“when women respond appropriately to violating acts in public spaces, we are often treated as the source of disturbance, the offensive presence. We are the ones told to calm down and are escorted to less populated spaces, as though our interruption of violence has caused the scene, rather than the provoking incident.”
-Is Your Family Safe for Women and Girls? pt III
Responding appropriately to violence in family settings, to that very real intimate terrorism, is no easy task. It requires going against family norms and gendered behavioral codes we have consumed since birth. We learn early when our emotional discharge is “too much” and that our silence is the best way to receive affirmation and praise.
I remember two recent instances very vividly during which women’s responses to violence seemed to cause more upset than the actual incident of violence. At each occasion a woman was participating in a normal routine, either performing a duty at a public event or relaxing at a festive gathering. At each occasion a male attendant at the event became angry when his attempt to alter the flow or predetermined activity in his favor, was met with no. At each occasion the individual men became loud and aggressive, making threats or disparaging comments, both clearly inappropriate responses. At each occasion, the woman’s no was not accepted or respected. The first layer of the violation is in not accepting the NO.
The second layer of violation is in the responses of other male bystanders and witnesses-participants. At each occasion one or more men attempted to bring the violent episode to a conclusion. At each occasion minimal effort was put into addressing the offending males behavior by stating what behavior on the offenders part would have been most appropriate or by stating that offending the woman verbally or sexually was behavior that would not be tolerated in that shared space. At each occasion the male bystanders and witness-participants acted most quickly and thoroughly to silence the offended woman, verbally implying that her response, her anger or outrage was making the current situation difficult and uncomfortable. At each occasion, the offended woman was told to “calm down” and if she did not immediately become silent she was labeled as “overreacting .”
I do not mean to over-simplify the experience of witnessing violence as a male or female. Violence causes old and present terrors to lock our muscles and voices, freezing us in time. It is very difficult to have any response other than shock and terror when violence is witnessed. But when we are able to speak and act, we must speak and act appropriately. Even if witnessing violence terrifies us, such that we are not able to intervene, we must never seek to silence the victim of violence as a means of managing our own fear.