Our curriculum is organized chronologically – think of it like a survey course on the History of Civilization in college, but with these guiding questions: How did patriarchy develop? How did it function at each particular time in history? Who has challenged patriarchy, and what are their arguments? Each week a different reading partner and I read a book and record our discussion, like a mini-version of the enriching, illuminating class discussions I had with my classmates in graduate school. I recruited readers of different ages, races, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, career paths, and sexual orientations because I wanted as many different points of view as possible to inform my learning and to bring unique wisdom to the texts. All these readers are smart, insightful, generous-hearted readers, and I have been awed by their intelligence and insight.
Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today’s topic may be difficult for some listeners – we will be talking about violence against women, including all kinds of physical and sexual violence. The essential text we are discussing is the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, given at the United Nations in 1993, and we are including it in this history-based project on systemic patriarchy because throughout history, violence against women and particularly domestic abuse was seen as a private matter, sometimes in some places, even endorsed by the state. But even when not promoted, patriarchal institutions have condoned or disregarded violence against women, looking the other way and failing to protect victims and survivors, and instead protecting the perpetrators of that violence. Even the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, in 1979 (and listeners should look that up if you haven’t heard of it), neglected to address violence against women. So in 1993, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted this resolution, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and we’ll be sharing passages from it today. It’s an incredibly important declaration, and in addition we will be sharing important, difficult stories that require a lot of strength. My reading partners and I went over this content in a very detailed way beforehand so that they could choose what they wanted to talk about, and I’m really honored and grateful for this amazing mother-daughter team, Elena and Abigail Gonzalez, who are with me today to discuss this issue!
Hi, Elena and Abigail!
Elena/Abby: Hi, Amy!
Amy: Our family met Elena and Abigail in California in 2006, and we have been dear friends ever since. Occasionally in my life I have had a feeling, right when I met someone, that I knew them already, which in my religious tradition we explain with the belief that all human beings lived together as siblings in one family before we were born. Elena, I had that feeling really strongly when I met you, like “oh, I know you,” like I remembered you. That’s only happened a handful of times in my life, and I’m so grateful that we are friends. And Abigail, we have known and loved you since you were little, and I’m so grateful that you agreed to be here and have this important discussion today!
Amy: So I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about yourselves and tell your story. Elena, why don’t you go first.
My name is Elena Gonzalez. I was born in Mexico, and I grew up with seven siblings, three sisters and three brothers. It was a family that was really dysfunctional. Unfortunately, ever since I can remember, I have suffered abuse….[pause] of every type. My mom and dad were completely oblivious to everything going on… my siblings and I were pretty much on our own. My parents eventually separated, and I remained alone with two older brothers, so at that point I was the youngest. As time passed the abuses continued… from cousins, my brother – my own brother – [pause]… step-fathers, when my mom brought us with her to their houses.
As I grew up I never went to school. I wanted to go to school, so finally I started when I was ten years old, and I attended until I finished my first year of high school in Mexico. Then I came to the United States. Like so many people I immigrated to the United States without any documents. It was really difficult and I arrived here with my mom and one brother and one sister. Once I arrived here they didn’t put me in school; instead they took me to work, and I have been working ever since.
After awhile I met the man who is the father of my three children. (pause) Unfortunately it was an experience that went on for 15 years and was really really difficult. At the beginning obviously he was really caring, really convincing. But after a short time he became violent. He said he would change, but…. (pause) I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t go back home because I was afraid they would abuse me there too… so I didn’t have any other path. So I stayed with him.
I had a son, and he was born at 7 months. The doctors didn’t know why, but I knew why – it was because of the abuse… the abuse I suffered every single day. Thank God my son is ok – he’s 22 years old now.
I had my daughter – just like my first pregnancy I had a lot of problems when she was in utero because of that same abuse. Thanks to the care of my doctors, we were both ok, and she was born safely and now she’s 17.
When I was pregnant with my third child – I found out I was pregnant when I was two months along – and that was when I decided to leave the relationship because it would be better for me psychologically. I say “better” because he had always told me I was good for nothing, that I would never be able to get along without him, that I didn’t do anything right – my cooking, my cleaning, anything I said – it was all bad. So my self-esteem was literally on the floor. But I kept working, I kept the house running… and sometimes when he said those things I would think, “How is it that I’m good for nothing, if I pay the rent, I pay the bills, I buy food, I take my children everywhere they need to go, how am I good for nothing?” But I didn’t know how to leave. BUT, then I started going to some classes, thanks to a friend I started attending classes and the teacher helped me to have more confidence in myself… to believe in myself. And that helped me to finally say “NO MORE.”
One of the things also was that he had…. (pause) Other interests (implied that he was having affairs). So that was how I could leave, because he was gone sometimes and wasn’t attacking me all the time. It was really hard to leave when I was pregnant and had two other kids. But now we’re ok. It was a really hard process – I think it was three to four years, that I was trying to protect my children. Because my children suffered the same that I suffered – hitting, yelling… I fought for custody, but he had visitation and unfortunately he hurt my children. Those were really hard times. Actually when I look back I don’t know hoq I did what I did. I don’t know how I got through all of that. But it made us stronger, and my kids and I supported each other. Now we are… we finally feel safe. We finally have protection so he can’t get near us. He doesn’t know our address, he doesn’t know anything about us, so we feel safe.
Amy: Thank you so much. And then the other question I want to ask is what brought you to this project. What interested you in this topic?
It’s sad that still in this time there still exists this machismo and discrimination against women. Ever since I can remember I have seen that it was always men who made the rules and ran the house, and could say what a woman could and couldn’t do.
