SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF FEMINISM
. This means that films, advertisements or other representations which glorify male violence or brutality should be censored.
. Men must take steps to ensure that they do not frighten or intimidate women in public places.
. Male violence against women within the family should have the same status in law or society as forms of assault outside the home.
. Women should be given the opportunity to learn self-defence.
Breaking the curfew
ONE night when I was 13 I was walking home from a performance of a play I’d seen with the rest of my school English class. I set out with a group of friends but, as my house was the furthest away from the theatre, I was walking on my own for the last half mile.
Although it was a main road there weren’t many people about - just some cars, some of which slowed down as they passed. I fixed my gaze rigidly ahead, avoiding the drivers covetous glances, ignoring their relentless hooting to attract my attention.
After a while I became aware of footsteps following me. I braced myself and turned round, half-convinced I was imagining things. But there was a man - only ten paces or so behind me. I began to walk faster, glancing round nervously from time to time - and there he was, still coming.
As soon as I turned into the ill-lit street where I lived I began to run - and the measured footsteps behind me rose to a purposeful clatter.
I felt my insides seize up, my chest and stomach implode so I could hardly breathe. I tried to scream but my voice was paralysed as if I was retching silence.
Then he grabbed me.
I don’t know what was released inside me - I remember the thud of my rolled umbrella against his cheek and head and his old-man’s face crumpling into both hands. I remember him howling in a way I’d never heard before. Then I have a vague recollection of his dark-suited body lurching off down the road.
I ran the rest of the way home, my whole body wired up and pounding with fear. My mother ‘phoned the police and they said they’d ‘keep an eye out for anything untoward in the area.’
That was the end of it. I told my friends in school the next day and my parents and their adult friends mentioned it. But everyone’s attitude was the same: I hadn’t been raped or murdered - therefore nothing had happened.
I ended up believing them - negating my own terror and outrage - and even worrying that I’d hurt the man unduly when he’d hardly so much as laid a hand on me.
This trivialisation or ignoring of male violence against women where nothing ‘happens’ is typical. It is an attitude promulgated by the media focussing exclusively on sensational rape scandals like the Yorkshire Ripper case. But such shocking murders are only one extreme of the whole continuum of male violence that confronts all women in their lives every day. The Ripper cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that one in six women living in London is likely to be raped at some stage in her life - one in five is likely to be the victim of attempted rape.
The lesson I learned when I was 13 (and that all women learn) was to be afraid - to have a healthy, entirely rational, fear of being assaulted. I learned that to protect myself there would have to restrictions on the way I lived my life: first and foremost I would have to avoid going out on my own at night - always.
It wasn’t until much later I realised I was deluding myself. It is, in fact, a myth that the majority of rapists are total strangers, impulsively attacking their victims in dark alleys at the dead of night. A survey carried out by the London Rape Crisis Centre shows that 60 per cent of rape victims were attacked inside a building - 31 per cent in their own homes, 18 per cent in the homes of their assailants. Only 46 per cent were raped by total strangers - which means that over 50 per cent were victims of men they knew.
The implications of this are devastating - though in a sense (I find) liberating. What it means is that the restrictions traditionally imposed on our lives - not going out alone at night, trying to look ‘respectable’ rather than ‘provocative’, not travelling alone on buses, trains and subways - are essentially red herrings. They do not guarantee our safety and it would be impossible to extend them - to include not staying at home alone in the daytime, for instance - until they did.
This does not mean that we have to resign ourselves to being hapless victims: we don’t have to resign ourselves to the likelihood of being attacked, whichever way we turn.
What it does mean is that we must change our strategy: from avoidance to self-defence.
Women’s self-defence differs radically from the usual concept of a martial art. Martial arts teach an elegant, ritualised form of fighting that takes years to perfect. Women’s self-defence adopts a more pragmatic attitude: if it works use it - and never mind if it’s considered unorthodox, ‘mean’, dirty’, ‘below the belt’ or unaesthetic. It is practical, effective street-fighting, especially designed to suit the fighting potential of women. And it is possible for most women to become competent in it in a comparatively short time.
Women’s self-defence not only teaches a much more eclectic fighting technique; it also trains women to use their initiative and to improvise. In some situations, for instance, it may seem best not to fight at all - just to run like crazy, or spend all night trying to talk a rapist out of it. The point is that, even for women who are trained fighters and are not paralysed with fear, this kind of improvisation does not become spontaneous unless it is encouraged and practiced. So, in women’s self-defence a lot of time is spent considering possible attack situations and devising a multitude of ways of escape, so that, in a real attack, flexible use of both combative and non-combative skills becomes almost second nature.
But for most women, learning to fight is no easy undertaking. It entails a change of consciousness that at first (the benefits come later) can be disturbing, if it is not shared and talked about with other women. This is why classes are exclusively for women, with a woman teacher.
When I first started self-defence I went through a phase of being very angry - angry at the extent of male violence (the wife battering, verbal abuse, sexual harassment), angry about the effect it has on our lives, angry that we had to be there in the first place learning to defend ourselves, angry that one of my women friends who loves the countryside is afraid to go for walks in the woods on her own, angry that - it all seemed to point in one direction.
Afterwards I began to worry that by learning to fight I was becoming aggressive and therefore unfeminine. Women are conditioned to be loving, nurturing and protective. Touching other people means cuddling, not hurting them. I didn’t want that to change. Then I realised the mistake: this is self-defence, not aggression. Learning to fight is necessary, but incidental. We will never attack first.
I was also horrified by the barrage of criticism I received from male friends. This ranged from the covert and irritating - ‘How are the keep-fit classes?’, ‘So what are you doing these days, apart from beating-up men?’ - to the ill-informed and cutting: ‘Why all this aggressive paranoia . . .When were you last raped?’
It would be naive to assume that women’s self-defence was about the protection of our bodies, pure and simple. Yes, that is its main objective. But there’s more to it than that. Women who can fight are making a political statement: that they are taking control of their own lives.
Change is frightening whether you win or lose. Men are threatened - and woman are apprehensive about ceasing to be passengers and moving into the driving seats of their own lives. But these are growing pains. Later the benefits of self-defence stretch right across the whole spectrum of women’s lives.
It is pleasure enough to travel alone, to go out late at night (wearing, if we so choose, a skin-tight leather skirt, high-heels, lipstick red as blood), knowing that our bodies and sexuality are our own, that no-one touches without our permission.
But there’s more. The fear of physical violence underlies all our conditioned passivity, our dependence on men. Freedom from it paves the way for confidence and self-determination. Learning to save our lives means learning to live. And, in this respect, women’s self-defence has, for me, become the bottom-line of feminism.