Towards a feminist future – ending violence against women and girls
Last week was International Women’s Day 2022. Women around the world rallied to raise issues of equality and challenge misogyny, sexism and discrimination. I spent some time thinking about women’s status in the world and how we can shape a safer, better world today and for future generations, and particularly what I can do to shape a feminist future – controversial (for some) I know!
When you hear ‘the future is female’ or the call for a ‘feminist future’, are you:
A – filled with optimism and hope?
B – dismissive?
C – immensely bothered by the notion/angry?
There are other responses, but these summarise some that I’ve encountered. What about ‘Smash the Patriarchy’? Is that a call for action for you or do feel defensive of the status quo? After all, what’s wrong with the patriarchy? Further still, many people don’t know what the patriarchy is, or why anyone wants to smash it.
For me, and hopefully for some of you also, this is a fascinating conversation, given the gender beliefs people hold about who holds power in our world, our communities, and how those manifests in our homes, the role and impact of domestic abuse.
If your response to a ‘feminist future’ is dismissive or defensive and your internal voice is telling you that women (the feminist ones at least) want to take over the world, emasculate and dominate men, then I hope you will read this blog further.
It’s not a conversation many men are comfortable with. I’ve listened to a wide range of beliefs about feminism from men including friends and family over the years, the prevailing narrative in the media, literature and TV, which I won’t repeat here as I’m sure you’ve heard them all before. Anti-feminist rhetoric from women too, I involuntary twitch (mostly internal) when women I talk to or hear speaking are dismissive of feminism, saying ‘feminism is too strong a word for me’ or using words like strident or aggressive. Especially as I view feminism as an all-welcoming inclusive philosophy and political movement, where all genders are (could be, should be) fully equal and valued.
Having worked in the field of domestic abuse for over 26 years, it’s clear to see how patriarchal culture sets the scene, including and sustaining domestic abuse as a form of male social control. Domestic abuse is the dangerous end point of gender inequality, and if we are going to change our world and stop the violence and abuse of women and girls (and wider violence too), we must start to change our culture, values, beliefs and behaviours, moving away from dominant masculinity towards a more equitable kinder future.
For clarity’s sake, patriarchy is where the father or eldest male is recognised as the head of the family with descent and kinship traced through the male line. An example of patriarchy is that the family name comes through the male head of the family and the social system is based on the belief that the father/head of the household has authority over the women and children.
Our patriarchal societies are governed and controlled by men and underpinned by patriarchal values, based on masculinity – maleness, virility, power (physical force or strength), machismo (overtly aggressive or exaggerated masculinity). And whilst masculinity in itself is neither good nor bad, when those character traits tip into a toxic state, things can become very dangerous. Toxic masculinity is currently driving numerous wars and global conflicts in our world today and continues to cause serious harm and the deaths of women every week in the UK and across the world.
The flipside of the prevailing gender structure are matriarchal societies, of which there are few. A matriarchy is governed and ruled by women, where women are head of the family, community or society, and descent and kinship are traced through the mother. The only matriarchal society in Europe is Kihnu, known as the Island of Women, an isolated place in the Baltic Sea off Estonia’s western coast. Often referred to as Europe’s last matriarchy, the island community is one primarily powered by the strength and resilience of women due to the absence of men who are working abroad or at sea.
There are a few matriarchal communities in China, Costa Rica, Kenya, Indonesia, Ghana, and India. The Mosuo of China (living in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains) are one of the best-known examples of a matrilineal society, where inheritance is passed down the female line and women have their choice of partners. These communities are the exception to the rule, existing as they do in remote locations or separate to the dominant status quo.
Whilst considered the flip side of patriarchy, people expect matriarchies to manifest more as egalitarian societies, where everyone stands on equal footing and works in partnership with one another, and this can be observed in the few existing matriarchies.
Whilst the patriarchy doesn’t affect everyone the same way, it does hurt every one of us by overvaluing the masculine, harming women and men by forcing restrictive gender stereotypes on both. Patriarchy influences all areas of society including culture, family, school, the workplace and relationships and its presence translates to inequality and gender-based violence.
In our homes, toxic patriarchal control thrives as domestic abuse. This is compounded by many of our institutions who have not yet addressed their own toxic masculine cultures (think recent and on-going incidents/events/crimes and inquiries within the police, courts, government, sports associations, entertainment, the fabulously wealthy, royalty) all of which undermine women’s confidence that they will be safe and treated fairly in so many areas of life.
It is the patriarchal norms which support the continued oppression of women and in addition negatively impacts on many other less privileged groups where the intersections between gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation result in oppression, discrimination, limited opportunities, higher life risks, poverty and poorer mental and physical health. Women who are black or of different minority ethnic origins, poor, old, differently abled or belong to the LGBTQI+ community are subjected to layers of unconscious bias and intersectional discrimination.
Women have fought for their rights and literally for their lives across the ages. In recent times, the women’s rights movements have made some significant progress, but there is still far to go. Currently, the onus remains on women to defy male control and to establish new norms. Women who are empowered are working hard to guide other women towards empowerment and to support those who are disempowered. But now is the time for men to do this work also, and we are starting to see that happening nationally and locally.
This is one of the emerging themes we are paying attention to in SafeNet and in the wider Calico Group, with male led domestic abuse initiatives to challenge the status quo and be the change. Men’s place in this work is being more widely understood by male allies who recognise that they are the ones with the privileges to deconstruct our existing systems and support their replacement, working alongside women, with systems to respect and protect each one of us equally.
It’s not easy for those with privileges to give them up, which is why liberation of women is a struggle and we continue to fight for our rights. Our male allies have developed their self-awareness beyond the current status quo and recognised that the best society we can achieve is based on fairness and equality, and that means challenging the existing structures and removing the gender restrictions on us all. They are beginning the work of raising awareness amongst other men and know there is much further work to do calling out misogyny, sexism and abuse.
Working towards a kinder and more compassionate future is vital to achieving a fairer safer world for all. When I think of a feminist future, I envisage the fairest future possible for humanity, it’s not about domination, it’s about compassion, caring for each other and working together. Which is why I look forward to the day we smash the patriarchy, this is my call to action for International Women’s Day and every other day of the year.
Mary Wollstonecraft ‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’ Written in A Vindication of The Rights Of Women in 1792
Managing Director, SafeNet