academic reorganization · faster feminism · global academy · new year new plan

Seeing Women: Reflections on a New Year

It has been an eventful few weeks, to say the least. When I signed off on behalf of my fellow H&E writers I was anticipating a quiet holiday with a little reading, a little visiting, and a lot of unplugging. Things didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, I found myself glued to the Internet keeping track of the news. More specifically, I found myself confronted once again with the ways in which women are systematically erased and effaced. I found myself thinking about how I might better address the quotidian nature of violence against women, and I found myself overwhelmed. What follows is an attempt to think through four disparate and yet interconnected and recent instances where women have been central news stories, and yet simultaneously and problematically absent.
In the last few weeks four women I have never met have been in the news. I can name two of them, the other two women’s name has been withheld from the media. The women I can name are Malala Yousafzai and Chief Theresa Spence. The women whose names I don’t know have both been in the news because they have been victims of violent sexual assault. One woman’s name is being withheld because of the laws in her country regarding naming victims of sexual assault. The other woman’s name is being withheld to protect her privacy.
If you have managed to miss the news since October, Malala is a fourteen-year-old Pakestani women’s rights activist. She is known for speaking about women’s right to education. She was shot in the head and neck for speaking out on behalf of women’s rights. Just a few days ago she was released from hospital in Britain where she has been recovering since the fall. Chief Theresa Spence first made national news in Canada in the fall of 2011 when she declared a state of emergency in Attawapiskat. Rather than address the issues in Attawapiskat, the Canadian government effectively ignored her requests for aid and, as Chelsea Vowels and others have noted, mainstream media continued to publish inaccurate egregious misrepresentations of First Nations communities and their relationship with the government and the Crown. On December 11th Chief Spence travelled to Ottawa to begin a hunger strike as a last-ditch effort to seize and arrogant government by the lapels and demand — wait for it! — a conversation with First Nations leaders. When Prime Minister Harper finally announced that he would meet with First Nations leaders he made no mention whatsoever of Chief Theresa Spence, who was on the twenty-fifth day of her hunger strike. 
I can’t speak the names of the other two women, because I don’t know them.  One woman was a twenty-three year old physiotherapist. She was gang-raped by six men on a public bus. She was tossed from the bus naked and bleeding. She died on December 29th. The other woman whose name I don’t know is from Thunder Bay. She was violently and sexually assaulted because of her race. Indeed, her assailants intimated that they were assaulting her as a kind of response to the peaceful, grassroots #IdleNoMore movement.
These four women have been in the news, but their presence in the news underscores — for me, at least — a pernicious and violent cycle of erasure. While all four of these women come from different contexts and are in the news for different reasons what strikes me as undeniable is the ways in which they have been erased by the media. What do I mean, besides the obvious lack of naming? Carol J. Adams has an evocative term for explaining the ways in which systematic violence covers its tracks. This happens through what she refers to as the function of the absent referent, which is a radical severing of the referent from view. Adams’ example comes from the ways in which the language around butchering renders an animal into an object, thus obfuscating the violence needed to render “cow” into “hamburger.” Patriarchal society works the same way, she argues. Gendered violence gets turned into a singular act. Atrocious? Yes. Lamentable? Definitely. But rather than look closely at the ways in which inequity and systematic gendered, raced, and classed violence are built into the fabric of social life these acts of violence are made singular anomalies. 
So what do we do?
While I certainly don’t have a singular and finite answer for these pernicious and systematic violences, I have found some important cues in the kinds of coalitions that have come from the #IdleNoMore movements. Here are a few things I have learned or been reminded of in the last month:
1)   Form coalitions and teach others about solidarity.
2)   Share knowledges
3)   Articulate clear aims, and clearly articulate your grievances and concerns
4)   Be preemptive, be public
5)   Stand firm against oppression, and stand with friends and allies.
So, after a holiday season that reactivated my activism outside the classroom, I am resolving to return to teaching with a renewed sense of purpose. Pedagogy is for me a site of profound possibility and responsibility, and the classroom is a site of potentially radical change. I am returning to the classroom with a renewed sense of resolve to articulate, address, and discuss difficult issues with my students.
Welcome back, y’all. Let’s make this a truly new year.