But I’m a single mother now. I raise my three children, I keep them moving forward… and I have been able to do everything a man does. My children are studying in school – my son goes to UCLA and he’s working, I have kept a roof over their heads, they have had food, they have had clothes, I do everything a man does. So I feel like they should give us more rights and opportunities and that that stigma should change.
Amy: Ok, let’s get started. I’ll begin with some background information about this document and what prompted its creation.
So historically, if we think back to some of the very first episodes on this podcast, we learned that the very first human writings, the Code of Hammurabi and the Middle Assyrian Law, women were considered in many ways to be the possessions of men, and if they behaved in a way that the men thought was out of line, the men could legally beat the women, or “crush her mouth with a brick” or stone her to death. We remember the stories in the Bible about wives and daughters being offered to be assaulted so that a man wouldn’t be harmed. We learned on other episodes that the term “rule of thumb” comes from a law in the United States that a man could only legally beat his wife if the stick he used wasn’t bigger in circumference than the base of his thumb. So the concept that women have a “right” to a life free from violence is a new idea. And since it has always been men and not women who have historically been in power, these norms have been very, very slow to change. And even in the versions of patriarchy where the leaders say that they value women and want to protect women, like conservative religions, patriarchal institutions have in too many cases been very, very slow to condemn the perpetrators of violence against women.
Data from the UN Women website:
(Here I want to encourage listeners to look up the work of National Geographic photographer Stephanie Sinclair and the work she has done documenting this for Nat Geo and the New York Times, and please look up girlsnotbrides.org.
This is extremely sobering data. And I feel like now is a good time to add just one more comment, which concerns all the content of this episode, including the title of this UN declaration. I watched a TED talk several years ago by Jackson Katz, called “Violence Against Women: It’s a Men’s Issue.” Please, please watch this TED talk today – it’s so important. (https://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue?language=en)
He talks about the grammatical structure of the sentences we use when we talk about violence, and how that reflects our cultural attitudes. What we often do – and again, you’ll hear it all throughout this episode – is that we frame violence in the passive voice. Instead of saying “John beat Mary,” we say “Mary was beaten.” And that removes the perpetrator of the violence completely, and puts the burden on the victim to solve the problem. And there’s a great TikTok video by poet christi steyn that builds on this idea – she says:
“We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women.
We talk about how many girls in a school district were harrassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls.
We talked about how many teenage girls got pregnant in the state of Vermont last year, rather than how many men and teenage boys got girls pregnant.
So you can see how the use of this passive voice has a political effect. It shifts the focus off men and boys, and onto girls and women.
Even the term “violence against women” is problematic. It’s a passive construction. There’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s a bad thing that just happens to women. When you look at the term “violence against women – no one is doing it to them, it just happens. Men aren’t even a part of it.”
I do think we have to be careful to not generalize and make it sound like all men are rapists and all men are harassers. But I do think it’s really important that when we talk about the violent acts that do happen, that we shift the focus back onto the perpetrators of those crimes, rather than thinking of it as the victims’ issue and the victims’ responsibility and burden.
So now to the document, which was written in 1990 and is largely constructed in that passive voice. But we’ll read it as it’s written.
Abigail, can you start us off by reading the beginning of the declaration?
Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.
Proclaimed by General Assembly on December 20, 1993.
The General Assembly ,
Recognizing the urgent need for the universal application to women of the rights and principles with regard to equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human beings,
Affirming that violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms, and concerned about the long-standing failure to protect and promote those rights and freedoms in the case of violence against women,
I think it’s meaningful that this document acknowledges the way that abuse can destroy people’s quality of life, and makes them unable to enjoy any of their rights and freedoms. The “enjoyment” of life is not something we hear about in formal documents, but it is valid and useful.
Recognizing that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men,
Violence prevents the full advancement of women. (Professor Beverly Allen’s work in Bosnia, where they used rape as a weapon of war. This is an old strategy. It humiliates and demoralizes the survivor so they can’t advance in any area – indeed it is a social mechanism whereby women are forced into subordination.
It also makes me think of a few scenes of Mad Men. You see these men in suits who are sexist, but pretty civilized, but when the women in their lives are insubordinate, all they have to do is press their advantage, and they can completely dominate the women into doing whatever they want.
Concerned that some groups of women, such as women belonging to minority groups, indigenous women, refugee women, migrant women, women living in rural or remote communities, destitute women, women in institutions or in detention, female children, women with disabilities, elderly women and women in situations of armed conflict, are especially vulnerable to violence,
We can’t talk about this topic without bringing up the epidemic of violence against Native American women in our country right now. I just listened to Koa Beck’s book White Feminism: From Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind, and there is a whole section on this topic that I highly recommend reading, but for right now I’ll share some information from the Indian Law Resource Center website:
In the United States, violence against indigenous women has reached unprecedented levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Alaska Native women continue to suffer the highest rate of forcible sexual assault and have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States. Though available data is limited, the number of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and the lack of a diligent and adequate federal response is extremely alarming to indigenous women, tribal governments, and communities. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.
…the vast majority of these women never see their abusers or rapists brought to justice. …For more than 35 years, United States law has stripped Indian nations of all criminal authority over non-Indians. As a result, until recent changes in the law, Indian nations were unable to prosecute non-Indians, who reportedly commit …96% of sexual violence against Native women. The Census Bureau reports that non-Indians now comprise 76% of the population on tribal lands and 68% of the population in Alaska Native villages. Many Native women have married non-Indians. However, it is…