defining…the violence, the power

I cannot help but notice the parallels between my experience as a woman and as a Jew, between the obsessive and relentless revisiting of a woman’s right to choose and a Jewish state’s right to exist. The world demands that both women and Jews are always in a state of disequilibrium and subservience, tip-toeing through someone else’s world, beholden to someone else’s ideas and laws that are imposed onto our minds, bodies, and lives. Millennia of doctrines and dogmas are projected onto us, to deligitimize our existence and punish our defiance. Any show of autonomy, sovereignity, and power is villified and must be quashed. 

To this end, I cannot help but notice the parallels between snuff porn and Hamas’s filming of the brutal raping of Jewish women, and the worldwide celebration of this graphic, dehumanizing, and utterly demoralizing violence – a two-for-one, taking down both women and Jews in one fell swoop. At rallies worldwide, this barbarism has been treated as a cause for celebration and a form of entertainment, the way that gang rape of sex-trafficked woman has been viewed by billions of men worldwide in the name of sexual pleasure, and is daily fodder for the porn industry. I am utterly appalled and horrified on all fronts. 

An article I wrote 30 years ago, in my mid-20s, expresses some of the underlying dynamics. It both defines the concepts of violence and power, and it addresses the violence and power of defining. Unless and until we get under the hood and clean up the root dynamics, none of this is going to go away. It will just keep presenting itself in different forms at different times. 


Every day, every moment of my life, I refuse to submit to patriarchy. I am willing to risk everything so as to live authentically, to speak my mind and take up my space. I have risked and endured the loss of family relationships, friendships, group support, romantic possibilities, financial stability, and social approval so as to live my life truly. I have endured complete and utter misery, intense feelings of isolation and abandonment, and major crises in self-confidence and self-worth as I have clashed with the people around me, with their expectations and demands of how I should behave. This commitment to an authentic life, regardless of the cost, embodies the core of my feminist identity and activism.

I write this essay as a women’s emancipation* activist, who believes that revolution is imperative and that it starts within each of us and our private lives. I draw from my own life’s experiences of violence, and from my battles against this violence, in the many forms and degrees it has permeated my life. I draw from time spent observing women and men interacting; time spent experimenting with gender roles; and time spent directly challenging men on their behavior towards women. I draw from years of feminist conferences, marches, rallies, actions, and self-defense training and from years of speaking with women late into the night about how violence has affected us all.

Because of space constraints, I do not address how race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and religion further complicate the subject at hand. I do, however, want to acknowledge there are multiple issues of this vein which need to be addressed.

Throughout the essay, I refer to “males” and “men.” In doing so, I address the patriarchal power structure and the behavior of the overwhelming majority of men in this society. I acknowledge and honor that there also exist many men who struggle alongside women in vigilantly fighting patriarchy.

Violence against women begins with the unstated definition of men’s space as encompassing women’s space.

Rape is not an isolated problem in and of itself. It is an extreme result of a man’s sense of entitlement to a woman’s body and energy. Its deadly dynamics exist in simple interactions which are accepted as normal and sanctioned by our society. To eliminate rape, we must eliminate its roots, which means a radical commitment to resistance of all its forms.

To truly eliminate these roots, our focus must not be on ending rape per se; rather, it must be on shifting our consciousness to a woman-loving and woman-centered orientation. As long as we are reacting to rape itself, we are perpetuating one of its most lethal roots – the male reference point for all of society. For as long as ending rape is our focus, our efforts will be a reaction to a male agenda, a male-imposed model of behavior.

Our commitment instead must be to a radical new concept: Women as a point of reference. Women as decision makers, without permission and without apology. Women as powerful individuals who take up space in the physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional worlds. Women as a force with whom all of society must contend. Women as a group from whom others must ask permission and to whom others must pay upon failing to do so.

Men assault and batter countless numbers of women on a daily basis, in ways that our society does not yet acknowledge as being violent. Here are some examples from my life:

Constant experiences: I cannot go out of my home without at least one male giving my body the up-down-assessment-of-inventory look, whistling at me, and/or making some variation of the “hey baby” comment. I cannot go to a dance club without at least one male grabbing or intentionally brushing a hand against my butt. I cannot show exuberant joy such as giving a victory yell, jumping in the air, or dancing in the street, without at least one male making some variation of the “hey baby” comment; whistling or making cat calls at me; telling me, “Shake it, girl, show me what you got;” or otherwise approaching me. I cannot make daily transactions such as buying food without at least one male clerk/organizational representative calling me some variation of dear or sweetie. I cannot walk down the street with my head held high, actively looking at the world around me, looking into the eyes of the people I pass, without at least one male turning our connected gaze into ogling me. I cannot wear a body suit or swimsuit without most men I pass staring at my body.

