Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Learning the Womanly Art of Self-Defense

Shakes has written a very important post about why women flocking into those weekend self-defense programs will not keep them safe from rape, and how the idea that it is women, the potential victims, who should fix the rape problem, how that idea stinks to high heavens. I have no disagreements with her arguments when it comes to the politics of sexual violence against women.

What I want to write about instead is the womanly art of self-defense. This is a term I have decided to use, to reflect the kinds of things girls and women should know for their own safety in this world. The Caitlin Flanagan op-ed piece about the brutal biology crushing teenage girls if we don't lock them up* reminded me of an old patriarchal trick: Make women think and believe that nothing they can do will make any difference. Someone else must step in and protect them, because they are fragile flowers and incapable of anything but victimhood.

Thus, Flanagan's article doesn't mention contraceptives as a way for teenage girls to have sex and not to get pregnant, but it paints both abortion and childbirth as horrible, psychologically destructive and permanent punishments for women who have sex too early. Neither does she mention that the society could tell young men not to press their girlfriends for unprotected sex. "Abstinence only" campaigns don't come into her narrative, either, even though the prevalence of those campaigns could be the very reason why teenage pregnancy rates are up after falling for a while.

The picture I imagine of Flanagan's teenage girls is as tragic victims. Like all those fairy-tale heroes locked up in towers or lying pseudo-dead in glass coffins, waiting for the prince to come and rescue them. That way of thinking is a vicious, mean, horrible cycle which is just intended to make teenage girls into real victims: shuttered inside their houses with perhaps painted-over windows as in the Taliban Afghanistan.

For we really cannot be both free and totally safe. Ultimately a woman is only quite safe when she is dead. Does that thought make you happy?

Flanagan and others of the same ilk offer women the panacea of protection: protection by fathers and mothers and protection by husbands. What is the price of that protection? And how do the women protect themselves when the protector turns into a predator? No answers to these questions, because the point of these stories is to spread the myth of female victimhood, to paralyze women by fear into agreeing to be protected and governed by others.

So what is the womanly art of self-defense? It is anything that makes you feel as if you suddenly can breathe easier, as if your eyes can see more clearly, as if a heavy weight just fell of your feminine shoulders. It's life-skills which make you better able to take care of yourself: To learn about sex, about your health, about finances, about the hidden traps of patriarchy. To learn how to cook, how to drive, how to keep a job, how to take care of your own needs. To learn your legal rights and your political rights and to use those rights. To let yourself grow into an adult human being and to face the trials and tribulations all adults face, as well as the shining moments of joy which are not otherwise allowed. To change and to grow (yes, I know these terms have been diminished and warped, but there is a real kind of change and a real kind of growing and they are good).

And to face disagreement and acrimony and even violence without necessarily caving in. To learn to fight, in short.

All this requires taking down the myth of female fear, the one that has been slowly constructed by all those old movies where the trapped heroine hammers the attacker's ribcage (the best protected part of the human body, other than the skull) with her fists (which can't get in-between the ribs to do any real damage), and the one that is being reinforced right now with all the stories about the dead young women, preferably white, because in this society white women are still the majority of women. Those stories tell us that it's dangerous out there for women and that women better not go out there. They don't remind us that it's dangerous at home for women, too, because that's not what the myth needs us knowing.

There are many ways to dismantle the myth of female helplessness. Political action can do it. Individual action can help. Learning physical self-defense can help. Talking about the issues is useful. But all of these require the acceptance, on some levels, that women can fight, that it is acceptable for women to fight and that women might even want to fight. Even for themselves.
*My take on the Flanagan piece here is one with x-ray glasses on.