A Theory of Violence: In Honor of Kasandra, CeCe, Victoria, Savita and Anonymous

4 Jan

**trigger warning**

A few weeks ago, a young Indian woman went to the movies. On her way home she took a bus on which she was raped and brutally assaulted by six men. We don’t know the name of this 23-year-old student.  We do know that  she was tortured so badly that she lost her intestines and needed numerous operations. Six people – including the bus driver – have been arrested. On Friday, December 28 she died.

I don’t know her name. I don’t have an adequate response, but I feel I should say something. Because I was born in the city where she were assaulted. Because so many, too many, experience such violence. Because I spend most of my waking hours thinking about how we can create a world where women are safe. Because she wanted to live.

●●●

This is both about and not about men. Here are some statistical knowables, true across most societies (just take a look at the extant research at both the global and national levels).

  • Violence against women and girls occurs primarily at the hands of men and boys.
  • Violence against men and boys occurs primarily at the hands of other men and boys.
  • Nations, statistically speaking, commit far and away, the most of the world’s violence via war and conflict. This involves military forces comprised largely of men and boys, who are both perpetrators and victims of this violence.

Gender, then, rises up as an undeniably important variable in regards to understanding violence. And though we might not have a shared understanding of this fact, sex and gender are different and there are more genders than two. Further, people who are gender-non-coforming, genderqueer, trans and/or those who complicate the gender binary experience violence at disproportionate rates.

In my work at Men Stopping Violence, our focus is on ending male violence against women. Far and away the most common first response to my explanation of our work goes something like this: “Yes, violence against women is a problem but, don’t women ALSO commit violence?”

Let me answer that question now: Sure, yes. Women are also perpetrators of violence. As are people of all genders, sexes and sexual orientations. But to refocus the question on women’s violence is to obfuscate the real problem. And that problem is violent masculinity. If all the above data has not convinced you yet, please note: According to the National Academy of Sciences, in the US, “Male criminal participation in serious crimes at any age greatly exceeds that of females, regardless of source of data, crime type, level of involvement, or measure of participation.” I say this not to pathologize masculinity as inherently violent, I certainly don’t believe it is. I say this to move us away from wringing in our hands in despair about a seemingly intractable problem (male violence against women) and move us toward naming the fact that this problem is deeply structural, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism.

The point here is this: violence in general and sexual violence in particular, like all social ills, is best approached with a multi-faceted and intersectional perspective.

●●●

“Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of the individual: it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say someone is “in power” we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.” –  Hannah Arendt, from On Violence

What is the function of violence?

Resisting essentialist notions about sex and turning to think about gender, there is something in pervasive understandings of masculinity or masculine identity that accepts if not encourages violence.  This begs the questions: Is masculinity itself violent? Is there a way to be a man/masculine without being violent? What causes violence? What sustains it? These are questions that I think about daily and with my colleagues around the country. At MSV we work with many different men who join in this conversation with us. For us, that involves honing in on the problem of men’s violence against women.

Let me be very clear here, because this is the bulk of my point: we fail at answering these questions if we think of violence as merely a symptom of something else. If you listened to the NRA press conference last week in response to the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, you might be lead to believe that the perpetration of violence is some elusive phenomenon, committed by the criminally insane, or at the behest of video games and violent movies. If you watched some of the Indian coverage of the Delhi gang rape story you’d hear lots of speculation that the young men who perpetrated this gruesome act, must have been intoxicated by drugs. I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment of violence. It’s not merely a tragic happenstance. It is not something only done by those who have ‘lost their right minds.’ Violence is functional.

It is a means of asserting and securing power. When violence targets women in the dark of night it ensures, among many other things, that women stay out of the streets. When violence against trans women goes largely unreported in studies of violence against women, it is tacitly legitimated. When violence against white school children raises a national furor and violence against an innocent black teenager wearing a hoodie doesn’t provoke a national conversation about legislating guns, we can see the fault lines.  When a football player kills his partner and then himself and we find ourselves knowing his name but not hers, we see which victims matter.

