sexism: from one prison to another

Latife Faydali writes on how the she was scarred by the twin sexisms of repressive ‘family values’ and sexual violence

As a working class girl born and raised in North London with a Turkish Cypriot background, I was always very aware of gender and the implications that being a Turkish girl had upon my choices. This would affect what clothes I would wear, the people I mixed with, the age in which I would be allowed out with friends, the boyfriends I had (but was not allowed to have!) and of course my sexual autonomy and sexuality.

If I delve further still, I would say much of the way in which I interact with other people today, my sexual confidence and my intimate relationships are still in conflict with the values and morals I had inflicted upon me growing up.

I cannot say, however, that I made it easy for my family to bring up another well-groomed, “respectable” young Turkish girl into our community, for I was also dreadfully aware that there was something very wrong with this vision of how a “decent” girl ought to be; the archetypal virgin of virtuous immaculacy that daren’t allow her mind to be corrupted by outside influences. I was expected to be an obedient daughter to my father until I was ready to be the obedient bride to my husband. This was the message my parents and older people in my family would relay to me time and time again, and this was what I was vehemently determined to challenge. Yet this expectation of young women is not exclusive to the Turkish Cypriot community, nor to the Islamic religious sphere; but it is a universal expectation shared and approved of by most cultures, religions and institutions.

My experience with sexism was not only felt within my home or community, but in all areas of my life for I can sometimes still feel plagued with what as a child I believed was the inherent curse of being a girl.

Misogyny, one of the oldest practices in human civilisation, has prevailed to this day and half of the world’s population are still experiencing the harrowing oppression of women’s subjugation. Yet to understand the issue of sexism as only a single issue, i.e. a woman’s issue, is to commit gross injustice to the cause. The older I get, the more it becomes painfully clear to me that my class has also thwarted my quality of life, my basic human rights and freedoms as well as my educational opportunities.

Yes – the ever crushing, relentless boot of patriarchy is not worn by all men of all backgrounds in all economic circumstances; but is an expression of the predominately white, male ruling classes’ supremacy over the rest of the world; we are exploited to serve their interests. However, it is unfortunate that bogus propaganda, usually led by right wing, reactionary leaders or politicians is convincing people that the feminists have won. There is no more need to struggle: for we have been given our rights by the lovely white capitalist in the suit and tie, and we are all equals now!

This attitude is prevalent amongst most young people I talk to today, and it is especially disheartening to hear it being repeated by young women. Then again, most of the women who are duped by this propaganda come from wealthy, well educated backgrounds and probably do not have to encounter the dangers many other young girls of lower classes have to experience. It is also unfortunate that the majority of people have developed the derogatory notion that feminists are a group of man-bashing lesbians who are just pissed off at men because they do not share the same status!

Indeed, feminists are pissed off… but this is an understatement. And our anger is not an unpremeditated dissemination of rage against the male species – but a constructive, channelled and organised passion to eradicate the oppression of women; a feat to end all oppression suffered by all people of the lower classes at the hands of the ruling class. An 1844 comment by Charles Fourier, later quoted by Karl Marx, explained: “The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women toward freedom… The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation.”

What are the dangers many women experience? It would be a crude attempt to convey a list of problems for all women, as individual women experience oppression in a myriad of ways; yet there are underlying universal attitudes towards women that put us all at risk and, speaking from experience, I can safely say most women can relate to. Women are viewed as the objects and not the subjects of sexual desire; we are but ornaments to please the lust driven male, until we become the vessel for his seed and take on our natural roles as nurturing mothers. This dated view of female sexuality (or non-sexuality) has pervaded our society and culture… Add in to the mix the belief that women are inferior to men, and the common conviction that we are somehow their propoerty, and the result is the proliferation of one of the most heinous violations of human autonomy – rape. The breadth of this paper cannot do justice to the history of misogyny and rape, but I can delineate the circumstances, culturally and economically, which can lead to the continuation of so many women and girls (one in every four: Painter 1999) being raped or sexually assaulted; and suffering in silence. Drawing upon my own experiences I can provide an account of how ubiquitous and formidable these attitudes are.

Sexual repression

My parents have always been poor. Their parents were not very educated or skilled, and migrated to London so my mother and her siblings would have a better chance in life. In fact both my grandmothers were not educated at all; my father’s mother was not allowed to continue at school because she physically developed faster than most girls and as a result had larger breasts, so her father forbade her to go in case her body encouraged boys to look at her. She would often tell me stories about how she would stand by the window every morning and cry while she watched the other school children on their way to class.

