After thoughts to Liverpool’s What Women Want’s first meeting of four
on whole family approaches to mental health (04 09 2014).
At the meeting I drew attention to the potential problem of gender-neutral language (young people, adults, carers, parents, children, etc.) when dealing with girls’ and women’s experience and health issues. I suggested that ‘daughter’ should be a key informing focus as we start this next phase of enquiry, rather than ‘mother’/ parent / carer, not to diminish these identities and roles, but because, from the outset, we are all daughters.
After the meeting the thought lingered, reminding me of the basics (culture and power relations) underpinning this area of concern. Here I share these after thoughts, in order to clarify and expand on that initial observation and its potential relevance to the group’s process and preoccupations.
• ‘Daughter’ is our primary biological and social identity, the basis for everything that follows, including cultural expectations attached to a range of subsequent roles, such as girl, sister, girlfriend, lover, sexual and domestic partner, aunt, mother, parent (e.g. foster and step), in law, grandmother; as well as friend and colleague; and not forgetting the expanded influence of social / media / commercial pressures in the context of contemporary turbo consumerism, fundamentalism / religions, all busy promoting and normalising patriarchal values and practices across societies, communities, social classes and castes. ‘Daughter’ is not a ‘natural’ category.
• In most (all?) societies, ‘daughter’ is not a gendered equivalent or parallel to ‘son’, being variously a mark of ‘inferiority’, subordination, subjugation, sexual vulnerability, patriarchal exploitation: i.e. generally second class social and economic status, involving social control, coercion, even rejection and murder.
• Unlike ‘son’, the identity ‘daughter’ carries with it no inherent or inherited authority or social value. But it does accrue multiple and complex expectations, responsibilities and duties; as well as attendant risks.
• ‘Daughter’ can therefore be seen as the embodiment of subservience to, acquiescence and collusion with hetero-patriarchal male power and dominance, and its institutions and systems.
• To realize / embody our own agency and creativity, girls and women have to break out of this cage, go beyond these given ‘daughterly’ strictures. This is a lifelong project: a process not a single ‘event’.
• This is, in turn, identified as rebelliousness, insubordination, insurrection (or ‘worse’: instability / mental health issues / ‘perversio); these ‘disobediences’ are intensified by collective action by girls and women, which will of course attract the heavy hand of the state / male power, etc., working to get us back in line. We have learned of and witnessed horrifying examples of all of this recently, not just as we look across to other cultures and societies, but here in the UK. So the idea that these attitudes and behaviours are rare and/or ‘one-offs’, the sole province of heterosexual men who are ‘not normal’ / ‘mad’ not bad, no longer bears scrutiny in wider society, as it once did.
• So from the outset, ‘daughter’ carries with it the norm of obedience, quiescence, docility, “best’ expressed via historically influential religious and fundamentalist values, doctrines and attitudes to women. In the wake of the recent revelations of 16 years of sexual abuse of girls in Rotherham, the NW Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, and the C.P.S’s lead on child sexual abuse, Nazir Afzal, says “it is about male power” (in interview with Amelia Gentleman, 03 09 2014, Society Guardian).
“There is no religious basis for the abuse in Rotherham. . . (And) it is not the abusers’ race that defines them. It is their attitude to women that defines them”(Ibid.).
• This misogynist culture in turn requires girls and women to accept social and sexual coercion and violence as a normal and unavoidable feature of lived ‘femininity’ and heterosexual relationships. Disturbing evidence of this among girls and young women now seems to be on the rise, on social media and beyond.
• Therefore, in attempting to identify the roots of girls’ and women’s social and sexual disadvantage and damage (which also infect and undermine economic and political status and prospects), and in this case in the context of whole family approaches to mental health, acknowledgement of these basic forces is important, if we are to contribute to their unravelling, and not just be left continually picking up the pieces, as in the past, dealing with the consequences of this inheritance and its persistent reproduction through upbringing, culture and social organization.
• Despite the social, cultural and political efforts of feminists during the last 40+ years (for example, as activists, academics, community, social and political agents), as a society we have failed sufficiently to examine these contexts and gendered power dynamics. There has been concerted resistance, as heterosexual men in power have defended their territory and historical ‘rights’. As a consequence of this status quo, it is now clear that we have failed all our children. The rolling evidence of the last three years in particular has made this analysis irrefutable. Action is required, change must be contemplated and worked for, based on this ‘new’ evidence and knowledge, widening human rights and social justice to encompass and support victims, including women and children, and including preventative measures.
• The social, professional and political secrecy and incompetence, the disregard, even contempt for victims (seen as the lowest of the low), together with the unacknowledged and unchallenged misogyny that has allowed child victims to suffer in social isolation, private agony and terror over their young lives and into adulthood, can now be accepted as evidence of the vital role gender analysis has to play in removing obstacles to social agency, health and wellbeing; creating a safer, more just and equal society (locally as well as inter/nationally); and ditching the normative binary, masculinity / femininity, in favour of a healthier, more equal, sustainable option.
• As daughter, before and after abuse (usually by a family member), she is a time bomb.
• The day after the meeting, having drafted the above notes, I found myself travelling by train to a cultural event with one of the fantastic women I have been fortunate to get to know over the years of adulthood. She is a fairly new friend, and as we chatted, she started to recount her story of father abuse, and how her mother and brother maintained denial and hostility as a consequence, as did extended family members even years later. She spoke of the long term psychological consequences for herself: as daughter, sister, partner, mother. Even as friend and colleague.
• I reflected afterwards, that this brave, vibrant, super intelligent, talented, professionally qualified, socially conscientious woman, devoted mother to a son, compassionate and supportive as a friend, responsible as a human being, is evidence that damage may define us, but it does not have to defeat us. (I reckon this applies to most of my women friends actually.)
• And without idealizing women or dismissing men’s capacity for friendship and support, we know that good women-only spaces and feminist-infused relationships are vital to the quality of women’s survival and flourishing. These spaces, relationships (even a quiet corner in a train carriage), and networks, facilitate and nourish our most meaningful exchanges and conversations. Our wildest laughter, our sense of mutuality, and our continuing commitment to the feminist project.
In addition to the local and national work of Nazir Afzal over a number of years, the former Director of Public Prosecutions (2008-2013), Sir Keir Starmer, QC, when in office, started to effect changes relevant to the treatment and experience of victims, and is currently advising the Labour Party on developing the first ever Victims’ Law, which a Labour government would promote in
2015. Keir Starmer has also put himself forward to stand at the next election as a Labour candidate. This is double good news!
Meanwhile, the UK Labour Party has created a new post, appointing Seema Malhotra as Shadow Minister for preventing violence against women (09 09 2014, interview with Emine Saner, ‘Sex education should start at Key Stage 1’. G2 Guardian). The role means she will be working alongside the police and crime commissioner, Vera Baird (LP), and the trade unionist, Diana Holland, on Labour’s women’s safety commission, “to make sure the prevention of violence against women is on the agenda across multiple departments” (ibid.). I don’t know anything about Malhotra, beyond this interview, but Vera Baird (PCC in Cumbria) and Diane Holland are substantial political figures with good track records, and long-term feminist activists. This has to be more good news!
The ground is shifting nationally, and we must take heart and help it shift locally.
val walsh / 10 09 2014