Why Do We Tell Women They Are Being Naive When Really They Are Being Brave?
When women face up to their fears, they are portrayed as naïve rather than brave. Don’t listen. Don’t let anyone stop you from being a fearless badass.
Women aren’t allowed to be brave. It just doesn’t fit into our social scripts. When they take risks, like they do every day, they are deemed foolish or naive. What is actually a sign of courage is interpreted as a sign of ignorance. Because women being ignorant fits into our social scripts. They are expected to stand around waiting for some unsolicited advice to mansplain the world and its dangers to them.
It’s ironic, because women are the ones least ignorant about the dangers they face in the world. Women ask their friends to text them when they reach home safely and know how to turn their keys into a weapon, spikes pointing out from every finger. Women know which streets you’re most likely to be catcalled on, and which bosses will look at your chest, not your eyes, call you sweetheart and not take any of your ideas seriously. Women check where the nearest door is when they are alone with a man, they worry about how a man might react if they call him out on his sexism, about upsetting a boyfriend who has just a bit of a bad temper. Women know that the world isn’t a safe place for them —they have noticed.
And yet women are still called out for being silly for having walked there or dressed like that or at that time of day. Women are still called naïve when things happened, even though they are the ones least in the dark about the dangers they face.
Women are hallucinating (except when said hallucinations are convenient for the patriarchy)
Meanwhile, a lot of social discourse continues to make out that sexism doesn’t really exist, or at least not in everyday life. It isn’t perpetuated by the men we know nor suffered by the women in our own lives. After the #MeToo movement, a lot of men went to talk to their female friends and lovers, and said, We can’t believe it. It didn’t matter that women had been telling them for years about the things they had been facing. Because they had, of course, the silence around the issue was never women’s fault, it’s just that no one heard us until a group of rich white women from Hollywood started saying it, until there were so many women’s voices that they finally started to be considered with the same value as a single old male saying “nothing happened.”
In any case, after #MeToo, those men who came to see us and said “is this really what it is like?” were a reminder of what we knew: a lot of men have just no idea. A lot of privileged women have just no idea either. It is no wonder, society had told us all we were equal now, time to get over it.
It is the strangest thing, really: society manages to tell us both that the dangers we fear aren’t real, and that we should still stay inside to avoid them. That we are mad, but also that we should listen to our imaginings and step into line.
The kitchen, not the streets, is the most dangerous place for a woman
This is partly because the actual risks women face are severely misrepresented both in our minds and in our media — the classic example being that of rape. 90% of rapes are committed by someone who knows the victim, and often inside of a home. And yet the social imaginary of rape is still the creepy guy who looks like a rapist and lives up a dark alleyway. Similarly, over half of the women murdered every year are killed by a current or former romantic partner. These statistics hold true regardless of social class, which basically means that the kitchen, not the streets, is the most dangerous place for a woman.
And yet, if your family is anything like mine, they frequently tell you not to walk home alone and ask you when you are going to get married.
But of course the fear we feel isn’t designed to keep us safe but to control us, and today it remains one of the strongest forces preventing us from seizing opportunities which are supposedly open to us — behind a lot of scary flaming hoops.
A study by Durham university back in 2012 compared domestic abuse to a form of everyday terrorism. It works through establishing fear and control which reinforce the abuser’s control, even in the absence of physical violence. Just the presence of a threat is enough to gain total control. This is terrorism in its very definition: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. The aim may not be conscientiously political in the mind of the abuser, but it reflects a certain vision of gender roles and of what a woman is expected to be and do. As always when it comes to the patriarchy, the personal is political.
Not just domestic abuse but all forms of gendered violence against women could be seen as a form of this everyday terrorism.
Women are in an abusive relationship with the patriarchy itself. We fear it, and yet can’t escape it, because we haven’t learnt any other form of validation. Fear numbs our spirit, fear takes away our means of resistance. Fear stands in the way of opportunities to take back what we deserve.
Things my parents taught me: don’t go running in the park alone. Don’t speak to strange men. Don’t wear skirts that are too short. Don’t walk home alone. Travelling alone is dangerous. Women shouldn’t hitchhike, nor cross a campsite to go to the loo in the middle of the night.
I never listened, because it felt like there wasn’t much world left outside of what my parents were afraid of. And of course, that is what society hopes for. To rid women of any means of taking part in a world stacked against them. Tell women they can do whatever they want and then make the world so hostile for them that they can’t, but in that case, it is still their fault because men and women are equal now, so if they don’t seize the opportunities they must not want them, their positions must be the reflection of a natural lack of ambition and courage.
Growing up, women all hear the same advice, like nursery rhymes and fairytales, the things we need to do to avoid trouble, drilled into our psyches, teaching us to fear, from our parents to popular culture.
In her slam poem, The Printing Machine, Indian Actress Kalki Koechlin talks about how the media and society spread fear in the way they discuss crimes against women.