Violence is functional and our response to that violence is also functional. Violence is functions by silencing those whom it targets. Let us not forget that most cases of rape and sexual assault go unreported. Let us not forget the stigma that survivors face. In the US only 24% of rape allegations result in arrest, never mind conviction. Whether it is perpetrated by an individual or made invisible by our social, cultural and political institutions, violence has an aim – to remove power and instill fear.

●●●

The numbers can tell us most of what we need to know. But not all. What is lost in the statistical knowables, is the lived reality of women, LGBTQ people and others of us whose stories don’t make it to the headlines. Women’s lives bear out patterns, and patterns tell a story. If we ask intentional questions about trends – we can learn something about our social orchestration. Looking to recent stories, we might learn something about this functionality.

Kasandra Perkins was killed by her partner, a professional athlete, who had threatened to shoot her weeks before he did. No one was able to protect her despite the fact of his threat.

CeCe McDonald, a trans woman, faced violence in the form of a hate crime and for her retaliation was sentenced to serve her time in a men’s prison, denied the right to name a very basic fact of her existence.

Victoria Soto was a school teacher with her students in the classroom one day when she was killed in a massacre by a lone gunman with easy access to assault weapons.

Savita Halappanavar sought refuge from the horror of a wanted pregnancy gone awry at an Irish hospital which (legally) refused to save her life.

And then a few weeks ago a young woman in New Delhi took the bus home one night after watching a movie with a friend and was brutally raped and died, 12 days later, from her wounds.

When something horrific happens, near or far from home, we tend to ask the same questions: Why? How? So, what, then, are the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ in these cases and in inumerable others? There are few actual similarities in these cases, but there are many potential points of convergence: laws that do not protect, credibility that is denied, legislation that is missing, stories that are made invisible. If we are to change things, our belief systems, social structures, and institutional practices must come under the spotlight. And that is because these stories complicate the statistical knowables.

Interpersonal violence usually belies a whole host of social conditions that are hard to qualify and quantify (i.e. privilege, race, poverty, gender, oppression, resistance, wealth, cultural norms, etc.). In this, as in most things, historical context is key. The US has a long history of state sanctioned violence. Consider the genocide of Native and First Nations people, the ever-present legacy of slavery, the internment, without due-process, of those considered a threat, be they Japanese immigrants or detained in Guantanamo via the War on Terror.  These factors complicate our understanding of who perpetrates violence and against whom and why. Knowing the statistics is important. Knowing the stories, unearthing the legacies, speaking aloud the names of the victims and the survivors is just as important.

●●●

Women’s bodies serve as battlegrounds: metaphorically and practically. “Western” feminists look toward the “East” and see beleaguered women facing oppression at the hands of savage (read:black and brown) men. Never mind that staggering and horrific violence happens in the “West.”  Never mind that the US has never taken a stand to ratify the global Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Never mind international conventions, the US is not able to muster the political will to pass the Violence Against Women Act, or gun control legislation. Never mind that we all have remained  unable to effectively address the phenomenon of rape as a tool of war, so as to prevent women’s bodies from serving as the actual sites of war and conflict.

Despite all these facts, in the wake of this story, outrage began seeping out from the US, the UK and Europe (which I am loosely defining as the “West” – the demarcations of and within these places could be a topic of a separate blog post) at the problem of patriarchal “Eastern” cultures. The narrative looks something like this: Those poor women suffering at the hands of those horrible men. We must loudly proclaim our empathy for those people, who either know no better or are unable to live by our enlightened social standards.

This narrative is racist, homophobic, sexist, heteronormative and imperialist.

And to step away from all that politicalese: it is quite simply just wrong.

