December 6, 20 years later

6 12 2009

The Sexual Assault Center of McGill Student’s Society invited me to speak at a beautiful memorial they organized. I was terrified of the prospect, but it felt important to think and write in response to the massacre in the city I now call home. It was great two stand up there following the reflections of two feminist colleagues. Below are my remarks.

December 6th

Fourteen women were killed twenty years ago today for being women. Fourteen others were injured, including four men. The ripples of violence continued as some survivors killed themselves, only to be followed by the suicides of grief-stricken parents. This was a surprise attack by a heavily armed assailant intent on mass murder and suicide. Some students never even saw the shooter before being hit by a bullet. Some students were able to bar him out with a locked door; at least one woman argued with him; many fled; many hid; two huddled women were discovered and executed; some got help in time; fourteen did not. Fourteen women were killed for being women, and many more people were hurt in ways that remain incalculable. There is almost nothing these women could have done. Most violence against women is not like this.

Violence against women, as any shelter or crisis center can attest, is pervasive. The numbers are shocking. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women ages 15 – 44, more common than automobile accidents, muggings, and cancer deaths combined. Many, many women are harassed, attacked, raped, beaten, and too many are killed. When women are beaten, raped, and murdered, it is usually by a lover, a former lover, or a spouse. It is usually in their own homes. Women as a population are subject to disproportionate violence, a miserable state of affairs, which is markedly worse for women of color and poor women.

Women suffer violence not because we are physically meek or simply because men are aggressive and hormonally aflame. Women are attacked, at least in part, because we are powerful, because we are important, because we matter, and because we represent a threat. The women at the Ecole Polytechnique, just over the mountain, were killed because the killer felt that they had taken something from him. They were “feminists” by virtue of occupying traditionally male roles and assuming a power that, to his eyes, was not supposed to be theirs. Batterers often first abuse their partners when they become pregnant. In this case, a woman’s love is experienced as so essential, so necessary, so intrinsic to his sense of self that the threat of being eclipsed by his child provokes a drive to assert his dominion. In an extreme case, he would rather kill her than witness a bond between mother and child greater than the one he experiences with her. Without her love, he risks becoming nothing. So he demands her obedience with his fists, his invective, and her blood.

Men, whether they are queer or straight, need and depend on women – as friends, colleagues, lovers, or mothers – both to get by in life and to feel like worthy people. But, in a society that views such urgent need, dependency, and desire for connection as a form of servitude, it is all too difficult to for boys to grow up without hating the love they feel for women, to hate what ties them down, to kick against the “ball and chain.” It is all too difficult for a society that views dependency as weakness and infantile pathos to cease producing battering men who equate freedom with “rambling” and flying way, free as a bird.

We require a notion of masculinity that is not incompatible with a profound need for connection. While we are at it, we all could use a notion of strength that includes receptivity and responsiveness. Strength and power are not just exerted over others or oneself, but manifest in being able to be touched, helped, and transformed by others. Exposing oneself, earnestly and bravely, is what I call “bad-ass.” We need more men who can love women well. (Hell, we need more women who can love women and ourselves well, too, but I am talking about men right now.) Loving women well—whether those women are mothers, lovers, or friends—means being able to accept our radical need of other people, our need of women. Loving women well also involves being able to respect and to foster women’s power and freedom. It means not only tolerating shows of strength and autonomy in women, but desiring and encouraging them, even when it costs you something. To affirm that they need women without transmuting that dependence into domination, men must affirm that women are free either to give or not to give them what they desire. This is an arduous task and a responsibility that men themselves need to take on.

The massacre twenty years ago today has divided people over whether it was a crime against women or a crime against humanity. In an article in Le Devoir yesterday it was suggested that the film Polytechnique, a film I appreciated in several ways, evinces the maturity of Quebec society, since it shows “both sides.” It shows how men and women were hurt by the brutal attack. Feminism’s divisive lens that highlights the tragic consequences for women and the larger context of misogyny, it is implied, is immature. Feminism’s concern with violence against women ostensibly comprises a narrow perspective, a partisan and partial angle on a larger tragedy. Considering a focus on violence against women to be backward and narrow, I submit, does not betray a laudatory transcendence of feminism’s imagined partiality. The idea that a crime against women is not a crime against humanity presupposes both that women are not human and that violence against women does not hurt men.

Consider the fact, pointed out by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, that 65% of young men in prison for homicide in the US are there for killing their mother’s batterers. Violence against women gravely hurt these boys, and the many more who will grow up with an ugly vision of love, possibly to become abusers themselves. Men need to do something about violence against women not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is one of the main ways that they can hope to enjoy love, connection, and the caress of someone who is an equal in their own eyes, someone whose power doesn’t represent a threat to his manhood.

In the meantime, while men get their shit together, women need to remember that our power lies not only in the soul-sustaining care, affection, companionship, labor, and intellectual rapport that we can offer others. When we are attacked, our power lies also in our ability to break boners, twist scrotums, scratch eyes, stomp on feet, and, especially, to yell, shout, and scream. Despite what the media might suggest, most women who are attacked get away. For every successful rape by a stranger, three women successfully fight him off. These women are not ninjas. They usually have no special training. They simply fight for their lives, and it usually works. It doesn’t always work and there is no foolproof escape. The women who do get raped – and there are way too many – usually fight, too.

Even if it doesn’t work every time, it is worth remembering that there is overwhelming evidence that immediate and forceful resistance dramatically reduces the likelihood of rape and the severity of physical injury. Even when an assailant has a gun or knife, fighting and yelling helps. No matter how small, young, or old we are, fighting helps. Many women, however, act like human beings and attempt to plead and reason with an attacker. This usually encourages attackers; it gives him them notion that it is up to them to assault us or not, it confirms their fantasy that the power is in their hands.

There are many stories of women succeeding with a loud “NO,” a “GO AWAY,” a shout of “911,” a kick, or a jab to the eyes. There are also some stories of ingenuity. With no one around to hear, a friend of mine was jogging at age fourteen at a park in the middle of the day. Her ankles were grabbed. She was pulled underneath some bushes and a man laid upon her. She could barely move. He covered her slight body. She put her arms around him and whispered in his ear, “Sshhhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay, you really don’t have to do this.” The man began to sob and fled. She was small, she was young, she was immobilized and alone, but she was stronger than him.

Consider the story of performance artist Diamanda Galás: “When I almost got raped for the fifth time in my life, this […] guy came up to me while I was opening a door and said (in the dark), ‘This is a rape!’ I said in a bored voice, ‘Oh, really? It’s been a long day. Could I ask you a question—do you have a knife?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then why don’t we just call it off?’ And he called it off! … And as he walked downstairs with me I said, ‘Next time you should be careful, because I could have had [a knife].’” She concludes her story with the remark, “You can get to the point where you’re not afraid – then people see that and what can they do?”

Of course, if they are determined, they can do a great deal. But often, in a world where power seems hard to come by, only accessible to a few, and only available at the expense of others, sad, disfigured men seek out fear and submission as compensation for their lack of any real strength. Sometimes it is all too much for us and the bastards take what they want. Women are not to be blamed for this. But, when we muster the strength, when we gather our forces and support one another without compromise, we contribute to a new world. When our mutual dependency on each other – the women, men, and otherwise gendered who can bare a love of women undiminished by hatred – shows its disruptive and oppositional force, we not only resist, we win. We win a new sense of self; we construct a different form of freedom; we give life to something that can never be killed.

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One response

6 12 2009
hasanasharp

I meant to sign it. This is Hasana.

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