Woman silenced

Painting by April D. Boland.

There are some days when I feel like a bucket of cold water has been splashed in my face. Injustices happen to women all over the world every day, but sometimes it is easier to desensitize ourselves because the realities are unpleasant, and after all, what can we do?

I have been guilty of this attitude at times. Then a day comes along when something pricks our conscience, and we don’t just become socially aware. We become socially aware and angry.

“Five girls dead after Amish school shootings”

“Gunman May Have Planned Abuse”

“A pattern in rural school shootings: girls as targets”

“Police: Colorado Gunman Sexually Assaulted Hostages”

I am having one of those days.

When gunmen enter a school and order the males to leave so they can sexually assault and murder the females — an incident in Bailey, Colorado, that repeated itself days later in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — it becomes hard to ignore that gender-based hate crimes are still rampant. Girls and women are targeted for violence, causing the rest of us to stand back and wonder, What can we do about this?

And so I think back to smaller incidents when there was something I could have done to defend women against hateful behavior. I remember those times when women have been devalued in speech, and how I restrained myself from defending us in order to maintain a sense of politeness.

For instance, I was with my sister, her boyfriend, and three of his friends at a diner one night. When my sister and her boyfriend left the table, the friends exchanged jokes:

“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?”

“Nothing, you already told her twice!”

“What does a woman do when she gets home from the hospital?”

“The dishes, if she knows what’s good for her!”

I was disgusted by their intense laughter and amusement on the subject of domestic violence, which claims the lives of four women every day. But I said nothing because I did not want to cause trouble among the friends of my sister’s boyfriend.

Rape of the Sabine Woman sculpture in Florence, Italy

The Giambologna sculpture Rape of the Sabine Woman in Florence, Italy.

In another instance, I was with my boyfriend and a couple of his friends as they were barbecuing. One of them fussed a bit over how the other was grilling, and the other said, “Stop being such a woman.” As if “woman” were a dirty word. To some, it is. I sat there wanting to ask, “What’s wrong with being a woman?” But I didn’t want to be rude to my boyfriend’s friend.  

Another time I was sitting in a class, listening to a female classmate give a presentation on the role of women within ancient cultures. Another classmate asked how patriarchy got to replace matriarchy, and the presenter theorized that it is because women have always been weaker, so men could just force them into submission. I seethed. I tried and tried to get a word in, to set this woman straight, when my professor said we were getting off-topic and didn’t have time to pursue this conversation.

In retrospect, I am ashamed by my lack of action. Having allowed this kind of talk to pass by as if it were appropriate and true is a difficult thing to look back on. There are those who say that a joke is a joke, an offhand comment and nothing more, and that I shouldn’t take things so seriously.

The people who say these things don’t hate women, these observers say. They’re just stating their opinions or having a little fun.

I don’t think it’s fun when society accepts the degradation of others as a source of amusement. Perhaps it would be funny in a world where these comments were not so loaded, where women did not have to struggle for equality or a social environment free of fear or abuse.

Words are powerful and can influence a young boy at the next table.

Jokes about beating women are inhumane.

Calling a man “a woman” in order to degrade and embarrass him supports the idea that being a man is much better than being a woman, and that any man who even slightly resembles a woman — in action or words — should feel ashamed.

Generalizing that women are naturally weaker than men is dangerous. If someone has the impulse to commit a violent crime, why not target the “weaker” sex?

So why do we use our words to hurt or to lend support to evil practices?  For a laugh?  To get a point across?

And why do we remain in silence?

For the sake of my sisters, my girlfriends, my mother, my future daughters and granddaughters — I just wish I hadn’t waited so long to break it.

UPDATE, 3/8/13: Edited and moved story from our old site to the current one.

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?