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Opinion Asking for it

On the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, CHARLIE WEINBERG asks why so little progress has been made, even on the left — and calls for an end to the ways in which women and their oppression are increasingly obscured

KIRANJIT AHLUWALIA was released from prison in 1992 after a retrial in which her 10-year sentence was reduced. Led by Justice for Women and supported by Southall Black Sisters, Kiranjit’s case briefly changed the national conversation about “domestic violence” and intimate-partner violence.

Ahluwalia served more than three years and was failed by the courts, police and psychiatric specialists in her case before it was reviewed. Sally Challen is a recent example of a woman sentenced to prison before having her case reviewed and overturned, changing the law after decades of abuse, blame and violence.

Violence against women makes people’s eyes roll. It is more than common to hear responses that range from “he always seemed such a nice guy” to misleading, misinformed and misogynistic headlines like “The calculated murder sparked by bubble and squeak” (BBC with reference to the murder of David Jackson by his wife of 24 years in October 2021).

Often, when men kill women, vague or inaccurate details are given. “17-year-old ‘e-girl’ killed by man,” “Girl Killed By Man” or “Woman in her 20s rushed to hospital after ‘falling from a height’ as man, 26, arrested on suspicion of attempted murder,” “Woman killed with hammer,” “Woman killed after making stalking complaint.” These statements hide the clear, simple and unambiguous “Man arrested for/suspected of/charged with or commits murder” which would place the actor first.

The impact of this consistent linguistic and psychological prominence is to make the female victim the protagonist in her own violent death. It performs an important function in keeping our minds on the female victim as central in the act of her own murder; it does nothing to provoke our sadness, outrage, support or concern for the facts of women’s reality and the levels of violence we live with globally.

The UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women exists because WHO statistics estimate one in three women around the world “experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, most frequently by an intimate partner.” Inevitably, for many readers (even of this short comment), the idea that men also experience violence will spring to mind. Men do experience violence and indeed, young men (and children under four years) are most likely to be murdered (by adult men). Forty-four per cent of all homicides against women are committed by their partner or ex-partner. That is one of the manifestations of the violence women face — it pervades our public and private spaces; and we are criticised for demanding spaces for women only.

The political left is no more astute or able to support and believe the extent of violence against women and girls than the capitalist class or establishment system. Presumably, ideas of “sexual liberation,” feminism and women’s rights as successful and achieved, appeal to a sense of progress, equality and achievement.

The notion of a women’s movement that is not satisfied with poor representation in and support by trade unions, legal protections that consistently fail women and pornography and exploitation industries that thrive online and in physical space with state support, is not so appealing to many men of all political affiliations. But to say this is to provoke the “not all men” response. And so a woman pointing out how structural, political and cultural norms harm women and support male interests is dismissed, refused and rejected.

If there is any interest in a radical politics in support of women, women’s rights and women’s mobilisation, involvement and participation in leadership and decision-making, then women must be at the centre of our policies. How do we combat racism if not by ensuring, promoting and generating environments in which racism in all its forms is challenged? Do we understand clearly, precisely and coherently what racism is and how it operates?

A materialist analysis is clear as to how sex (and race) impacts our lives and how “gender” operates to consolidate class interests. The global women’s movement, feminism and the need for single-sex spaces have been demeaned, denigrated and denied by all political “sides” over time. The word “woman” no longer means adult human female; and to suggest it does is met with a tirade of explanations as to how that is contested, offensive and exclusionary.

There are some exclusions I’d like to make to women’s lives:
murder at birth, dowry, child marriage, clitoral excision or labial stitching, preparation for marriage and motherhood from infancy, rape, sexualised assault and attack, sexualised exploitation, pornography, prostitution, surrogacy, forced labour, lower wages, maternity exclusions, glass ceilings, cotton ceilings, corrective rape, abortion bans, unsafe abortions, death in childbirth, unfair medical treatment and pain recognition, harmful reproductive health approaches, medicalisation of material symptoms; psychiatric disparities, victim blaming, verbal assaults and attacks based on sex, sexuality and appearance, anorexia, bulimia, breast binding, neck stretching, menstruation exclusions, lapidation, police failures, policy abuses, false application of equality law, excuses and support for prostitution and pornography as “empowering, choice or positive” for women.

In the country where 81 women have been murdered by men in 28 weeks; where some of those women have been photographed in death by police in charge of their case; in which disproportionate numbers of girls seek to be known as boys to avoid the material reality of girlhood; in which the words “mother, woman, breast, vagina and cervix” have all been replaced in official communications (well evidenced including by the Nolan Investigates series, October 21) and in which girls and women are exploited with implicit state support; comradeship, coordination and collaboration in the commitment to women’s absolute, essential and entire human rights would be a priority for any radically focused politic.

I am asking for it.

Charlie Weinberg is active in the London Women's Advisory and a recent student of the Women and Class course run by Professor Mary Davis.

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