Priya Chand: The perilous politics of patriarchy

Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

Within our global consciousness, 'violence against women and girls' (VAWG) has become normalized. It seems the greater emphasis we place on VAWG, - the greater the cognitive dissonance becomes in terms of taking action.

The Pacific Island region has the highest rate of violence against women in the world. On average, more than 60% of women and girls face sexual and gender-based violence. Yes - you read that right. And if reading that didn't give you goosebumps - then my message becomes all the more clearer.

I'll give you a few personal observations:

A female colleague was accused of showing too much 'attitude' by a male colleague when she joked around about walking on a hot day to a certain destination. And that it was noticed by the 'bosses'. She was then (via Facebook chat) told 'only if you learn to hold the right end of the stick, will you go a long way.

I was once given a scenario and asked who was 'more' responsible for breaking a marriage via infidelity - man or woman? I answered both because it was a choice made by both.

I was told I was wrong because the woman should have known better, that she should have been more concerned of her reputation - and I should stop being such a feminist.

A male acquaintance said to me once "Unless and until you make a woman cry, she will never be in your control".

In another case, a simple lunch date showed the underlying issue of mind-set of a male colleague when he ordered this woman to 'be ready in five minutes, I will pick you up.' When she asked him where the word 'please' was, she was told 'you're being picked up and dropped off woman, gift horses." When she told him she didn't ask to be, he replied: 'but you were glad I offered.' The woman insisted on taking a cab (and she did) - she was told: you are a hard woman to please.

And in the most recent encounter, a law male student, in a keyboard brawl, on the issue of VAW, spat out things like : 'sometimes a slap helps rather than mere words, not saying you raise your hands all the time but in certain circumstances - yes it would help - I say a slap would get her on track', 'she should improve her ways for the betterment of the relationship and not get slapped'

A female friend was once told by her male friend: I could rape you right now and you will not be able to do anything about it.

I could go on and on - but need I say more? If the above scenarios don't make sense to you, and you're asking yourself, so how does the above lead to sexual and gender-based violence, let me elaborate.

You see, on the surface, the above encounters may not look damaging. But they can actually be lethal. Why? Because they reveal the underlying issue of patriarchy or male supremacy that is pervasive globally, and is acutely felt in Pacific Island communities.

Examples of subordinating women and girls through gender stereotypes or cultural practices that do not give them any sense of agency is treated as commonplace. And this highlights the male privilege men are born with. Patriarchy is a system of belief - that the majority of the world grows up with -- that gives men the right to overpower and control women. Within this framework, violence is not only possible, but often sanctioned.

Rape, for instance, isn't about sexual pleasure. If a man were seeking pleasure - he would seek consent. Pleasure is consensual. Rape is forceful - it is about power and control. It is about women 'begging' to stop, it is about violating her - and feeding an inner need for dominance and supremacy.

If a man's wife didn't cook dinner on time - and the man is slapping her to 'set her straight' - there's more than one thing wrong with that. One - no one should be obliged to cook for the man. What's with the gender stereotyping? Two - by slapping her, the man is exerting his self-proclaimed power over her.

From the examples above, if a well-educated man feels that making women cry gives him the power of controlling her, or if a well-educated man thinks that the burden of blame weighs more on the woman in cases of marital breakup via infidelity, or if, even ONE male law student feels 'slapping her will set her straight', is the normal mode of thinking - then there is something seriously wrong in our social and educational systems.

Education is key in combating VAWG, but if we're letting cultural norms (the culture that we created ourselves and passed on to generations after generations), and gender stereotypes shape the education system - then we're back to square one where men assume the leading role.

It doesn't stop there. These patriarchal norms have been so greatly embedded into our systems, that they permeate our justice systems - perhaps even unknowingly because the very issue is the normality of the subordination of women and girls.

In a report on judicial sentencing practices of SGBV against women in the Pacific Islands, ICAAD revealed that the consideration of gender stereotypes and cultural norms raised in courts led to actual sentence reductions - which contradicts the very purpose of seeking legal justice. These are cases that are reported, mind you -a vast majority cases never get reported.

It is rare that the values and cultural norms which lead to this inequality are expressed in writing. One place in which these values and cultural/societal norms are captured in written form is in the judgements and sentencing remarks of magistrates and judges in SGBV cases.

The report produced by ICAAD provides evidence that in the Pacific, out of 90% of domestic violence cases where contentious factors (those that when used in mitigation by the court, discriminate against the victim on the basis of gender), were raised, 66% led to a reduction in sentencing. For sexual assault cases, contentious factors were considered in 73% of cases and this led to a sentence reduction in 50% of the cases.

Making laws is one thing, but implementing them in practical terms is a completely different thing. If sentences are reduced on discriminatory grounds, it reaffirms to perpetrators that they can get away with rape and domestic violence.

By meting out low sentences and reducing sentences based on gender stereotypes or cultural practices, the court signals that the gravity of the crime is not serious, that male privilege trumps the victim/ survivors desire for accountability, and that victim/ survivors are partially to blame for the violence. Which means -justice is not served.

If the above is not evidence enough for one to understand the fatal role and impact of patriarchy in our society, then I don't know what else will. If the above is not enough to want to change the mind-sets of our boys and girls when they're growing up, and in our school systems - then I don't know what will ever be enough.

When someone tells me to stop being a feminist - I often wonder if they know what the term itself means. I also wonder if people know that women's rights are, in FACT, human rights.

So the next time you read about a woman being subjected to male violence - I hope you understand that she is being denied her human right to live freely and without fear. And beyond understanding, I hope you actively challenge attitudes and behaviours that create the foundation for VAWG.

We are moving into 2016! Smash patriarchy and let women and girls live a life of dignity, free from fear of violence and discrimination! #HearHerRoar

Priya Chand is a communications volunteer consultant, (Fiji) at the International Center for Advocacy Against Discrimination (ICAAD) - Based in New York.

- NZ Herald

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