Whose women?

This week in Yorkshire, a local man named Thomas Mair killed the Labour MP Jo Cox on the street outside a public library. He shot her, stabbed her and kicked her as she lay bleeding on the ground, and witnesses report that he shouted ‘Britain first!’  ‘Britain First’ is the name of a far-right political organization; Mair, it turned out, had a history of involvement with racist and white supremacist groups. Jo Cox, on the other hand, was a vocal campaigner for the rights of migrants and refugees. The police have confirmed that she was deliberately targeted—Mair didn’t just go on a rampage and shoot whoever got in his way. Yet people who knew him described him as a quiet, non-violent man, considerate of his neighbours and devoted to his mother.

Almost exactly a year earlier, on June 17, 2015, another white supremacist, Dylann Roof, had entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine Black worshippers dead. As he opened fire, he reportedly shouted: ‘I have to do it. You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. And you have to go’.

In Charleston, two thirds of the dead were women. But they were not who Dylann Roof was talking about when he used the words ‘our women’.

As many people commented at the time, ‘you rape our women’ was the cry of the white lynch mob during the era of racial segregation in the US. And coded versions of it now function as dog-whistles for Europe’s increasingly popular anti-immigrant parties. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, recently warned that if Britain stayed in the EU there would be an influx of Turkish migrants: ‘the time bomb this time’, he said, ‘would be about Cologne’. He was alluding to the organized attacks on women that took place in the German city last New Year’s Eve, perpetrated by men who were described as being ‘of North African appearance’. Farage is too canny a politician to utter the actual words ‘they’re coming to rape our women’, but everyone knew that was the implication.

Writing in the wake of the Charleston shootings, the sociologist Lisa Wade characterised these references to ‘our women’ as ‘benevolent sexism’—treating women as precious but fragile creatures who depend on men to protect them. I’m familiar with this concept, but I’ve never been keen on the term. When men say ‘our women’ they are staking a claim to ownership, treating women not merely as men’s property, but as the exclusive property of men from a particular racial, ethnic or national group. This is not an act of benevolence towards women. It is a move in a contest between men. Men who are jealous of their prerogatives, and outraged by the idea that other men might try to usurp what is rightfully theirs. That’s also one of the reasons why mass rape is used as a weapon of war: men humiliate their enemies by raping ‘their’ women.

Writing from Bosnia in 1998, the human rights lawyer Sarah Maguire remarked on the way local politicians and officials used the phrase ‘our women’. They used it frequently when praising Bosnia’s many rape survivors for the dignity and resilience that allegedly explained their reluctance to testify against their rapists. ‘You know’, said one politician,

it’s amazing about our women. You can beat them and beat them and the only thing that happens is your arm gets tired. Women don’t break.

What Maguire saw was not unbroken women choosing to keep a dignified silence, it was women who felt exposed and unsupported. They feared that their testimony would provoke reprisals against their families, and they did not believe the authorities would protect them.

But it isn’t just ‘the enemy’s women’ who are targets of male sexual aggression. Here’s a comment someone posted in an online military forum on a thread reminiscing about the Falklands War:

I remember…when the ships came back and all the lads are [sic] lining the decks, flags and banners draped over the side with one that read “Lock up your daughters the Bootnecks are back”.

I also remember that banner vividly: I found this comment while looking for evidence that my memory wasn’t deceiving me. And yes, there it was: ‘Lock up your daughters’. Another stock phrase containing a possessive pronoun; another contest between men about who is entitled to possess women’s bodies. Presumably the banner was intended to be humorous rather than threatening. But what was it saying, if not ‘we’re coming to rape your women’?

In Three Guineas, a meditation on, among other things, women’s relationship to war and to the nation-states that wage it, Virginia Woolf famously wrote:

if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country. For, the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world’.

Not only did Woolf reject men’s claims to be protecting ‘our women’, she also questioned whether women either were or should want to be included in the national ‘we’. Only recently admitted to citizenship, on terms which were grudging at best, women, she suggested, had little to gain from patriotism or nationalism.

But the idea of women as instinctive internationalists is not borne out by the historical record. Women have been actively involved in nationalist projects (and sometimes in the violence that went with them); many white women supported, and benefited from, British colonialism and imperialism. When Woolf wrote Three Guineas there were women who championed the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini; today there are women campaigning on behalf of other racist demagogues with slogans like ‘let’s take back control’ and ‘make America great again!’ These women clearly think they have a country. Jo Cox, whose politics really were internationalist, also had a country: she served it as an MP, and she died because someone decided she had betrayed it (when he appeared before the magistrates, her killer gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’).

In her book Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin argued that when women embrace ultra-conservatism, racism and religious bigotry, this is a strategy for survival in a dangerous world:

From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be.

The reasoning behind this is that men will protect the women they regard as ‘theirs’ from the men they regard as Other. But this strategy gives women no protection from the violence of their supposed protectors—the fathers and brothers and husbands and sons who actually pose the greatest risk to women’s safety.

The men responsible for headline-grabbing acts of public violence are not a totally different population from the men who abuse women and children at home. On the contrary, in the US since 2009, most of the mass killings classified as hate crimes or acts of terrorism have also involved the killing of a partner, ex-partner or other family member. Omar Mateen, the man who shot 50 people dead (and injured many more) in a gay club in Orlando earlier this month, had a history of serious domestic abuse. In these cases, as the journalist Soraya Chemaly has argued, it is unhelpful to talk as if there were no connection between ‘intimate’ or domestic violence and the killing of strangers in public places. What links them is that both are expressions of what Chemaly calls ‘aggrieved male entitlement’.

It is good to see feminists joining these dots, and insisting that the maleness of the perpetrators is not just an incidental feature of hate crimes like Omar Mateen’s or Thomas Mair’s or Dylann Roof’s. But making the connections is only the first step. We need a strategy to deal with the aggrieved male entitlement which is at the root of so much public and private violence. In education, in the criminal justice system and in the culture at large, this needs to be seen for what it is—one of the most dangerous forces at work in the world today.

Challenging aggrieved male entitlement also means challenging, whenever and wherever we encounter it, the habit of talking about women as possessions, things which men are entitled to own and control. I know it may seem like a small point, but to me the phrase ‘our women’ , whether it’s uttered by white supremacists, national politicians or minority ‘community leaders’, is demeaning and dehumanizing. We are not ‘your women’. We belong to ourselves.

The illustration shows floral tributes to Jo Cox MP in Birstall, West Yorkshire.

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