Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ending Woman Abuse

The title of this post is the title of a double issue (Vol. 25, Nos. 1,2) of the journal Canadian Woman Studies. This post is, I suppose, in the tradition of my many book review posts, though I don't feel able to quite label it so -- more than a few books I've reviewed are also collections of thematically related but quite distinct essays by a wide range of authors, but the feel of this is a bit looser even than those, perhaps because it is a journal and not a book, so I don't want to try and pretend I am presenting a more comprehensive commentary on it than is actually the case. Of course, many of the posts I label as "reviews" would be better characterized as "responses" anyway, and that is certainly true here.

This is only the second issue of CWS I have read from cover to cover -- there was one on queer sexualities about a year ago that I read and thought was great and after perusing their backlist I also intend to order the issue from 2004 on women in the Black diaspora. Generally speaking, the bulk of the contents seem to be essays drawing from a wide range of approaches, many of which clearly situate themselves within academic disciplines but some of which just as clearly do not, at least as the traditional male-dominated academy tends to define such things. There is also a healthy sprinkling of original poetry by women, and the odd bit of visual art.

The range of the content is, as I said, quite broad. Some of the comment response to a single statistic I got from this volume and decided to post on the weekend was a reminder that there are lots of people out there who do not have a picture of the true shape of the phenomenon that is the focus of this issue; though I'm sure for some it is a willful blindness, for the rest of us, this journal is one good place to start or continue filling in our ignorance. There is focus on experiences of violence at the hands of intimate partners in various communities and contexts, and on the experiences of those who have devoted their lives to responding to the needs of women in such situations. There is some awareness of the role of the colonial state in the experiences of violence by indigenous women, of the state funding of electroshock therapy in the violence experienced by some psychiatrized women, of the intersecting impacts of sexism and homophobia in violence experienced by queer women, of the role of the legal system in retraumatizing survivors of violence and forcing their stories into oppressive discourses. I was particularly appreciative of the strongly worded analysis in the essay focusing on the role of social assistance systems, particularly as they have changed in Canada and in Ontario since 1995, in both abusing women directly and in forcing women back into relationships with abusive men. Apparently the provincial Liberal government in Ontario released a plan of action with respect to domestic violence in 2005, and it "is silent on the links between poverty and violence and on the harms of current welfare policies...[and] the plan fails to take seriously the evidence that violence makes women poor and keeps them poor, and that the realities of social assistance can be harsher than the abuse."

At the same time, I find myself unable to decide whether "broad" is equal to "broad enough." There are, unsurprisingly, a few places where, even with the caution due the fact that I would be commenting on dialogue within a movement of which I am not part, I would still feel comfortable making critiques. For example, there is one essay in the book that is a good example of liberal feminism, probably without realizing it, being useful as a sort of screen for imperialism -- it is a look at work that has been done at the United Nations around violence against women and girls in conflict situations, with a particular emphasis on a flattering portrayal of Canada's role in this process. While I think it is important not to dismiss such a U.N.-based process out of hand, given that it has some potential to function as a kind of harm reduction approach, the problem is presenting violent conflicts as these free-floating entities which we good folks in the West must manage as best we can through U.N. committee meetings and cheerleading liberal diplomacy in a narrow realm, rather than beginning from the ways in which Canada, via its complicity in global economic and military relations, contributes to the overt and structural violence that kills poor women of colour throughout the developing world.

But there are lots of other areas where it feels like it goes beyond my ability to assess -- I have a vague sense of there being more to say, but not quite sure what. On the one hand, this is a tribute to the seriousness with which the women's movement has treated criticisms from women who are oppressed on more axes than just gender. At the same time, the journal did not go out of its way to make the contours of such debates visible to those who might not already appreciate their existence and significance. I became quite aware by the end that there was a time when I could have read this issue and not really been made conscious of the fact that there are serious and important political questions with vigorously held and diverging approaches to answering them represented within those pages, and would have read it all as different facets of a monolithic, large "F" Feminism, rather than as feminisms. Perhaps a more explicit and more explicitly dialogical approach to differences not only in social location but in politics grounded in different social locations would have been useful. And I wonder if more could have been done to orient the politics of the journal towards a centering of complicity, which I think is almost always useful.

The bottom line for my own reading of the journal is, of course, what it means for my own political practice. And on this score I'm not so sure. This journal is obviously not, and should not be, oriented towards helping men figure out what our part should be in ending woman abuse; that's our job. However, I still expected that this journal being what its creators wanted it to be would spark more concrete ideas in my own mind. In a way, I suppose a big part of why it did not do more of that is because, at least on an intellectual level, much of what should be the practice of pro-feminist men is already quite obvious: Don't do it. Don't be silent when you know others are doing it. Make discussion of it integral to whatever political discourse you produce, be it a blog or at activist meetings or in casual conversation or whatever. Always believe it when a woman or other gender-oppressed person shares an experience of violence with you. Orient your political involvement towards activities that support women in their struggles against abuse, whether that is in the sense of fundraising for feminist organizations, or whether it is trying to transform social assistance, decolonize the canadian state, end the complicity of the canadian military in the occupation of Afghanistan, or whatever -- and in doing those things, always keep in mind (and word and action) their integration with gender oppression. All of these things, and most others that I could list, are painfully obvious in the abstract, but what can be more difficult is not just thinking you are applying them but actually doing so. As with anything of this sort, it is a journey that involves mistakes, practice, and lots of listening.

