I realize that growing up in a family comprised majorly of women, does not equate to a safe environment for women and girls. Families and circles of women can easily act out internalized oppressive beliefs on each other, even in the absence of a batterer. We can “crack the whip” in our quiet spaces, acting out these deep mistruths about how Black women are lazy, and don’t deserve rest or unearned leisure.
In creating safe spaces for women and girls we might search for examples of women who created woman-centered spaces for themselves and other family members. There might be, as Audre Lorde* mentions “the unmarried aunt, childless or otherwise, whose home and resources were often a welcome haven for different members of the family…” In whose home was/is it safe to speak freely, to rest, to dream, to express yourself creatively? In whose home were you free to be present in your body, free from the feeling that you were being sized up up for having too much or too little, free to eat what you wanted without commentary, free of invasive notions of modesty?
If you can’t think of a person, try to remember who seemed the happiest, the juiciest, or was described as wild. Since we aren’t always able to remember the truth about each other, these free women might have been looked at with suspicion or contempt. You might have been warned against being that kind of woman, or the source of her joy may have always been connected to some sinful behavior.
We get to make the rules in our space. We get to expect that those rules will be respected. We also get to make choices about how to proceed, when our wishes are not respected.
In the past, whenever I tolerated non-woman-centered conversations or allowed the creepy guest to explain why their action was misinterpreted, I have regretted it. The tolerance came from the knowledge that 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. Over time I became comfortable escorting offenders out of my home or gathering without feeling like I needed to justify my choice to the offender or the other guests. And addressing the violence is absolutely necessary for everyone’s comfort. Women don’t have to become hyper-vigilant as potential victims and men don’t have to be hyper-vigilant as potential defenders.
One of the statements I use to recover my voice when I feel threatened by the presence of violence is “I wish a (word for oppressive person) would say/would come up in my house and/would try to etc…” Whether I say it out loud or to myself, I am reminded that I have choice and power in my space. I can do something to make my family, my home, my life safer for women and girls.
*Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving. First Published in The Black Scholar, vol. 9, no. 7 (1978).