Although I’ve been to my share of women’s marches and rallies over the years, I never would have thought that I would go to one dedicated to stopping violence against women. It’s not that this isn’t a worthy cause – of course it is. But I had come to believe that violence and sexual harassment against women wouldn’t be taken seriously enough for women to even attempt such a demonstration. Nor did I think enough women would speak up, especially in recent years when the label ‘feminist,’ supposedly a bad thing, is so readily attached to women who publicly recount their experiences.
In the 90s, there were marches in major cities, mostly in America, to ‘Take Back the Night.’ Those were admirable, but aimed at the stranger and the gangs on the streets targeting women. The bigger picture is more personal and disturbing. At the rally yesterday in Nice, one of thousands held across the world, the French numbers were bandied about on signs – last year, 109 women were killed at the hands of their partners; of the roughly 200 reported cases of attempted homicide in the same year, three quarters of the victims were women; and 48,000 rapes occur every year.
How can any civilised society allow this to happen? I won’t go into the history of patriarchy here, but the patriarchy we live in has normalised violence against women. It’s been pointed out by many that the term domestic violence in English is a prime example of this normalisation, where deadly assault has been reduced to something akin to a family squabble. It’s no better in French, where such crimes are called drame famille and crime passionnel – both sounding like the content of soap operas.
The rally was more than the statistics. It was a place where women stepped up to the microphone in the middle of Place Massena on a busy Saturday afternoon to tell their stories of rape, continued sexual harassment, sexual aggression and verbal intimidation. Their attackers were strangers, neighbours, fathers, brothers, partners, doctors, dentists and co-workers. Violence against women takes many forms. I’m glad we’re finally speaking up about it and supporting each other. While the laws and public awareness are gradually changing, sometimes I’m fearful of another backlash against feminism that could undo all of this. But ever the optimist, at other times I’m more hopeful, knowing full well that such societal changes don’t come easily.