As an argentine and a native Spanish speaker that has lived in the UK for five years, it always struck me as odd that most people (including some radical feminists) commonly call gender-based violence, ‘domestic’.
At first, I thought it could be a lost-in-translation word/phrase. But it isn’t a false friend. In fact, it is misused and misplaced and plays an important and negative role in depoliticising the work in combating gender violence.
In many other non English speaking countries in Europe and the world, but especially in Latin America, the use of the word ‘gender’ to explain the violence that women, trans and non-binary people experience is widespread on all media platforms, in the legal and justice system, and society in general. What’s more, this is a feminist battle that has been taking place for decades.
The answer might seem blatantly obvious to some readers. However, it is clearly not such a pressing matter or urgent fight in the feminist discourse in the UK. I quite strongly disagree with this approach as I firmly believe language matters for a long list of reasons.
To make it plain and simple, let’s unravel the main problems that surge from the domestication of gender-based violence:
The use of the word domestic helps perpetuate the idea that gender violence is private and disconnected from wider patriarchal violence. If it’s called domestic it’s because it only happens at home, right?
Well, let’s see what the definition of domestic violence is first.
According to the National Centre for Domestic Violence (https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/What-is-abuse), it is “the violent form of domestic abuse which is controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners. Carers who are family members can also be perpetrators.” And who can be a victim of domestic abuse or violence? Anyone. “Regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality or background. There is no distinction between heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual or transgender relationships in domestic violence/abuse. The abuse or violence can continue after the intimate relationship has ended.”
How is this a problem then?
Violence against women and trans people is not a domestic issue, it is systemic and structural.
People might feel like denominating it domestic only indicates a plethora of evidence that the number of cases of violence take place indoors and within relationships.
Yes, physical abuse and murder (femicides) usually happen at home but it is far from a domestic issue.
The physical harm, verbal and psychological violence that women, trans & non binary people suffer at the hands of their male partners, as well as their relatives, colleagues and wider society is only the tip of the iceberg of historical and every day violence.
[VISIBLE & EXPLICIT
Murder (femicide & transfemicide), physical harm, rape, sexual abuse, screaming, threats, insults.
INVISIBLE & EXPLICIT
Humiliation, devaluation, ignoring, disdain, emotional blackmailing, blaming
INVISIBLE AND SUBTLE
Sexist humour, controlling, sexist adverts, invisibilisation, sexist language, annulment, microsexism.]
It is the more subtle and invisible forms of coercion, abuse and violence, that society constantly allows to happen without intervention, that ultimately results in high rates of femicide.
Findings from the femicide census (https://femicidescensus.org/) show that 149 women were killed by men only in 2018 in the UK alone. That is: one woman is killed every 2.5 days and 94% of femicides were committed by a man known to the victim.
These crimes do not exist in a violence vacuum though. We absolutely cannot ignore the invisible and structural, institutional and historical violence that are strictly linked to patriarchal violence and that make gender violence so widespread, resulting in the killing of women every minute around the world.
Worldwide, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence — mostly by an intimate partner.
How can this issue be ‘domestic’ if it happens systematically across the globe?
We cannot allow the domestication of this political issue and we cannot allow the disconnection to state and societal responsibility. The state and all governments are responsible, schools and institutions are responsible, society and people are responsible. Because it is everyone’s problem, it is categorically not a problem that should remain behind closed doors.
But what do I mean by violence being gendered? Why is it this specific group of people and not all violences?
Certainly, violence can be perpetrated and experienced by any and all individuals or groups of people. Indeed, women and parents can be violent and abusive. But there is a clear difference, just like with racism for example: it is a one way street only. Reverse racism or reverse sexism don’t exist because they are the expression of centuries of oppression, of power imbalance, of subjection, of cultural, political and economic domination, of brutality and of cruelty towards a specific group of people. Ultimately resulting in the most brutal forms of violence: murder.
So, there must be a distinction between different types of violence and we must recognise – in this case – the specificity in which women, trans and non-binary people are oppressed. We must own up to the responsibility that we all bear living in a society that so clearly harms womxn in all aspects of their lives: politically, culturally, economically, sexually, physically.
