Subtle violence should be an oxymoron, but sadly, it isn’t. Ask any woman, and she’ll confirm it. To exist in this world as a woman means not only to have to watch out for (and sometimes endure) physical acts of overt violence, but also to have to live with all the subtler, “sneaky” forms of violence that affect us only because we are women. These forms of violence, which could be described as gender microagressions, are small yet constant, haunting us daily, to the point that sometimes we don’t recognize them as violent, or even notice when they happen. They’re the kind of thing that we sometimes keep to ourselves out of fear that if we bring them up, we’ll be labelled as sensitive or paranoid.
However, the fact that they’re not life-threatening or easy to spot doesn’t make these acts any less violent. On the contrary, these subtle forms of violence are just as harmful because they attack our humanity, gradually leading us to feel inferior and even deserving of violence.
Every time girls’ parents or family members teach them something that makes them feel small or inferior to the men in the family or men in general, it’s a subtle act of gender violence. It can be anything from demanding that they help with household chores (when their brothers are not expected to), to policing what they wear, to instilling seemingly harmless sexist ideas, such as: “boys will be boys” or “good girls don’t do X thing.”
In many ways, school is just as important in a young girl’s life as their home, especially when it comes to learning how the world works. So, for instance, when girls are told that certain subjects are for boys or girls only, it’s a form of gender violence. Why? Because it disregards their full potential and limits them. Another example of subtle violence at school is the double standards in dress codes that sexualizes teen girls’ bodies unfairly, teaching them that showing their bodies is wrong, and that something as innocent as spaghetti straps is an invitation to harassment.
Sexual harassment is rampant at too many workplaces, but many other forms of subtle gender violence are even more prevalent because they are considered the norm. For instance, think about the fact that in many countries, women get little to no paid maternity leave. And of course, there’s the wage gap, whereby women in the US get paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Both of these unfair conditions would be unthinkable for a male employee, yet they are the norm in most jobs. They are violent in the way they belittle women and imply that their work is less valuable than a man’s.
In a relationship:
Sadly, gender violence is much too common in relationships, but unless it’s physical violence, many women can be reluctant to see subtle forms of violence for what they are. Love has a lot to do with it, but internalized sexism is also a part of it. For instance, when you ask for space or set boundaries, and your partner disregards your wishes, that is a form of violence, just like when they make fun of your interests or opinions on a subject, or intend to make decisions for you.
These days, the topic of street harassment is more openly discussed than ever, but we can’t forget that it isn’t the only kind of violence women are subjected to in public spaces. For instance, women can’t even wear whatever they feel like in the street because they know what would happen if they wore something that was too “provocative.” And there is also the issue of advertisements, which are notorious for featuring very thin models and actresses wearing little clothing as the ideal of beauty. Isn’t this kind of visual bombardment a form of psychological violence too?
We’ve all been there. You’re hanging out with friends, having a good time, until someone makes a sexist joke “for fun” that “you shouldn’t take so seriously,” or else you’ll be called a Debbie Downer or “the feminist one” of the group. Why should calling out sexism be wrong? Why should we be bullied for it? The joke might be coming from a friend, but it carries with it some heavy cultural baggage that oppresses all women out there.
A more recent form of gender violence, the internet offers aggressors ideal conditions for consequence-free harassment, mainly anonymity. For example, anyone can give any woman on the internet unsolicited commentary about their bodies (whether it’s positive or negative, it’s still unasked for, and therefore, a form of violence). Mansplainers underestimate women’s knowledge and intelligence, and many men of all ages verbally abuse the women who choose to ignore them or reject them on dating sites. It goes without saying, that they wouldn’t do these things to another man, not even out of fear of reprisals, but simply because they don’t feel the urge to do so.
Of all the sources of gender violence, women themselves can be their worst enemy. Sure, we were all unlucky enough to be born in a world that thinks we are the “lesser” sex, but that doesn’t mean can’t unlearn the sexism we are taught. For instance, we owe it to ourselves as women and human beings to learn to appreciate our bodies, no matter how “flawed” they are, to put ourselves first before our partner, and to spend the rest of our lives learning to believe in ourselves and love who we are.
The world can be a scary and dangerous place for women, but the first thing we can do to make it a little bit more equal and livable is to look around us and see what needs to change. This includes both overt and subtle forms of violence, outdated gender roles and dynamics, as well as systemic conditions that treat women as second-class citizens. We’ve got a long way to go, but it all begins at the individual level, so why not start with yourself?
March is the month to share stories and raise awareness of issues concerning girls and women all over the world. You can find out more about the different initiatives happening here.