It’s has been a long time I have been wanting to write about this. I don’t know why it has taken so long. Maybe because I have been speaking about this so much, with so many people? Like: It feels like I have said all of this a thousand times. Or maybe because I know how liberal Feminism will try to appropriate my words and turn them against me? Or because it feels everything has been said. Most likely because I know how insignificant this blog is.
It has been by now nearly two years since I last wrote on patriarchy in the narrow sense. You can find the German article here. A 22-year old woman had been attacked by men who minutes before harassed in a sexist way a group of women in a store in the city of Offenbach. Tuğçe Albayrak went in between. And payed for it with her life.
Now it has been an article on sexist street harassment in Latin America generally, and Costa Rica specifically, that made me open a word-document within minutes for starting to write this text. Finally.
I have decided to only focus on sexist street harassment because I do not have the time to go into all of the very creative forms patriarchal assholes find to make sexist advances to women and girls. Also, as I have extensively documented racist harassment, I will not primarily focus on this form of collective social control either. What I want to focus on is the feeling described by one young woman in the quoted article:
“We shouldn’t have to feel brave to go out into streets.”
This is exactly how I felt nearly every day in the summer of 2015. After one summer veiled in Tehran, I nearly forgot about the daily harassment when it gets warmer in Berlin. Often, when you experience one form of sexism you forget about the other forms. Being forced to veil against my will seemed to be institutionalized sexism enough. But not quite. In Tehran I learned that you could wear a Chador or an Abaya – both full body black veils -, male hands were still mostly faster as women could turn to find out who to punch.
And then I was back in Berlin. And it was summer. The city was warm and the sun warming my skin. The water surface of the Spree seemed to have thousands of little diamonds stuck to it as I jogged nearby.
And then something struck me: I started to observe every person I read as male. Any men, besides the very few close close men in my life, became a potential aggressor. I observed everything. Their moves, their eyes, their hands. Not from the first day but after I caught a man staring at my legs after the third or forth warm day, it started. Stares. At my breasts, my legs, my arms. It’s like: “Hey, have you never seen a woman before?!”
It feels like I have never experienced as much sexism as in the summer of 2015. Maybe it’s because my hair was longer, and I with it I suited the sexist ideal type of a woman alittle more? But then I also put on weight. One plus point. One minus point. So I started experimenting: When I wore long pants or wider clothes I was hardly aggressed. When I wore tighter clothes or even miniskirts or short dresses I found myself in a fight with sexist harassers nearly every ten minutes! And then this summer came. 2016. No words. Every day sexist harassment has become so normal suddenly in my life, that at times I don’t even notice the cat calling or looks anymore.
In a society based on patriarchal exploitation – as any capitalist society – one of the very first property relations is that of ‘owning a woman’. This is reflected in the wide spread ideology of monogamy – as Friedrich Engels already rightly explained, monogamy always just meant monogamy for women, never for men – and the romantic myths that religion and further secular bourgeois society have attached to ‘finding the one’. In the end ‘finding the one’ does not mean anything else but finding someone who will be happy to be owned by oneself. Someone happy to become someone else’s property. Of course the ideal type goes into both directions, be it in so-called hetero- or homosexual relationships.
As a communist I am convinced that the institution of private property needs to be abolished. There is a huge debate if this is just the private property of production tools – like factories and companies – or if private property – not personal property like your personal toothbrush – at large needs to be abolished for communism to actually happen. Besides that we are talking about a much more future stage of political development and I am not trying to argue to abolish private property in the here and now, I do argue that we need to understand how and where the institution of property has influenced our social relations and thus find alternative ways of thinking and living if we are to call ourselves revolutionaries at all. This doesn’t mean that we will be able to escape those structures right away but I believe that it is absolutely necessary to give it a try. Even if there will not be any liberation within capitalism, we need to work on all our live spheres right now, not primarily but as a process within our wider political commitment.
For being able to even imagine a more free society we need to breath some of this freedom now. Even if only for minutes.
Thus I do not want to be owned as I do not want to own other human beings – or as Berthold Brecht famously declared in his poem-turned-song, famously sung by Ernst Busch under the title Einheitsfront:
Und weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist,
d’rum hat er Stiefel im Gesicht nicht gern.
Er will unter sich keine Sklaven sehen
und über sich keine Herren.
So how do I connect all of this to sexist street harassment? In my analysis of sexist street harassment it is the female body in public which needs to be controlled, owned. If not by a male next to her – which gets accepted as a legitimate owner of the female he is walking with and thus functions in a twisted way as protection for other potential owners – then by any other male around. And ‘owning’ does not actually mean that every sexist street harasser wishes to become the owner of the specific female but rather that his sexism functions as a reminder that the female can not exist as an independent human being. Either owned by another man or harassed into accepting to be owned. Thus, sexist street harassment functions as a sexualized advance at times, like when the sexist harasser actually believes that the female will consider him as a sexual partner, or as a threat, like when the harasser wants to scare the female away from the street, in order to implement the social control he was taught to legitimately hold.
These different ways of controlling female bodies has a number of patriarchal roots. In sociology things are never unidimensional. I completely reject the racist fantasy propagated by a number of famous German feminists – like Alice Schwarzer and Necla Kelek – that the problem of sexism in 2016 Germany in one mostly ‘imported’ by non-white men and their ‘underdeveloped’ cultures. Bullshit! Even in Neukölln, mostly inhabited by immigrants and post-migrants from Muslim majority countries, I have already gotten harassed by white men! But of course – sexism are different and shaped by the cultural formations we grow up in. To pretend that the cultural socialization (including class) does not show in the different forms of sexist harassment, is as unidimensional as the above mentioned feminists.
