As I discovered at my local grocery store the other day, the pandemic that is violence against women in this country is deeply embedded in our culture. It manifests itself in our music, television programs and movies as well as in casual conversation.
As I stood in line waiting to pay for my lemons and butter, deeply engrossed in a text message I was sending my daughter, the conversation between the store clerk and two customers dug its way into my consciousness. I abandoned my text message in favour of listening in as these three people exchanged what seemed, to them at least, to be amusing comments about woman abuse.
All three of them appeared to be around my age – early to mid-60s. The woman customer had something wrong with her arm. The clerk, a woman, commented to the man customer, presumably the woman customer’s partner, about this and asked him if he had hit her. After a good round of chuckles on the part of all three of them, he responded that he only did so because she had hit him first. Another round of chuckles. The clerk made another light-hearted comment about how he had better be careful around her in case she did that again, and he responded in a similar vein. Another round of chuckles, and off went the customers, groceries in hand, happy to have started their day with such a cheerful exchange.
The clerk turned to me with a smile on her face and asked: “Do you need any bags today?”
Now, clearly, it was incumbent on me to say something; ideally when all three of them were standing there together. After all, my work is in the field of violence against women. I do research, I write, I teach, I speak at conferences, I give legal advice.
I know a lot about violence against women. For instance, I know that at least one in four women in Canada is subjected to abuse by her partner; that one woman is killed by her partner or former partner every 6 days, that more than 400,000 girls and women are sexual assaulted every year and less than 10% of them ever report this to the police.
I also know that as long as sexism and misogyny thrive, so will violence against women.
And, I know that one of the many contributing factors to ongoing violence against women is that it is still seen as something we can treat in a light-hearted, even humorous way.
So, why did I not speak up? Why did I, a so-called expert on this issue, not share some of this information with the three conversationalists? Why did I not, at a minimum, encourage sensitivity lest someone within earshot, perhaps another customer in the check-out lineup, was a woman who had experienced abuse in her intimate relationship?
Because it is too scary — even for me, an activist known to be outspoken on many unpopular topics –to confront people on an individual, direct level about the violence that women experience every day. I did not want to get into an argument with these people. I did not want them to accuse me of being mean-spirited; of not being able to take a joke. I did not want to be told to mind my own business. I did not want my comments to be dismissed as those of an angry, man-hating feminist. I also did not want my pain at having to listen to this exchange make me burst into tears mid-confrontation.
Mostly, though, I was tired: tired of having to be on guard all the time for these kinds of comments; tired of having to assure people that, like most feminists I know, I have a sense of humour and I like a good joke as much as the next person; tired of telling people who don`t like what I have to say that I am not a man-hater; tired of living in a world where misogyny surrounds me all of the time. I was tired, as Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her essay about being sexually assaulted of “the vast ocean of work it is to be a woman among men.”
I just wanted my lemons and butter.
So, I said nothing, paid for my lemons and butter, put them into my own bag and left the store, feeling frustrated and angry.
Shame on those three and all the others who think violence against women is an appropriate topic for a joke. But, also, shame on me for not speaking up and shame on all of us each time we don’t speak up.
We must break the silence to end the violence.