How the working class movement and the left must oppose the special oppression of women.
Confronting Violence Against Women
by Wendy Forrest
A comprehensive survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights surveyed 42,000 women across the EU’s 28 member states. The article states that “Their answers reveal how intimately violence against women is embedded in every aspect of family and social life.”
According to this editorial in the New York Times Weekly, “one third of Europe’s women say they have been subjected to physical or sexual violence form the age of 15 on. About the same percentage say they suffered violence as children while 12 percent say they were sexually abused as children-half by men they knew.” Even more revealing is the fact that “only a relatively small percentage of the women, 14 percent reported the worst instances of abuse by a partner to the police. And only 13 percent reported the worst instances of violence by a non partner. In other words, much of the worst violence remains invisible and goes unpunished.”
Further statistics published by Million Women Rise in the UK further demonstrate the extent and degree of violence against women. The publishers of these statistics call this form of violence a ‘global pandemic”
Recently a male comrade and friend remarked that there is no oppression more hidden than the oppression of women. Aggressively exposing the multiple ways working people are oppressed and abused under capitalism is a key challenge for workers and socialists.
Within the multiple and intersected layers of oppression under capitalism, the oppression of all women and women identified workers, abled and disabled ( the incidence of violence against disabled women is 150 percent greater than among women who are abled) is the most hidden. This alone makes it the most insidious. Violence against women is the most extreme manifestation of this oppression.
This raises several questions. The most obvious being why is this unique form of violence, based strictly on gender and gender -identification, not only so pervasive in cultures worldwide but why is it so difficult to understand and combat? The most alarming aspect of this unique form of violence is that its prevalence and its insidious nature are almost always hidden. It is this invisibility that needs to be exposed, articulated and systematically addressed before we can combat and eradicate this unique form of violence. It is impossible to combat this violence and abuse if we cannot see it----if it is artfully and calculatingly hidden even within our own organizations.
Efforts to push back must start with serious inquiry into why all societies refuse to acknowledge the extent and degree of women abuse, the seriousness of the physical, psychological and emotional damage forced upon working women. But we cannot wait until we have found the correct answers. We must mobilize in our communities, unions and workplaces against all forms of women’s oppression and women abuse.
This being said one of the biggest obstacles to the elimination physical, sexual and psychological violence against working and poor women is the dismal failure to confront male abusers in our midst, in activist and social movements, in revolutionary and all left groups. The urgent need to confront male abusers is further complicated when some women in our male dominated organizations, in order to achieve and maintain credibility and influence, collaborate to deny and hide gender based violence against women and women and women identified members and comrades. This is rooted in their oppression as women and must be understood as such. Too often men in male dominated organizations men will use women as allies – to strengthen their arguments against women victims of abuse and reinforce attacks on women workers and comrades.
When we refuse to expose violence against women we not only undermine unity among all workers but we are part of the problem. By refusing to support, the courageous women who report male abuse we are collaborators in the punishment and re victimization of our women comrades.
It is risky business for women who report sexual and physical abuse. Almost without exception, we are ganged up on. In some cultures we will be killed or banished from our families and communities. At the very minimum we are met with disbelief, denial and minimization. If our abusers hold leadership positions or are influential we face no holds barred attacks to silence and marginalize us.
Almost without exception men rally to support male abusers. All aspects of patriarchal privilege are brought severely down upon women who expose and report male violence and upon her supporters.
Women who refuse to be silenced are subjected to escalated attacks until they are forced out of the organizations. We are not believed. Our experiences are invalidated, we are intrusively and painfully, coldly interrogated, we are called liars and splitters and are often viciously attacked verbally and psychologically. The lifelong effects of their abuse and trauma will be discounted.
For socialists we need to assure that one of our primary concerns and work rests in the struggles of all working and poor women. In order to claim unity in struggle with women workers, to forge solidarity with women in our organizations and movements we urgently need to address the extent and degree of violence forced upon us in every aspect of our lives. The violence experienced every minute of every day by working women worldwide, not only in our homes, in our workplaces and communities but in the very organizations that we struggle within must become visible -we cannot afford to allow this to be hidden and denied.
