Content Warning: Racism, police brutality, r***, sexual harassment, sexism, patriarchal violence
I write this in anger due to the terrible series of events which have shaped the course of this month following International Women’s Day. Anger at the anti-protest bill which has swept across Parliament, anger at the brutal murder of Sarah Everard. How can it be? The British government’s answer to patriarchal violence* is further criminalisation of our collective right to gather, protest and grieve.
I’m writing in solidarity with all protests demanding justice for Sarah Everard and the right to hold the government to account in the form of protest. I also think it is very important to think about the protests and calls for justice for Belly Mujinga, Shukri Abdi, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry - Black women who have been terribly mistreated by our government, media and police. The government is disturbingly deflective when it comes to accountability for patriarchal violence, and the solutions they offer are more concerned with protecting state powers and privileges. The police officers who posed with the bodies of Nicole and Bibaa will face “possible prosecution.” Ambiguity, vagueness, obscurity… the ability to fade away until “it all blows over” is a privilege reserved for the government and its servants, for the police, for Dominic Cummings, for Matt Hancock and his contracts, particularly for white men in power. The government allowed the anti-mask protests to happen with no consequential legislation, yet when it comes to civil rights movements, the government is swift, clear and concrete, rapidly introducing sanctions and restrictions to suffocate calls for social justice.
I can’t help but compare this deflection, deviation and selective decisiveness of the British government to how patriarchal violence operates in society.
Michaela Coel, creator and writer of “I May Destroy You”, explores how predatory men operate within a blurred boundary, with such subtlety or sudden violence, that often victims are left numb, their experiences cloaked by uncertainty, or it happens before you can even realise what’s happening, faced with the familiar dread, a deep discomfort. Coel reaches across the boundaries of fiction and real experience to speak of the tangible threat that all women contend with, the constant re-assessment of danger and the ever looming presence of violence. Violence that many men, even now, still think has to be proven and categorised - violence they believe is specific to men that are criminals, sexual harassers and rapists in dark alleys. In actuality, this violence forms a pattern and is part of a wider spectrum of complicit patriarchal behaviour which all men are part of, whether they like it or not.
Men don’t take women seriously. They don’t think it applies to them, or they try to prove how we’re wrong, or they just ignore us. Which ironically proves how right we are about the lack of respect they hold for us. This is made obvious when men write impassioned Facebook statuses about “not all men”, or when they speak up so aggressively and become vocal about an unrealistic curfew, rather than acknowledging the actual murder of women. Or when they just stay silent. They are so accustomed to their own comfort, they are so entitled, they actually think defending themselves is more important than listening to genuine experiences of women and reflecting on how they can do better. They deflect away from the real issues. That is where the violence is perpetuated. Other men hide behind inaction and ignorance, validated by other men and their denial… and they laugh, refusing to take women seriously, making fun of feminism, belittling feminist opinions, cat-calling, getting away with it. Their comments become more inappropriate, they follow a woman home, they emotionally abuse and control their partner behind closed doors. These men stay ignorant and protected in their own sense of ego which they believe is reflected in the opinions of other men, but if men were to hold each other to account, we could shine a light on this ominous shadow.
I’m considering how the anti-protest bill will protect statues - the fixation with protecting British statues began with the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol - and how the government and media focused on the statues instead of the real issue of racism in the UK. Even though the Winston Churchill statue is defiled by football fans every time there is a game, right-wing groups flocked to protect this particular statue, emboldened by their government to ignore the real issue of systemic racism. There is an obsession with preserving ideas of British heroism, a toxic patriarchal obsession with battle, war, victory, that actively ignores the colonial history of the UK and the Black British history of this country. For me, statues represent the British white male ego, a determination to overlook and ignore reflective dialogue for change, to prioritise glorified ideas of heroism and masculine egos above all else.
I am furious because so many men don't think this dialogue applies to them, which only perpetuates the problem. There is little effort to educate and little community action. We see a self-entitled obsession with protecting personal morality and a subsequent refusal to take accountability for the collective group (a pervasive echo of capitalism’s obsession with individualism). This enables others to take it further, to move unchecked by their peers and hide behind “not all men”, to ignore the perspectives of women, and not bother educating themselves on consent.
These behaviours exist as veiled systems of prejudice on a personal level and within greater government bodies and the police force. I can’t talk about this without thinking about institutional racism and misogynoir.
This ignorance leads to prejudice, inaction and racism; for example, Belly Mujinga - the police delayed opening an investigation concerning her death, leading to inconclusive evidence. Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman - the delayed police response to answer calls from their mother, Mina Smallman, until a relative discovered their bodies… Consider the horrific pictures that were then taken, and the lack of prosecution. Shukri Abdi - the lack of justice, allowing the school to change its name to avoid accountability, instead of getting justice for a little girl with her whole life ahead of her. I can’t help but think about this negligent treatment of Black women and girls by this government and country as a whole. It is heart-breaking when figures of authority don’t take Black women seriously and are only decisive when it comes to restricting rights and protecting power.
Here we have the reality of hyper-vigilance, constantly navigating different variations of patriarchal violence and harassment. We are powerful when we have collective feminist responsibility. The government deviates and deflects from the issue, it puts powerful egos on a pedestal, it further criminalises and divides to protect itself, no one takes accountability, it’s victim-blaming, deflection, it’s deviation, it’s staying silent, it’s “not all men”…
and patriarchal violence thrives in the void.
*Throughout this short essay, I think it is important to emphasise ‘patriarchal violence’ instead of ‘male violence,’ as there are lots of trans people and people in the LGBTQIA community, who are equally affected by the patriarchy as a system of behaviours. I also believe men have the power to be feminist heroes if they start to notice behaviours and call out their peers. There are also women/TERFS/white women who perpetuate patriarchal violence by negating the experiences of other women.
Char Hampshaw / @char_hampshaw
'The Virtual Vigil' is a series of perspectives, emotions and poems written in response to the current political climate. As a feminist art collective we want to use our space to empower the voices of those affected by gender based violence. In doing so, we hope to challenge existing narratives and teach men that they have a collective responsibility to speak up and call out inappropriate and violent behaviours. If you would like to take part in our virtual vigil, please feel welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images by Emily Mort.