When the #metoo campaign started to spread all across Facebook, I was not going to participate. I empathise with the argument that there is only ever a massive outcry when violence happens to white women, plus I really don’t like taking on the victim role that women are raised to occupy. I could have written about things like homophobic violence, various incidents on night bus journeys, or having to go to the police station as a primary school kid to help identify a sex offender that I walked into on the way home from primary school. In the latter case, I remember being presented with a photo archive of male sex offenders so huge that it seemed like this was just a normal thing that men do.
I also did not write about this and other things, because I thought the scale of the problem was self-evident, not just related to the entertainment industry. Posting a personal story seemed like just another performance that did not really do anything besides creating a brief awkward moment for both writer and reader. The scale and tone of the negative male responses in my feed, however, persuaded me otherwise. Whether it was comments about women being part of the problem, men stating that women can also be abusers, men ranting against third wave feminism and leftie politics, I was quite blown away by the diminishment of women’s experience of male sexual violence. So instead of continuing last night’s unfriending spree, here is yet another woman’s story.
As a woman, you grow up with a seemingly contradictory set of instructions: one, you need to protect yourself – and need to be protected – from male sexual violence, and, two, you need to perform in ways appealing to men. Failure to comply with either would result in a messed up life. You have to beam at men’s compliments on your physical appearance or, if these are not forthcoming, work harder at feminising yourself, even if this renders you more vulnerable. The important thing is that you remain an OBJECT.
I always explain to my male musician friends how many rock concerts, ‘hang outs’ and even music rehearsals I had to miss, because I was female. While they were able to see Sisters of Mercy and other acts when they were teenagers, I was not able to go. It was either “you will get raped” from both parents but especially my dad (who still uses this argument with me if I want to go out at night or cycle through less populated areas of my sleepy hometown), or “women are not serious enough about music” to warrant rehearsal space from male youth centre workers “and, besides, boys are our priority”.
The lesson: women may have increased economic resources, but are dissuaded from using them; boys cause trouble, but they are also more serious – so girls have to stay at home. In my case, growing up in the 1970s and 80s with a policeman father, this at one point involved drawing over a large stack of misprinted Red Army Faction terrorist hunt posters that he had brought home as ‘art materials’. Compared with the skewed gender balance of the sexual offenders archive, at least the leftist violence committed by both men and women seemed more equal opportunities.
There is not a single day in a woman’s life, where their gender is not policed in some way or another. Yes, I get that it is not only men who police women, and that men are policed, too, in how they have to perform – that is the insanity of heteronormativity and heteropatriarchy. There are two controversial films that illustrate this for me the mechanics of both really well, Sandstorm (2016) and Elle (2016). Elite Zexer’s Sandstorm made headlines for being an Israeli film about Muslim Berber culture, and for the Muslim actors refusing to share a stage with the Israeli minister of culture. I am aware of the problems with this film in terms of colonial dynamics, but one thing I thought the film did really well is to show how women’s oppression fucks up EVERYONE.
Sandstorm focuses on marriage and the problems that come with love, arranged marriages and polygamy. Despite the involvement of Berber women in the script writing, the film could easily be perceived as yet another finger pointing at backward Muslim traditions and further fuel for discriminating practices against Muslim women in supposedly enlightened places such as France or Canada. Yet the way the relations among women and between men and women are shown, also allows for a much more universal metaphor regarding gender relations (and, yes, gay relationships are not exempt from adhering to heteronormativity either).
The film is set in a poor Berber settlement in Israel. It opens with the dad, Suliman (Hitham Omari), teaching his teenage daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) how to drive while telling her off about her bad school performance: ‘what shall become of you?” Suliman comes across as a progressive dad who wants his daughters (he only has daughters) to do well and is happy to bend some conventions in a rather conservative environment, such as letting his younger daughters run around the settlement without headscarves for a little longer and letting the older one go to school for longer than ‘necessary’. Jalila (Ruba Blal), the mother, by contrast, comes across as more conservative, trying to aggressively prevent her daughter from seeing a guy at school that Layla is in love with. In protest, Layla turns to her dad whom she believes to be more understanding, but here it turns out that her judgment was wrong. After meeting her desired groom, Suliman consults with the other men and decides on a different husband that Layla is to marry immediately.
