and upholding certain kinds of meanings from certain kinds of spaces. To walk into a classroom on a school day and set up a table on which to sell fruit would be absurd to most people, if not unimaginable. There are neither social mores nor legal provisions against it. We simply know that the act of selling fruit, although normal and benign, is happening in ‘the wrong place’. We also know that the adult figure who walks into such a classroom and gives instruction to the seated youth is an accurate representation of the power relations within a school.
We expect that the instructions of this figure would be obeyed by those seated, almost without question. We expect this without the need for active reinforcement because we have learned to do so, because we have encountered representations of it over and over again. In this setting, we see the construction of meaning that distinguishes a school from all other kinds of spaces, and we see how the power relations obtainable within it are also constructed. This is the practice of space.
How do such practices come to be in the first place? The State. The State derives its legitimacy from its ability to normalize, naturalize and universalize forms of behaviour which are, in essence, actually arbitrary. Hence, the organization of social space is critical to its function. Why we go to schools or churches, what kinds of places are categorizable as schools or churches, and what happens in such places are entirely and completely mediated by the State. In the governed, such control must be impervious and invisible in order to protect the illusion of consent.
Gender and Space
A people are more likely to defend norms they believe they have had a part in creating or enforcing, norms which they deem ‘sensible’ and ‘right’ according to their own reasoning. Most people, of course, are simply satisfied with the order of things because they are ‘the way things are’. Understanding this, and understanding that the State is a patriarchal entity, we can better understand how symbolic violence, which Bourdieu defines as ‘gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims’ ensures that the ‘dominated apply categories from the point of view of the dominant’ and ‘misrecognize’ their domination as natural. This informs the seemingly harmless rituals by which the laws of spatial mobility and social power relations are inscribed.
As spatial theorist, Hille Koskela, writes in ‘Gendered Exclusions: Women’s Fear of Violence and Changing Relations to Space’:
Women’s subjective feelings contribute to the intersubjective power-related process of producing space. Urban space is produced by gender relations, and reproduced in those everyday practices where women do not-or dare not-have a choice over their own spatial behaviour…When focusing on individual decisions concerning mobility, women’s fear of violence can easily be approached as a behavioural problem…there is still a temptation to treat women’s habits of moving about as an individual behavioural matter. However, behavioural geography is based on naive assumptions about individuals and society-that human spatial behaviour is ‘determined by preference only’. Such simplistic arguments are far from the social reality of gender, violence and fear.
At the root of this somewhat complex nexus is the separation of what we consider ‘public’ from what we consider ‘private’, that is what parts of society are thought to have wide societal interest and influence, such as the spheres of politics and business, as opposed to those spheres whose interest and influence are supposedly limited to a mostly interpersonal level, namely all areas of domestic life. Jeff Hearns writes about this in Men in the Public Eye:
At its simplest, the development of public domains is principally a means by which men come to wrest power from women’s (potential) power in and of the private domains. The public domains and men’s power there are in that sense rooted in the private domains. They are premised upon men’s various direct and indirect dominations in and of the private domains in the constructions of private domains themselves, in the avoidance of work there, in the separation of the private and public domains, and in the control of the private domains by the institutions, laws, and procedures of the public domains.
Three things happen here simultaneously: all social value is concentrated or perceived to be concentrated in the public domains, which men give themselves control of. Secondly, the private domains are undervalued and constructed as the sole reserve of women, and the private domains are made subject to the public. Thirdly, the authenticity of the public domains in a patriarchy is determined by the extent to which it can exclude women and legitimatize this exclusion.
Male-dominated spaces, that is, both physical spaces and spheres of activity, are as such because they have been made so. But that is a tricky term because it assumes that there are female-dominated spaces. No such thing exists in patriarchal societies. The home, which many might consider a female-dominated space, is constructed not as a kingdom over which the wife or mother exerts her influence, but as a factory in which she is property.
The normative nuclear household exists primarily as a site for the exploitation of women’s menial, emotional and reproductive labour, which in real terms enables the foundation and development of all society, including the public domains. To admit this, of course, would mean that the social value placed on women’s labour and the private domains in consequence is what now accrues to men and the public domains. This is why feminist theorizing around wage for housework is pivotal. The feminist scholar, Silvia Federici, is one of the most incisive proponents of waged labour for women. She writes:
Our analysis of violence against women hinged on seeing housework as a form of capitalist production, and analyzing the role of the wage in constructing the whole family’s organization. We argued that violence is always latent in the family because, through the wage, the state delegates to the husband the power to supervise and control the work of the wife, and the power to penalize her in case she does not perform. I would describe it as a sort of indirect rule: the state mediates the control over women through the man and his wage. It is not for nothing that in the 1970s, women on welfare called the state ‘The Man’!
