Like many women, I am tired of defending the fullness of my humanity to people who struggle to see it. Living in a sexist world is already tiring enough, let alone the burden of trying to teach others about respect and equality —the values that are key to unlocking long-standing power imbalances between men and women.

Recently I tried to explain this to two men, as we debated their suggestion that it’s the responsibility of women to educate men about these values. Men, they felt, would change — if only women could help them to know better. They sympathised with women’s fatigue, but felt that it was a necessary burden: If not you, then who?

You, I responded, perplexed.

We never reached a resolution, but when I thought about it later, I realised that we may have been debating a moot point. The question is not whose ‘responsibility’ it is to influence others, because the responsibility is a given. All of us are influencers to some degree, whether conscious of it or not: ‘actions speak louder than words’ is a cliché because it’s relentlessly true.

And since all of us, men and women alike, are actively involved in influencing the real-life gender dynamics around which we sometimes struggle to wrap our words, the question is not whether — but what — we are teaching those around us. Which values are we communicating through the things we do, or don’t do?

After my first personal encounter with physical violence, at the hands of a stranger, what traumatised me more than his actions was the passivity of the witnesses who watched them unfold. It happened at a petrol station next to a busy mall on a Monday morning. There were dozens of people around, but nobody intervened.

Enraged, an aunt who lived in the same city descended on the petrol station the next day, to castigate the staff and demand an explanation for their inaction. Confronted with a mother’s righteous fury, they all expressed their shock and regret, and were eager to make it clear that they did not condone violence against women.

Yet in the moment when it counted, they did condone it, and thereby became passive teachers of one of my most painful life lessons. The sense of isolation that their inaction created in my moment of powerlessness, haunted me long after my bruises had healed.

It is this repeated inaction that sustains cycles of violence, not just between strangers, but also — perhaps even more so — in spaces where love and trust are supposed to exist, such as violence between family members or intimate partners. Even as men and women increasingly raise their voices in support of a world without violence against women, a crushing silence often persists in critical moments of truth when professed values are not expressed in action.

After my first personal encounter with physical violence, at the hands of a stranger, what traumatised me more than his actions was the passivity of the witnesses who watched them unfold. It happened at a petrol station next to a busy mall on a Monday morning. There were dozens of people around, but nobody intervened.

“Freedom and love are doing words,” Keguro Macharia emphasises in his essay about the importance of placing these values at the centre of our political vernaculars, to guide all our other actions. “They are we-forming, we-sustaining words. Their conjoined impulse is towards making collective living more possible and more pleasurable. Asking ‘is this increasing freedom?’ or ‘is this promoting love?’ anchors and pushes other political vernaculars, reminding us what is at stake.”

Few would oppose freedom and love in theory, but oppressive power dynamics can distort the understanding and application of values that most people claim to be important to them. This distortion is worsened by the fact that conversations about violence against women tend to focus on explicitly physical acts such as rape or murder, overlooking the underlying layers that build the culture in which such acts can take place with impunity.

Many who swear that they would never abuse a woman might not go out of their way to call out those they know to be perpetrators of abuse. They may even witness it, as in my case, and choose not to react. Alone in a bar with their buddies, they might laugh at jokes that normalise violence. They may reinforce social norms that undermine women’s autonomy, while being repulsed by the idea of rape, never understanding that in all these scenarios, the same underlying values are at stake — respect, empathy, freedom, love

Many who swear that they would never abuse a woman might not go out of their way to call out those they know to be perpetrators of abuse

In The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture, Nora Samaran writes that “To completely transform this culture of misogyny, men must do more than ‘not assault.’ We must call on masculinity to become whole and nurturing of self and others.” Samaran uses attachment theory to explain something we all know to be true: that people who are emotionally healthy, who are capable of loving freely and fearlessly, are less likely to hurt those around them.

They are more likely to be self-aware, and to align their values with their actions. So the fundamental need, she explains, is to build emotionally healthy people through “systemic change, spiritual change, at the core levels of our culture, lived each day.”

This diagnosis may sound simplistic, even corny, but when we consider the violence of cultures that value power over self-awareness and compassion, where broken people break others and other broken people watch in silence, its gravity is clear. It is especially true for men, whose socialisation into masculine codes often neuters their capacity to process emotions, which further entrenches cultures of violent expression.

When I try to imagine a world without violence against women, I see many layers of complexity rooted in a deeply personal challenge that revolves around our ability to consistently embrace humane values: firstly towards ourselves, as this is where all violence begins, and from there to those around us. This requires a culture of emotional healthiness; requires us to make room for openness, vulnerability, accountability and healing: in public communities as well as intimate spaces.

So the next time I encounter people who are waiting for the influence of others to confront oppression, I will remind them (and myself) that all of us are constantly influencing the world around us. Through our actions or inactions, we are reinforcing — or challenging — social norms. We are signalling our values. The onus is us to ensure that our values and actions are aligned to move beyond just desiring, to actively building, a world without violence against women.

 

This article is published as part of an online campaign by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network, coordinated by the Uganda-based organisation Raising Voices, to prevent violence against women. Use the hashtag #Values2endVAW @GBVNet or visit the GBV Facebook page to join the conversation

 

 

 

Save