I want to end by reemphasizing the importance of keeping the struggle against the abuse of women (whether it is perpetrated by individual men, by agents of the state, indirectly via the complicity of privileged people of all genders, or by a combination of all of those things) as a core part of our politics, regardless of what specific struggles we are involved with at any given time. For those who doubt this importance, read this journal.

And I should add that it provided difficult but important personal emphasis for me that in the time that I spent reading this publication, I found out that two more people -- people that I am not super close to but that I am still connected to in one way or another and whose wellbeing matters to me -- have recently had experiences that fall under how this journal understands its mission. Even if you don't hear about it (and it's important that we as men don't assume we hear about more than a fraction of what actually occurs to women and other gender-oppressed people we know) it's not unlikely the same would be true for you, too.


Anonymous said...

Scott, I'm thrilled to see you emphasising the need for 'keeping the struggle against the abuse of women... as a core part of our politics'. I couldn't agree more. Ending violence against women, and gender inequalities more broadly, should be a key part of any social justice struggle. And one that it's particularly important for men to take up. You can find more on men's roles in ending violence against women here;
Best wishes,
michael flood.

Anonymous said...

Scott & Michael - Dare I say that the answer to the ending violence against women will not be found in the feminist movement. Nor will it be found in the men's anti-violence movement It will be found in a movement that embraces both (all) genders. That is collective voice that needs to speak and be heard. When that voice raises above the gender-based voice, we may be getting somewhere. I appreciated your thoughts Scott.

Scott said...

Hi Michael! Thanks for the supportive words, and for the links...I've actually had a link to XY Online tucked away in the static sidebar for the site for a long time, but it has been ages since I have clicked on it, so I shall be sure to visit it again soon and look around for new material.

Hi Anonymous! I'm pretty sure I don't agree with you, at least not completely...depends on exactly what you mean by what you are saying.

I definitely agree that the struggle against the abuse of women and other people who experience gender oppression requires contributions from men, the social group that commit most of the violence. The question is what form that contribution, and the overall movement, should take.

If your comments are directed towards quite specific social forms, then I can kind of see where you are coming from. For example, by the phrase "the feminist movement", a lot of people really mean the social forms of organizing women's power that came out of the so-called "second wave" of women's movement organizing, and perhaps even more people mean just the skewed subset of those forms that the dominant media allows us to hear about. The exact social form that movements take will inevitably vary with time and circumstance -- this is a truism. Therefore if you are saying that the specific forms that came out of second wave organizing should not be considered timeless and eternal, well, then, I agree, but it seems like a pretty obvious thing to say -- the forms of women's organizing are not the same today as they were in 1972 and they will be different again in 2040.

As well, there are legitimate critiques to be made of the forms that men's anti-violence organizing has taken. (I'm not sure it deserves to be called a movement right now, at least in Canada, given how limited it is.) There is a writer I read a few years ago -- an Australian guy, like Michael. His name is Connell, or something like that. He poses some interesting critiques of pro-feminist men's organizing that tries to take on the form of a liberation movement, which it patently is not because men are on the oppressor side of gender relations and it only makes sense that our organizing should take different forms. So there is much to be discussed in that area too.

However, if you are opposing the idea of autonomous organizing in general, then I disagree strenuously. Exactly how that gets expressed should and does vary a great deal with circumstance, culture, the needs of struggle at any given time, and so on. But those of us on the oppressor side of social relations need to appreciate how vital it is that we not oppose those with whom we are in stuctural relations of domination and subordination if they choose to organize without us. That might be as simple as having a women's only space at a convergence centre, or it might (as it has at points in the past) mean extensive organizing to produce an independent women's movement. The details are not up to us, as men; we have no right to try and stop it, or it is yet another example of men telling women what to do and how to do it. In the case of male violence against women it is doubly important to acknowledge that strategic separation and autonomous organizing are key, for simple reasons of safety: women who have survived years of abuse at the hands of men can benefit enormously from women-only (or women and trans only) spaces and organizations.

So you are right that it will take contributions from both women and men to end violence against women. Calling into question the details of how those contributions get socially organized can be valuable, to keep us from making assumptions. But whatever form such organizing takes, it should be lead by women (and others who experience gender oppression) and it should be completely open to autonomous organizing as defined by those who expereince the oppression in question.