Frequent experiences: When a male and I are walking towards each other down the sidewalk, we will crash unless I move to the side; and if we crash, he either will blame it on me or simply not apologize. When I am standing stationary and there is plenty of space around me, a male passing by will crash into my body and not apologize. When I am upset about something and not trying to hide it, a male stranger will say, “Come on, now, it can’t be that bad,” or “Cheer up and smile!” When I go jogging and pass a male jogger, he will say some variation of “Go girl! Keep it up!” When I am in conversation with a male, he will talk over me while I am speaking; and he will act impatient if I insist on continuing to speak without being interrupted. When I am lost and asking a male for directions, he will say, “l’ll only give you directions because you’re so cute.” When I am interacting with a male I barely know, he will touch some part of my body – put his arm around me, hold my shoulder, touch my arm, and so on. When I am getting sexual with a male, he will not check with me before touching my private parts; and if I say I do not want him touching me there, he will pause a few minutes and then touch me there again.

How many of these examples would you consider to encompass assault? How many would you consider to have any degree of violence in them? To the contrary, how many of these examples would you consider to be positive experiences, complementary and flattering?

I find a degree of violence in all these examples. The common theme is that the males do not honor that I am a spirit independent from them, one with her own will, one with her own mass, one with her own agenda, one who is entitled to the body space around her. To the contrary, they treat me as if I am going through the world solely for their benefit – as if my body exists for their eyes; as if my joy exists for their consumption; as if my achievements exist for their ownership. The males furthermore expect that I will accept and respond positively to the constructs they force on me. Not only do they victimize me by their initial treatment; but if I do not bow to their will and respond in the way they desire, they become hostile, even physically threatening.

So what exactly is violence against women?

I believe the most clever and deadly forms of abuse are those in which the perpetrator brainwashes the victim into believing the abuse is not abuse and that any feelings to the contrary are indicative not of the insanity of the situation but rather of the insanity of the one questioning the situation. In these cases, the abuse itself is surrounded by a mythos legitimizing the abuse and proactively delegitimizing any resistance to it.

For example, our society bombards us with messages that if a man whistles at or ogles a woman (the abuse), it is a complement (the mythos surrounding the abuse); and that women who do not see it that way are frigid bitches (proactive deligitimization of resistance). Most of us want to be appreciated and do not want to be treated as evil outcasts of our society. Thus, the mythos surrounding the abuse influences our perception of it: The behavior (whistling/ogling) is “appreciation;” we want to be appreciated; so this behavior is what we want. The men doing it are “doing us a favor;” so we welcome it with gratitude, even seek it out. The proactive deligitimization of resistance acts as a deterrent to our dissent: We do not want to be treated as evil social outcasts; this behavior (resistance) is “evil” and will cause us to be outcasts; therefore we must not engage in it. We do not openly want to support this behavior in others, either; for we will be alienated for associating with the dissenters.

But are women not strong enough to resist and reject attempts to influence our perceptions? Do we not have the choice, will, and power to define life for ourselves? Ultimately, yes; but we must fight vigilantly and overcome great odds to do so. As women living within a patriarchal system, it is not only feasible but inevitable that at least to some extent we will be brainwashed into misperceiving or being numb to the violence against us. Patriarchal thinking is institutionalized in our culture and thus is everywhere – in our families, neighborhoods, schools, religious communities, in the media, and so on. There is no escape. When we are born, we are blank slates thrust into the context of this patriarchal model, and it envelops us. Most of us grow up only knowing this already-established and accepted order of our society, with its own set of definitions and points of reference. During the childhood years in which we form our initial identity, we lack the tools and awareness necessary to critique the set of assumptions we are given to define our experiences. We further are rewarded for compliance with the patriarchal model and punished for any instinctive resistance to it.

From infancy, girls are treated in ways that are disrespectful of our bodies, minds, and spirits. Our wills are bulldozed over as we are forced to contort our perceptions of reality so that they follow the patriarchal model: If we are sexually abused, we are told that it is our fault or that we are crazy. If we demand to be treated with dignity, we are dismissed as being “too” loud, overbearing, and unfeminine. The more we resist such teachings, the more we are told something is wrong with us; and the more we find ourselves at odds with or outcast from those closest to and around us. With so many people reinforcing the message that something is wrong with us, our perception, or females in general, we begin to doubt ourselves and believe them. Even the strongest among us rework our perceptions of reality, so as to avoid the intense agony of being in constant conflict with our environment.

