Tuesday, 26 May 2009

"Have you ever been raped?"

NB: This post is more a series of connected thoughts than a coherent argument. I was just struck by some links between random areas of my life.

For a long time, I never referred to myself as a feminist. I preferred to say I was an egalitarian, as I believe men and women possess some different and some similar characteristics but you should never assume someone's gender automatically determines their actions. In addition, just because a man may act one way and a woman another, it doesn't mean that either course of action, or the characteristics that lead to them taking it is more valuable. Societies are unequal when acting in a certain way or displaying a particular characteristic is seen as preferable and normal. Being egalitarian seemed to confuse people, so I eventually gave up and started calling myself a feminist.

I never subscribed to the argument that, physically, women could ever be as strong as men. It can happen, but from all the time I've spent fighting men in Judo, I know it's not that common. But, as a woman, I can move faster, I'm more flexible. And depending on the build of the man I'm fighting, I can be stronger. In short, everything is relative. If my technique is better, I can win. If I fight more intelligently, I can win. In Judo, it's possible, because strength is not paramount. In boxing, however, I would never feel comfortable fighting a man in a proper fight. They'll always be able to hit harder than me, because more of their body consists of muscle. A certain amount of power in the punch comes from your legs. My legs are bigger than most guys I've boxed with, but I store fat there, they just have muscle. Where they have pecs, I have breasts. They don't tone up so well, even if I wanted them to. Unless I all-out body build, I reckon a bloke the same weight and height as me will always hit harder.

It seems I'm not the only one who has noticed this unwillingness to admit the differences. In his latest, really excellent A Point of View", Clive James points out the importance of democracy to feminism by celebrating the election of the first four women MPs to the Kuwaiti Parliament. You have to install RealPlayer to listen to it, but it really is worth it. He gently criticises those feminists in the West who think liberal democracies are not liberal enough.

He makes the point that where violence holds sway, rather than argument, women are always worse off. Even when violence is not the ruling force, you can't argue away the differences. Listening to this broadcast in the car on the way home, a lot of thoughts that had been swimming idly around in my head like lazy tadpoles suddenly coagulated into a shoal of thought with some purpose.

Mainlining The Wire on DVD lately has frightened me because, for the majority of characters in it, death is a constant threat. I know they exist in a world that is a) not necessarily real and b) not mine, but it reached the point where I started feeling the only reason I was alive was because no one had decided to shoot me yet. I haven't done anything to deserve being shot, that I'm aware of, but the frequency of death in the show brought home how fragile life is. There are not many female characters in it, but it does show at times that, give a woman a gun and she can murder indiscriminately with the best of them.

I also recently finished watching Firefly and the last two episodes gave me pause for thought. In the penultimate one, a band of whores fights attempts by a local man with money to try to steal a baby from one of them. They are presented as legitimate business women refusing to kneel under the yoke of a male oppressor. Again, give a woman a gun and she can murder, though this time discriminately, with the best of them. It's all relative. Guns take away the advantage of strength. Clive James makes the same point.

In the final episode, a bounty hunter lands on Serenity and breaks into the ship. He knocks out the captain and sets about disabling the crew in one way or another. In a truly horrible scene, he says to Kaylee, the ship's female mechanic "Have you ever been raped?" in the same way you might say "Have you ever eaten Thai food?" It got me thinking, if someone spoke to me like that, discussing it casually, making it sound inevitable, what would my reaction be? Would I fight them? Would I acquiesce? Patrick and I had a discussion a long time ago about whether we'd be murdered or raped. As I recall, he could come to a definite answer. I really couldn't.

The bounty hunter even says at one point "Men are always stronger than women. Yet it takes a woman to make a child, what's that all about?" No one answers him in the show, but thinking about it, perhaps I'd say you don't need the same kind of strength to make a child as you do to kill someone. It's all relative.

Clive James mentions in his broadcast how some of the first female MPs in Iraq were murdered by men to make an example of them. In a situation like that, when someone tries to kill you, they're frightened of what you represent. Change.

I'm not really sure what my conclusion is, except that I don't want to need a gun to defend myself. Being a feminist or an egalitarian or whatever I am can some times be difficult in a liberal democracy, because it can be hard to distinguish between the important things to get upset about and those that can really just wait. I know for certain that I'm very lucky. I think the TV episodes made me uncomfortable because they made me realise just how cocooned and special my liberty is, compared with a lot of other women out there. I wish there was more I could actively do to help them.

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