Violent words can also beget physical violence

2013-12-01 14:00

A radio show the other day hosted a discussion on “side chicks” – a demeaning term for (often younger) women involved with married men or men already in relationships.

As is typical, the conversation devolved into blaming the women involved in such relationships.

“What kind of self-respecting woman would be involved with a married man?” callers asked.

The blame then shifted to the wives and girlfriends of the men.

“What kind of self-respecting woman sits by while her man disrespects her like this?” other callers said.

Almost nothing was said about the men in these relationships, the blameless vestals. Our society’s prejudices hold women to different standards. Even men in such relationships have the gall to publicly call women they’re involved with “nopatazana”, “sefebe sa mosadi” and other derogatory terms.

I thought about this radio discussion this week as yet another cycle of moribund platitudes about violence against women began, this time for the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign.

Every year is the same.

Some of us will wear a white ribbon as a supposed symbol of our commitment to not tolerating violence against women. Others might volunteer at NGOs such as the Rape Crisis Centre or donate to similar organisations that ameliorate the traumatic experiences far too many women go through.

Advocacy organisations will lament how the criminal justice system fails women particularly. Politicians responsible for the system’s administration will fill our TV screens and newspaper pages with speeches about how unacceptable violence against women is and how wrong it is to turn a blind eye.

Newspapers will report violence against women more frequently and prominently, and men will beat their chests and say: “Not in my name!”

These things are commendable, yet the violence will continue throughout the 16?Days and beyond until the next 16?Days, when the cycle will repeat itself.

In our minds, when we talk about violence against women, we think of physical violence against the 144 women per day who report being raped and the many, many more who never come forward after being raped. Maybe we imagine the women killed by their intimate partners at a rate of one every eight hours.

We never think about how words and attitudes – our own words and attitudes – can be violent and how they contribute to the continued physical violence against women. As a result, we never hold ourselves accountable for them nor do we see how our words and attitudes abrogate the humanness of women.

When callers on the radio that day singled out only the women for harsher criticism, they dehumanised them.

They held only the women responsible for the material inequalities between men and women that created a situation where the financial wellbeing of the women is at the whim of an often materially wealthier man.

They stripped the women of the thoughts and behaviours of a living, breathing human being and assessed them against a theoretical person guided by mores to which the callers themselves likely do not faithfully abide.

What is this if not violence, if we are to define violence as an assault on the person?

Just as bad is that the words and attitudes of the callers treated the material inequalities between men and women as normal.

This shut out a possible conversation about how material inequality makes women uniquely vulnerable to repeated physical violence from the male partners and spouses to whom they are financially yoked.

It’s a sad case of the violent words and attitudes directed towards women begetting physical violence against women.

The dehumanisation isn’t limited to “side chicks” and the partners of men who have them either. Rape survivors, sex workers, teenage mothers, working women, lesbians, rural woman, black women, thin women, curvy women?...?the list really is endless. If you are a woman, you can be sure that someone, through their words and attitudes, is sizing you up against an unrealistic idea of what a woman should be and should do.

And it is precisely because we refuse to acknowledge the humanity of women that our actions and conversations during these 16 days and beyond will fall short of what’s needed to end violence against women.

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