I was asked to speak about violence against women and my brain immediately shut down. This usually happens when a topic or theme seems bigger than me and encompasses the whole universe. It also happens when I am scared to death because suddenly something that is meant to come out of my mouth is suppose to make sense and provide answers.
“What will be your point of view?”
This was the next thing asked of me which fortunately started to unravel my brain and ease my fears. The question helped me narrow my focus. The suggestion of a point of view relayed to my brain that it was okay to pick one thing as a starting place for the discussion that will help end violence against women.
Lo and behold my answer to that same question when it came out was:
“My point of view will be philosophical, psychological, shared humanity, social commentary … if it makes any sense… type point of view.”
Well, needless to say the organizer took a chance which inadvertently caused me to explore the process by which I was allowed to BE and my starting place was from the question, what will be your point of view?
What should be my point of view?
For those who know me, one of my many life philosophies is to question everything; and being asked about how I planned to explore violence against women led me to think about the questions and statements put to us daily and their effect on us.
So on the day of the talk, this was how I approached it:
I first asked the audience to help me with some insight into something that has been nagging at me for a while, which is also one of the most useless statement ever in life. I asked what brain processes would make an individual, who on seeing another individual that they are acquainted with after a long time of absence, would say to the them in amazement, YOU ARE FAT!!!
Actually this happened to me one very great day when I was happily taking a stroll, and feeling extremely good about myself. Suddenly this Keke Napep (Rickshaw/Tuk Tuk) passes by me, then a girl screams my name followed by the “You are fat!” statement and for the next two minutes, I stood rooted to a spot not knowing what to do with myself.
After I recovered from the incident, it occurred to me that the girl called me by what my family calls my official name. This means it only appears on legal documents and most people do not even know it is my name, unless, you were in my secondary or primary school. So according to my calculations, she was most likely in my secondary school, not my friend and most likely not in my set.
I finished secondary school at fifteen, some eighteen years ago looking like a scarecrow due to health battles. And here we have some thoughtless and frankly not well-intention person expecting me to look exactly the same eighteen years later. I mean who has finished growing at fifteen?
And as I wondered at statements and questions, relating it to that experience (one of many), I immediately saw something that flies under the radar. It is not so obvious but I now consider it one of the biggest enablers of violence against women. This is the fact that from growing up to adulthood we are constantly bombarded with questions and statements that we are not allowed to engage with. We are somehow expected (without engaging with these statements and questions) to accept them as normal and therefore harmless. We are also to ignore their effect on our mental and emotional health because of that unspoken rule that as a female, you do not respond to such things in order not to be tagged as defensive, angry or aggressive.
9 out of 10 times, when “You are fat!” is said to a woman, she smiles uncomfortably and might even go the extra mile not to be ‘that’ kind of female and say thank you. Some even say, “it is good living,” even though they have been dieting and exercising for weeks to lose the weight they do not like. But God forbid they should own up to being an ordinary human; super women do not gain weight, they are naturally forever thin regardless of their station in life. I find it more amazing when I hear this same statement being said to women who have had kids, I mean what is up with that. To think we are a culture that is meant to mind our own business.
I believe the reason for making these thoughtless statements is because it absolves an individual of responding to the possible call of their words. For example, if after telling someone they are fat, they respond that it is due to depression and eating for comfort; you will have to engage further into the matter. It will be inhumane for an individual to express this to you and you nod and then walk away. This is because like it or not, the call that comes after your statement requires action and you will have to deal with the consequences of your action or inaction after hearing it. So we say thoughtless things and move on because they require nothing of us.
When you can’t comment in a conversation about you but are forced to be a ‘smiling bystander.
Why are women also the main perpetrators of these thoughtless statements against other women? These are the same people in our culture who will be reluctant or might never engage with a woman being abused because they are trying to mind their business. There is another unspoken rule, that you do not interfere in peoples issues because your interference may end up bringing shame on you. But we have no problem interfering with issues that concern peoples bodies which sometimes does things they have zero control over like expand due to age and genetics.
So why do we keep saying things to women that they cannot engage with in order to decide for themselves how they feel about it. How do we not think this has inadvertently caused women to permit abuse on themselves because when it subtly begins, even though they know it is wrong; they do nothing because they have little experience engaging with wrong done to them.
It has been told that abusers do not just begin with physical abuse. They start first with verbal abuse and then proceed to emotional abuse before they graduate to physical abuse. If women were generally used to engaging with verbally uncomfortable statements against their person will they not immediately know how to engage with it in any kind of relationship and put a stop to it. Instead we smile politely and by extension reward the bad behavior of potential abusers.
My neighbor, a man I do not really interact with, once told me i had lost weight in the same no greeting no preamble “You are fat,” way. And I immediately knew to start avoiding him because yes I had lost some weight but in opinion, it was three not so noticeable pounds. My first thought was how closely have you male neighbor, been looking at my body to notice? I didn’t smile politely but I eyed him disapprovingly and walked away, angry because i wanted to engage but I knew how fast the script would be flipped on me and it was not worth the trouble… yet.
I am just using one of the more common statements used on women which most times forces them to be silent even though it is a violation and a cruelty to the issues going on in their lives. But there many more examples I could give.
What to do then? Well, be thoughtful and mindful about what you say in a conversation to a woman. Do not make statements that forces her to be silent. Do not ask questions she is ‘not’ allowed to answer. Say things that engage her so she can make a decision and contribute towards the discourse of life, especially her own life. And the biggest one of all, if you do not like a particular woman then please find that humanity in you and leave her alone, don’t pretend to be a friend; because like it or not that side of you will always find ammunition to use against her. We women tend to be each others worst enemies. We need to learn to honestly love each other.
There are also other kinds of these types of statements which I can give examples of to say how we are also unkind to men and force them to be silent when it would be ten times more helpful if they could engage with these statements, questions and thoughts and this also leads to violence against men…But I will not. As big Sister Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, we spend too much time as women talking about men.
It is time we look inward more; there is a lot of work to be done.
Images via Flickr: David Woo, Morgan, Ron Mader, Davide Vizzini