A couple of months ago I was asked to speak at the annual Take Back the Night march on Thursday, September.20th as a female activist and representative from Occupy London. The idea behind Take Back the Night is that women should be able to walk the streets at night, or anytime for that matter, without experiencing sexual violence (whether it’s harassment, assault, rape, etc). We gathered in Victoria park, had our rally and then female-identified individuals took the streets while our male-identified allies cheered us on from the sidelines. The reason it is done this way isn’t to segregate, and contrary to what some people think, it isn’t encouraging sexism…it is symbolic in the sense that we shouldn’t need men to walk with us in order to be safe. We shouldn’t need their “protection” because there shouldn’t be any threat of violence in the first place. Anyway, here is my speech…I hope you enjoy it because I enjoyed writing and sharing it. I realize that some parts of it sound harsh, especially the part about patriarchy in activist communities…it isn’t an attack, it is an honest look at how the problems we see and criticize in our society don’t just disappear when we become socially conscious, it is an ongoing dialogue with ourselves and each other. Sometimes we need to realize that we’re actually contributing to the things we’re trying to stop, and the only way to move forward is to confront our own flaws. Special thanks to my friends Trini, Awasis, Rachelle, Brent and Ollie for your encouragement and constructive criticism!
I would like to begin by thanking each and every one of you for coming tonight. The fact that we are all here shows that we are committed to the struggle of ending violence against women, a struggle which thanks to our foremothers who fought these battles before us, has come a long way but is nowhere near the end.
Whenever I have discussions with people about this subject, they feel the need to bring to my attention that we have it significantly better in Canada and we should stop complaining and be thankful for the rights and freedoms we have. Activists hear this all the time. And perhaps the people who say this are right in some ways. After all, in some parts of the world, women are denied rights and freedoms that are automatically given to men, and are forced to view men as authority figures, as superiors…and in most cases, will experience sexual violence in the form of harassment and assault, which may or may not include rape…not only from their male partner, but from men in the community and it will tolerated by the community and the victim will be blamed for it.
But let me ask you this…first of all, why are we always criticizing other counties when Canada has its problems too? In Canada, a country that is normally held in high regard on an international scale as well as by its citizens, a country that takes pride in calling itself “free”, and claims to value diversity, peace, and equality, 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted at some point in her lifetime. That means that at least one of the women in your life…your mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, daughter or female friend have probably experienced it, or will experience it. Sexist jokes about women are considered normal and funny, and we all know sexual harassment is far too common. 13% of women have been sexually assaulted while drunk or high; because someone felt that it was acceptable to take advantage of her impaired judgment and inability to give proper consent. Over 90% of sexual assaults occur by someone who is known by the victim, whether it is a friend, partner, acquaintance or relative. And guess what? Only 6 out of every 100 incidents are reported to the police, because even the police, who are supposedly here to “serve and protect”, usually blame the victim. There is a police officer in Toronto who made a statement a couple of years ago saying “if women didn’t dress like sluts, they wouldn’t get raped”. These statistics are all recent, Canadian statistics and that appalling statement was made by a Canadian police officer. We love to point fingers at other countries to make ourselves feel better about the problems we have here, but this is happening in Canada, folks. Now stop whining to me about how we’re all equal and how women have it so great here, because we still have a lot of work ahead of us!
Another thing, why is it exactly that we have it BETTER in Canada than in other parts of the world? It didn’t just happen all of a sudden, out of nowhere…and it didn’t happen because a good politician decided that women are human beings…it happened because women who had realized the extent of their oppression came together and started organizing, started demanding their rights. Activism!
Activism is a crucial part of this struggle, like all struggles. As activists, we make it a priority to inform ourselves about what is wrong in our society such as poverty, homelessness, hate crimes, corrupt politicians, and oppression issues to name just a few. We know that issues of gender and sexuality are intrinsically tied to race, class, disability status, age, and so on. Not only do we educate ourselves on these issues, but we try to educate others and live by the principles we speak of. Women and men alike often talk about feminism, female-identified and male-identified folks being equal…and let me take this opportunity to acknowledge my cisgender privilege here and apologize if I appear to be leaving out those who do not identify as male or female…gender is complicated, and please be aware that YOU are just as important to this struggle as those who identify with either side of the gender binary!
