• Women Talk Back!

Prioritising Women: Feminist Voices from the Frontline of the War against Women

This is a transcript of the speech Karen Ingala-Smith delivered at the University of Bristol on 25 November 2019 for the ‘Feminist Campaigners Talk Back!' meeting. Women Talk Back! has commemorated the UN Women 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence by hosting a series of consciousness-raising meetings, workshops and public events with feminist campaigners who have dedicated their lives to ending male violence against women and girls, starting on November 25th, which is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and culminating on December 10th, which is Human Rights Day. You can read more about Karen's instrumental work on behalf of women and girls here.

Good evening, everyone. I am going to talk to you about feminism in the context of working with women subjected to men’s violence.

I was introduced to the concept of feminism through A-level sociology in the mid-nineteen eighties. Even though I’d gown up in the 1970s, a decade that was hardly quiet in terms of feminist activism, my family was apolitical and disengaged. Feminism as a concept hadn’t reached me. My immediate reaction was that it seemed stupid, the idea that I had more in common with those I saw as the posh girls at the ‘A‘ Level college I’d recently started at than the lads on my street that I hung out with in the evenings. We’d already looked at social class and I was sold. I wasn’t joining any club with posh girls. Luckily for me, we were quickly introduced also to socialist feminism and I realised that social class consciousness and sex class consciousness weren’t mutually exclusive; I hadn’t realised you could be two things at once.

We didn’t have the term intersectionality back then, and in life before the internet, access to knowledge and different ways of seeing the world beyond your own limited sphere was much more restricted than it is today, especially if you were poor and/or working class. But through sociology being shown a framework that took into account both my being from a working class background and female made sense very quickly.

One of the things that resonated most (in sociology) was when we started looking at men’s violence against women. I’d grown up under the shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, he’d been arrested in 1981 – when I was 13 - for murdering 13 women (he’d attacked many others too) in West Yorkshire (where I grew up) and Greater Manchester. His violence as a formative influence on me and many in the north. The man I thought was my father was violent, abusive and controlling to my mum, us kids and the family dog; and there was violence and abuse in some of my friends’ early relationships too.

Feminist sociology gave me a way to see how that fitted together.

I went on to do a degree in sociology, during which time I read about women’s refuges and thought theY sounded like utopian places. There are many ways in which I was wrong about that - but that’s not the point – the point is that feminism and working to end men’s violence went together. And from this starting point, working with and supporting individual women and girls is part of the bigger fight to end men’s violence against women and girls; and central to all this is sex inequality. But I don’t think that’s the case across the whole of the sector working with women subjected to men’s violence, certainly not any more.

Something that is liberal, individually-located and choice-based has replaced an approach that sees women’s realities as coerced and socially-constructed. Structural inequality and power differences by sex class are ignored at best, at worst catastrophically infected by the notion of "cis-privilege". So women who might see themselves as feminists are applying illogical and anti-feminist approaches to their work with victim-survivors of men’s violence. We see this in a number of areas, such as so-called gender-neutral approaches and services, habitually failing to name males as the perpetrator, re-framing sexual exploitation and prostitution as empowerment, pornography as liberation, and now questions about what it is to be a woman include men, inclusion and woman-only space are contested ground.

Firstly, let’s just get it out of the way that despite what anyone might tell you (including the former Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities), the provision of single-sex services for women who’ve been subjected to men’s violence is perfectly lawful.

That any woman working in, but most of all those in leadership positions in organisations which are connected to women’s welfare, are prepared to sit on the fence about the importance of women-only spaces for victim survivors of men’s violence, and whether men can magically become women, makes me rage. You cannot opt out of this. You cannot sit back. You cannot, especially if you are happy to accept the salary of a leadership position claim to ‘have an opinion on this’ but in the next breath say 'it isn’t safe to speak out’.

None of women’s political gains we achieved by well-paid women who played safe and put themselves first rather than women as a class. How dare they take the wage of a leadership position and leave it to others, many victim-survivors, to do this. How dare you claim to care about women’s safety and pretend that there is nothing to see here?

A couple of years ago, nia’s board of trustees, in the latter stages of finalising the charity’s strategic plan, took the decision to identify supporting the preservation of women-only services as one of our strategic objectives. They agreed that if we did not speak out, we were being complicit in their erosion. We knew that this was not without risks. Like many small and medium sized charities, nia cannot take financial security for granted. We’re run on a handful of 2-3 year contracts, each winter, as we look at the financial forecast for the coming year, there is a deficit. We carefully balance spending requirements, contracts that are still running, looking at those that are ending and asking ourselves whether we have a chance of retaining them, and how much we have in reserves just in case, and we tentatively continue. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now with nia and it doesn’t get any easier, though some years are definitely worse than others. Anyway, despite this, nia’s board bravely decided to focus on the bigger picture of what is best for women, in particular those subjected to men’s violence – and agreed that if, as a charity, this was going to be the hill we died on, we would go down fighting. We would go down fighting and prioritising women.