It is not correct or in any way acceptable to respond to women victims of abuse by saying that because patriarchal structures and violence are constructs and tools of the ruling class, used to divide us, and from there go on to conspire to deny and hide this violence. Working women will soon no longer accept the excuse that exposure of this gender based violence will damage or undermine working class unity.
Too often we hear that we must accept workers into the ranks of our organizations “blemishes and all” and leave it at that. The end result of a stance like this is to deny women workers and comrades the right to fully participate in our own organizations because we risk and fear violence and betrayal from our male comrades. Ultimately any refusal to tackle the challenge of violence against women amounts to collaboration with the enemy, the capitalist class. It serves the purpose of the capitalist class and the bosses because it undermines workers unity when we turn a blind eye and refuse to recognize the facts of women abuse. We can’t afford to indulge in the age old rhetoric that we are against this form of violence and at the same time refuse to dig deeper and do the work to render this hidden oppression and violence starkly visible.
We have to show how and in what way patriarchal structures and methods operate and to flesh out the experiences of abused women, learn first of all to see this violence, then to acknowledge and learn ways to articulate it. This work has not been done in any serious or meaningful way.
A small but revealing example of the failure to seriously and aggressively address violence against women is every March when International Women’s Day rolls around, every left and anti capitalist organization, group and grouplet hurries to gather statistics, revise and update the statements of last year, and roll out their propaganda on/in their websites, leaflets and pamphlets. In reality once our token efforts are circulated and passed out at rallies and marches, the facts of women’s oppression and violence against women are pushed to the margins of discussion, analysis and action for the rest of the year.
When women expose male abusers we invariably are met with a the response that the most urgent and primary task is to unite the working class in struggle against our enemy. We are told over and over again that in order to do so we must not raise issues that may cause conflict among us; that the tasks before us are so pressing and urgent that to address this violence will divide us as a class and undermine our struggle and our unity as a class.
The frightening reality is that every time we look at photos and representations of our class that display row upon row of working men and women standing up against the bosses, fighting against exploitation and oppression, every time we stand up and march with and alongside fellow workers and comrades in struggle, working and poor women are forced to suppress the fact that statistically approximately 1/3 of our male coworkers and comrades are guilty of some form of violence, sexual, physical, verbal and emotional, against the women of our class. This goes for every nation, every culture worldwide.
Yet there is never a "right time", never the "right space" to speak out and address these facts.
Working and poor women are tired of hearing how because the exploitation, abuse and oppression of women is a necessary condition of capitalism, used to divide the working class, we must be wary not to over emphasize it in fear of creating conflict and division among us.
The historical failure of the left to seriously and adequately address this violence and oppression, to make this violence visible and palpable, to spell out in clear terms what it looks like and feels like has to be taken on and combated.
Fundamental questions must be asked, the facts of women’s oppression and violence against women faced head on, or the wounding and crippling affects will never end and we will never be able to achieve genuine unity among and within the working class.
How can we even consider, let alone achieve, working class unity in struggle against a common enemy, when 50 percent of us are subject not to not only grueling hours of "invisible " reproductive labour, the 24 hr work day, but to the ever present risk of rape and other forms of sexual assault, to beatings and attacks on our bodies, our psyches and our emotions. Often to the point where we are forced to flee our homes, are unable to work and raise our families. The debilitating effects, short and long term, of woman abuse are immense and often overwhelming.
And when we "whine", when we speak out, when we expose our oppression in all its debilitating and violent manifestations we are beaten down again by our own male comrades.
So I think we need to be honest and either say we will not address these harsh realities and own the fact that we are failing 50 percent of our class, women and children, or face up to the fact we cannot afford to let the multitude of ways working class women are oppressed and abused remain hidden. Which will it be comrades? The task of educating men in our organizations should not rest with the women. There are millions of pages of literature, thousands of books available to our male comrades. Men in our organizations can choose to be willing to listen to working women when we insist on being heard or they can choose to turn a deaf ear and continue to silence and marginalize us.
