I don’t exactly have a rule against wearing a ribbon during this period of Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence. But as a general guideline, I don’t buy into these sorts of awareness campaigns that require the wearing of special attire to highlight social issues. And I’ll tell you why, now that I’ve offended my primary school English teachers by beginning sentences with conjunctions.
Now listen very carefully, and read all the way through even if you are offended, because I think this is an important point – if you are a member of this society in which we live – especially but not exclusively if you are male, you are ‘guilty’ of the aforementioned gender violence that this period of activism is intended to protest.
I write the word ‘guilty’ in quotes because quite probably in your eyes you have never, ever committed an act of violence against another person, and are therefore innocent of gender violence. Awareness is implied in an emotional experience of guilt, though not in a legal definition, and so you are not emotionally guilty (yet). Possibly ‘complicit’ would be a better word, anyway – if you are reading this, you are complicit.
Thou dost protest too much
If you are anything like me, and have not explored this line of thinking before, you are probably offended at this point. It is not in our nature to accept accusations – especially those we believe to be false. Perhaps it is because we expect reparation or punishment to be the immediate repercussion of acknowledging guilt. Yet, if you are reading this, you are complicit.
You live in a world which includes forced marriage, honour killing, corrective rape, acid attacks, female genital mutilation (even in the United States), and much, much more. You live in a country in which an estimated 500,000 people, mostly women, are raped every year. You live in a country in which one in four men commit acts of rape. You live in a country where sexual violence is rife. This is probably not news to you, but if it is, read this wiki entry on sexual violence in South Africa.
You may be able to argue that you are far enough removed from honour-killings in Pakistan that you bear no responsibility for them, but the prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa is just so staggering that, statistically, there is violence – somewhere – very close to you. People you know, almost certainly, have been victims of sexual violence. You – and I – are complicit.
You may not – I hope – have raped someone. You may not – I hope – be guilty of hitting your partner. But perhaps you see no problem with society’s obsession with the use of the word ‘alleged’ as pertains to rape claims. Possibly you have quite the collection of sexist jokes. Possibly your go-to defence in an online argument is the suggestion that the women in question is suffering from PMS. Perhaps you have been in a situation in which someone has made belittling remarks about women and you chose not to challenge them. Perhaps you think Oscar has served his time and learnt his lesson. Perhaps you are an avid campaigner against gender violence, but in the face of abuse, have had to (necessarily?) resort to a little counter-abuse yourself.
What do any of THOSE things have to do with gender violence? A sexist comment is just a joke. The legal process must be followed – innocent until proven guilty – and what about ‘those women’ who accuse falsely? She must surely bear some responsibility – regret is not rape. She was asking for it. Men and women are not the same – they were made for different roles.
You. Are. Complicit.
You are less complicit – much less – than the serial rapist or child abuser, but you are complicit.
You are complicit through your lack of awareness. You are complicit through your lack of understanding of heinously unbalanced gender dynamics in this country. Your are complicit as a result of the gender stereotypes you unconsciously hold. It is NOT POSSIBLE to be a member of society without being influenced by that society, and in a society as unbalanced as ours is, it is virtually impossible that you are not at least slightly broken.
Admission of guilt
The reason I don’t wear a ribbon is because it seems to me that the ribbon, apart from promoting ‘awareness’, makes the following statement – “This symbol states that there is a problem, and because I am willing to state that there is a problem, I am innocent of that problem.” Lest I offend anyone unintentionally, let me make it clear that I do not accuse any ribbon-wearers of hypocrisy. I simply feel it would be hypocrisy to wear one myself.
But lest anyone not be offended by this piece, let me once more emphasise – your admission of guilt is essential to resolving the problem. If Sixteen Days is to have a purpose, it is to create awareness that WE – all of us – are part of the problem.
How does grudging acknowledgement of guilt change anything, I hear you ask?
Because if the way we think is influenced by society, then the way we deliberately choose to think in turn influences society. By growing our awareness of the issues at hand, we educate and arm ourselves against ignorance, and increase our ability to educate and arm the people around us through our own greater understanding. As they say, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Before we can grow in our knowledge of gender violence (and thus effectively combat it), we must admit that our understanding of gender violence is poor.
Someone who learns to stop making sexist jokes influence the men around him to stop verbally abusing their wives, who in turn influence the men around them to stop beating their wives. That’s grossly oversimplified, of course, but you get the idea.
What will not work, on the other hand, is constant denial. It takes but an admittedly difficult few moments to acknowledge that you are part of a problem (during which time you are only successful if you dismiss all occurrences of the word ‘but’ from you thought processes), before you can begin the real work of resolving gender issues.