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31 March 2017

Why did a judge describe a woman made to drink bleach as not “vulnerable“?

The case of Fakhara Khan should make us ask: can a woman be too privileged to need feminism?

By glosswitch Glosswitch

The husband of Fakhara Karim ordered her to kill herself. He took her into their bathroom, forced her to drink bleach and grabbed her neck so hard she thought she was going to die. On another occasion he beat her with a cricket bat, telling her “if I hit you with this bat with my full power you would be dead.” When he wasn’t physically assaulting his wife, Mustafa Bashir was telling her who to see, what to wear and how to spend her money. He subjected his wife to a reign of terror, and did so knowingly, as your everyday, loving abuser invariably does.

After pleading guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm, Bashir was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment suspended for two years. During sentencing, Judge Richard Mansell QC declared himself “not convinced” that Karim was “a vulnerable person”: “Sometimes women who moved here from their country become trapped in a relationship where they lose their support network of family and friends and cannot speak the language. This is not the case [Karim]. She is plainly an intelligent woman with a network of friends and did go on to graduate university with a 2:1 and a masters.”

These comments have provoked outrage, with many believing Bashir’s light sentence to have been based on the idea that Karim was too privileged to have suffered real harm. Indeed, upon reading Mansell’s words, I was reminded of Judge Sir John Leonard’s claim, following the 1986 Ealing vicarage rape, that the trauma suffered by Jill Saward was “not so very great.”

How can women trust in a system that ends with powerful men deciding whether or not the terror they endured has harmed them all that much? Why isn’t the fact of what was done to these women’s bodies and minds enough? Must a woman be utterly destroyed before her abuse becomes worthy of note?

As the blogger the Secret Barrister has pointed out, the ruling in the Bashir case is complex. Whereas Leonard’s comments revealed a startling lack of empathy, Mansell’s can be situated within a requirement that judges consider “factors indicating greater harm,” one of which is whether or not the victim is “particularly vulnerable because of personal circumstances”: “It’s an odd exercise to ask a court to engage in, perhaps, but that’s what the Sentencing Council in its wisdom instructs judges to do: arrive at a hierarchy of vulnerability and pin the victim somewhere within.”

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Does that make things any better? Personally, I don’t think so, not least because one thing that is not mentioned in the Sentencing Council guidelines on domestic violence is sex. If we are going to start claiming that “some victims of domestic violence may be more vulnerable than others,” I would have thought sex difference must be considered at least as significant as “cultural, religious, language, financial or other reasons.” After all, 78% of those killed by a partner or former partner between 2001/2 and 2011/12 were female. 54% of rapes in the UK are committed by a woman’s current or former partner. It is not irrelevant that Bashir is male and Karim is female. On the contrary, that, more than anything else, is what puts the latter most at risk of stalking, rape and retaliatory violence. We can forget whether or not Karim has a degree; far more significant is the fact that she has neither a male body nor decades of male socialisation behind her.

But for all the fury surrounding the Bashir case, I don’t hear many voicing such a view. Knee-jerk outrage at the idea that a woman’s academic record makes her less vulnerable is one thing; a serious analysis of what does make a woman vulnerable is quite another. I have to say it doesn’t surprise me. It seems to me that no matter whom a woman turns to – be it her partner, the courts, the right, the left, feminists, men’s rights activists – she will be measured against a “hierarchy of vulnerability” in which her sex is considered the least important thing of all.

While openly anti-feminist organisations will claim that this is because women are not discriminated against as women at all, more enlightened groups have found more subtle ways of putting it. Even so, the outcome – a lack of empathy and compassion for any abused woman who cannot display a more “significant” vulnerability than femaleness alone – remains practically the same.

Men from both ends of the political spectrum exploit the idea of the “privileged female” to suggest that sex does not constitute a significant axis of oppression. The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill complains of “young, opinionated new media feminists who get handsome advances to write books spluttering about ‘white male privilege’” being “far more privileged than many of the white males they splutter about — especially the ones who empty their bins or sweep their roads.” In the Guardian Nick Cohen invites us to “google the number of times ‘straight white males’ are denounced by public-school educated women in the liberal media and think how that sounds to an ex-miner coughing his guts up in a Yorkshire council flat.” It may be churlish to note that neither O’Neill nor Cohen, although both white and male, are ex-coal miners or road sweepers themselves (or to ask them to consider how their words might sound to a public-school educated woman who’s been forced by her partner to drink bleach). Nonetheless, their willingness to invoke other axes of oppression in order to minimise what misogyny is and does betrays a startling level of ignorance about feminism (or, to put it another way, about any political thought that does not centre men).

In Mapping the Margins Kimberlé Crenshaw proposed that “the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite – that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences”: “In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class.”

One example Crenshaw uses is that of Anita Hill, the woman who accused supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill’s situation, writes Crenshaw, “fell between the dominant interpretations of feminism and anti-racism.” Even though Hill was a Black woman, only Thomas, a Black man, could be positioned and empathised with as a potential victim of racism. An unwillingness to see sexism and racism as anything other than competing narratives, rather than overlapping, intersecting experiences, rendered Hill’s own story of oppression untellable. Similarly, while Fakhara Karim might have won the judge’s sympathy had she conformed to certain racial stereotypes regarding “women who move here from their country,” she liberated herself out of having a story to tell. There is a fixed narrative regarding the way in which “those women” are oppressed; the vulnerabilities Karim experienced due to her race and sex are simply unspeakable.

Both O’Neill and Cohen compartmentalise sexism and class-based oppression in order to create their own “hierarchies of vulnerability.” What is more, just as in the Hill/Thomas scenario, it is the male experience which is considered more significant. Catherine MacKinnon has suggested that “if your oppression is also done to a man, you are more likely to be recognized as oppressed, as opposed to inferior [… ] A woman is just a woman – the ontological victim – so not victimized at all.” Sexism itself becomes not oppression, but a form of “privilege lite”. White, straight, middle-class women aren’t oppressed as women; they merely enjoy a low-fat, pinkwashed version of white, straight, middle-class male privilege. As for working-class women, lesbians and women of colour – well, they need to demonstrate (as Karim failed to do) that the oppressions they experience are “proper” ones.