#MeToo – The Rally

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.metoorally3

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.

 

#MeToo

I was a slightly chubby, acne-faced tomboy at 12 years old. I wore jeans or cut-off shorts in the summer and – having started to develop breasts – always shirts that were too big on me. Despite all of this, a part of me felt that I was at fault. I must have said something or acted in a way that made a 40 -year-old man want to grope me. An extended grope that lasted at least five long minutes – hard to say exactly as unpleasant memories play tricks on the mind. At times, over the years, I recall it being thirty minutes.

But one thing I do remember clearly – at 12, I believed that episodes like this only happened to girls who asked for it.

The only thing that stopped this man, who was one of my bosses, was a customer arriving at the front of the shop. At this tender age, I had a part-time job, working with a girlfriend in the studio space of a photography and silkscreen business. My friend and I stuffed cardboard into white t-shirts and glued backing on to posters. We were too young to legally work and were paid by piece and not by the hour. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It paid better than a paper route and wasn’t as girly as babysitting. Perfect for a kid like me, looking for money to pay for record albums and a new baseball glove.

Little did I know then that this was the start of years of workplace sexual advances, inappropriate touching and objectifying language that didn’t end until I left my last fulltime job in the UK in 2013. Interestingly, in Oman, a traditional Muslim society, I was never a victim of any such behaviour – though I wasn’t treated equally in the workplace given my status as a woman and as a foreigner. Today, working in distance education and freelance writing, I enjoy among the advantages the safety of working from home.

At 12, I didn’t tell anyone at the time about what had happened. Even my best friend and co-worker. I thought that the boss hadn’t tried anything on her even though she was the pretty one – slender with clear skin and beautiful long brown hair. But maybe she hadn’t said something or done something to encourage him. I was simply too ashamed to ask her. I can’t remember now what excuse I gave. Maybe it was school starting again or missing out on baseball. I must have found something and quit the job a week later.

A couple of years after that, I ran into the girl who replaced me at the studio. We talked about working there and she was quick to point out that one of the bosses was a ‘pervert.’ He had done the same thing to her. Finally, I could talk about it. Together, we connected the dots. This company only hired girls, too young to work there legally and unlikely to speak out. I wanted to talk to my best friend who had worked there with me about it. But she had moved away and was in the midst of a family tragedy. She and I never had that conversation. I can only hope now that she has spoken about it with someone.

The Weinstein case and other cases involving high-profile people have opened the flood gates. Not to diminish the importance of speaking out against such acts, but they are pointing the finger to the powerful and rich, people in the public eye. What about the young and vulnerable across the spectrum of the workplace? Victims whose predators are ‘ordinary people’? We can’t use public humiliation as leverage.

 

Gertrude Bell in Persia

She’s been described as ‘the female Lawrence of Arabia.’ I confess that I’ve used that glib and convenient phrase myself. But it doesn’t do her the least bit of justice.  One could argue that she accomplished a great deal more than T.E. Lawrence and that she had more barriers to overcome along the way.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an archaeologist, scholar, writer and a political advisor, helping to establish modern-day Iraq and the National Museum of Iraq. As a contemporary of Lawrence, she worked with him at one point in Egypt. Both were British born and both developed a love and consequently insider’s knowledge of what was then called Arabia and Persia (or even more broadly and strangely to modern ears ‘the Orient.’) While Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is still read by British and American forces stationed in the Middle East, Bell’s writings on Iraq and Syria are studied by military experts and scholars the world over.

I recently read the first book she wrote, Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures.  It’s a journal of her travels in 1892 to what was then Persia, covering modern-day Iran and much of Turkey. She was accompanying her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, the British Minister to the region, which gave her access to people and places unavailable to most Westerners, especially women.Gertrude bell

Persia Pictures shows us a travel writer at the naissance of her writing life, before she knew herself the role writing would play in her career and the mark it would leave on her legacy. She relays impressions of the landscape, the towns and villages and the people that inhabit them with a sense of wonderment – that first discovery – of a part of the world few in the West knew much about. With this is her discovery of the Persian language and some of its most revered writers – in preparation for the adventure, she became highly proficient in Persian. (At this point in her life, she was already fluent in French and had begun studying Arabic.) Among the gems of this book are her fragments of translations of the Persian poet Hafiz into English. A few years later she published her translations of The Divan of Hafiz.

Bell concludes this short volume with what can be best described as a meditation on travelling. Here, she summarises her encounters with the locals in her role as traveller: ‘Although your acquaintance may be short in hours, it is long in experience; and when you part you feel as intimate as if you had shared the same slice of bread-and-butter at your nursery and the same bottle of claret in your college hall. The vicissitudes of the road have a wonderful talent for bringing out the fine flavour of character.’

With the films Queen of the Desert and Letters from Baghdad, Bell is slowly emerging from obscurity, but still appears to be relegated to ‘women’s studies’ as opposed to the writer, scholar and historical figure that her feats deserve. Yet, the day might come when T.E. Lawrence is referred to as ‘the male Gertrude Bell.’

Patriarchy and Harari

In Y.N. Harari’s book Sapiens, the bestselling author addresses the question ‘What’s so good about men?’ That is, why is patriarchy the dominant form of political and social rule across the world and existing in societies that had no previous contact with one another?Sapiens

In answering this, he rightly points to the flaws in the three leading theories on patriarchy.  The most common theory, that men have more physical power than women, is criticised by noting that women are ‘generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men,’ and history has shown us that those with more physical power tend to do more of the manual labour and that social and political power don’t require physical strength. The theory that men have come to dominate women because they are biologically more aggressive is also debunked by considering the fact that wars aren’t won by aggression alone. Many of the great world leaders, such as Julius Caesar, have been successful because of their ‘mildness and clemency.’ Here Harari also points out that if stereotypes are anything to go by, women are deemed to be better ‘manipulators and appeasers’ than men which you would think would make them more powerful in society. The other explanation that Harari mentions is the idea that over time male genes have become more ambitious and competitive while female genes have developed to become more submissive and dependent in order for her to raise children. It’s easy to punch holes in this one as certainly women could be dependent on other women, just borrowing men for their seeds. And there’s the fact that many aspects of raising children can be shared with men.

After all of this debating, Harari disappoints by simply saying that ‘we have no good answer.’ He goes on to acknowledge how women’s roles in Western society in particular have changed dramatically over the last century and claims to find it ‘bewildering’ that patriarchy continues.Women vote

This surprised me given his lengthy section on the Industrial Revolution. Certainly that has had an impact on women’s rights and roles. He seems to avoid the obvious, that the physical power theory held sway for some centuries, but that as our lives became less physically demanding, the playing field between men and women has levelled more. Leaving us with ‘why patriarchy still exists at all?’ What Harari fails to consider in this context (though he talks about it elsewhere) is the power of religious and social institutions, well established before the Industrial Revolution, that have put into place the ideas of male supremacy. Conservatism is a powerful tool . We’ve seen this play out over the past year in Britain and America, where people voted in favour of a time gone by. Women’s equality is another victim of this establishmentarian and illiberal thinking. Nothing ‘bewildering’ about these points.