Nia Sanchez, winner of Miss USA 2014, is a black belt in taekwondo and has suggested women learn to defend themselves. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Suggesting women learn self-defence is the opposite of victim-blaming

In a perfect world, no woman would need to defend herself from attack. But until that world arrives, learning self-defence is a solution that defies the patriarchy’s attempt to impose passivity and blame on women.

It was getting dark. I was walking home alone. A man came up to me and started walking close to me. Too close. I stopped. He stopped. I crossed the road. He crossed. I turned round and started walking in the other direction. So did he. In the end I ran as fast as I could out of the residential area and sought refuge in a nearby shop. He waited for me outside, for a long time. I’ve never stopped feeling angry and ashamed.

I was in a club. My friends left me with a friend of theirs who was going to give me a ride home. I was in a strange city. Instead of taking me home, he took me to his flat. I went upstairs with him – I didn’t know where I was. And I trusted him. He tried to undress me. I said no. He didn’t listen. When he was finished, he drove me home. I never told anyone. I thought it was my fault.

Although these are not the only times I’ve been threatened with, or actually sexually assaulted, they are the two occasions I think back on most often. Like many victims, I relive them and experience that hot shame that never seems to get any easier to bear – and I daydream about how they might have been different. To the man who followed me, who enjoyed and smirked at my fear, I wish I could have turned and faced him, called his bluff, knowing I had the skills to fight him if he intended to do more than show me he could drive me off the street with his mere presence. To the man who assaulted me: I wish I’d felt I could push him off and keep him off. That I didn’t just have to stay there and let him do what he wanted.

Let him do it. I know that’s not the politically correct, the fashionably feminist way of looking at it. I know that technically, they did it to me. My consent, coerced, unwilling, terrified out of me as it was, had nothing to do with what happened to me. But that doesn’t get rid of the rage and the shame. The sense that I gave them what they wanted. The sense that I was weak. I know (rationally) that it was their fault, that my actions are irrelevant. But I never remember these incidents without wishing it had been different. Wishing I had been different.

On Sunday, Miss Nevada was crowned Miss USA. Nia Sanchez is a black belt in taekwondo, and, in answer to a question about sexual assaults on campus, she suggested that women learn to defend themselves. Cue social media outrage. Don’t teach women to defend themselves; teach men not to rape, went the general refrain.

Well, yes. We do need to teach men not to rape. Obviously we need to teach men not to rape. We need to teach men that women’s bodies are not their rightful property: we are not there to be leered at, to be wanked over, to to be violated. To be beaten and killed for refusing. But, and this is a big but, this is what is happening, and slogans are not enough. When we live in a world where a man who went on to kill six people in a shooting spree can write a 141-page manifesto about the dumb blonde sluts he intends to kill, who denied him his rightful access to their bodies; when we live in a world where other men will, instead of outright condemning his action, hedge their comments with implications that they understand where he’s coming from, that they, too, have been relegated to the dreaded “friendzone”; when we live in such a world, and we do, we need more than slogans. We need solutions.

Before sexists all over the country throw up their hands in joy at a feminist finally agreeing that men are slavering fools who simply can’t control their lust, and that women should not wear short skirts and go out alone in public for fear of “tempting” their blameless rapists, that women should indeed be seen as objects like laptops and wallets left lying about in unlocked cars, or houses with their doors left open, that is not the solution I am proposing. For a start, those are not solutions, since the vast majority of victims are raped by someone they know, in their own home. The stranger myth is exactly that: a myth. And a damaging one.

Advocating that women learn self-defence, on the other hand, is not only a solution, but it is the exact opposite of saying women should stay at home. It is the exact opposite of telling women how to dress. And it is the exact opposite of how patriarchy tells women to behave: nice girls take our subjugating violation and perhaps shed a quiet tear about it afterwards. They simply do not go around punching the hell out of their assailants. But my god I wish I could go back in time and do that.

To advocate self-defence is not to say, as critics of Sanchez imply, that a victim of a sexual assault is to blame for her assault. I know that there is nothing I could or should have done differently at the time. I protected myself as best as I could. I know that it was not my fault I couldn’t fight back – in a perfect world, I shouldn’t have to. It is also not to say that self-defence is the full solution – or the only solution. I too want to fight for that perfect world. I want to fight for proper sex education. I want to fight against the blanket portrayal of women as nothing more than the sum of their sexyfied parts and holes. But you know what? Until that world comes, I also intend to arm myself with the ability to fight for my right to go out, to get drunk, to wear and do whatever the hell I want, with a well-directed knock-out blow.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.