A serious proposal preceded by a long story

23 October 2005

I spend so much of my time focused internationally and on a broader societal level, and so much time finding fault with the society in which I live and coming up with ways to improve it, that sometimes I forget to look right under my nose for some down-to-earth answers to large and troubling questions.

Much of what we are all working on centers on protecting or “empowering” women, and on assisting them after they and/or their children and families have been “victimised” by violations of their basic human rights.

As Rosemary wrote, the United Nations Population Fund reported last week in an article about its Bucharest workshop on UNSCR 1325: “Key provisions of the resolution are captured by ‘three Ps’: protection of the human rights of women and girls during times of conflict, the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, and the equal participation of women in peace building and reconstruction.”

Another posting (sorry, I’ve now forgotten who wrote this) read, “Discrimination and violence against women can be addressed when society as a whole values women as human beings and as equal partners.”

Women in Iraq are worried about being victimised by a fundamentalist law-of-the-land, about being forced into a constitutionally-endorsed religio-cultural role that systematises their subservience to men.

Like me, many of you, my fellow bloggers, have worked in trauma counseling, refugee assistance, and aid to victims of sexual assault, rape, and violence.

There’s lots of victimhood of women going on everywhere we look. How can we begin to put an end to this on a permanent and universal level? I was inspired by one woman’s story to propose what may be another step toward ending female victimhood.

First, some background.

A dear friend of mine (I’ll call her Laura) is a professor at a US university; she’s a PhD holder; mother of three daughters ranging in age from 16 to 24 and stepmother of two adult children; and an absolutely brilliant jazz musician and composer. Laura is beautiful, willowy, athletic, compassionate, empathic, and well informed about world affairs and politics. She’s a respected and beloved teacher. She enjoys a solid marriage and a beautiful home.

A few nights ago we were together with a few other women friends, all of whom I admire. This was a rare occasion for us to take some time from our busy lives and simply enjoy some “girlfriend” time over food and conversation.

Laura mentioned that she had just taken her first class in women’s self-defence, taught by a female black-belt karate instructor. I was astonished when this strong, smart, capable, and talented woman revealed that although she’s learned to deal with her anger toward her father (I don’t know the background there), she still has a lot of anger toward men in general, as well as a lot of fear. She frequently feels vulnerable and afraid, especially when she’s alone in a quiet area or walking in an unfamiliar place. So she decided to take the self-defence class to help her overcome her perennial feeling of potential victimhood.

Then she demonstrated a bit of what she had learned in the first two-hour self-defence session. Her body language changed immediately. She was firmly rooted, assertive, and powerful. She radiated confidence and command. She exuded resoluteness and a “don’t-mess-with-me” attitude. I was mighty impressed.

Her demonstration sparked further revelations. Another friend, who happens to be an internationally known author and environmental toxicologist working on important issues related to women’s health, told us about how she’d once resorted to acting like a lunatic when threatened by a few thugs on otherwise empty city streets — behaviour that probably saved her from a dangerous encounter, even rape. It wasn’t hard to act mad, she said, when she was quaking within and terrified out of her mind.

Another strong and able woman, a biologist and environmentalist, spoke of the panic she felt in an Asian capital city late one night. She was alone, trying to return from a restaurant to her hotel, unable to read any of the signs. Every street looked identical; all the shops seemed to blend into one. The few people out on the streets eyed her with hostility; she felt targeted. She forced herself to look as if she knew exactly where she was going. She traversed street after street, looking out of the corner of her eye for anything that was familiar enough to lead her back to her hotel. It took hours, and the apprehension built and built until she was almost paralysed. She will never forget that feeling.

Others shared their own stories of vulnerability and fear and helplessness.

I found myself furious that these wonderful people — so smart, generous, informed, hardworking, accomplished, and female — should ever have to feel this way.

The very next day another woman, whom I don’t know quite as well, told me about her newfound happiness: She is about to get married for the second time. Her man, she told me with wonder, actually respects her and treats her like a partner! This is a new experience for her: Her first marriage, which ended only a couple of years ago, was abusive both emotionally and physically. Over the years I have worked with many abused women (and a few men as well), and with many women who have been sexually assaulted and raped. I am always infuriated. It is very, very difficult to reclaim one’s self-esteem as well as one’s sense of security after such trauma, even for the strongest of individuals.

Now I’ve just been talking about a few women who live in a wealthy society in a country that is not undergoing war on its own soil — women who have housing, food, health care, decent education for their children, and the prospect of at least a good degree of continuing prosperity. Their society has many other ills, but the basic human rights are theirs without question, at least for now.

As I processed what I’d just learned from my friends, it occurred to me that so much of our discussion on this blog, on the topic of UN Resolution 1325 on its fifth anniversary, has to do with protecting women, and with empowering them on the economic and political levels.

But how can we empower women on the grander level when they are so vulnerable and powerless on a personal level?

My female friends should feel a natural “right” to safety and security and the absence from fear for their own persons. But if even these privileged women are unable to feel safe in their own skin, how can the many millions of women around the world who are not nearly as fortunate ever feel safe?

This may seem like a bizarre idea, but I recommend to the United Nations that in future programmes intended to enforce or augment 1325, along with training in economic and political matters, there should be universal, formally structured personal self-defence training for women before conflict—that is, preventive training, as well as in situations post-conflict.

I am interested in feedback; I would be happy to get to work on a serious proposal if others think that this is a worthy effort.



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