Image: Layla asking a very fundamental question about the appeal of heteronormativity
Now it is the mother who does unconventional things, by protesting against the marriage and accusing him of never asserting any agency in front of the other men, from accepting his apparently ‘unwanted’ second wife’ to marrying off his daughter to a stranger: “you always say you have to do it”. Gendered oppression is being perpetuated by just following the script. As a consequence, Jalila is banished, loses custody of her daughters, and has to move back in with her parents. When Layla takes her dad’s car to get her mother back, her mother urges her to take the car and run away with the guy she likes: “go – there is nothing here for you”. After some hesitation, Layla drives the car to her boyfriend’s settlement, where she finds him hanging out with other guys, in very much the same scenario as her own environment.
Her dad, anticipating this development, is already coming for her, too. After some discussion during which Layla tells her dad that she does not trust him and his judgment any more, she agrees to marry a guy called Munir (Omar El Nasasreh) (whom people make fun of in her settlement). It feels like she partly agrees for her mother’s sake, and partly, because she perhaps realises that her life in the other settlement would probably not be much different or worse, as she would be cut off from any support if things do not work out. The film ends with her wedding night, where she snaps at her new husband off for choosing the wrong colour for their room, her little sister spying on them like she did at her dad’s wedding night with the second wife.
Image: Jalila ‘greets’ the second wife
What I liked about the film was how simply it portrayed the inescapability of a system that ingrains toxic gender relations. And it is not only women who suffer, although they bear the brunt of the oppression. Munir will probably never be able to get anything else than resentment or resignation from his wife, no matter how well he treats her. What the film also teases out is the refusals of solidarity among women. Whether it is Jalila’s mother telling her daughter to obey her husband, Suliman’s second wife complaining about Jalila’s lack of service to her, or Layla’s refusal of empathy with Suliman’s second wife who warns her not to run away with her boyfriend and ‘end up like her’ – a mere second wife. The film does not end with a naïve conclusion that love is the answer – it portrays love as very much part of the same problem. In fact, this aspect made me think about my neighbourhood, and how, thanks to the density of urban space, I can overhear the same arguments about gender roles between couples from the supposedly conservative Muslim family to the self-proclaimed progressive atheists.
The second film, Elle (2016) by Paul Verhoven, was widely criticised for its repeated portrayal of rape by a male director and male writers (both the script and the book it was based on). I did not want to see it at first, both because of the violence and the incredibly uninspiring trailer that looked liked just another ‘whodunnit’ story. As a fan of Isabelle Huppert, I ended up seeing it anyway. The film is set in the opposite social environment to Sandstorm, in a white wealthy Parisian neighbourhood. It opens with a rape and the subsequent clean-up of the scene by the victim, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), whose resuming of her normal life after such an assault seems perplexing if not disturbing. Gradually, the viewer learns that Michèle’s father was a mass murder who killed every person and animal in their housing block and involved his daughter in the clean-up. Since then, all her dealings with the police and prison system have been traumatic, so she avoids contact at all costs, even when she gets hurt in a car crash. As a consequence, she begins her own kind of investigation.
Throughout this search for the rapist, it becomes clear that Michèle is part of a number of dysfunctional relationships with men, including misogynist employees at her computer games company who make videos of her getting raped, her womanising ex-husband, her ultra naïve son who cannot seem to get his life together, and finally an affair with her best friend Anna’s callous husband Robert. After another rape attack in her home during which she manages to defend herself and unmask the attacker, she finds out that the perpetrator is her married ultra-Catholic neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) with whom she has been flirting at neighbourhood gatherings. After Michèle unmasks him, they have a weird sexual encounter that reads like a power struggle, as Michèle initiates it, but Patrick is unable to perform sexually with consenting partners.
