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Angela Davis in Reykjavik: We must see the structural powers that support the violence

Angela Davis in Reykjavik: We must see the structural powers that support the violence

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: BIG

“If we don’t challenge the structures in society, we risk getting into a situation where we end up fighting for women’s rights to be as violent as men,” warned Angela Davis when she addressed the large #metoo conference in Reykjavik on 17-19 September.

The conference aimed to sum up what has happened to the fight against sexualised violence and harassment since the American actor Alyssa Milano first tweeted on 15 October 2017 launching the hashtag MeToo. She was upset after female actors talked about how film producer Harvey Weinstein had exposed them to sexual harassment.

That is why she encouraged women who had experienced similar things to tweet “me too” in order to illustrate how widespread the violence is.

The simple message “me too” led to Milano’s message being retweeted 23,000 times before spreading to nearly all the countries of the world where Twitter is a major social medium.

Metoo also had consequences in Iceland, which has topped the World Economic Forum's list of over the most gender-equal countries in the world ten times, the so-called Gender Gap Index.

“Bridging the gender gaps in finance, education and politics does not necessarily lead to less violence,” pointed out Angela Davis, who was the conference’s keynote speaker. She called sexualised violence a global pandemic. 

Davis got a standing ovation from the 800 participants. She first became known as a member of the Black Panthers in the 1970s, a group of African Americans who fought racism in the USA using militant methods. She was accused of taking part in an infamous kidnapping but was acquitted after 17 months in prison and became a prominent feminist and researcher. 

In her presentation, Davis asked why it had taken so long before the spotlight was turned on sexualised violence.

“Women have been saying ‘me too’ for a very long time. We should have realised long ago that sexualised violence and harassment are structural problems, deeply entrenched in cultures, traditions and institutions.”

Angela Davis pointed out that safe houses for women have existed for 50 years, just like women’s rights demonstrations have existed for 50 years. She reminded the audience that the UN launched the first International Women’s Year in 1975, which was later turned into an entire decade. When the decade ended with a conference in Nairobi in 1985, she was there.

“That is now three decades ago. Perhaps it is time the UN launches a women’s century?” she asked.

Solidarity and struggle has led to changes, even though they have been slow in some places. Women in Iceland and the other Nordic countries quickly realised they could achieve a more equal economy and more political influence. Iceland tops the World Economic Forum’s list of the most gender equal countries – while the USA is number 51. 

Not everything is perfect in Iceland either. A comprehensive Icelandic survey on sexual violence and harassment in the labour market was presented a few days before the conference got underway. It had been commissioned by Iceland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Equality, Ásmundur Einar Daðason.    

“We have for the first time looked at the labour force as a whole, and not only individual occupational groups. We found that 24.9 % of women and 6.8 % of men have experienced sexual harassment,” said Ásta Snorradóttir, who led the survey.

“When we limited the question to the latest six months, 1.6 % had experienced it. But 16.3 % said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances during that same period.” 

The perpetrators included bosses, colleagues and customers. For women, they were nearly exclusively male. For the male victims, 44 % of perpetrators were female colleagues and 21 % were male colleagues. 

Gary Barker 

Gary Baker

“Those figures sound quite low,” pointed out Gary Barker, one of the few men who addressed the conference. He launched the international campaign MenCare and was named one of the world’s 20 most influential people in gender politics in 2017. 

“Some American surveys show up to 60 % of women have experienced sexual harassment.”

In his presentation he also pointed out that men are victims of a culture of toxic masculinity, which harms both society and the men themselves.

“Boys are not born with that type of masculinity. When they are 8 to 15 years old they say people should be good and nice to each other. It is only after 15 they start saying ‘showing emotions makes you look weak’.”

Gary Barker was also one of the initiators of IMAGES, which is so far the largest survey of men’s attitudes to violence, parenthood and gender equality. 

“63 % of men say they have experienced violence from other men,” he said.

Angela Davis pointed out that the reaction in the USA to #metoo had been a call for more and longer prison sentences. But there is a link between violence and institutionalised violence, she believed. When institutional violence, like imprisonment, increases, it also affects women. 

“One third of all the world’s incarcerated women are in an American prison,” she pointed out.

While Angela Davis believes social structures must change, another women’s movement veteran – the author and researcher Cynthia Enloe – was more interested in #metoo on a micro level.  

Cynthia Enloe

Cynthia Enloe

“Metoo has made us aware of what is going on in different workplaces, and allowed us to link what we see with the greater picture of how the patriarchy works. What happens in the lifts? Who avoids getting into the lifts with certain people? What happens at work when the working day is done and only a few staff remain? 

“What we have learned from feminism is that we cannot see the bigger picture if we do not seriously try to understand the small pictures. The small, ordinary, daily and frighteningly small pictures.

“There isn't much status in studying the strategies women use to avoid sexual harassment at work – like a secretary placing her desk so that she sits with her back to the wall to stop men coming up behind her and leaning over her with their memos.”

Angela Davis warned against celebrating the small progressive steps that are being taken, like the fact that four of America’s largest five defense companies are now led by women.

“If we forget about the ideological fight, the small positive advances for women can in themselves strengthen structures that maintain male superiority. People from marginalised groups end up being recruited only so that the suppressive structures can function better.

“I believe one of the reasons we haven’t come further in the fight against sexualised violence is that we have a tendency of individualising the problem. We treat it as if the individual perpetrators are the beginning and end of the problem. We rarely consider which structural and institutional powers are actually propping up the violence.

“The fight against racism can teach us that if we only focus on the individual, we end up always repeating the same solutions to the problems.”

Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Angela Davis

Iceland's Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who also holds the gender equality portfolio, invited  Angela Davis to be the keyspeaker at the Metoo conference in Reykjavik

According to Angela Davis there is misconception that you can just remove and imprison the individuals who are behind the violence. If we do nothing about the structures, new perpetrators will keep coming. For the same reason, it does not help to simply swap men with women in the hierarchies.

“If we don't challenge the content of the hierarchies, we will end up in a situation where you could say that women are fighting for the right to be as violent as men.”

Despite all the challenges and the fact that things move so frustratingly slowly, Angela Davis nevertheless concluded that she did not believe sexualised violence would carry on in all eternity.

“I believe we can all contribute to putting an end to gender-related violence. How was it possible to eliminate smoking in public spaces, for instance? When we first got engaged in the feminist fight, many of us were smokers. I always shudder when I see myself in old TV documentaries, because I was a chain smoker!”

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