An initiative of the National Women’s Council of Ireland


16 Days of Rethinking Your Definition of Violence

December 02, 2014 at 9:43

© AFP/File

Rebecca Smyth

I don’t even know where to begin.  Be it a typical week or the 16 Days of Action, one story of gendered violence follows another.  ‘Eve-teasing’ in India, a young woman murdered in Germany for trying to help two girls being harassed, Obama’s daughters slut-shamed for wearing skirts (I quote: "Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar”), an exhibition depicting street harassment and violence against women censored in Toulouse for “immorality” and “vulgarity”, a university lecturer in Tbilisi, Georgia murdered by her ex-husband…and of course the endless, daily, unreported incidents of street harassment, intimidation, domestic violence, rape and abuse suffered by not only women, but people who don’t conform to the demands of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

For those of you who think some of these issues are ‘more’ or ‘less’ important than others, for those of you who think that women here in the West should get over themselves and concentrate on the real issues because at least we can vote and drive and wear whatever we want (Edna Krabappel HA!) and go wherever we want (ditto), I invite you to use these next few days to reconsider your position.  Rather than seeing these issues as unrelated and competing for importance, realise that they are all part of the same, ugly mosaic of inequality and bigotry that make up our world.  Every time a man looks me up and down like I’m a piece of meat, or sleazily winks at me even though his wife is standing right next to him, or I fear that this trip home on the metro will be my last safe one because I’ve used up my luck and right to safely move about in public, I am in fact experiencing gender-based violence.  The act itself may be seemingly trivial, but the impact it has is far from it.  And that’s because I recognise, both consciously and unconsciously, that these acts and the constant, low-level sense of threat that I walk with everyday are part of a much bigger web of violence that we are all trapped in.  Academic Liz Kelly calls it “the continuum of violence.” 

The concept of the continuum of violence draws attention to and makes explicit the common causes and purpose of symbolic and actual gender-based violence: keeping women and other marginalised groups in their subordinate place.  It reminds us that wolf whistles, lazy stereotyping and offhand remarks are not trivial, but rather the manifestation of deeper structural and societal hostility to women, people who identify as LGBTQ, ethnic minorities and disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. 

Kelly makes it clear that the forms of gendered symbolic and actual violence are not situated on the continuum ‘hierarchically’, with one form being more or less severe than the other, but rather according to how frequently they occur.  If anything, the forms of violence that occur most frequently, such as street harassment and off-colour jokes, are those most likely to be dismissed by those who can’t know what it is to be on the receiving end of them.  The concept of the continuum of violence draws attention to and makes explicit the common causes and purpose of these more ‘symbolic’ acts of violence and those we traditionally recognise as ‘violence’: keeping women and other marginalised groups in their subordinate place.

So during these 16 Days of Action, take action on yourself.  Take action against the preconceptions and prejudices you maybe don’t even realise you harbour.  Be willing to admit that maybe you’ve been wrong about some things and need to do some homework.  Realise that all these issues are interconnected and lie side by side on an ugly, ugly continuum.  That’s what I’m going to be doing


Rebecca Smyth is on The Y Factor Steering Group. You can read blogs from her and others in our opinion section.