This explains why domestic violence has been tolerated for so long and rarely treated by the state as a crime. We began to even see rape as a form of domestic discipline. It is a way of regulating women’s time and space: You should not be out at night alone without your husband, you should be in your house with your children, doing housework, preparing for the next day, etc. If you are out, then be prepared, you know the threat of rape is an unspoken discipline on women’s time and space.
No Sacred Places
Keeping women ‘in the home’ and productive as housewives and homemakers is a central function of male terror; the notion that there are places a woman can and cannot go, alone or accompanied, that in leaving the home she must accept firstly the condition of being monitored and secondly the condition of being controlled, and not by a specific man, but any man. This control may take the overt form of physical violence or the more subtle form of interruption, the seemingly casual imposition of male presence on the time and attention of women.
The public space and the public domains are sites for the accumulation and exertion of social, economic and cultural capital. While men are socialized to assume authority in them, women are socialized to feel non-belonging. This delicate balance between learned dominance and learned subservience is fragile and requires men to maintain it. Men do so through sexual violence which acts to instill in women constant, inescapable existential dread. This dread manifests most strongly in how it curtails all forms of female mobility and sociality.
For example, a bar may be a bar to me, but for the women in it when I walk in, it has become something else. I bear, no matter my intentions, the implicit threat of violence, of penal action. The original associations by which a bar is recognizable: recreation, socializing, are now corroded with the surveillance power of the State. To avoid this, those women might leave, or do their utmost to deflect my attention. My presence annunciates a change in the relations extant in that space, one which heightens my awareness of power and their awareness of vulnerability.
Through violence, Koskella emphasizes, the psychogeography of female experience becomes almost entirely defined by the need to be safe from men:
Women’s decisions concerning the routes they choose and places they go to are modified by the threat of violence. In identifying safe routes and dangerous areas, women formulate different spaces: the city-especially the night city-is divided into ‘masculine’ areas, with barely any women around, and presumably safer areas which fearful women find more ‘feminine’. Furthermore, women’s decisions not to go out in the street are producing a different type of urban space than their decisions to go out. If women stay indoors for fear of violent attack, their oppressors gain more control of public space. By restricting their mobility because of fear, women unwittingly reproduce masculine domination over space. With violence-and with a threat of violence-the city streets are kept as male-dominated, heterosexual spaces. The gendered exclusions, which produce space as a masculine arena, mean-in women’s daily lives-that many women spend their lives under ‘a virtual curfew’.
The answer, then, to the question ‘where are women safe?’ is, of course, nowhere, as long as men occupy the same spaces. We have encoded male terror into the very air of our cities, towns, villages. We, men, have decided that there will be no sacred places. There will be no sanctums. There will be no places of refuge. We have deprived women of the right to sanctity. The street, which should be a publicly accessible good, is accessible to women only nominally and always with the awareness that to exist in the open, to practice sociality, is to be fugitive, to be bound to regulation, to trespass. An act as simple as catcalling carries within it the menace of the terror framework, of surveillance, ‘I see you and for this reason you are susceptible to me’.
The Fear of Anger
It is necessary to understand that the axes of harm in which all women exist are so diabolical and unsparing that every time a woman has to explain to a man the root of her anger, her risk is magnified. Every time a man asks a woman to prioritize his desire to feel good about himself over her desire to live, her risk is magnified. When survival is declared forfeit, such minutes are precious. And yet it is difficult not to risk them, not to make an appeal you should not have to make for your life, with a stranger who considers this appeal a matter of intellectual debate.
The inability of most men, those especially who consider themselves ‘progressive’, to respond meaningfully to what women tell us about their lives, to the countless instances of complicity, to the overwhelming evidence of gender inequality and gender violence, permits other men to ignore their role in it and to hijack the language of reconciliation to spurious ends. We cannot afford obfuscation. We cannot afford imprecision.
Our current historical period has forced us to witness the ravages of an epidemic indiscriminate in its effect. Male terror is a public health crisis whose terrible toll is impossible to know, and such terror is not indiscriminate in its effect. Women are fighting for their lives, and if great, unpredictable and widespread anger animates this fight it is more than justified. Meekness is often an instrument of power, imposed not as a virtue but as a way of maintaining routines of violent silence. The fear of that anger, as Audre Lorde writes, will teach us nothing⎈
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