Feelings about Power on #IWD2016

I remember being 9 or 10 and walking around Westfield in knee high boots (that my mother despised) and a denim skirt (which she also hated) and having this completely life changing realisation that there were men three, four, five times my age staring at me.

I quite liked it. It made me nervous, but it made me feel adult and important. And I think that’s what upsets me about the Westfield memory – not that the men stared, gross though that is, but that as a child I already knew that the world understands women and girls as objects that can be sexualised, not entire people worthy of knowing.

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Today is International Women’s Day. I have been extraordinary lucky to have met and loved courageous, kind and driven women who believe in a world where women are not objects to be bought, sold, won or used; and a world that is not built on power over but shared power.

Below, are a few disjointed thoughts about power and injustice and what a different type of world could look like. 

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On Sunday morning at the All About Women Festival, I listened to Jennifer Clement describe Mexican mothers who dug holes in cornfields, put their daughters inside and covered them in palm fronds to hide them from men who would drive through and take them.

These men traffick girls, drugs and guns. The thing about girls, Clement explained, is that they are the “gift that keeps on giving.” You can sell them again, and again. Sometimes multiple times a day.

These girls are often born into poverty where they are not given a birth certificate. They are taken and sold, or traded, or kept. They then die and their deaths are not even recorded because there is no birth certificate to prove they existed.

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Kerry Carrington, QUT, described the difference between the visiting lines outside of men’s prisons and women’s prisons. The women’s lines were shorter, much shorter. The men’s lines were full of women and children.

That tells us something I think about who we value.

She went on to describe the script that domestic violence follows. The women know the men who are going to kill them, we know when she is likely to be killed, and yet we do very little to stop him from killing her.

That also tells us something about who we value.

The fact that of the 60,000 women sexually assaulted in Australia, less than 1% will result in a conviction tells us something about what lives we value.

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I am so obsessed with prisons not just because I think they are cruel and largely useless, but because they act like a magnifying glass to the power structures on the outside (or at least they would if they were remotely transparent).

Prisons are often violent, hierarchical places. Often, broken people walk into prisons and still-broken but more criminalised people walk out. According to Carrington, over half the women in Australian prisons are victims of sexual assault. She recounts stories of women failing to report the men who are beating them for fear that those same police officers will determine that due to that violence they are unfit mothers and take their children away.

Piper Kerman, (aka the woman Orange Is The New Black is based on) tells us the start of a story of how things could perhaps be different.  Her description of at least one of the women’s’ prisons she was held in was very different to the stories I have heard from men about their prison experiences in Australia.

She described the “welcome wagon” where women would give you toothpaste or slippers and basic items to help new inmates survive their first few days. She talks about deep friendships and forms of collective power. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t sound *nice* – Carrington described the sorts of indignities, overcrowding, poor sanitation and  lack of programs that women have to put up with in prison. But Kerman alludes to the possibility of relationships that challenge the idea we have to exert power over each other in order to survive.

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tt is difficult to bring together the expanse of injustices that women – and not just women, and certainly not all women equally – endure, except for the problem of power.

And it is this problem of power which means that we find ‘progressive men’ working in ‘progressive organisations’ who have ‘progressive values’ and yet undermine and belittle female staff. Or we find White Ribbon Day ambassadors in court for beating up their wives. Or we have men in positions of power talk about how we need more women in positions of power but fail to step back and give up a chair at the board room table.

Power is what men must give up if we are going to move closer to equality, and I expect, closer to kindness.

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