Violence is global. It pervades all cultures and communities. Yesterday, in a brilliant conversation, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and one of the main organizers of protests against sexual violence in India and Elora Chowdhary, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, joined Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now to talk about the case and the way it’s being discussed here in the US as well as in India. Chaowdhary says,

So, on the one hand, we see in the Western media some reporters taking this moral high ground and pointing fingers and demonizing Indian culture, as though sexual violence against women is pervasive in only certain parts of the world and that it’s somehow reflective of deeply inherent cultural traditions of that part of the world. Of course, what that obscures is that both rape and domestic violence are pervasive in the United States, and domestic violence being one of the leading causes of injury to women, and exceedingly high numbers of rapes that, in fact, mostly go unreported in the United States. So, I think embedded in these kinds of reporting is a certain colonial mindset, of course, there’s a long history of that. And this kind of mindset that women are the measure of the progress of a society emerges from colonial practices, that these ideas were used to legitimize both colonization and also imperialism.

I don’t say all this to discourage global dialogue. Very much the opposite, in fact. We have much to learn from each other, by sharing our struggles and our victories. Such exchange is key to our success. What we cannot abide however is the reductive and disempowering narrative that allows some folks to offer no local, national or global context. What will not help is an essentialist narrative that paints all (or even most) Indian women as victims and all (or even most) Indian men as perpetrators, by virtue of their culture. We must banish these spectres of our colonial legacy if we aim to build an intersectional, transnational and transformative movement to end violence in our communities.

As I’ve said, violence, here in the US and abroad, is functional. Violence against women, is rooted in colonialism and patriarchy, in their varied and sundry iterations.  We’d do well to keep our eyes on that, and work like hell to dismantle the belief systems, social structures, and institutional practices that support it.

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41 Responses to “A Theory of Violence: In Honor of Kasandra, CeCe, Victoria, Savita and Anonymous”

  1. Frothy Dragon January 4, 2013 at 10:40 AM #

    Reblogged this on Frothy Dragon and the Patriarchal Stone.

  2. bugbrennan January 4, 2013 at 10:40 AM #

    Reblogged this on Name The Problem and commented:
    This is a good read. I especially liked this: “Is masculinity itself violent? Is there a way to be a man/masculine without being violent? What causes violence? What sustains it? “

  3. Janice Graham January 4, 2013 at 11:16 AM #

    Reblogged this on OCG and commented:
    From the Crunk Feminist Collective

  4. Paula Penn-Nabrit January 4, 2013 at 11:25 AM #

    Thanks for this compelling piece. I think there is paradox in many of our conversations about gendered violence. We, especially we women, speak pointedly about the gendered nature of violence and the components that feed its seemingly insatiable appetite. Yet rarely if ever do we speak of our role as women in community with violent offenders. There’s a decided lack of discourse on the role women play in the conception, gestation, birth, growth and development of the purveyors and perpetrators of violence. I think we need to examine the intersection between what happens in our private places and how it gets acted out in our public spaces.

    Yes, we need more gun control, more mental health access, more prayer and more positive energy but that won’t suffice without more tangible involvement by women.
    This isn’t victim blaming. Every act of violence is perpetrated by some Mother’s child. What’s going on in the private spaces of our homes? Why are so many of our sons engrossed by and willing to engage in such extreme acts of violence around the world? Long before these children grow into men who rape and kill they are our babies, our toddlers, our beautiful little boys. What are we doing to them? What are we allowing other people to do to them? Increasingly, acts of violence yields tons of analysis. We explore myriad variables and factors-except those in the private spaces of our homes.

    Are we talking with our sons consistently, and in depth about violence, about masculinity, about living peacefully in community? Are we talking about power, discipline and self-control, about the ability to be both gentle and strong? I’m a process person and the results and say No. Either we’re not having those conversations at all, or we’re not having them enough or we’re not having them in great enough depth to counteract the external conversations our sons are hearing and having in public places.

    It’s disingenuous and dangerous for us as women to act as though we have no agency. If we lack the wisdom or the will to help our sons navigate this rapidly changing world, we need to say so. We need to come together in community with the fathers of our children and with our parents, grandparents, other mothers and the elders, notably the female elders in our communities and ask for help. Clearly we need it; the nexus between causation and prevention is indelible. I’m concerned that if we don’t dig past the surface veneer the trajectory of violence will continue to escalate.

