A feminist critique of self-defense

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In late October, an organization that teaches self-defense to young women visited my school, The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in Queens, New York. As a pacifist, I asked to not participate in the workshop, which was supposed to include all juniors and seniors. As a feminist, I stayed to listen, considering the instructor’s arguments for self-defense.

The instructor began the class by demonstrating the methods used to protect and defend in cases of a hair/hijab grab, clothes grab, or an attack from the back. Some of the students were actively engaged in the workshop and took part in learning the stances and practicing. The majority, though, proceeded with hesitation and some with laughter and even mockery.

But I was less taken aback by the students’ reactions than I was by the way the instructor described gender-based violence. While she acknowledged that “self-defense is not a solution, but an immediate protection,” she went on to say that “as women, we have to be aware of how loud our music is, what street we are walking on, and constantly alert on our end.”

My issue was not with what she said, but with the incriminating language she used to say it. Focusing on women solely in terms of gender-based violence reduces it to a “women’s issue,” which gives men, either consciously or unconsciously, a reason not to listen to or exempt themselves from conversations related to this issue. As American author and linguist Julia Penelope argues, questioning women's choices — like what they do, think, and wear — in and of itself is a legitimate cognitive response to such incidents. The problem is that when only women’s choices are questioned, and men’s choices are ignored, there is minimal hope of reducing the current rate of violence. The real questions that need to be asked when evaluating violent events must include everybody involved.

While his theory was originally used to analyze the racial dynamic between blacks and whites in post–Civil War America, W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness can also be applied to understand why self-defense programs’ focus on women is problematic. Du Bois famously defined double consciousness as the “sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” When applied to women, this concept suggests that feeling hyperalert in public is born from women’s experiences of always evaluating themselves through the eyes of men. They feel obligated to minimize aspects of themselves that they otherwise would not because of the way men view them, and specifically do so to minimize potential threats.

The solution for combating violence against women, therefore, is for men to more actively take the responsibility for self-protection off women. They can do this at least in part by redefining masculinity, and what it really means to be a man — something that can arguably only be done within male communities. There are organizations who believe this and are already trying to do this work. For example, A Call to Men centers its mission around educating “men all over the world on healthy, respectful manhood” because “embracing and promoting a healthy, respectful manhood prevents violence against women, sexual assault and harassment, and many other social ills.”

If we go a step further and look at the bigger issue surrounding gendered responses to gender-based violence, it seems that these normative dynamics are symptomatic of the way the United States identifies and solves its social injustices more generally. As the self-defense instructor noted, self-defense in this context takes care of immediate protection, but it doesn’t address a systemic solution. This is a common approach to problem-solving in the U.S. Problems in America are tended to and incubated instead of resolved. Take the treatment of the poor in this country. Liberals are predominantly in favor of welfare programs — food stamps, utility assistance, and medical insurance for lower-income folks. But should someone on welfare manage to get an extra shift and some money comes through, these benefits are taken away. Left-wing politicians recognize the inequality at the heart of such problems, provide resources to make the inequality bearable, yet have no intention of dismantling the very institutions that keep those suffering from inequality in their subordinate role. They help those through adversity, but not out of it.

This continues to happen because those in power realize that America can barely exist if there are no class, racial, or gender tensions among their people. The U.S.’s lack of a singular identity allows our economy to be competitive and productive, but it also creates hierarchy. Without hierarchy, an atmosphere of aimlessness is inevitable, and the very social structures that allow people to make any competent progress in the U.S. are destroyed. Too much dependence on hierarchical tensions, though, gives space for “strong expressions of hatred at one end of the spectrum; strong prejudicial feelings in the middle; and a feeling that ‘outsider’ groups should not benefit at the expense of ‘insiders’, called ‘othering’ at the other end” to manifest, according to academic Tony Jefferson.

Watching the self-defense class not only shed light on the issues pertaining to self-defense, therefore, but spoke to the larger habits and patterns of American 21st-century politics. We maintain a perception of partisanism, when really there is a silent collaboration between the two dominant political parties. Whether they know about this collaboration or not, the result is that it nevertheless keeps those on the bottom, on the bottom. Without it, a key part of the American ideology is lost. The only question that remains is that considering what is lost and who gets hurt in pursuit of this ideology, is it worth it?

More articles by Category: Gender-based violence
More articles by Tag: Domestic violence, Gender Based Violence, Sexualized violence



Batoul Saleh
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