As such, from birth, we systematically are indoctrinated with male definitions of women’s nature, women’s place in the world, and women’s acceptable behavior. Not accidentally, these definitions are constructed to enable and support the violation of women. We are taught to take up space in the world only in a way that is safe for men, that supports the existing patriarchal power structure. We are taught that our space exists and is valid only as a subset of men’s space. Any attempts we make to take up space for our own purposes, as a positive assertion and love of ourselves, is discouraged and punished. So the primary violence against us is that we are robbed of our perception of reality and of our ability to define the constructs that exist within that reality. As an integral part of this violation, we are brainwashed and forced to embrace and act on behavior models that are structured to support continued violence against us.

When men define the parameters of female behavior, and when that definition is entrenched in and enforced by the social structure permeating our daily lives, women are at the mercy of men. Men will define how much violence towards women is acceptable and in what context – namely, is rape in marriage “really” rape; if she was talking back to him was she “asking for it;” if she was attractive did she “deserve” to be stalked; and so on. As long as men define our space, we will walk through the world to some extent molding ourselves around them: Submission – We completely will submit our wills to them and spend our lives in service to them, in the hopes that we will be accepted and loved; or at least that they will find favor with us and not physically harm us. Avoidance – We will not wear what men define as “provocative” clothing in the hopes that then they will not rape us. Resistance – we verbally will tell off men when they grab our breasts, but we will not hit them; the assault already is “over,” after all. Besides, we might “exacerbate” the situation – i.e., if we resist, they will bring us back to “order” by beating us to a pulp.

As long as we accept and live within the context of the male construct of reality, not matter how women respond to the violence against us, we only will be reacting to a male agenda. For this reason, we will not have true power – the power to define who we are, the power to create social constructs, the power to name what is and is not acceptable behavior, and the power to enforce all of the above. Unless and until we look at, acknowledge, and systematically destroy the existing power structure, women will continue to be at the mercy of men; and men will continue abusing women. The more abuse, the stronger the system supporting the abuse – the stronger the patriarchal paradigm of power, in which men are invested. The stronger that system, the more abuse. And so on.

So how can women reach a point of autonomy while living in this world? How can we go about systematically destroying the existing power structure? Women and men must work vigilantly, separately and together, on several different fronts: First, we all must become conscious of this power structure and its influence in our lives. Second, we must take action to end our participation in and perpetration of it. Third, we must prevent other individuals and society at large from imposing and enforcing it. Because of space constraints, I will focus on a few of my ideas about and experiences withhow we women can raise our consciousness of and end our participation in the power structure:

First, question everything: a) Who are we really? What part of ourselves is conditioned by society, and what part of ourselves is true? The process of defining ourselves is the first step to throwing off the shackles of patriarchy. The following activities have helped me discover who I am: Actively questioning my thoughts and behaviors; keeping a regular journal; practicing yoga; participating in activist groups; taking self-defense; becoming athletic; and attending healing-oriented workshops and meetings. b) What is really going on around us? Notice what people say to us and how they act. Is there an inconsistency? Are they saying rhetoric to manipulate us into certain behavior? Being able to identify the true dynamics at work in a situation enables us to identify abuse, to see through the mythos – the storyline – surrounding it.

Second, resist and confront: In what ways have we been brainwashed to tolerate violence against us and thereby support patriarchy? By speaking out against unacceptable behavior wherever possible, we can end our part in supporting the system that abuses women. Unless and until we are able and willing to engage in effective physical combat, we will not have the luxury of saying “no” to men. There is a risk that men physically will attack us when we do not accept whatever form of their violence against us, as a result of the patriarchal system of punishing women who resist. Accordingly, we need to have our bodily resources backing us up and ready to go. When we have the power to back up our words, we have the freedom to say the words we want to say. Impact** is a unique, national full-contact self-defense program designed specifically for women. Unlike any other self-defense course, women learn to defend themselves in simulated assault scenarios in which they fight full-force through their padded “assailant.” By learning in an adrenalized state and realistic simulation, women gain an automatic fighting reflex that has saved the life of every woman who has chosen to fight when attacked by real assailants. Furthermore, women have made radical changes in their lives after taking the course, gaining emotional power in all areas of their lives.

Third, change expected female responses: Fuck with the system. Change ordinary gender behavior and notice how it feels as we experiment. Stare at men’s bodies in the assessing-inventory ways they stare at ours. How does it feel to enact the male role? How do the men respond to being the object? Play with responses to stares, whistles, and the like. Try direct confrontation (walking up to him, glaring him down, and telling him to shut up), humor (parody – mimicking him in a mocking tone; making funny/weird faces and noises at him), embarrassment (yelling at the top of our lungs so everyone can hear, “Ew! How gross! You disgusting pervert! Get away from me!), and physical response (punching him in the nose).