Image: Michèle begins her experimentation with negotiating male violence
This seems to be the point, perhaps also caused by the death of both of her parents that tie her to a history of violence where Michèle starts to turn things around (her mother dies from a stroke and her dad from hanging himself in prison before Michèle can make the first visit to him since his trial that her mother had asked her to make). She becomes more assertive with men at her company, she tells her friend Anna about the affair, and she lets Patrick know that she is going to go to the police. When Patrick tries to rape her again, he is killed (in a rather comical way with a fireplace log) by Michèle’s son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who was staying over. When the mistrustful police arrives to interrogate Michèle and her son, she pretends that she had no idea that the attacker was her neighbour. From this moment onwards, Michèle not only gets along better with her son and his own dysfunctional family, but also with her friend Anna, who has kicked out her husband and offers Michèle to move in with her. Patrick’s wife moves out of the neighbourhood, confessing that she knew about her husband’s preferences and perversely thanking Michèle for satisfying what she could not.
The main accusation against this film was that the film affirmed the stereotype of the masochist woman who actually enjoys sexual violence. To me, the film was not about that, but about its opposite: assertion in the face of (deliberate and non-deliberate) male violence. There are a few other substories to the film (around the son, the mother, the ex-husband) that add substance to this narrative. Although Michèle seems accultured into accepting gender based violence and even playing along with it, she also experiments with how you can be as a woman in the world if you are seen as rapable, if you are constantly pathologised, objectified, challenged. By choosing a white wealthy middle class woman and head of a company as an example, the film shows this violence as irrespective of social standing – if not even someone like Michèle can rely on the ‘justice’ system, who is it for women with less social status?
Here, the film shows both failures and successes of Michèle’s experiment (e.g. in female solidarity, in self-administered justice, in playing with social expectations). It does not seek to garner empathy by making her likeable but by making her ambiguous through questionable and seemingly contradictory actions. For every woman, life is an experiment with negotiating objecthood, a status that seems impossible to overcome.
Image: Director Paul Verhoven, with actress Isabelle Huppert on set
Although I was initially critical of the negative reviews of the film for caving in to the woman-as-victim on-and-off-screen narrative that they are apparently trying to argue against – after all, Isabelle Huppert herself initially wanted to direct this film and had a large part in shaping her role, and the film leaves none of the men with redeeming features – I also empathise with the many negative reviews and their fury against not just the portrayal of female violence on screen, but against the gender dynamics behind it. I get that women are angry with yet another guy filming a rape scene, and here it would interest me why the director was attracted to this material.
To come back to the #metoo campaign, there was an important segment on it on the independent US political programme Democracy Now!. The programme put the campaign in context and drew attention to the 10+year history of the campaign, originally started by black youth worker and Girls for Gender Equity director Tarana Burke. Burke, a victim of sexual assault herself, highlighted how someone saying ‘me, too’ completely changed her healing trajectory for the better. Journalist and director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project Soraya Chemaly, who was also on the show, stressed the importance of the campaign of adding pressure on institutions who continue to invalidate women’s experiences and withdraw resources. Especially during a time where a known serial sexual abuser such as Donald Trump is head of state, such struggle for resources and validation is crucial. So while the men in my Facebook feed may not be in positions to withdraw resources from women, they also reflect the continued invalidation of women’s experiences of sexual violence. Such attitudes perpetuate the myth of conspiracy and the myth of a ‘balance’ of sexual violence (as a geographer, I could bore you with maps upon maps and statistics showing not just graphic illustrations of women’s inequality but also the sex difference in violent crime).
Further, this is an issue that needs women and men to work together (and women and men amongst each other). If men do not even get that this is an issue and do not get how much women are sick of such invalidations, despite evidence from the mass disappearance of indigenous women in the Americas to, yes, women’s abuse in Hollywood and the BBC, then that is a problem. It is also a problem if men demand empathy from women for their suffering first, making it a conditional assistance. #metoo is not a competition either – it is not about demonstrating how one person has suffered more than another, but about attempting a snapshot of an everyday struggle that cannot get better if fundamental power differences and their history – not just based on gender, but also on race, religion, geographical location and economic status – are glossed over as meaningless. While I remain ambiguous about how the campaign is unfolding and thus can understand other people’s ambiguity, I insist that the basic problem needs to be taken seriously.