If the prevalence of violence against women in a society can serve as a measure of how peaceful that society is, it is clear that we still live in very conflictual times. Activists such as Gloria Steinem have been powerful advocates to give victims of violence and discrimination a voice and help shine a spotlight on this issue. We spoke to her about why violence against women is such a pervasive problem, how it can be tackled, and how far the fight for women’s rights has really come.

On June 13, the European Commission signed the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and girls. The convention, which was adopted by the Council of Europe in 2011, is a comprehensive international treaty designed to work towards combatting violence against women and domestic violence. The move was welcomed by women’s rights groups who hailed it as an important step for the EU and a crucial indication that the EU has the political will to take real action in this area. “Finally, 22 years after the adoption of the Beijing Platform for action, the EU is giving the world a robust message about its commitment to fight this pervasive form of women’s rights violation” said Edith Schratzberger-Vécsei, President of the European Women’s Lobby, in a statement.

In a statement, the Commission stressed the EU’s commitment to putting an end to violence against women, adding that it was dedicating 2017 to fighting this alarmingly prevalent problem. Gender-based violence is pervasive across Europe yet is rarely made a priority on the political agenda. Women of all ages, nationalities, and social backgrounds are affected, and it is a type of violence that occurs both within the home and outside it. Rather than being provided with support, victims are all too often undermined, ignored, or subject to further trauma and obstacles when seeking justice.

A backlash after the ‘frontlash’

To highlight this pressing issue, earlier this month the European Women’s Lobby organised a public event and a demonstration, “Loud and United to end violence against women and girls”, in Brussels. Veteran journalist and pioneering feminist writer Gloria Steinem delivered the keynote address at the event, in which she stressed the interconnection between all forms of violence against marginalised groups in society, and the need to take this into account when developing a strategy to combat this violence. “It is not possible to combat gender-based violence without at the same time fighting racist, nationalist, and other forms of violence,” stated Steinem, adding that violence against women, like all forms of violence, was deeply rooted in long-standing historical patterns and systems of domination – in the case of gender-based violence, with the aim of controlling women’s bodies and reproductive capacities, and thereby ultimately controlling women themselves.

To be fully understood, Steinem contends, violence against women and other marginalised groups must be seen in a historical and social context: “These are what I call ‘supremacy crimes’ – crimes in which there is no gain, and no winner. They are crimes committed by people to maintain a certain place in a hierarchy which they have been told they are entitled to. When that place is challenged, this leads to violence.” For Steinem, these individual incidents are part of the same phenomenon which led to the election of Donald Trump – itself a kind of backlash against a perceived loss of privilege and power from certain segments of the U.S. population.

Liberation movements are experiencing such an intense backlash precisely because of their increased success and progress in the emancipation of marginalised groups such as women.

This backlash has manifested itself across Europe and many parts of the world in myriad forms: from the rise of the far-right to Brexit, from increased nationalism to xenophobic attacks. But, as with all backlashes, it has been catalysed by what Steinem calls the ‘frontlash’ – the increasing acceptance of both men and women’s rights to bodily integrity, but also, beyond this, to self-government and self-determination, across the world. Why the backlash now? “Because we’re powerful, because we’re winning”, asserts Steinem defiantly.

Steinem believes this backlash is losing momentum, however, citing the huge fall in Breitbart News Network’s viewings since Trump’s election and the decline of success of the far-right across Europe since Brexit as indicators of this – “it’s not that they’re not doing well, but they are not in the majority”. Drawing an analogy between the wider social justice movements across the world and intimate violence against women, because “all violence starts in the home”, Steinem states that just as a woman in a violent household is in the most danger – of being beaten or murdered – when she is just about escape, these liberation movements are experiencing such an intense backlash precisely because of their increased success and progress in the emancipation of marginalised groups such as women. “A lot of us are at this point of escape, because we have the majority opinion behind us now, which we never had before. We are about to be free. That means two things: we are at a point of maximum danger and maximum possibilities.”

If one good thing has come out of Trump’s election, for Steinem, it is an incomparable surge of energy and activity, a “galvanising of activism like nothing I have ever seen in my life, a thousand times more, even than the protests against the Vietnam War.”

Reproductive rights: when the personal is political

Key for Steinem for advancing women’s rights is understanding that the personal is political – “we repeat in our personal lives – in a minute form – the mega form of what the problem is”, she states. This is because women’s bodies are crucial to the reproduction of the society and of the nation – “women are controlled as the means of reproduction. If we didn’t have wombs, we’d be fine.” Our bodies, therefore, argues Steinem, “from a sexual and reproductive viewpoint, are our first claims to safety and to bodily integrity.”