Women victims of male violence must insist on being believed. The fact that it is very rare for women to falsely accuse men of violence against them cannot be ignored. Statistics alone overwhelmingly support the almost certain reality that women who expose physical and sexual assault do so at great risk. The majority of assaults on women by men go unreported so great is the risk of further victimization and intimidation.
If we treat women no differently than the capitalist courts and institutions –in reality sometimes worse- if we start from a hostile and skeptical position, from a position of disbelief that interrogates and scrutinizes women who report abuse we not only have failed working women but we augment their trauma-we subject women to further abuse.
Often women are forced to call the police when we are sexually and physically attacked. The threat to their safety may be so imminent and so great that immediate action must be taken. It is often the case that women abused by male comrades, just as in the larger social context, know they will be re victimized and further excluded and traumatized by their own comrades – that there will be no support. When women are forced to call the police they are usually castigated for turning to the “bourgeois state,” to save their lives in some instances it is often because they have no alternative-that they will be treated even worse by the organizations of their class.
We must face down the facts about male abusers and refuse to protect and rally round them. Knowing that virtually all male abusers lie, minimize and project blame on their victims – that this is their starting point -prepares us put in structures and policies that not support women victims of assault but sanction and deal effectively with abusers in our midst.
We have to acknowledge that men who abuse rarely do so just once and that and that the absence of bruises or broken bones does not mean women have not been assaulted and abused. Many women subjected to onslaughts of verbal assault will say that the insidious and brutalizing effects of verbal, psychological and emotional abuse and assault can somehow be just as harmful as physical and sexual assault especially when it occurs over time.
We must prioritize the safety and the rights of women victims of assault and abuse over the rights of men who abuse. Whenever we hear abusers and their allies protest that their rights and entitlements are not taken into account, whenever we hear more concern for their rights and entitlements than for the safety and the well being of the victim(s), then we should be very concerned and wary of claims of remorse or insight on the part of the abuser.
We must work to ensure that all women in our workplaces, communities and our organizations feel safe and are safe even if that means that men who abuse are no longer allowed to be present in these spaces. Women should be encouraged to take leadership positions in our organizations and men must support them when they do. Men in male dominated organizations have to be prepared to step back and step down.
We must defeat the ridiculous and contradictory position that exposing and combating patriarchal privilege will divide working people. Just as we expose and oppose racism in workers organizations we have to oppose sexism and its very real and tangible effects on working and poor women. When we hide the unique oppression of women and women identified workers it all its forms, by allowing violence against women to be invisible, unspoken, we are guilty of promoting and collaborating with the most one of the most vicious and malignant instruments of the capitalist class.
We have to demand the integration of education regarding the oppression of women and all forms of oppression – racism, homophobia, ableism, to name a few, keeping in mind that within every layer of oppression under capitalism women and women identified make up more than 50 percent. Men in our organizations must refuse to instinctively rally around abusers in our midst, refuse to allow women to be silenced and marginalized and forced out of our organizations when we expose male violence against women in our organizations.
Fifty percent of the world’s factory workers are now women. Many, many, other women work in health care and in the huge retail outlets. This is a gigantic shift and potentially gigantic and qualitative strengthening of the working class and the prospects for the world revolution. If we continue to ignore the stark reality of women’s oppression, of violence against women, we fail women worldwide and are doomed to repeat over and over again the same abuses and horrors inflicted upon working women for centuries.
It is impossible to eradicate all forms of oppression in a “better world” if we do not know what these many forms of oppression and violence against women look like.
Revolution is possible but not if we leave the welfare and liberty of 50 percent of workers behind.
Eds: Wendy Forrest is a public sector worker, long time socialist and feminist living and working in Toronto Canada. She is al active in OCAP.