Fourth, internalize new messages: Identify the influences in our lives that reinforce patriarchy, and get rid of them as much as possible. Replace them with women-centered, woman-loving influences. Hang out at feminist book stores and browse through the many writings of courageous women who are fighting patriarchy. Join activist groups such as the Women’s Action Coalition or Riot Grrrls. Buy woman-loving posters and artwork, and hang them up all over our homes. Buy woman-centered music and play it to boost our spirits. Go to feminist conferences and make revolutionary friends.

Fifth, focus on and celebrate the joys of life: Live not only fighting the evil of the world, but rejoicing in the miracles inside ourselves and around us. Watch ducks in a pond, paint, go on a hike, dance on the beach, sing, take a bubble bath, or spend time with playful children. Find those things in life which give us pleasure and pursue them passionately. If our lives are spent only fighting the patriarchy, the system will have beaten us anyhow; because it will have succeeded in defining our lives for us.

By making the radical shift from a male-oriented to a female-oriented point of reference in our lives, we will destroy the foundations of patriarchy and the roots of the violence against us. Working as individuals, we nonetheless have certain limitations: We are living in a socio-political context, where we cannot control – namely, prevent – the initial behavior of others. When I walk down the street, I as an individual cannot prevent a man from whistling at me. All I can do is make choices about how I will respond to his behavior. But there should not be anything to which I have to respond. His behavior should not occur at all. In this sense, until patriarchy is completely dead, I as a woman will continue to be victimized, in a way that is outside my control.

I have tried a wide range of responses to the various forms of male assault against me – from “ignoring” it to flipping a guy onto the pavement. I am not a victim. But I am victimized. Because until I have the choice to walk through life taking up my full space, without facing the action or even threat of being assaulted in any form whatsoever, all I can do is damage control: All I can do is minimize the impact of the abuse; for the abuse itself occurs at the moment that someone violates my will and invades my space.

As long as the socio-political context of patriarchy exists, we will not be truly free: Unless I am conscious about imposed definitions and constructs, I will be under their control. Unless I speak out about and chronicle patriarchal violations, I will be doing my part in allowing them to continue. Unless I confront and resist the various degrees of male violence against women, I will be at the mercy of men. The only way for me to be free from patriarchy is to see it, name it, and fight it. Yet in doing so, I lose precious time from living life the way I want to live it – dancing on the beach, creating music, playing with friends, loving and being loved. So the final step of freeing myself from the shackles of patriarchy is to recognize that as long as it exists, it will affect me one way or the other. I see it. By publicly chronicling the fact, I name it. By calling us into action, I fight it. For every activist step we take is an investment in a new future: Every day we are woman-centered, we shift the reference point to ourselves. Every time we question assumptions, we help deconstruct and redefine them. Every time we speak out against patriarchy, we give it that amount less of a hold on society. Every time we fight male violence against us, in whatever form, we deter men from being violent towards women. Every day, every minute, all around us in our personal lives, we can change the world. Let’s do it.


*women’s emancipation activist: “freedom from oppressive restrictions imposed by sex; self-determination; and autonomy. Freedom from oppressive restrictions imposed by sex means freedom from biological and societal restrictions. Self-determination means being free to decide one’s own destiny; being free to define one’s social role; having the freedom to make decisions concerning one’s body. Autonomy means earning one’s own status, not being born into it or marrying it; it means financial independence; freedom to choose one’s lifestyle and sexual preference – all of which implies a radical transformation of existing institutions, values, and theories.” (Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press, 1986)

**Impact: For Impact Self Defense nationwide, call 1-800-77-FIGHT. I feel this program gives outstanding physical self-defense training, and I recommend it for this reason. I have found, however, that their emotional and philosophical components leave much to be desired in the upper level classes and as part of staff. Specifically, I had the experience of being emotionally abused as a student in a multiple assailants class (LA Impact) and kicked off staff as an assistant (BAMM in SF), when I set boundaries within the group. I know at least two other individuals who had similar experiences, and I have heard of other stories, as well. So I feel they give fabulous training as far as teaching skills to use in the outside world but that they do not “walk the walk” when it comes to addressing dynamics within the program. All things considered, I feel training with them gives much more advantage than avoiding the program. I highly recommend it with the caveat that students need to be cautious to trust and go with their own intuition, not to just throw themselves into trusting the staff 100% from the word go.

Regarding Matt Thomas, the founder of Model Mugging, on which the Impact program is based: I had great experiences with him while training in his full-contact self-defense program. When training with him to shoot, however, I had a scary experience that made me never want to associate with him again, as he began to feel more like an assailant than an ally. I since have met one of the main players in a situation over ten years ago, where Matt (for legal reasons, I must say “allegedly”) assaulted several women. Though I deeply honor Matt’s contribution to women’s self-defense, I strongly discourage any women from studying with him.

This article was first published in Clamor Magazine

©1994 by Loolwa Khazzoom. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be copied without author’s permission.

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