Sexism, aggression, and not being a silent witness by Reimagining my Reality

(Cross-posted from Reimagining My Reality)

A post I wrote in June 2013…

My job involves discussing sexism, violence and women’s rights. I’m on maternity leave at the moment but I still find I’m spending a lot of time considering these issues. Recently the Saatchi and Lawson story hit the headlines, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it – the vile behaviour of Saatchi, the fact that it happened in such a public space, the humiliation and distress Lawson must have felt, the way the press was all over the story; stocking the fires of scandal for the sake of sales and demonstrating zero moral integrity. It was horrid on so many levels.

I noticed the story on Twitter the night before it broke in the papers. I couldn’t stop thinking about how traumatic the attack and the subsequent media explosion must have been for Lawson. And I couldn’t stop wondering how on earth it could have happened. Saatchi must be all kinds of arrogant to believe he would get away with behaving like that in public. Or perhaps aggression becomes so normalised to some people that they don’t see their behaviour as it really is. His comments in the press certainly seemed to suggest a complete lack of self-awareness.

Unfortunately (and predictably) some people thought it appropriate to attack Lawson rather than Saatchi after his actions. Opinion pieces cropped up arguing that Lawson had an obligation to leave Saatchi, stand up to him and publicly decry his behaviour. I think this skewed focus just reflects a societal trend of dumping the load at the doors of women. As I see it, in the days immediately after the attack it wasn’t Lawson’s responsibility to clear up the mess and make everything better. Saatchi was in the wrong, the diners who watched the attack and did nothing were in the wrong, the photographer who witnessed and recorded the violence but decided not to call the police was in the wrong. Lawson was the victim and it wasn’t her call to make the situation socially acceptable. This fantastic piece by Eliza (who writes the brilliantMommatwo) on the media response rang so true to me.

My experiences

The story made me think about how abusive behaviour takes on a cumulative effect when it goes unchecked. If you exist in the thick of abuse, physical or mental, it must be incredibly difficult to see a way out, especially if the relationship was at one point loving. I’ve not had a relationship like that, but I did grow up being told that violence and aggression is often the answer and with fear used as a method of control. As a child I did as I was told, not because I wanted to, or understood why, but because I was scared. Aggression was the norm and it’s what I learned to expect of men. It was only after leaving home that I realised the reality – that men can discipline with love, and show compassion in relationships without compromising their identity or masculinity. It was a revelation to me.

The culture of tolerating male centred aggression is something I don’t want to be part of, so recently I’ve distanced myself from certain people. Maintaining a relationship was tantamount to validating their behaviour. I hate it when people use violence and aggression in place of dialogue and compromise, as though it were the Middle Ages. Fortunately I’m in a loving relationship which affords me the time, space and support I need to make difficult decisions like that, but I realise not everyone is in that position.

My experiences taught me that sexism, violence and psychological abuse are often closely related, and that it’s far too easy to brush off abuse, particularly when it’s insidious and psychological. I’ve found that allowances are often made for the abusive behaviour of loved ones – reasons like cultural differences and stress become a scapegoat for their behaviour. But all that does is perpetuate the notion that the abuse is acceptable, that the victim is deserving and that the perpetrator is innocent. As far as I’m concerned the only answer is a zero tolerance approach to violence and abuse. It hasn’t won me any fans, but I sleep easier knowing that I’m not a part of the problem and that I’m teaching my children aggression is never the answer.

A lot of the aggression I experienced was inextricably bound to a culture of extreme sexism, in which gender roles were clearly defined and traditional. This isn’t something I object to in principle. As far as I’m concerned if people have freedom of choice and still opt for traditional gender roles then that’s fine. But I didn’t have that freedom. My roles, status and future was decided for me by an inherently sexist religious ideology. Every so often I think back to that existence (and a lot of the time I really did feel as though I was existing and biding my time, rather than living) and I can’t quite believe that it was my life. It’s surreal to think that for years I listened passively to an ideology that declared (not always overtly, but certainly in the behaviours it encouraged) I was a second class citizen purely because of my gender.

I discovered this fantastic video last week and it made me think about the role sexism has played such in my life, and how it continues to shape my identity. The sexist judgements I grew up listening to are like weeds, occasionally they crop up in my consciousness and I have to give myself a good talking to, to remind myself that I’m not weak, that I don’t need to be controlled, that my life is not made complete by pleasing a man. Being a strong, independent woman was initially an act of resistance, but over the years it became less about rebellion and more about realising my potential.