In the European Union, many infringements of reproductive rights have yet to be overcome. There are still four countries where terminating a pregnancy is denied or severely restricted (Poland, Ireland, Malta, and Cyprus). In Italy, 70% of gynaecologists refused to carry out abortions on the grounds of conscientious objection, restricting women’s self-determination regarding pregnancy. Rather than moving in a positive direction, women’s reproductive rights are under new threats all over the world; President Donald Trump has introduced the gag rule – which means that any US aid-funded organisations will have their funding withdrawn if they so much as mention abortion – and the Polish government had planned to pass a bill shortening the legal timeframe for an abortion to an extent that it would effectively become almost impossible to obtain one, before it was forced to back down in the face of a coordinated counter-mobilisation in the form of the ‘Czarny protest’ campaign. These recent attacks on established women’s rights chimes with secretary-general of the European Women’s Lobby Joanna Maycock’s words that women’s rights – even once enshrined in the law – are never safe and are always in danger of being watered down or even removed.

Denying women their reproductive rights has profound repercussions on every aspect of society – and even on the environment. When it comes to climate change, for example, giving young women access to education and contraception would be an important way to tackle this problem, rather than forcing them to bear unwanted children which aggravates the situation and as such should be regarded as a root cause of climate change, in Steinem’s view.

‘Double Jeopardy’: race and gender

Controlling women’s bodies is key also to maintaining separations based on race, class, and caste – which is why fighting against these is inseparable from fighting for women’s rights: “In order to maintain hierarchies of racism or class or caste, to maintain that separation in the long run, you have to control reproduction.” This need to control women’s reproduction in order to maintain certain hierarchies can be seen in many taboos about women marrying outside of their ethnicity or class and the control exercised over female relations’ sexuality and marriage by male relations – especially fathers – of all ethnicities and groups.

Steinem emphasises that in the US, race and gender was always understood to be very interrelated – though in the 1970s intersectionality was called ‘double jeopardy’. Ms Magazine, the magazine founded by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, in its first ever poll in 1972, found that support from white women on women’s issues stood at around 30%, while the level of support was closer to 60% from African American women. This was also reflected in Trump’s recent election in the US, with white women voting for him in far greater numbers than any other group of women despite his views and statements widely regarded as sexist.

Women may experience restriction differently or have to contend with racism as well as sexism – as Steinem puts it, “in my country, white women were imprisoned on a pedestal, and as a feminist of anti-slavery era said to her white sisters, a pedestal is as much a prison as any small space. The women of the so-called superior caste may get better food and dentistry, but they’re restricted terribly, and the women further down the hierarchy, be it racial or class groups, are exploited in order to produce cheap labour.” These two hierarchies are intimately bound together.

The challenge of combatting violence at its roots

Ultimately, it is only through violence, at both the personal and institutional level, that control over women and women’s bodies is sustained. As Steinem puts it: “Half the human race cannot control the other half without violence or the threat of violence”. Although it is still a taboo and an often invisible issue across Europe, male violence against women makes up 95% of violence taking place within its homes, and 50 women each week in Europe are murdered by a male partner or ex-partner. This is further complicated by other factors and hierarchies, with women with disabilities being 40% more likely to experience domestic violence, and 30% of undocumented migrant women being victims of domestic violence in the last 12 months in Europe.

As well as the profound impact on women and their families’ lives, the impacts of this endemic violence also reverberate much further. For Steinem, the violence experienced in the home and on the street is what concretises the idea in people’s minds that dominance of some over others is a natural phenomenon. As Steinem puts it, “when we experience – in our families and in the streets – and accept daily male against female violence, it comes to seem to us that it’s inevitable that one group is meant to dominate another, and that crosses over to everything else”.

Indeed, evidence shows that violence against women also is a strong indicator for other types of violence in society and individuals who commit violent crimes, be it in the case of attacks by lone terrorists or the police shootings of unarmed black men, such as Trayvon Martin in the US, are frequently found to also have a history of carrying out domestic violence.

The way ahead

With all the insidious mechanisms for controlling women and their bodies linked to other forms of control and discrimination in society, it is clear that the struggle to be waged is a broad and all-encompassing one. As Steinem puts it “You can’t fight one thing without fighting it all”. But the fight for women’s’ rights is not only about dismantling hierarchies and oppression, but also about creating a new reality, a new way of conceptualising people and societies. Steinem makes this point poetically, saying that “the first task is the declaration of independence, the second is the declaration of interdependence”. Fighting for women’s rights is to also fight against other hierarchies, and to work towards a world in which “we are linked, not ranked”.

And just as important as the ends, are the means: “The means have to reflect the ends… if we want freedom and poetry and sex and music at the end, we have to have freedom and poetry and sex and music along the way!” Beyond these light-hearted aspects, Steinem emphasises that as members of a common movement, “We have to take care of each other”. Activists today, she argues, are much more aware of the necessity to look after themselves and each other, in order to sustain the solidarity and drive needed to keep moving forward and pushing for progress. Although the obstacles that line the way ahead may seem overwhelming at times, Steinem reminds us that we can draw strength from one another: “If we stop looking up, it will help. If we look up we feel disempowered, if we look at each other… we understand that we have power, greater power in numbers”.

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