So, I understand that sexist street harassment has it’s multiple, at times culturally or religiously shaped, forms. In Germany it is not exclusively a German or a Non-German problem. Depending on where in Berlin you walk, you will get harassed in different ways. From so called ‘cat calling’ to violent looks at body parts, to random men licking their lips and/or touching their penises while staring at you to being followed against one’s will. None of these forms involve any physical assault. And yet it makes a simple walk to the super-market a nightmare. Next to these non-physical assaults there is a number of physical assaults which mostly go unconsidered: men moving closer to you on the train, the bus or the shared taxi (a huge issue in Tehran for example) or men randomly touching your arm or your hand on the street. Since the letter body parts do not count as sexual this type of aggression is hardly even considered sexist harassment. But: If I do not want to be touched by a person and this person has obviously not asked my permission, how is this not at least a violent act, especially when the grin on the man’s face shows how he does feel sexually about it? Does this happen from men to men (within a heter-logic)? Nope. And then there is openly sexualized touches: Like this dude who came up to me and just grabbed my boob. And grinned. Or this dude which I saw grabbing a woman under her miniskirt at the busy Berlin-Alexanderplatz train station before he fled into the train. The woman, tears pouring down her cheeks was so overwhelmed that she just didn’t move for minutes. She just stood there. Crying. No one approaching her.
It is these kind of stories which make me re-think my outfit before going out, especially in summer. Interestingly, in winter our bodies seem to be so damn covered up that even the most sexist harasser seems to not be able to find something to inspire him into the daily terror he so lively lives out in summer. And yet a friend just told me that, even on a cold winter day in Tehran, a dude who sat next to her in a shared taxi found some way to slip his hand onto the fabric on the side of her coat and started pulling the fabric. She literally fought him off, pulling her own coat to her side as he kept pulling it, and with this her, to his.
We laugh about these stories. As we laugh about racism. It seems too incredible to just admit in what kind of violent societies we live in. Too incredible how we can still be happy and love when we are confronted with so much hatred once we step out of the door – and if we have a TV, even reaching our living rooms!
I do not individually blame sexist street harassers to be honest. I will secure my and other’s safety and will fight sexist harassers in the very moment as well as I can. At times I talk to them. If I have time and energy. Try to explain why this or that is not ok. Have made poitive experiences with that kind of approach. Yet everyday I feel it is not enough. I feel guilty for every time I did not fight back, for every time I was just too tired or maybe also too frightened. Every time we raise our voices, we yell and we hit or kick we wonder if we might end up like Tuğçe Albayrak this time.
I have been speaking about women or people read as women only. But I know that men who do not suit the social context’s idea of hegemonic masculinity get targeted on a daily basis too. By other men. And at times by women. By patriarchal women who feel the need to intimidate these ‘unmanly men’ or by those women who feel they can exercise power over certain men for a change, through forcing them into for example sexual contact they haven’t asked for and do not want (common examples: older woman and very young men, white citizen woman and non-white non-citizen man or rich women and poorer men). I know people not fitting into the male-female binary get targeted. I know I get targeted when I walk with a woman hand-in-hand in any Western European city, let alone village. Sexism is of course only one form patriarchy shows itself. I am not attempting to say that it is women and women only who are the victims of patriarchy. Not at all. I understand how patriarchal societies, like the German or Iranian society – let’s work with generalizations here for the purpose of analysis – have taught all of their subjects to act according to socially accepted patriarchal social codes. Without this status quo the whole capitalist (re-)production machine would never work as smoothly.
Imagine all people engaging with each other freely. Freely choosing whom, for how long and how to live with. Why would such a free society not question oppression structures like the contradiction between work and capital or people and government. Of course: If people start to question one structure which holds them prisoners to arbitrary social institutions, the same individuals might also refuse to keep obeying their governments and thus the whole capitalist system would collapse.
I do not believe in sexual revolutions or individual liberation as a revolutionary step. Not anymore. But I think that all of this comes hand-in-hand. How can I claim to be a revolutionary if I believe that my girlfriend is only allowed to love me and have sex only with me and no one else? Where is her freedom to choose and to own her very own body? Where is my trust in our relationship? Monogamy is only one part of the sexist myths forced upon us as a society by reactionary institutions like religion and the bourgeois state. It is part of the whole property complex. And thus stands close to the whole issue of sexist street harassment. What unites them is the patriarchal fantasy-turned-reality of being able to own people, their bodies and moves.
Of course this little Geschreibsel as we say in German, this blog post, will not change shit. Maybe some friends will read it. Even most friends I sent this link to will not.
What will make a change is our stance to sexist street harassment in particular and the question of owning one another in general. Cos it’s way too political, way too much shaping many women’s lives to pretend we can deal with it somehow ‘later’.
What will make a change is the actions we take when we witness such harassment or are aggressed ourselves. Do we engage? Do we express our discontent, our anger, our not-being-ok-with-this-shit?
What will make a change is to keep speaking about this. In our families, political groups, communities, schools, universities, work places, unions.
What will make a change is if we stop teaching children that ‘to be a girl’ or ‘to be a boy’ is this or that.
What will make a change is getting organized as working class to start long-term projects to counter any type of violence against oppressed groups. To get organized to bring down capitalism as the structure holding all of this violence together.
Are you ready?