December 3, 2015
This blog is about two things. First, it’s about my experience of an incident of male violence, the difficulty I had in recognising it as male violence, and what their act of violence meant. Second, it will discuss a recent spate of nasty online behaviour directed at women, and why this behaviour needs to stop.
So. Twelve years ago, two boys a year younger than me set me on fire. They stuck a lit lighter in my hair, and my dry hair, as dry hair is wont to do when matched with flames, caught alight and burned bright for a moment or two before my friend extinguished it by repeatedly hitting me on the head. The boys smirked, and exited scene left. Like all good teenagers, I tried to laugh it off. It was only later when I got home that I cried. Alone, in the garden.
I didn’t report it. I didn’t report if for all the reasons women and girls don’t report male violence. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to ‘make a big thing of it’. My mum, when I said I wouldn’t report it, told me to go to the deputy head of my school. After the deputy head ‘resolved’ the issue by asking the boys to write me a badly-spelled lie of an apology note (“dear sharn, Im sorry I set your hair on fire, it was an accident and wont happen again” – those words are engraved in my brain with an angry, angry pen) I wished fervently I had gone to the police. I wished I had shown them I wasn’t afraid. I wished I could watch them get what they deserved. I wished they had got to feel ashamed and embarrassed and humiliated – got to feel like I did. But I didn’t report.
That was the end of that. I turned it into a funny story, like we often do with things that are horrible that happen to us. You smile a little more stiffly at each retelling. And you don’t think about what it meant. You don’t think about what it meant to have someone decide to attack you by setting your hair on fire.
It took me a long time to realise this was an act of male violence. I know that sounds silly – it’s so obvious isn’t it? Two men attacked me by setting my hair on fire, and I didn’t see that as male violence. I now realise that one of the barriers I faced to naming what happened to me was that I didn’t report. Not reporting meant I never recognised what had happened, or why it ‘counted’ as violence. I’ve written
about this in terms of naming experiences of sexual assault and how long it took me to realise that what happened to me was assault
These two boys set my hair on fire as an act of intimidation against my brother. They knew that attacking me was a way of attacking him. They treated my body as a cipher – my body was a proxy – to send him a message. It’s all tied up in the idea of women’s bodies as property of male relatives, and of course it’s all sub-consciously tied up in ideas of the importance of women’s hair. Understanding this, seeing the historical, social and cultural patterns, all of this helped me recognise this was an act of male violence against me, a girl at the time. It helped me name what happened to me. It helped me to understand that what happened to me was deliberately meant as violence, and that it was cruel, and that it was vicious. It helped me understand why I felt scared, and upset, and hurt. It helped me understand why I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and humiliated. And it helped me understand why I felt so angry when nothing happened to show them what they had done to me.
Twelve years ago, two boys a year younger than me set me on fire.
Last week, I saw a return of the online ‘trend’ of attacking women who some people don’t like online by saying they hope they ‘burn in a fire’. These people tweet that they want women to ‘burn’. One tweeted that once one woman had ‘her hair set on fire’ she would ‘eat her words’.
As someone who has survived being set on fire by violent men, I not only find these words repulsive, I find them actively frightening.
How dare anyone write that they want to silence women by setting them on fire? How dare they use that language and those threats to intimidate and frighten women into silence? How dare anyone go online and threaten a woman with violence? It’s disgusting. And knowing what we know about male violence against women, and how common it is, and how likely it is that the woman being attacked will have experienced at least one incident of male violence, it’s purely wicked.
Throughout history, millions of women have died by being set on fire. Outspoken women were burned at the stake. Powerful women and women who refused to conform were burnt as witches. Widows were thrown on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. Victims of domestic abuse are still burnt to death in their homes by violent partners.
When you pose online with matches and a grin, when you tell women you hope they die in a fire because you think they are ‘scum’, you are aligning yourself with the thousands of men throughout history who have murdered women by pushing them into the flames. You are no better than those men.
Telling women to die in a fire is no idle threat. It is the reality of millions of women throughout history. It is the reality of women alive today. It is my reality, as a survivor of having men set my hair on fire. It is not ok to despise women’s real life experience of male violence. It is not ok to use women’s experience of male violence in your desperate efforts to make women shut up.
If you read this, and you are one of those people who has told women to die in a fire, who has threatened to silence women by setting them on fire, then for fuck’s sake, think about what you are saying and who you are saying it to. Because the woman you are threatening might know all too well what it means to be set on fire. I do, after all.
Karen Ingala Smith has written a blog in response to this
, detailing the number of women who have been murdered in the UK since the start of 2012. I urge you to read it and remember the names of these women.
Sian and Crooked Rib
I‘m a Bristol based blogger who writes stories, talks about feminism and politics and generally muses on happenings. Twitter @sianushka