The machine harps happily and we drink to ink that makes our stomachs sink and teaches us to fear, everything.
Fear the beast riding the night from Delhi to Pondicherry
grr grr grr-ing…
The poem is amazing and powerful, although the video is very male gaze-y.
I was travelling in Asia with a friend and a friend of said friend, who happened to be a total douchebag, when the latter explained to me how since he’d arrived he hadn’t had any impromptu hard-ons, nor had he felt the necessity to masturbate, because since women wore more covering clothing he thought about sex less. He said he thought this was a good solution to sexual violence. The ease with which he solved a problem perpetuated by men by a change in women’s everyday lives astounded me. But this is what we are taught from our youngest age: boys will be boys and girls must police their own behaviour to escape from danger.
The fear that we teach women isn’t limited to how they interact with — or avoid — men. Women are conditioned to avoid all kinds of risks. Research shows that girls, unlike boys, are taught to play it safe instead of facing their fears.
A study in The Journal of Pediatric Psychology showed that parents are “four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful” after accidents that involved a trip to the emergency room (without being life-threatening). The drawback to that being that “Girls may be less likely than boys to try challenging physical activities, which are important for developing new skills.” A similar study in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology showed that parents warned their daughters about the risks of sliding down a fireman’s pole much more than they did when their sons attempted the same thing and were more likely to assist them, while instead, they gave their boys instructions to complete the task on their own.“Parents communicate to young children in ways that may promote greater risk-taking by boys than girls,” according to the study.
Such parenting has a deep impact on later life. One of the first female firefighters in San Francisco, Caroline Paul, writes about this in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
“I expected people to question whether I had the physical ability to do the job (even though I was a 5-foot-10, 150-pound ex-college athlete). What I didn’t expect was the question I heard more than any other: “Aren’t you scared?” It was strange — and insulting — to have my courage doubted. I never heard my male colleagues asked this. Apparently, fear is expected of women.”
Space for women to break out of the mould becomes smaller and smaller in the tight net of fears that surround them. Telling women to avoid fear at all costs sends them the message that they have to avoid living because the world is too scary for them — rather than telling them they deserve a different world.
Risks are not lessons to be learned
Fear is also supposed to serve as a lesson to us when things do go wrong. In King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes, a French author, writes about the time three men gang-raped her. She was 17 and on a hitchhiking trip with a friend. She writes about how when rape has happened to you, you are supposed to be completely destroyed. To never dare do anything again.
“You have to be traumatised by a rape. There is a set of visible markers that you have to respect: fear of men, of the night, of being alone, feelings of disgust about sex and other joys.”
Despentes refused to change her life. “I went hitchhiking, I got raped. I went hitchhiking again.” She defends the right to not be destroyed by bad things that happen to you, to not live forever in fear.
“I’m furious against a society which never taught me to fight back when a man forces my thighs open, even as this same society told me that his doing so was a crime I wasn’t allowed to recover from.”
Despentes cites Camila Paglia, a controversial American feminist who defends the idea that rape should be considered as a risk to take, an inherent danger of being a woman. I have many issues with Paglia, mostly the fact that she criticises women for being “cry-babies” when they do complain about rape, but I do agree that there is something wrong with the fact that we see rape as practically a death sentence for the survivor, something that will destroy her soul forever. I just think that dedramatising it doesn’t mean that women don’t get to be angry about it.
We have the right to take risks, and still be pissed off when the risks come to a head, and that doesn’t make us crybabies, it just shows we still know where the actual problem is, and it isn’t in our actions nor our reactions to a fucked up world.
I remember complaining to a friend about a time when a guy put his finger up my vagina on a dance floor at a concert. “What were you doing there in the first place!” he said to me. “You could tell something like that could happen.”What he was basically saying was that, since I could have guessed the risks I was facing I had no right to complain. That I should just not have been there. I’m so fed up of living with the idea that the world is inevitably dangerous for women, and that the only thing we can change is whether or not we face those dangers. We have a right to put ourselves in dangerous situations, to face danger, and to yell about it afterwards. Because that DANGER SHOULD NOT BE THERE, and the fact that it is, IS NOT OUR FAULT.
Disobey your fears
In India, where it is common to see far fewer women than men walking the streets, the feminist group Blank Noise launched a campaign to “Loiter” in public spaces and challenge the prejudices regarding women being confined to their homes. They organised “sleep-ins” in public parks, while across the border in Pakistan women launched the “Girls in Dhabas (tea houses)” campaign, posting pictures of themselves drinking tea on social media to normalise the presence of women in the outside world. These collective actions against a socially imposed fear show just how powerful taking risks can be. Choosing to walk home alone, to face your fears in a dangerous world, is an important act of resistance. And if enough of us do it, those fears will melt away.