Solstice reflections: Women as Victims of Violence and as Peace Agents

Winter solstice eve, 2011.

The darkest day of the year, and yet presaging the return to light.  The stars and planets continue to wheel overhead, taking little notice of all the sturm und drang here on Earth.

Tonight there is one image that keeps calling out to me for comment.  It goes by the Web shorthand “woman with the blue bra, Cairo.”

Did you see that one?

Someone captured on camera a brief two minutes of violence in Cairo, Egypt, when an unnamed protester was dragged by military forces in the street, then stripped of her abaya, under which she wore only a blue bra–and then beaten up some more.

WordPress has taken away my ability to post video, so you can watch it here.

It goes right up there with the video from New York City, towards the beginning of the OWS protests, of a police officer spraying peaceful, captive girls in the face with pepper spray.  This video has apparently been watched on You-Tube more than 1.5 million times.

There is something about seeing women being beaten up by masked, uniformed security forces that sets off particular triggers in most of us.  It’s certainly no accident that the Occupy protests swelled dramatically in numbers after that pepper-spray incident, or that more than 10,000 protesters, mostly women, turned out in Cairo following the posting of this image on the Web.

Part of me wants to question why it is that we get so upset when women protesters are attacked.  After all, they knew the risks they were running when they went out into the street.  And what’s the big difference between a man and a woman being beat up by goons, anyway?

But there is a difference.

The difference is that it’s always men doing the beating.

Yes, we have some women in police and military uniforms.  And yes, women can be violent.  But you will have to look long and hard to find cases where women bore the responsibility for killing or attacking civilians, in any circumstances.  It may happen, but it’s pretty rare.

So when we see a mob of men stripping and beating a woman–in a society where nudity is absolutely taboo, to boot–it’s impossible to ignore the full impact of the insult intended.  And in a society where women are forcibly kept out of leadership roles, the message is all the clearer.

Stay at home where you belong, or we’ll do this to you, too.

I’m so glad that the women of Cairo did not take this attempt at intimidation lying down. Just like the women in New York, who took the unwarranted police brutality as a gauntlet thrown down to test their protest mettle.

The question of whether men are in fact more aggressive than women is still a matter for debate in academic circles, but taking a look around the world, it’s pretty clear that men commit almost all the violence in every context.  When women murder or assault, it’s almost always in self-defense.

And yet women are still held back from leadership roles in most societies, and even held back from the peace-making negotiating tables in post-conflict regions.  A big exception is Rwanda, where women have taken a leadership role in rebuilding that shattered society–mostly because the men had succeeded so well in killing each other off.

We have moved past the point in the intellectual history of gender studies where feminists were striving to be “the same as” men.  Women don’t want to be the same as men if it means repeating the same old history of violence and abusiveness.

What we need is to move, as men and women, beyond the violence that has continually plagued human society.

Violence towards each other; violence towards other species and the rest of the world.

The only way to move forward as a species is to disable that aggressive switch, and become the consensus-seeking conciliators we have always been in our finest moments as human beings.

As we return to light this solstice night, this is my fervent prayer: that the aggressive, masculine energy that has dominated this planet for the past 5,000-plus years will begin to shift to a more peaceful, creative, feminine energy, from which both men and women–and the planet as a whole–will benefit.

Let it be so.

Leave a comment


  1. I write this comment rather as a reaction to a piece by Yifat Susskind on CD than a reply to this post (with which I completely agree). I post it here because on CD nobody will ever see the comment. The article with the title “2011’s Big Wins” is cheerful and optimistic but paints a picture brighter than what I see.

    I realize that we need something and someone to cheer us up because taking in reality in its utter bleakness would many of us send into deep despair. Yet, while denying or distorting reality can protect against despair and hopelessness this very approach can also prevent or hinder appropriate responses.

