This time last year, a friendly handbook on what to do in case of riot or revolution would have been a joke, something you might buy in a gallery gift shop for the sort of friend who owns too many designer cardigans. This year, with various European cities still smoking and shops still boarded up across London after the August riots, the irony has rather faded.
Now, the prominent internet activist group Anonymous, which assisted dissidents in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere, has published a Survival Guide for Citizens in a Revolution, intended, quite seriously, “for citizens who feel they are about to be caught up in a violent uprising”. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get that feeling every time I watch Question Time.
Some of the advice, presented with helpful illustrations of stylised anarchists being beaten bloody by cartoon lawmen, is indisputable. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out that if there’s chaos on the streets, it might be a good idea to pack essential documents and wear sensible shoes. After all, anyone who turns up to a revolution in Manolos is probably either dangerously stupid or the dictator everyone is trying to depose, both of which are great reasons to lie down in a dark, tunnel-like space until it’s all over. A whole page of the guide, however, is dedicated to a ten-point plan for avoiding rape, and includes the following advice: “try to appear undesirable and unattractive”, “never go out alone” and “do not wear skirts”.
The people who wrote this guide mean well, as do most men who instruct women to live in fear for their own good. In normal circumstances, the imprecation to “never provoke” could be read as ugly, common-or-garden victim-blaming, of the type that the ITV presenter Eamonn Holmes employed this past week when he joked, after interviewing a female rape survivor: “I hope you take taxis now.”
Victim-blaming is a part of rape culture that implies that sexual violence is women’s fault for daring to walk in public spaces, use public transport or dress or behave in a way that might arouse or anger a potential assailant, rather than the fault – always and only – of the attackers themselves. The authors of the guide take pains to reassure us that these hypothetical circumstances are not normal: “what might be OK in a stable society” – wearing clothes that show your thighs, for instance – “will get you in deep trouble in times when there is no backed law enforcement”.
In times of social unrest, it is implied, the usual rules do not apply. This is the explanation for doling out precisely the same warning to self-police that women have been given for centuries, in peacetime and in wartime.
In a situation beyond law and order, it might be just as appropriate to counsel potential rape victims to grab the nearest sliver of burning government building and use it to skewer the rapist through his shrivelled, woman-hating heart. Either way, advising women to avoid arousing potential rapists is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of sexual violence, especially in conflict situations. For the half-million women raped by rival militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past decade, sexual violence has little or nothing to do with physical attraction: rape is a weapon of war, a tool of humiliation, power and control.
Shortly after the revolution in Egypt, hundreds of women were assaulted in Tahrir Square by the same men they had stood beside only weeks earlier to overthrow a corrupt regime. Their only “provocation” was to dare to assemble in celebration of International Women’s Day. It was the first inkling we got that there might be more to creating a free Egypt than ousting Hosni Mubarak. These things don’t “just happen” in disorderly situations. These things happen because some men believe that they have the right to police and punish the bodies of women.
Until they stop doing so, any revolution will be incomplete, because women are not just afterthoughts in the global fight against tyranny and austerity. Any “revolution in favour of the people”, of the sort that Anonymous anticipates in its guide, will not be worth having if it does not agitate for social, political and sexual liberation for every single one of its members. To paraphrase Emma Goldman: if I can’t wear a short skirt, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.