I love the activist community because we all know that a lot of work needs to be done, and more importantly, it isn’t just women working towards women’s empowerment. There are a lot of good men out there who recognize the power and privilege that they hold simply for having been born male. Men don’t have to fear walking home alone late at night, at least not for the same reasons. Men can wear whatever they want and they don’t have to worry about being cat-called, and they are not accused of wanting attention from the opposite sex. Now, there are exceptions to every rule, and it is true that 1 in 7 boys will be sexually assaulted before reaching the age of 18, but in most cases they don’t have to worry about inappropriate staring, unwanted touching, sexual harassment and assault, and in a situation where he does have an unpleasant encounter with someone the police never ask “what were you wearing?”, or “how much did you have to drink?” in order to determine the severity of the incident, and whether or not the perpetrator will be held accountable.
And guess what? Being a male activist does not exclude you from these privileges. It also doesn’t mean that you are not guilty of being sexist, or being the perpetrator of sexual violence against women (as well as other men). The problems we see and criticize happen just as much in activist communities as they do outside them. We’ve all seen men act out of their own social conditioning that they claim to challenge. They do this by being dominant and aggressive towards others; belittling, patronizing and silencing female voices, and reacting defensively when we try to make them aware of their own misogynistic behavior. We’ve all known men who call themselves “feminists” and claim to respect women, yet when women feel disrespected by them; they turn it around and make themselves victims. They are quick to criticize the societal expectations of men and typical “male” traits such as dominance and aggressiveness, yet they fail to understand how they themselves have manifested these traits. Brothers, you need to understand that when your sisters criticize you, it is done out of love. We tell you what you are doing wrong because we want you to stand in solidarity with us on our journey for liberation, but you cannot be part of this if you continue to stand in our way. It is society that did this to you, and it is society that continues to oppress all of us, but calling yourself a feminist or an activist does not make it all disappear. Activism cannot help you unless you are willing to help yourself. And we need you, we REALLY need you. As your sisters we want you to be part of this with us because you are a very important part of ending violence against us, since it is mainly your gender causing this violence. We need you to stand up against patriarchy, sexism and misogyny and not only be critical of others’ behavior but understand how you can be part of the problem and allow yourself to heal. That is the first step, and this cannot move forward until that first step is completed. You can either listen to us and take our advice, or you can brush it off and continue with your oppressive behavior…it is your choice, but let me tell you, if you choose the latter, you are contributing to the oppression, degradation, and violence against women everywhere. You are contributing to the sexual harassment, assault, and rape of women in your community. You are not eradicating patriarchy but you are the face of patriarchy. And if you’re standing here thinking I’m being unreasonable and aggressive for saying these things rather than valuing what I have to say, you are unbelievably hypocritical for being here tonight.
Sisters, we are also guilty of oppressive behavior at times. We too forget that we are privileged in various ways, whether it be white privilege, heterosexual privilege, cis-gender privilege…I could go on and on about how our society is built on privilege and oppression. In some cases we’re just not treating each other well. I think one of the main reasons for that is because we’re constantly being pressured to fit society’s mold of what we should look, feel, and act like. We’re taught to compete with one another for attention, mainly from males. They try to teach us how to be “beautiful”, and they teach us not only to shame one another but to feel ashamed of our own bodies and our sexualities. We’ve all heard women call other women sluts and whores as insults, we’ve all heard people insult our gender by saying things like “women are catty bitches” and a lot of the time it is women who are saying this! Again, being an activist does not make a person immune to criticism. Just like men, we also manifest behaviors within ourselves that we would criticize in others. If we do not come to terms with this just like we’re urging our men to, we will never truly stand in solidarity with each other. The most important thing we need to do aside from understanding our privilege is to love, empower, and learn from one another! If we’re going to take back the streets, we will need to do it together, and that is exactly what we are here to do, am I right?
This is a call out to all human beings here right now: This is take back the night. We are here because women shouldn’t have to live in fear. We are here because women should be able to walk the streets freely and safely without experiencing sexual violence, or any kind of violence for that matter, in any form. We are here because we want to end the oppression of women so that one day, we’ll be able to end oppression in all forms and humans can live together in harmony. Let us occupy patriarchy; smash sexual violence (and maybe the state while we’re at it!), and take back our communities. We need to stop talking about revolution and make the revolution happen here and now. And we will do just that.
Note: To clarify, “Occupy patriarchy” is meant in a way that we are occupying the struggle against it…the term has been used often by feminists, but it is easy to misinterpret it as encouraging patriarchy…which is not the case!