If one womxn is abused, we are all responsible. If they touch one of us, they touch us all. Because we are all part of this machinery that is the patriarchy, we are all born into this unequal and unjust world that molds our mindsets and teaches us to behave the way we do. And we all have to join the fight, because it is not and it should not remain domestic, it should always be political.
Stop calling gender violence, domestic. The cause of the violence is the patriarchy.
As I mentioned, this fight is a feminist fight and important figures of the movement such as the monumental feminist (s)hero, bell hooks, have been talking about the term ‘patriarchal’ violence for quite sometime. hooks reckons that this term is more useful because “unlike the more accepted phrase ‘domestic violence’ it continually reminds the listener that violence in the home is connected to sexism and sexist thinking, to male domination”. Also, she sees the term domestic as softer, which implies an intimate and private context and something that is somehow less brutal than the violence outside the home. But as we do know, more women are beaten and murdered in the home than outside.
Legend hooks also points out that, of course, most people think men shouldn’t beat women but when we – feminists – say that gender violence will not end until we see the end of a patriarchal system, they are unable to see that logic.
Therefore, to end gender-based violence we must end with the system that creates, reproduces and perpetuates inequality and violence against womxn. How?
Policy-making is key and so is cultural change
In order to help tackle gender violence and femicides more effectively, we must stop calling it domestic and begin a campaign to start naming this phenomena for what it is: patriarchal.
If we only see it as a problem that’s to be solved at each individual level and without generating specific language to define and identify it, we are wasting time and resources and it won’t help to be eradicated.
Now, certainly, changing the language will not bring about structural change by itself but it can help change the culture and the mentality, eventually helping us all understand the reasons why gender violence happens.
We need policies in place and we need funding to combat gender violence. Unsurprisingly, the past decade of Tory austerity has meant that local councils were forced to close down women’s refuges.
Money and political will are key. But so is defining what the problem is, especially if we want radical and sustainable change. Most of all we need a radical societal change because otherwise whatever policies are implemented will be vague, ineffective or will only contribute to a small and short lived change.
House refuges are extremely necessary and urgent and the cuts have awfully impacted the aid that women should be receiving. At the same time, it is imperative that we understand, politically, how gender violence works. We must engage in an educational and consciousness-raising approach in changing the fabric of society that is inherently patriarchal (classist, racist and trans-hating too). Helping to identify and explain why gender violence happens and why it is not only domestic will really help towards designing and drafting policies not only to tackle the violence that already exists but to prevent it and to ultimately eliminate it.
Having had my rant, I am also well aware of the context in which I am writing. We’re facing big economic recessions and an increasing wealth gap; migrants and refugees being attacked and left to drown; POC are being killed and abused by the police; the environment is burning and the planet is collapsing. Plus, there is a global pandemic affecting millions of people. The list is relentless, but within all those critical concerns, women and trans people are also being murdered as a result of patriarchal inequality.
Covid has put a strain on many social issues such as poverty, racial and class inequality, economic crises, etc. and violence against women (and trans and non-binary people) is no exception.
We have seen how gender violence is on the rise since the start of the pandemic.
Women have found themselves locked in with their abusers, which is an extraordinary case that the state must take action on. It is important to make new policies during this state of emergency, but the deeply rooted and pre-existing inequalities need addressing at the same time.
Coronavirus only shone a light on an issue that has existed for centuries and had been largely ignored by society. How do we make sure people continue to care? And how can we take advantage of this situation?
There is a spotlight on this issue now, while people have used it as an excuse to relax lockdown measures. Therefore, we must capitalise on this extra attention, and make sure it doesn’t go away when the lockdown does.
All in all, I hope these lines offer an opportunity for us (as feminists and members of society too) to kickstart an honest conversation about what violence against womxn actually entails and discover how we can deconstruct the given language to help create better and more adequate tools to abolish it once and for all.
It takes a lot to change our ways but we must reflect on how things are said, as they hide – in plain sight – the historical power of meaning.
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