It happened yesterday. I’m leaving the airport. I only see men for a 10 meter walk. Cab drivers talking outside. Clerks wearing shirts saying “Can I help?”. A man wearing a tie with his suitcase and cell phone. Different men, spread along a 10-meter walk. Walking those 10 meters, I felt like a gazelle walking among lions. Measured. Analyzed. My body, my ass, my boobs, my hair, my shoes, my belly. Everyone is looking.
It happened when I was 13. I practiced sports almost every day. I’d leave the sports center and walk something like two blocks to the bus stop, at 6 pm. I’d walk on an empty sidewalk beside a big road. From these walks come my first memories of this kind of urban violence. Cars passing a bit slower by me, and from inside a male voice would shout “You’re hot!”. Men walking alone that would cross the sidewalk, turn their heads and whisper “Hey, good-looking!”. I was 13. Was wearing pants, tennis shoes and a tee-shirt.
Now multiply this for all the days of my life.
I know that for men it is hard to understand how this can be considered violence. Even us, women, get used to and let it drop. We get used to it in order to be able to keep going.
One of these days I was sitting by the sea and a girl came out of the water. A guy passed by her and said something. She simply drew away from him and came towards my direction. I said hi, she said the water was delicious, and we chatted a little. I asked her whether the guy had said something rude. She said “yeah, he did, but we’re so used to it already, right? We automatically start to ignore it”.
The privilege is invisible. For men, it is only possible to notice it if there’s empathy. Try to imagine a world where, for 5 thousand years men were subjugated, raped, murdered, contained, controlled. Try to imagine a world where for 5 thousand years only women were scientists, physicists, police chiefs, mathematicians, astronauts, physicians, lawyers, actors, generals. Try to imagine a world where for 5 thousand years no-one representing your gender was being displayed, on TV, in the theater, in the cinema, in the arts. At school, you learn about the history made by women, the science made by women, the world made by women.
In her text “A room of one’s own”, Virginia Woolf describes why it would be impossible for a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare to write as greatly as he did. Woolf says:
When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet.
Since the beginning of patriarchy, 5 thousand years ago, women didn’t have space for becoming scientists or artists. Woolf explains:
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.
This argument doesn’t only apply to women: black people, poor people, and other minorities couldn’t be great poets since, for that, one needs material freedom.
(For a more complete analysis, I recommend A room of one’s own”, by Virginia Woolf: The intellectual production and the material condition of women)
Even though the world is changing, there still are fewer opportunities and less recognition for women and other minorities to have any intellectual occupation. Readers of a Facebook page on science still assume that the author is a man and TV commentators don’t consider cultural manifestations coming from slums as being actual culture.
It’s true: today, life is better, specially for a western woman like me. But, though being a free and successful woman living in a western metropolis, I can still personally feel the consequences of those 5 thousand years of oppression. And, if you want to notice that oppression, you don’t have to turn to history books. Just turn on your TV:
Rio de Janeiro, 2013. A couple is kidnapped into a van. The kidnappers, all women, put on a dirty strap-on penis, stinking of shit and mildew, and rape the guy. Every one of them, one by one, stick the huge dick into the guy’s asshole. No condom or lubricant. His poor girlfriend tried to prevent it, but was bound with ropes and got kicked and punched.
Watching this, you put yourself in the victim’s shoes (who suffered one of the worst physical and psychological kinds of violence that exist) or in the shoes of who had to watch it happen? Naturally, I swapped the genders (in my description). The violence ACTUALLY happened to a woman.
How much violence do I suffer just on account of being a woman?
As a child, I couldn’t be a girl scout, because back then that didn’t exist, only boy scouts. I was raped at the age of 8. (Me and at least two thirds of the women I know and you know suffered the same and probably never told anybody.) I suffered for my whole pre-teenage years for not properly behaving like a girl. And because I hadn’t developed breasts. And because I didn’t have straight long hair. I’ve always had my sexuality oppressed by my family, by society, by the media. Anything I did wrong would be a reason to be called a bitch. In one of my first jobs I heard someone say that women don’t work well because they are too emotional and suffer from PMS. In another job, my boss said my hair was ugly and paid for me to go to a hairdresser to become more personable for their clients. I’ve decided I don’t want to be a slave to shaving, and I get stares daily from people that feel grossed-out when I’m wearing shorts or tank tops. I’ve used lots of make-up in the past, only because TV and advertisements displayed women with make-up, and therefore it’s very common for us to feel ugly when we don’t have make-up on. Do you, man, know what make-up is? There is a product to make the skin homogeneous, one to hide dark spots under the eyes, another one to hide spots, another one to color cheeks, another one to highlight eyebrows, another one to highlight eyelashes, another one to color eyelids, another one to color lips. How many times did you smear so many products on your face just because your boss or your date would find you ugly? When I take the subway I need to find a safe spot where nobody is going to be rubbing against me. Do you do that? When I go to a family meeting, they ask me why I’m so skinny, what I did to my hair, and whether I’m dating someone. My cousin is asked what he’s studying and where he’s working. On TV, 90% of the ads belittles me. Almost no movie represents me or passes the Bechdel test. All women are shown with sexy clothing, even the female super heroes, who should be wearing comfortable uniforms for their battles. Magazines teach me that my goal in bed is to please my man. While you, man, would be comparing your penis with that of your friends, me, girl, I’d learn that masturbation was wrong and that by wearing short skirts I was making a bitch of myself. How long did it take me to free myself from all the sexual repression and become a woman that loves to have sex? How long did it take me to be comfortable in bed and be able to have an orgasm, while so many of my friends are worried that their partner is noticing their cellulite or a little fold at her waist and then can’t have an orgasm? How long did it take for me to be able to look at a penis and to have sex with the lights on? How many time did I hear, while driving “It had to be a woman”? How many times did you cut someone in traffic and heard “It had to be a man”? All of that and, at the end of the day, if I go have dinner with a guy at a restaurant I don’t get handed the bill even though it was me who asked for it because, for 5 thousand years I’ve been considered incapable. All of that and I still hear that I’m exaggerating and that chauvinism doesn’t exist anymore.
This is a very abridged version of what I suffer or risk suffering every day. I, woman, white, heterosexual, middle class. The black woman suffers more than me. The poor woman suffers more than me. The Asian woman suffers more than me. But each of us suffers from the same evil: no country in the world treats women as well as men. None. Not Sweden, nor the Netherlands, not even Iceland! In all of the “civilized” world we suffer violence, have less access to education, to work or to politics.
In all of the world, we are still Shakespeare’s sisters.
And you, male reader? When you are talked to by a rude stranger in the streets, do you think “please, don’t take my cell phone?”, or “please, don’t rape me?”