Why does liberal feminism refuse to center the fight against male violence against women?

Claudia Correa Torre (Image: Cronica de Xalapa)

December 10 marked the end of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. UN Women, the United Nations organization devoted to addressing women’s rights, says the campaign, which was launched after the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991, exists “to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world.”

Growing up in Santo Domingo, November 25 — the first of the 16 days of activism and the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women — was always an important day, commemorated by state institutions, the media, and civil society. The day was established in response to the brutal murders of Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal — three Dominican sisters and political activists who were killed by Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, on November 25, 1960, for plotting to overthrow his dictatorship.

Image: Mirabal Family archives

The murder of the Mirabal sisters sent shockwaves throughout the country, intensifying the  rebellion against Trujillo, who was toppled soon afterwards.

A couple of decades later, during the First Feminist Latin American and Caribbean Encounter in Bogota, Colombia, more than 200 feminists from the region established November 25 as the day to highlight male violence against women. In 1993, the UN voted to implement measures aimed at eradicating physical, sexual, and psychological harm against women and, in 1999, approved the draft resolution establishing November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women at the General Assembly.

According to the Observatory of Gender Equality in Latin America and the Caribbean (a division of the UN), Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest rates of male violence against women outside of relationships and the second highest rates of violence in the context of relationships. Indeed, the region is currently the most violent area in which to be a woman or a girl, so it is fitting that women there led the effort to establish November 25, as the day to focus on eradicating male violence against women.

During a recent protest against femicide and the impunity of male violence in Veracruz, Mexico, Claudia Correa Torre, a woman whose daughter, Alondra Suarez Correa, was murdered on September 10, presumably by her ex-boyfriend, told Reuters, “As women, we face a lot of danger.” Correa Torre and her boyfriend, 19-year-old Luis Gustavo Narcia Garcia, had been talking outside of Suarez Correa’s house late into the night. The next day, the 21-year-old’s body was found a couple of houses over.

By the time investigators began looking for him, Narcia Garcia had already fled. Correa Torre explained:

“The authorities don’t do anything to find these killers and the killers realize that they are taking so long that they have a chance to get away. And they are going to continue doing so if we allow them to. Don’t forget my daughter. This could happen to any young woman”.

Although harrowing, the fact that male violence against women is being openly discussed in the public sphere is, in itself, a feminist victory, given how long patriarchy has tried to perpetuate the idea that the oppression of women is a private matter.

However, you wouldn’t be able to tell how central the fight to end male violence against women has become for the global feminist movement by looking at some feminist media.

Not only does liberal feminism not center violence against women; it erases women, as a class, from the movement itself.

The last time Feministing wrote about the 16 days of activism was six years ago. The last time they wrote about November 25 was eight years ago. It was a short synopsis, filed under a section called “Today in Feminist History.” But the fight to end violence against women and girls is not “history” — is current, urgent, and active.

In a moment when a feminist awakening is happening throughout the world for countless women and girls, the Ms. Foundation for Women says feminism is not about women at all, but about “the social, political, and economic equality of all genders.”

Not only does this definition sounds exactly like egalitarianism, as one twitter user pointed out, but, by erasing females from the definition of our own movement, the Ms. Foundation for Women ignores global efforts to bring male violence against women to the forefront of feminism.

Our friends at Everyday Feminism go one step further, claiming that to center females in feminism is violent. Last year, in a video called “Is Feminism a Movement Just for Women — Or Is It About All Forms of Oppression?” Celia Edell argued that there are two feminisms: one that “fights to end all oppressions” and another one that is “a woman-centered feminism.” This second version is bad, according to her, as it is “hurtful” and could harm people.

Edell explains:

“Feminism evokes this women-focused movement which fights for the liberation of women from patriarchal oppression. The movement has been going on for many decades and has focused on legal inequalities, women’s suffrage, educational reform, cultural inequalities, gender norms, femininity, et cetera…

… However, this kind of feminism is also hurtful, and potentially harmful. It hurts gender minorities and transwomen, by focusing mainly on the oppression — or only on the oppression and experiences of cis women…

… Some feminists identify with the notion of feminism as being for women’s liberation — the women’s lib movement. And while that’s technically true of feminism, it doesn’t actually capture all the ways that different kinds of oppression will affect women. It does nothing to account for the ways those oppressions affect people who are not women…”

She concludes, arguing, “Feminism is ultimately a collection of movements that recognize oppression of all sorts affecting a wide range of people.”

Ending male violence against women and girls is not even listed among the concerns Edell includes as central to “woman-centered feminism,” even though it’s been paramount. The very fact that a political movement centering females is considered violent, just because it doesn’t center forms of oppression that impact males, is revealing. It is dishonest and manipulative, but also plays off of the fact that women are socialized to never center or stand up for ourselves, and to prioritize maleness and male experiences over our own.

It’s easy to criticize third wave feminism for failing to stand up for women and for capitulating to patriarchy and capitalism instead, but this is a particularly revealing failure and theme in liberal feminism. By invisibilizing the pandemic of male violence against women and girls, liberal feminism normalizes the idea that our struggles as women are less dire than they truly are — that we can focus on things like “reclaiming” misogynist concepts like sexual objectification, that ubiquitous but meaningless term, “gender equality,” or the ever-embarrassing Slutwalks. Meanwhile, male violence against women remains the common denominator for women. Male violence — in all it’s different manifestations — cuts through every possible intersection of age, race, class, sexual orientation, and all other social conditions. It is an oppression that affects all women and girls across the world.

Considering this, resistance against male violence is our most powerful tool for strategizing and dismantling patriarchy as a system. Why, then, does liberal feminism avoid the issue?

All over the world, women’s advocacy and activism has forced governments and institutions to come up with initiatives to combat male violence. For example, on November 25, the French government unveiled a national plan to address violence against women and girls. Measures include: allowing women to take buses “on demand” at night (meaning that women will be able to flag buses anywhere, not just at designated bus stops); educating secondary school students about pornography; a draft law that would criminalize street harassment; and allowing victims of rape and sexual assault to file their initial complaint online.

This year on  November 25, thousands of women and girls from all walks of life, all over the globe, took to the streets to protest the violence we incur at the hands of men, simply for being born female. Crucially, it is because of the work of fellow feminists that the media has also been forced to address the issue of male violence against women and girls. Newspapers and TV newscasts, all over the world, from Zambia to Pakistan to the Solomon Islands, featured interviews with women’s organizations that specialize in the issue.

The heightened visibility of activism and protests against violence against women is the result of the efforts of countless women, over generations and all over the world, who have dedicated their lives to bringing this issue to the forefront. If you think about the scope of patriarchy, this has been a gargantuan effort.

Let’s acknowledge the activism and advocacy of the women who have fought, for decades, to make male violence against women visible and public. Let’s also remember that ending male violence against women is our most pressing concern as a women’s movement.

We owe it to those before us, each of us today, and the women who will come after us, to never allow the violence that men commit against us and our sisters worldwide, to go back into the shadows.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.