My experience of sexism began after my family began practicing a very fundamentalist form of Islam. Suddenly my gender became incredibly significant. My personality, aspirations, strengths, and passions, were completely overshadowed by the fact that I was female. I was told what I could and couldn’t wear, who I could be friends with, I moved schools so that I’d be surrounded by ‘like-minded’ people (and no boys), my social life was controlled. I listened passively (there was no room for debate) as I was told that women should never be leaders (they’re too emotional), that marital rape and domestic violence are grey areas, that the education system is dangerous place encouraging destructive freedoms, that women should walk behind their husbands, that unmarried women shouldn’t leave the house unless accompanied by a male guardian, that my body and my sexuality were defining features that made life dangerous for me, that to expect to be treated as equal to a man is a ridiculous fallacy invented by the West.

I made a fairly dramatic leap away from this ideology when I met J. I’d only known him for about 3 months, but we were head over heels in love and keeping our relationship a secret was unbearable. From a young age I knew I’d have to leave my family in order to be happy. My relationship with J seemed the perfect opportunity. So I made the break from my parents and heartbreakingly my five younger siblings. The day I said goodbye and made the rather hazy journey to J’s house was the beginning of a long journey of disentangling myself from the clutches of a sexist, violent, oppressive status quo.

Leaving home and forging out an independent life was utterly terrifying. For years I was estranged from my family. I went from being wrapped in cotton wool and controlled physically and psychologically, to being left completely alone. Once I made the decision to stay with J I was no longer part of the family, I could do what I wanted. On a subconscious level I was devastated. But I focused on my freedom; and it felt awesome. Leaving behind a culture that enforced gender segregation, and that was (in my mind) obsessed with female sexuality, and the female body was incredibly liberating.

But it wasn’t plain sailing from then on. For the first time in ages I could wear what I liked, and forge friendships with people I had a connection with, regardless of their gender or religious background. But I’d been taught for years that my body was my downfall, that it needed to be covered for everyone’s sake, that I should be ashamed of my physicality. It’s hard to shake off that kind of thinking. So I wore what I wanted and on the face of things I was probably fairly confident, but not too far beneath the surface I was disgusted with myself. I felt hideous, ashamed and painfully self-conscious. I compensated for my lack of confidence in the usual way – I plastered on the make up, wore ridiculous outfits, drank far too much. It was all a facade, and of course it attracted the wrong sort of attention. Cue my second, polar opposite, experience of sexism.

The Twitter feed for @Everydaysexism makes for uncomfortable reading. Not just because the experiences discussed are so appalling, but because so many of them are familiar. I’ve lost count of the number of times men have beeped their horns and yelled sexual comments at me from their cars, the most recent was when I was heavily pregnant and pushing E in his pushchair. I’ve been groped and spoken to like I was a piece of meat, so many times.

Before I left home I was taught that to reject Islam meant embracing a culture of sexism and female degradation. But the truth is that women are manipulated to suit sexist agendas in all cultures. When I tell people about that first chunk of my life – living at the mercy of fundamentalist religion – they find it hard to understand how anyone could be so dominated by sexism in contemporary British society. But sexism transcends religious and cultural boundaries. The sexism I’ve experienced since leaving home is normalised and brushed off as lad culture. The sexual comments and groping that so many women experience are written off as a harmless rite of passage for young men. I felt powerless to complain about these things when they happened, partly because of this culture of acceptance amongst the younger generation, and partly because I was dangerously naive. When I left home I trusted too easily, I took people at face value, and at a subconscious level I feared my step fathers words were true – that by leaving my home and Islam I was embracing a culture that degraded women.

I was a nightmare when J met me. My nativity meant I hit the self-destruct button several times, and of course he was left to pick up the pieces, I had no one else. He should have left, I’m pretty sure I would have done if I’d been in his shoes. But he saw what our relationship could become. I’m eternally grateful for his foresight. I gush about having met J, but he really has changed my life on so many levels its hard to comprehend. I fell out of one overtly sexist environment straight into another and he helped me navigate my way out of both.

These past couple of weeks have given me a lot of food for thought with regards to my boys and how we’re raising them. When I hear stories about abuse and sexism, whether its overt or insidious, and when I think back to some of the experiences I’ve had, I feel the immense responsibility J and I have as parents. I want my boys to become emotionally strong men. I want them to understand that the intellectual capacity of mankind has made it so that violence is never the answer. I want them to have a respect for women that transcends chivalry; a respect built on the fundamental truth that men and women are equal.

Discussion is essential in resisting sexism, violence and abuse, even so I was nervous about writing this piece. I realise I’m limited by my personal experiences, and I hope I haven’t offended anyone affected by these issues. While my thoughts may not ring true for all, I think they deserve a platform. Vocalising a resistance to sexism, violence and abuse means challenging the ways in which they’re normalised. If we continue to talk about our experiences we push the dialogue into mainstream consciousness, and we break down the barriers that allow these behaviours to go unchecked.

Reimagining my Reality: Writing my way to freedom after institutionalised religion. This blog is an extension of my reimagined reality, a reality that transcends the religious and cultural sexism of my past. (@reimaginingme)