There is not much in the way of quality programmes on TV, so it was with some delight that I looked forward to last weekend when three of my favourite programmes – Broadchurch, Call the Midwife and Vera were going to be on ABC TV in Australia.
And each of them dealt with male violence against women.
In Broadchurch, Trish, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh is a victim of sexual assault. She portrays the trauma of rape very realistically and sympathetically, forgetting her name and many of the details of her experience.
We see the detail of the forensic investigation, such an intrusion in itself. The detectives, Ellie Miller played by Olivia Colman and Alec Hardy played by David Tennant, respond to Trish with compassion and sensitivity. The whole ambiance of these scenes acknowledges the trauma and pain of sexual assault.
“The considerable effort they have put into portraying the trauma of sexual assault sensitively and accurately is hugely welcome. Broadchurch, along with the likes of the BBC’s Apple Tree Yard, is helping to make significant strides in dispelling the myths and stereotypes around sexual violence.” Rowan Miller
And when another young detective raises the possibility of the allegation being false, Ellie Miller deals her a severe verbal blow:
“When you’ve finished your sexual offences training Kate you’ll understand we start from a position of believing the victim…”
Certainly a welcoming approach by this television police force, but how realistic is it? How often are women met with disbelief and ridicule when approaching the police in regard to sexual assault? How seriously are their allegations taken? And are they treated with such sensitivity and understanding? And well we know how difficult it is for the justice system to adequately address male violence against women with an abominable low percentage of rape convictions.
In Call the Midwife, we see violence against women enacted in the prostitution industry. We meet a young woman who has left the industry and is now married and delivers a baby during the programme. But due to her past – having been abandoned, raised in an orphanage and been in the prostitution industry, she feels inadequate and unworthy of a ‘normal’ life.
“I ain’t fit to raise that child” are her words.
She leaves her home and returns to a friend who continues to be involved in prostitution. Her friend tells us what it is really like to be trapped in prostitution:
“I do what I do to feed my kids. Do you think I would do this if I had a choice?”
“I’d die before she goes on those streets. I take those men, those filthy sods and I save every shilling because my girl’s gonna have a better life”.
A realistic picture of the degradation and humiliation of having men buy women’s bodies for sex and confirms those who would argue that prostitution should not be decriminalized.
Vera (played by Brenda Blethyn) one of my all-time favourite shows investigates the murder of a woman – strangled and left on the moors. We eventually learn that the murderer is her son-in-law and the woman was helping her daughter escape her abusive husband, to a refuge. When Vera learns of the history of his violence to his wife and approaches the wife, she sensitively talks to her:
“It’s normal to feel ashamed, to feel it’s all your fault”.
Again an understanding of the shame and humiliation of victims of male violence.
And when she is able to finally confront the abuser, she angrily challenges him:
“You just have to know where she is, what she’s doing because you’re a controlling nut job who beats his wife.”
Now there are a number of ways one can respond to these programmes. We can be pleased that the issue of male violence against women is getting such publicity. We can be gratified that such sensitivity is being shown to the women who are victimised – that they are being believed, and treated with respect and compassion.
But we also need to ask the question – isn’t this what should be the norm? And we ask that question because we know it is not.
For at least 50 years, women having been raising their concerns about male violence against women- about sexual assault, rape, domestic violence and violence inherent in the prostitution industry. And still our justice systems’ responses are at the least inadequate, at the worst, compound and further traumatise women seeking help.
I want to go off here on what might seem like a side-track. On March 8th at 3.20pm child care workers in Australia are going on strike. So it is only for a few hours at the most. They are going on strike because of the deplorable wages that they receive.
The United Voice union says some are being paid as little as $20 an hour, half the average national average.
In January of this year the Australian FEDERAL Senator David Leyonhjelm summarised the role of childcare workers as merely “wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other”.
He made these comments in arguing that increased funding for child care workers was not necessary, and neither was there a need for their qualifications.
I raise this issue in the context of the discussion about male violence against women because they are intrinsically linked.
And of course they are linked because it is about patriarchal capitalism.
Maria Mies makes a very good thesis in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale.
In this excellent book she argues that patriarchy is at the very core of capitalism. That capitalism would not have been able to progress and “accumulate capital” if it were not for the exploitation and oppression of women.
She follows on from Silvia Federici’s work – Caliban and the Witch
“It is generally agreed that the witch hunt aimed at destroying the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and served to pave the way for the development of a more oppressive patriarchal regime. It is also argued that the witch hunt was rooted in the social transformations that accompanied the rise of capitalism.”
Mies describes how the dividing if the economy into visible and non-visible sectors are the main structural characteristic of capitalist accumulation. That women’s unpaid work in ‘private’ sphere is essential for capitalist accumulation. Thus patriarchal capitalism benefits from creating the sexual division of labour and also the control of women’s reproduction.
“The nuclear family, organised and protected by the state, is the social factory where the commodity ‘labour power’ is produced. Hence the housewife and her labour are not outside the process of surplus value production, but constitute the very foundation upon which this process can get started. The housewife and her labour are, in other words, the basis of the process of capital accumulation.” (p.31).
Capitalism created the ideology and practice– what Mies labels as ‘housewifisation’ -where women’s roles are restricted to that of housewives and mothers – and sometimes as a supplementary income stream in unqualified, low paid and insecure jobs. Hence our current politicians minimizing women’s child care work and the continued lower wages for women.
Thus the positioning of women as outside the capital means of production has allowed for the accumulation of capital and thus success in this accumulation.
Mies extends this thesis to other forms of invisible/non-waged work – slavery, colonialism, subsistence peasants, marginalised people. So that not only is there a sexual division of labour but also an international division of labour.
“The subordination and exploitation of women, nature and colonies are the pre-condition for the continuation of this model.”
When we examine the current levels of male violence against women, it is important to remember the witch hunts and acknowledge that today’s male violence is part of an historical continuum of violence against women.
“Witch hunting was also instrumental to construction of the new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.” (p.170) Federici
Our attempts to raise awareness, to educate, to advocate for changes to all of our systems’ responses to male violence against women are important. It is a vital survival mechanism. We have some successes.
But like Mies I doubt that these strategies will eliminate male violence against women and children. The idea that social role stereotyping and socialisation are at the core of women’s oppression fails to identify the “structural roots” of the problem.
It is vital that the women’s liberation movement develops a “historical sense of our common past.”(Federici); that we develop a radical, robust theoretical feminist analysis in order to challenge patriarchal capitalism and create a sustainable alternative.
“What is needed is a new historical and theoretical analysis of the interrelation between women’s exploitation and oppression, and that of other categories of people and of nature.” (Mies p.13).