White Ribbons and Shades of Grey

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Today, I had mixed feelings towards White Ribbon Day.  And I don’t think I was alone.  There is no doubt that violence against women is wrong.  So wrong.  So wrong that it’s obvious that you should never ever do it…? Then, if so, why do we need this day?  Is there anyone that actually thinks it is okay?

I find it really difficult to acknowledge that just because of the body I was born into, I fear the world in a way that my larger, stronger, (whiter,) male contemporaries don’t.  I don’t accept rides, accept drinks, go on public transport late at night, engage in conversations with strangers, stand up to strangers even when they act like a**holes/chauvinists/other sorts of bigots, walk in the dark, fall asleep in random places, go out somewhere without telling someone, go home without telling someone.  I over-analyse people because I feel I have to trust the people in my company absolutely because basically there is nothing I can do if they turn out to be questionable/abusive/violent (at least to avoid the initial instance of abuse).

Accepting that one needs the protection of another is painfully humbling, especially as a daughter of the “girls can do anything” generation.  But, in the same way that an over-persistent, unwanted suitor can be abated by the mention of (even a fictional) boyfriend/husband, it is the unsavoury reality that the type of men who perpetuate violence against women respond better to being told not to do it by other blokes, rather than by “hysterical feminazis”.

We were holding morning teas in our offices, across various floors and locations.  With my stubborn anti-patriarchal attitude, I was tempted to girlcott the events because we were encouraged to bake something and just as a general rule I don’t bake stuff when men tell me to.

But, I have kind of missed the point. This is not about me.  This is not about baking.  This is not about women being forced into kitchens.  This is about women being forced into situations where they are the victims of violent acts in a culture that allows this to perpetuate.

A few weeks ago, I was at Sydney Central Station with some colleagues viewing Sydney Trains’ operations centres. We saw what appeared to be an instance of domestic violence; a young woman screaming and being grabbed at by the male in her company, in an alcove, somewhat away from the public eye.  I’m ashamed to admit that it took me a little while to process and then take some action.

I turned to my female colleague and said, “What do we do?”

We discussed the options:

Intervene physically = risk being injured

Intervene verbally = risk the aggravation of the perpetrator, especially if the girl was just really upset about something else and he was trying to comfort her

Do nothing = see the number of women murdered by partners increase by one on my facebook feed later that evening? Or, equally likely, nothing happens…

In the end, I reported it to the security at the station and they intervened.

I think I did the right thing here for my own safety and while still being concerned with that of the woman involved, but it took me a moment to do something because things like this are really, really grey. The White Ribbon website has some step by step guides for guys to deal with situations such as this.  Perhaps if I’d read these before I’d have acted differently.  Or maybe not?   I’m not the target audience for this campaign so I’m not really in a position to judge its effectiveness.

There are so many intricacies wrapped up in the issue of violence against women – culture, alcohol and drug abuse, sexist language, mental illness, shame, socio-economic factors, unemployment, education, gender roles, consent, privacy, victim blaming – a white ribbon is not a silver bullet.

But it’s a start.

And a conversation starter.

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