    Women have acquired more education, employment, wealth and political strength than ever before. Will we sacrifice our sons on the altar of those acquisitions? That may be the greatest paradox of all.

    • crunktastic January 4, 2013 at 11:44 AM #

      Men and boys were violent when women (middle class, white) were relegated to being housewives, too. I feel you on embracing intentional anti-violence strategies in our parenting, but women’s education and careers help rather than hinder that process. There are no ironies there.

      • Paula Penn-Nabrit January 4, 2013 at 10:20 PM #

        I think I see your point, however I’m not referencing paradox as irony, i.e, mockery or sarcasm. I’m using paradox in this instance as a reference to dual qualites that appear to conflict. In that sense there is paradox rather than irony in our anger about violence in the midst of our silence about our role in the creation & formulation of violent perpetrators. I think it’s also important to note that the imbalance of power inherent in limiting terms like “housewife” contribute to the lack of agency many women feel in those positions. That simmering anger might be one of the contributing factors in the development of violent male children. And while its logical to presume education is a panacea (and it certainly beats the alternative) but education and careers, in and of themselves do not necessarily help the process of creating and developing holistically healthy families or communities. I see this as a process or design challenge and re-engineering, to be successful, requires a fresh examination of all the component parts. I think we need to be more conscious, more critically mindful and less reactionary in our analysis of this global crisis.

  5. xtica January 4, 2013 at 12:07 PM #

    bravo! reading with tears in my eyes. i can’t even listen to this story from the media , thx for breaking this down and telling it like it is

  6. aelynch January 4, 2013 at 1:25 PM #

    Beautiful & powerful piece, Eesha! Thank you for connecting the dots. Will share widely.

  7. ERose January 4, 2013 at 2:04 PM #

    I’m reminded of the tendency of both men and women in the West to minimize any gender-based issues by talking about how much worse women have it in (insert brown country here). It’s a basic survival tactic of power structures and cultural narratives supported by violence to Otherize it when it happens.
    Most people, or at least, most people I’ve had reason to talk to in-depth, genuinely hate violence in the abstract, even when they subscribe to beliefs and belief systems that enable it. In order for it to “be ok,” they need to find some reason specific violence is divorced from their lives. If each incident can be chalked up to individual irresponsibility or nature gone horribly awry, no one has to see the deep flaws in a system they buy into and that protects them. Once you truly see them, you must either be a coward or a fighter, and neither is a comfortable role.
    We can try to teach our sons and our brothers and our friends all we want, but we can’t force them to be strong enough to look at a rapist and see pieces of themselves reflected back at them. But the more we work to change our culture on all its fronts, the easier it will be for them to look when they do, because the system they support will look less and less like one that also supports violence and masculine strength will be less and less a matter of entitlement supported by physical might and more and more a matter of the strength of character to see, to feel and to embrace growth, no matter how difficult.

  8. sandra cawthern January 4, 2013 at 2:51 PM #

    And so it continues. I!’m 74 years old. I am responsible for my part. I create my behavior of non violence. I choose to associate with non violent groups. It is as important how we are with each other as what we do here. I raise non violent children. I have a non violent family. I advocate non violence. I support non violent initiatives. It seems to me that the culture change can come from above and below. It seems to me that now is always the time. It seems to me that I must be the change I. wish to see in the world. One of my most daunting moments came when I witnessed 2 mindfully, non violently raised 10 yr old boys trash girls in general. They fed off each other in their trash talk. The parents deemed it a phase. For me it is a seed nurtured.

  9. jusRhae January 4, 2013 at 4:01 PM #

    I have but a little to say now, as I am still reading the post. I’d been hearing about the Delhi rape(dont watch tv/own a tv, no net at home-the news makes me sad anyway), yet never ever in detail and I just did a search…and my every thing within me has me quite lost and confused at whether the world will change, in these endeavors. I am saddened and I honestly am completely confused and will have to do something constructive with these feelings within me. The details of the incident…

  10. jusRhae January 4, 2013 at 4:03 PM #

    Reblogged this on Run-On Sentences and commented:
    what can we all do – our part in ENDING violence!!!