From the age of about 7, my mother’s mother was made to help on the farm her parents had so there was no time or need to go to school. As for my parents, my father left school at 16 and mostly worked in textile factories when he came to London, until they had gone out of business and closed down, which left my father jobless during most of my teens. My mother went to fashion college and is still very talented in designing and making clothes, but as soon as she was married she took up her new full time role as a housewife and mother. London is renowned for its multicultural diversity, yet this is not without ramifications; for a family such as my own to come from a culture whose morals and values are so vastly different from those in a British city, there is always likely to be such a clash and a desperate attempt to hold on to some kind of cultural identity.

Since they were so determined to force their traditions and moral values upon me, my family deterred me from sharing any interest in my nationality. I hated being Turkish, and most of all I hated being a girl. To me they came across as narrow minded, ignorant and backwards – their need to control every aspect of my life was a huge factor in how I ended up in one of the most emotionally and physically dangerous situations I could possibly envisage.

The only sex education they had given me was to abstain from all forms of sex until I was married (to a Turkish man of course) and that my most valuable possession was my virginity, of which I would pass on ownership to my lucky husband. At school, sex education appeared to be a farcical attempt at identifying the genitals on a woman’s or man’s body at best – never mind the emotional and psychological aspects surrounding sex, or indeed the cornucopia of sexualities and ways in which to express them! And the issue of consent was not even addressed. A perfect way to further bewilder a group of horny and confused greasy teens.

And so, I began to fancy boys (and girls – but that was something I took a while to come to terms with as it would have been received with utter repugnance within my community) and my confidence was shattered because of things going on at home. There were conflicting expectations of me; at school I was made to feel fat and hideously ugly so I felt I needed a relationship to feel accepted and attractive. Home was a cocktail of financial adversity, stress and violence. And there he was; a boy in my year who seemed to understand me and the first boy who really liked me; I was smitten. But, what at first looked like the blossoming of the world’s greatest love, soon turned into a harrowing nightmare from which I did not awake for four traumatic years.

Violence

From the age of 16 to 20 I was in an abusive relationship with this boy who not only physically abused me on occasion, but emotionally and mentally manipulated and terrorised me. He raped me several times during the course of our relationship, and even when I did consent to have sex with him, I was in a state of desperation to physically please him and gain his respect. What I initially thought I had found in my relationship; comfort, compassion, understanding – soon became apparent to be no more than a delusion precipitated out of a frantic yearning to be loved. As I told my counsellor, I traded one prison for another.

How did I end up in this situation? How does this power dynamic between young men and women continue to occur? In the last six years of my life, speaking to more young women about their experiences with relationships and men, I have encountered a disturbing number admitting to a partner or boyfriend raping them on at least one occasion. Some have even been sexually assaulted and raped repeatedly, and yet none of them, myself included, have ever had the confidence or belief that it was worth reporting or speaking out about. If we’re intimately involved with them, it doesn’t count as rape, right? I still remember the chilling calmness in his voice after I confronted the boy I thought I loved; sitting at his desk in room, cigarette in one hand, mouse in the other, clicking away as if I had just told him about the state of the weather he looked on at his monitor and just replied, “How could I have raped you? I’m your boyfriend. You can’t get raped by your boyfriend.” Silly girl. I was humiliated, ashamed, disgusted and alone. Yet, the sad truth is my experiences are not unique, and so many women and young girls continue to suffer in silence.

Answers?

So, what can be done about it? I cannot possibly begin to tackle fully such an issue here, but what I can suggest is more resources available for young people to equip them with the confidence and skills to deal with or leave this kind of situation which is so much more common than is ever highlighted.

Of course, there are economic factors to consider in most adult relationships, whereby the economic material conditions of the couple make it incredibly difficult for a woman to leave, so class analysis must also be considered. I also believe it is imperative that sex education in schools be vastly improved to involve sexual health awareness; experience of all possible sexualities that should not be limited to just heteronormative accounts of sexuality; and of course consent.

I am also not suggesting that rape is predominantly caused by sex as I firmly postulate power is the most significant factor in rape and that social construction plays a huge role in the proliferation of the rape of women by men. Overall, the way in which women are represented within our culture as objects and exploited within a capitalist framework make it easier to dehumanise as well as desexualise women. However, such an expanation is crude at best and further analysis based on culture, race and religion must also be undertaken, as rape and the attitudes to rape vary throughout the world.