Review: Chris Corrin, Ed: Women in a Violent World

Feminist Analyses and Resistance Across ‘Europe‘:

Edinburgh University Press  1996: ISBN 0 7486 0804 4. – £Stg 14.95.

This collection of feminist essays on many aspects of violence against women makes no secret of its political agenda. In her introduction, Corrin states: “The main aim of the contributions in this book is to offer analysis, information and some questions, as to why women suffer male sexual violence and how feminists are both taking issue (with patriarchal assumptions and ‘explanations’) and taking control (of political movements and agendas for progressive change).” In effect, this is a book about feminism. The subject of violence against women, which occupies it as subject matter, is strictly viewed from a feminist perspective.

The editor makes no apology made for discarding all other forms of analysis or points of view. The real target is patriarchy. In this, the book is similar to other works of proselytic fervour – full of horror, rage, blame and offering its own explanations and solutions as the only answers. It bears all the hallmarks of serious propaganda. It will most likely divide its readers into the converted and the unconverted. This division obviously need not be along sexual lines – men are just as capable of being horrified by well-documented facts about violence against women, as women are themselves, and in my experience, are just as likely to grasp hopefully at the solutions offered by the convinced proselytiser.

But they might find themselves refused admission to this particular group of the saved. The real aim of the book seems to be to mobilize women. As Natalya Khodyreva concludes at the end of her hair-raising essay about ‘Sexism and Sexual Abuse in Russia’, “The problem of violence against women is probably one of the few able to unite women’s social organizations…” This overtly political agenda limits the book’s appeal and seems to me to run counter to the most often-stated need expressed by the contributors, which is to “break the silence” about men’s violence against women, since it cannot countenance any approach to the subject except its own. This approach is of course a very powerful and, by now, also a very familiar one.

There is no gainsaying the weight of statistical evidence, the continuation of bad old patterns within both left and right wing regimes, the blatant injustices of the various systems which not only do not protect women against (particularly domestic) violence, but which also prevaricate when it comes to meting out punishment: as Corrin illustrates in her conclusion, “just as the X-case in Ireland showed the intermeshing of various levels of violence against a young woman raped by a man known to the family, the national laws prevented her choosing an abortion in her own country or abroad, and… the legal system .. failed to adequately punish the perpetrator.” She goes on, “The backlash against feminism… does not make ‘Europe’ a safe place for women to be.” She seems to be implying that women can only be ‘safe’ if her feminist solutions are implemented. Logically of course this is a non-sequitur.

However, under the umbrella of this political agenda, the individual essays in the book give interestingly different views of the subject. The piece already referred to about Russia comments on the young women’s disillusionment with the (socialist) idea of “equality” between the sexes – “In fact, most women associate equality with hard working industry and with an image of a non-sexual ’emancipated’ woman. Even in modern marriage advertisements the first thing women do is assure male readers that they do not belong to the category of ’emancipated’ women…”, while Kriszta Szalay comments that in Hungary, “domestic violence against women is part and parcel of a more general practice of violence that is still all too frequently visited on children in the family, pupils at school, young men in the army, mental patients in hospitals, suspects at the police stations or, considering not only the human world, animals as well.” These comments seem to me to invite new analysis, not just the old slogans about patriarchy.

Or again, the wonderfully informative essay by Celia Valiente, called ‘Partial Achievements of Central-State Public Policies Against Violence Against Women in Post Authoritarian Spain 1975-95’, points out that the changes required to ensure greater safety for women are not easily achieved by legal and policy changes, information programmes and improved social services. Her piece illuminates the real difficulties of definition, let alone implementation, which arise once the ‘state feminists’ and other policy makers begin their work. Furthermore, possibly the one immediate form of action they all agree upon is a counselling option for women.

The importance of hearing women’s stories and taking their accounts seriously emerges from all the essays. In short, in contrast with the editorial stance, many of the contributors seem openly to accept that the work of analysing and counteracting violence against women is still far from clear – they do not expect to succeed simply by being feminists. At the same time, from within that camp they express puzzlement, distress and observant originality in analysing their various situations. I found this quality in the book most inspiriting; so much was offered genuinely for reflection and consideration, and not just in the manner of “illustrating” the foregone conclusions about patriarchy. At the same time, let me quite honestly admit that the essay which was the most fun to read was a splendid piece of propagandist rhetoric by Katie Cosgrove, placed cunningly at the end of the collection, which is a real rabble-rouser.

‘No Man Has the Right’ is its title, and it brilliantly describes the poster campaign which you probably remember from the Zero Tolerance Campaign in Strathclyde [“He gave her flowers, chocolates and multiple bruising”]. “The boldness and innovation of the Zero Tolerance campaign lies partly in its unflinching insistence that this is not a gender free issue… Some people have difficulty with this. They want the campaign to remove the word ‘male’ and simply conflate male and female violence. The women’s movement recognised a long time ago the importance of naming. If we cannot name a problem, how can we solve it? ‘One must speak truth to power’ writes Andrea Dworkin… The inclusion of men in the campaign has been a shrewd, strategic part of this initiative. Men have not been asked to validate what we are saying, nor to co-opt this issue… but to accept the centrality of their role in ending male violence.”

I was about to cheer in the streets when Cosgrove begin to explore the shades of political correctness involved in portraying/not portraying black men in the posters. (Why does political correctness always ..involve ?) Then it was realized that, in not showing disabled women, the campaign was rendering them “invisible” (and presumably also inaudible?). The whole point was, as Cosgrove says, quoting Dworkin, “that women must wage a war against silence: against socially coerced silence; against politically preordained silence; against economically choreographed silence…” At this point, I realized that what Dworkin was saying, and Cosgrove endorsing, was that women must make a lot of noise. And I was forcibly struck by some irony lurking within this; the real means of combating the ‘coerced silence’ of battered women, in so many of the essays, is not shouting, but listening.

Mary Montaut