  11. counterftnoire January 4, 2013 at 4:15 PM #

    Reblogged this on Murder, Tears (& Cake).

  12. counterftnoire January 4, 2013 at 4:17 PM #

    Reblogged this on Nerd Noire Undercover.

  13. jessica creech January 4, 2013 at 4:28 PM #

    Thank you for expressing so much of what I have been feeling lately. Great post. Great energy.

  14. GeekMommaRants January 4, 2013 at 6:17 PM #

    Women can not be passive in the face of violence. We have to protect ourselves, and stop waiting for someone else to protect us save us. Who do we think will protect us? Who will hurt us? The answer to both questions is men. We must protect ourselves with no expectation of help from anyone but ourselves. The strategy has worked in the past. Why not now?

    I love this blog because of the knowledge and prospective of the authors. Thank you.

  15. Lillie January 5, 2013 at 2:10 AM #

    I am a young American woman living Hyderabad, India on a 10-month fellowship, and I just wanted to say that this post reallyyy helped me think more deeply about the dialogue around the Delhi rape case. Thank you so much!!

  16. goldymarx January 5, 2013 at 6:43 AM #

    Your readers might be interested in several articles that I wrote, regarding rape and Slutwalk 2012. @ http://noentitlement.blogspot.co.uk/

  17. misskinx January 5, 2013 at 3:06 PM #

    Reblogged this on Misskinx's Blog and commented:
    ” Violence is functional……It is a means of asserting and securing power. When violence targets women in the dark of night it ensures, among many other things, that women stay out of the streets. When violence against trans women goes largely unreported in studies of violence against women, it is tacitly legitimated. When violence against white school children raises a national furor and violence against an innocent black teenager wearing a hoodie doesn’t provoke a national conversation about legislating guns, we can see the fault lines. When a football player kills his partner and then himself and we find ourselves knowing his name but not hers, we see which victims matter.”

  18. Zena January 5, 2013 at 9:17 PM #

    Her name – Jyoti Singh Pandey #RIP
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/victim-of-indian-gangrape-is-named-8439740.html

    Thank you for writing this piece.

  19. Talia Lynn Hagerty January 6, 2013 at 5:01 PM #

    Reblogged this on Theory of Change and commented:
    I want to share this recent post from The Crunk Feminist Collective – with a trigger warning – on violence. What interests me here is the functionality of violence. In recent work I’ve been looking at the economic functions of violence, but I haven’t delved into its gendered nature. This post offers an important intro to the functions of violence in general, the gendered nature of contemporary violence (especially in the U.S.), and the importance of the personal stories that culminate in these patterns of violence. These are some important ideas I hope to echo and expound upon in the future. So, what I’m saying is: required reading.

  20. adelia January 7, 2013 at 12:29 AM #

    this is a great piece and watching the coverage of steubenville vs delhi has been very interesting. that said, i’ve lived in india, and i have to say that walking down the street as a woman in places like delhi or benares IS a very different experience than doing so in the US. i’ve encountered violence and harassment in the US too but not nearly on the scale that i have in india, where i was groped (and occasionally worse) on the street at least every few days. that’s not an excuse to ignore the violence in the west, but it’s also essentialist to pretend everything is the same and equal and not look at cultural differences and why they are that way.

  21. Origami Isopod January 7, 2013 at 2:34 PM #

    Why is this transphobe allowed to post here?

  22. eeshap January 10, 2013 at 3:26 PM #

    I’m not going to give to much energy to this post, but I will address it. I make a very clear assertion in my post about sex and gender being two different things. I also make a very clear assertion that the causes and manifestations of violence are intersectional. Denying any depth to the categories of “male” and “female” or to the varying dimensions of gender identity, like this comment does, is really unhelpful and damaging to our goal of ending violence.

    • crunktastic January 10, 2013 at 6:40 PM #

      If you say transphobic shit here, you will be deleted. Be forewarned.

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