    First I don’t see the Arab Spring as positive as Susskind. Most of the demonstrators are men, all political players are men, all beneficiaries are men (at least until now). What happened to Lara Logan in Tahrir Square? (We know now as she has finally told the story herself.) What happened to the many women who were detained since the successful (?) uprising in Egypt? They were molested, beaten, stripped, abused, sometimes raped, they had to undergo virginity tests or were humiliated in a multitude of other ways by male soldiers and security officers. Look at the pictures of Ghada Kamal.

    Egypt is still a patriarchal society and the protests in Tahrir Square didn’t change that.

    The toppling of Gaddafi, hailed as the main success of the Arab Spring, did cost between 40 and 60 thousand Libyan lives and has destroyed the only Arab country where women made significant advances and had achieved nearly equality.

    The fertility rate was 2,88 (comparatively modest for Africa). Women in Libya enjoyed a reasonably high status. They had been able to vote since decades and Libya had signed the “UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women” (Cedaw). In 2004 Libya was the first Arab country to adopt an optional protocol allowing women to petition a UN committee about violations of their rights. As part of Gaddafi’s bid to alter society after his takeover in 1969, he promoted a greater role for women, specifically calling on them to join the workforce. In the past decade, girls enrollment increased by 12 percent in all levels of education. In secondary and tertiary education, girls outnumbered boys by 10 percent.

    This is all gone now. The head of the interim government Mustafa Abdel-Jalil declared, that unrestricted polygamy will be allowed. One doesn’t hear much about Libya now but read the alternative sources and it becomes clear that women have lost all their rights. Sharia is the law! (comments to this piece are quite interesting)

    Same in Afghanistan. Sharia is the Law there too. Only men have the right to divorce and the husband receives custody of all the adult children. There are honor killings, underage marriages, attacks against school girls (not only in the remote Pashtun regions but all over the country). 85 percent of Afghan women are illiterate.

    Susskind writes: “Now, Afghan women still have the freedom to turn—no questions asked—to shelters where they can escape life-threatening violence and abuse.”

    What an achievement!

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  December 28, 2011

      Thank you for writing this. I have to say that when I read Yifat Susskind’s piece, I had to kind of do a mental squint, because while I understand what she’s trying to do, I agree with you that in so many ways, 2011 has not been a good year for the women of the world at all. Sharia law is a disaster for women, at least as its generally interpreted and applied by the men in power in these countries. What’s happening in Somalia now, as reported in today’s NY Times, is a case in point.

      But things are not so great here in the West either. A new federal study of rape in the U.S., released this month, made the case starkly: “Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported having been beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked.”

      As I’ve said before, I see violence against women as another expression of the general violence of our patriarchal and androcentric cultures. It’s the violence itself that needs to be constantly questioned and resisted. But how?

  2. I also read the report in the NY Times (which is btw not at all my favorite news source) and I read Patricia Hynes piece on CD
    About Somalia:

    Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya were all rulers in traditionally fundamentalist Islamic states that had tried to develop and modernize society and had introduced policies favoring the rights of women. All were overthrown either directly or with the help of the USA and the UK. Is there a pattern here?

    How to diminish violence? I thought and wrote about it many times and I will think and write more when I come back from my todays walk with the cats 🙂

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  December 28, 2011

      I know, the NYT is like a bad addiction for me; I can’t not read it, but there’s so much about it not to like….

      There is this disturbing pattern of progressive states being undermined and/or overthrown with the help of the US–in Latin America as well as the Middle East. Women’s rights get thrown under the bus every time.

      Women need to assume positions of leadership–and not just as tokens or as iron ladies in the Margaret Thatcher mode.

      Michele Bachelet is someone to watch in this regard. She is at least a good model for the kind of new leadership we need on a vast scale.

      But how can it be accomplished when so many women are living a terrorized and severely circumscribed existence? Where will the momentum for change come from?

      Maybe the cats will have some answers…they are such wise creatures. I miss mine…both died last winter and so far are without successors. My dog will have to suffice.


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