Violence against women is an issue for us all. Very few people actively don’t care about violence towards their fellow human beings; even fewer actively want to see more harm done to others. And yet, the narratives around violence against women are often politicised and turned into a question of social values, or even a division between left and right. While the left and right of the political spectrum may have different ideas on how to deal with such violence, most of the time, both sides want to see it dealt with.
And yet because we seem to live in an age of political division, issues that ought not to be totally politicised and polarising somehow can elicit the most wildly divergent of opinions. While few would claim that violence against women is good for society, many societies (especially those undergoing populist backlashes) find that governments defend the right of men to inflict violence against women. Sometimes this right is framed as part of ‘family values’; sometimes it is framed as part of a need for women to behave in a certain way. Either way, it is arguable that politics and the often manufactured but omnipresent ‘culture wars’ of the modern age have created an unnecessary polarisation around the issue of violence against women.
I’m going to explore two distinct ways that violence against women is framed as acceptable or necessary as part of a political ideology. Certainly, many of the attitudes underlying political ideologies are socio-cultural, but because of political divisions such attitudes can become exaggerated – to the extent where they can set the progress of women’s rights back by several decades.
Policing women’s behaviour
For many countries with far-right or populist governments, the idea of violence as a means to police women’s behaviour is often part of showing off small-c conservative credentials to supporters.
For example, the BJP (India’s most powerful political party) has, in some regions, decided that the supposed answer to sexual attacks on women in a country that is one of the most dangerous in which to be a woman is to set up ‘Romeo squads’, hit squads to supposedly protect women from sexual harassment.
And yet these squads often inflict violence on young men and women, breaking up innocent interactions between young adults of opposite genders, particularly when these cross religious or caste lines. This strongman approach simply puts women at greater risk of violence (from the squads themselves) and is based on assumptions about where women are likely to be and the times they are most likely to be out and about.
We also know that far-right Hindu nationalists, many with ties to the BJP, have perpetrated several horrific sexual and physical attacks on women in recent years – and attitudes towards women on India’s political right typically see them as objects in a patriarchal system where only men ought to have agency.
One of the most high-profile of these attacks was when an eight year old Muslim girl from a nomadic tribe in Kathua was abducted, tortured, raped and murdered by Hindu nationalists attempting to drive out her Muslim tribe from the area.
This violence was a means of politicising gender-based attacks. With the treatment of a small girl as an object, the nationalists who attacked her attempted to assert dominance and spread fear among the tribe who remained in the area. This was not simply a question of attempting to consign women to a particular place – it was also an attempt to relegate Muslims in the region to a different place. Shockingly, two BJP ministers attended a rally in support of the accused in this case.
Another example of this use of violence to relegate women (and through them an alternative political position) to a different sphere was seen in 2012, when an MP for the far-right, neo-Nazi Greek party Golden Dawn slapped a representative from opposition party Syriza on a chat-show and threw water over another. It is telling that that Ilias Kasidiaris (the then spokesman for Golden Dawn) used violence as a means to silence a woman. The symbolic significance of doing so is not inconsequential. What it signalled was an indication that women in Golden Dawn’s Greece would be put ‘back in their place’.
Thus violence against women becomes not simply a means to police and control them and their bodies, but also a means of conducting political interactions with other men through hurting women. And most importantly, this violence then becomes turned into a means of signalling conservative values, and a way of displaying a code of conduct where male dominance is key and women have little to no place in the public sphere.
Championing ‘family values’
For far-right and/or populist governments, violence against women has also become (strangely) conflated with an adherence to ‘family values’.
For example, in 2017, Russia partially decriminalised domestic violence and significantly reduced the penalties abusers would face for inflicting violence on their victims (usually women and children). There were several political factors which motivated this decision. For one, the decriminalisation of domestic violence could be seen as a means of upholding traditional values and privileging the importance of an intact (but not necessarily safe) family unit above all else. Another reason was that many lawmakers thought that the hardship of a father or husband’s loss to the jail system would be worse for families to endure than the hardship of ‘mild abuse’.
But the most politicised reason of all was also the most manipulative reason. With domestic violence partially decriminalised, the numbers of women reporting violence to the police fell significantly in the years following the imposition of the law. Thus by implementing the law, the Russian state could appear to have ‘solved’ the issue of domestic violence by spreading ‘traditional values’. Of course, a fall in reported cases never typically means a fall in actual cases – and so many Russian women have simply spent the past few years with fewer places to turn to and lower levels of protection from increasingly unchecked and dangerous violence.
Politically, this is then framed as a victory for ‘family values’ and for the incumbent government – as well as a showcase of socially conservative values.
In America, we see similar attitudes espoused particularly with regards to sexual violence against women by those on the right-wing of politics. In 2014, Lawrence Lockman, a Republican representative from Maine tried to address the issue of abortion with a politicised notion of sexual violence:
“If a woman has (the right to abortion), why shouldn’t a man be free to use his superior strength to force himself on a woman? At least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom doesn’t (in most cases) result in anyone’s death.”
Here, Lockman turns (or tries to turn) the idea of women’s bodies as vessels for men’s wills into a political anti-abortion statement. The idea of women having bodily agency becomes instead a condition that women should only be granted in the event that men also have the right to violate women unhindered as they wish.
This is a political statement, which frames violence against women as something which is necessary to keep control of them and prevent them from making socially liberal decisions.
Other times, the motivations for not protecting women are clearly political. In 2019, 157 Republicans voted against renewing the Violence Against Women Act because of conditions which were opposed by the National Rifle Association. These provisions in the act were attempting to close a loophole which allowed non-spousal partners who had been convicted of abuse or stalking to still buy guns. The new act sought to make this impossible. For these politicians, the interests of the powerful gun lobby and bi-partisan politics superseded the importance of women ’s safety.
Because of all this, women, their bodies and their right to live free from violence become, at times, mere pawns on a political chessboard. We as women deserve the full commitment of all in politics to vote in our interests and legislate in a way that makes society safer. Violence against women should not be an issue where politicians attempt to get ‘one-up’ on each other – and yet it sadly seems to be. And until this changes, women will remain mere political objects – and never the agents.