4 thoughts on “Seeing Women: Reflections on a New Year

  1. Thank you for this incredibly informative, clarifying, and inspiring post. I definitely agree with your five points, but achieving those aims can be difficult. My question is also, how do we take those steps when being vocal about any time of gendered violence or oppression can place us at risk (academically, professionally, emotionally, and certainly physically)? I think that is the primary reason why I have withdrawn–or refused to give–my public support to various coalitions, although I continue to quietly offer support and to disseminate information on a smaller scale.

    Also, Welcome Back! And Happy New Year.


  2. Thank you for the post, Erin. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Stephanie. I too have followed the broadcasts about these women over the last few months. And grieved. And wondered how we could refuse systemic violence and shift the status of the “severed, absent referent.” I understand your fears, Stephanie. I have children and worry constantly about their safety–more than I worry about my own.

    Unfortunately, children, not just women, must be included in the stats on the people least protected and recognized in the violent formula that begets absent referents. Children must also be treated with respect and dignity, not as fetishized objects or inconvenient objects mostly ignored by adults (because 'adults are so much more important'), but as people with rights and privileges–and especially rights for safety, well-being, and protection. Until children are recognized as equal members with recognized rights in society, violence will not only continue–against all groups who can claim difference or who threaten the perceived dominant, status quo–it will likely escalate…

    I mention these points because children live under the threat of violence or neglect every day in their schools, the playground, and/or any of their inhabited spaces etc. They are exposed to violence from their peers, their supposed caregivers, teachers, strangers, parents, or any one who might have access to them. Often, children cannot describe, speak out, confront, or process what is happening or has happened to them–convenient for predators unless children are taught how to protect themselves or they are given the opportunity/encouragement to speak for themselves.

    I raise this issue too, for Malala, but also to say that there seems to be a direct connection between how children are treated, recognized socially, and the systemic violence against other groups. Daily violence against children is not only allowed but also often condoned socially or not perceived as violence (“oh, they are just acting like boys”). Superficially, it follows that if violence against the most vulnerable group of people in a society is allowed then violence against other groups will occur. Yes, there are separate issues in regards to gendered violence but ALL children are exposed to violence and often on a daily basis.

    Of course, this is not the only reason for systematic violence but more awareness of the above described issue may go a long way in educating not only children but adults about violence and how it can become scripted and inscribed in rhetoric and actions–and this kind of scripting can only promote more violence.

    All good wishes for 2013,



  3. I think you make an excellent point, Carmen. Violence against children is reflective of similar modes of thinking about human value–but on practical terms it also perpetuates cycles of abuse. Children who are abused grow up to be adults who are at greater risk of being abusers and abused. Women with traumatic histories have statistically higher risk of being sexually assaulted, which is just one example of the impact of childhood trauma on adult experience (connecting child abuse to gendered violence). And the dismissive attitudes toward children who are neglected and abused illustrates some of the same seriously problematic social values (and lack of consideration for the value or worth of particular persons) which permeate discussions surrounding gendered violence.

    We need to work on making our spaces safer. Even though tending to the larger spaces, for instance of a university campus, may not be feasible, we should find ways to create pockets of safe space–and not just physically safe, but intellectually as well. These should be spaces where we can discuss these issues and do something–no matter how small–to effect change. There are, of course, women's organizations and the like on campus, but maybe students should be made more aware of these opportunities, and encouraged to join. Me, I'm just not much of a joiner and I am terrified of bureaucracy. I also have to admit that some women's organizations are a bit too out there and might alienate a lot of women, so I'm not sure how to find that balance.


Comments are closed.