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June 26, 2014

Say No to Sexual Violence against Women

The Canadian Charger

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The recent sexual crimes against women in Cairo's Tahrir Square got the nation's attention from the newly elected president to the general public. Tougher laws and better education are promised.

But sexual violence against women is not only an Egyptian, or even a developing country problem. An international effort is urgently needed.

In London last week a conference was held focusing on rape in conflict zones. The conference was co-hosted by actress Angeline Jolie and the British Foreign Secretary William Hague - believing there was a progress in recent years in better prosecuting offenders and protecting victims, especially in developing countries and conflict regions. They say 155 countries signed a declaration of commitment to end sexual violence in conflict regions and many countries including the U.S. and Britain, pledged funds to support the cause.

Canadian Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me, noted an insidious condescension in the way some men engage in conversation with women – which she called “mansplaining”. While it can be annoying, Ms. Solnit argued that the misogyny behind it can also have serious consequences, and not just in the developing world.

Especially since 9/11, media coverage pointing a finger at countries such as India and Pakistan and saying how misogynist they are, has become ubiquitous, but Ms. Solnit said she doesn't think anything happens in these countries doesn't happen in the developed world.

She said in a CBC Radio interview, “Look at all the feminist voices getting death threats in England and the United States. Look at all the domestic violence. Look at the fact that more than three women a day are killed by partners and former partners in the United States, to control them, to punish them for leaving, to assert that he has infinite rights and she has no rights. The things that happened in India and Pakistan recently are terrible, but I don't think they're any more terrible than the things that are happening here.”

Ms. Solnit said one of the most beautiful and most extreme case of "mansplaining" happened to her while at a party in Aspen. The host of the party asked her about a book she'd written recently. When she said it was about a well known photographer, he interrupted her and told her there was a very important book published recently about this photographer and she must read it. It turned out that he was referring to the book Ms. Solnit had written.

She said a PhD candidate at Berkeley explained to her in a letter that mansplaining identifies an experience which pretty well every woman has had. Although these things may seem small, Ms. Solnit said they contain the seed of much more serious abuse against women.

“There's a lot of men who assume surely by privilege of gender they know. Surely by dint of gender we don't know. There's a kind of assumption that they're in charge, that they're the boss. They know that we're ignorant, and for me it's really about what some people call micro-aggressions. It's this little aggression that he can override you, that he knows more, that he gets to define the situation. And you look at these things and they're very small and, no I don't feel that I'm horrifically oppressed by them, but then it goes on to the larger scale.”

That sense of “I have the right to override you”, “I matter more than you” on a small conversational scale it's mansplaining , Ms. Solnit said; but on a huge violent scale it's rape and the murder of women, because they're women.

In a domestic situation, a man's mindset that indicates he feels he has a right to control a woman in his life and shut her up if he so desires, is a slippery slope, which Ms. Solnit said is part of the larger landscape of misogyny.

“It's what you could call a petty crime, not a felony; but it proceeds from the same assumption: if he assumes he's smarter than you, better than you, more important than you, more entitled than you, he might just override you in conversation, he might forcibly shut you up, he might silence you forever by killing you. Those assumptions are pervasive from the small things that happen to women at the dinner table, at the newspaper, in a public conversation and the much more direct, much more destructive things.”

Ms. Solnit said we have tended to talk about domestic violence and rape and murder and sexual harassment, and the gender politics of conversation as though they're very separate. We decide that some of them are minor, some of them are major. Ms. Solnit said rather than having these kind of categories that break up the overview, we should be looking at what's behind this behaviour.

“Seeing the same assumption about some people being worth more than others because of gender; some people have more rights; some people have no rights; some people are inherently knowledgeable and have the right to decide; some people are inherently ignorant and have no right to be in charge and control of their own bodies of the conversation of household, of the planet etc.”

Meanwhile, she said it's really exciting that we're really addressing these underlying assumptions.

“One of the remarkable things is if you look at the conversation over a long period, how much it's changed. I think feminists have radically changed the conversation - the public conversation in writing and radio. So many men do get it now and are really a constructive and valuable part of the conversation and I think that's how we'll really change it. I think me finding misogyny offensive in the same way that white people found racism offensive, we remove misogynistic ideas from songs, pop culture - from the centre of the culture, where they've been, to the kind of marginal distasteful, not the privileged.”

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