Why? Because we know women subjected to men’s violence feel safer and fare better in women-only spaces and value those run by independent women-led charities most of all.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you could, as some claim, risk assess trans-identified males for their suitability and safety to inhabit your no-longer women-only space. What you’re ignoring if you do this is the impact of men’s presence on women who’ve been subjected to men’s violence.

It’s not unusual for women who’ve been subjected to men’s violence to develop a trauma response. These sometimes develop after a single incident of violence, sometimes after years or months of living in fear, walking on egg-shells, recognising that tone of voice, that look in the eyes, that sigh, that pause, that change in breathing.

A trauma-informed approach is based on understanding the physical, social, and emotional impact of trauma caused by experiencing sexual and domestic violence and abuse. A trauma-informed service understands the importance of creating an environment - physical and relational - that feels safe to victims-survivors. A trauma-informed safe space creates space for action and recovery from violence and abuse and places the woman victim-survivor in control. For many women this means excluding men from that space, including those who don’t identify as men.

You are not offering a trauma-informed environment if you, in your position of power as a service provider, gaslight traumatised women (who are in a less powerful position no matter how you try to balance this out, and of course we do as much as possible to balance this out but it is inescapable), and pretend that someone you both know is a man, is a woman. Women are gaslighted (manipulated to question their own sanity) by their abusive male partners all the time, it is furthering the abuse to then expect them to share women-only spaces with males who say that they are women, because you and the women that you’re working with know they are not. Part of your role is to help women learn to trust themselves again, not replace the batshit that their abuser has filled their head with, with your own. And this is all quite aside from knowing that statistically women are safer in women only environments - because men commit violence at significantly higher rates.

We know that at least 80% of males who hold a GRC retain their penis, but anyway, we don’t need to know what’s in their pants to know they are a man. Women experiencing trauma after violence and abuse will – like most of us - almost always instantly read someone who might be the most kind and gentle transidentified male in the world - as male – and they may experience debilitating terror immediately and involuntarily. They need and deserve a break. It’s not about hate. It’s not about bigotry. It’s not about you – it’s about them.

Can we please just put women who’ve survived violence and abuse first?

I’m not naive or dishonest enough to claim that women are never violent – of course some women are. But when women are violent (remember it’s statistically way less frequent) we generally cause less harm than violent men. And there is no credible evidence suggesting that males who identify as trans commit violence against women at lower rates than those who do not. I’m not saying that men who identify as transgender are inherently violent or that all trans identified males are violent – just that they are no less violent that other males.

An area where I’m regularly challenged for not including males (trans or otherwise) is a project I run called Counting Dead Women, sister project to the Femicide Census. Both record men’s fatal violence against women in the UK. Today on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women for the seventh year, I’ve scheduled my twitter account @countdeadwomen to release a tweet every 5 minutes commemorating the UK women known to have been killed by men since IDEVAW last year and also some women who were killed earlier but whose bodies were found this year. I was still adding women to this list yesterday. The first tweet went out at 8am, the last almost 10 hours and 120 dead women later, at 5.45pm.

Counting Dead Women began in January 2012. A couple of months earlier, a young woman, Kirsty, had been referred to nia. Kirsty was in a relationship with a young man called Miles, he was 19. She was due to have a baby imminently. Kirsty was trying to leave Miles. He was jealous, possessive, controlling and violent. I don’t know how much she knew, but at 19 Miles was already known to the police for violence to other girlfriends, and had 3 other children to two other young women. On New Year’s Day Kirsty received a text message from Miles. It said:

“Okay wer all gud now and my new yrs ressy is that I aint going to hit u again and I won't hit u 4 this yr, next yr, the yr after that, or the next yr after that.”

Kirsty wasn’t fooled by the text. Later in the day, she responded to Miles’ text, replying that she didn’t want to see him. The day after, the 2nd January 2012, Miles broke into her family’s home, he stabbed, but didn’t kill, Kirsty’s brother and sister as they tried to protect her. He then dragged Kirsty into the back of a car and abducted her. She was found dead 2 miles away, dumped behind bins, she had been stabbed 29 times.

I didn’t know all that then, initially all I knew was that a young women who’d been engaged with nia had been killed. I did what I think many of us would do, I took to google to try and find out more about her murder. But I found report after report of women in the UK who’d been killed by men at the start of the year, so, call it professional curiosity if you like, I made a note of their names just to try to figure out how many. It turned out that in the first three days of 2012, 8 women in the UK had been killed by men. 3 days, 8 dead women: 3 shot, 1 stabbed, 1 stabbed and beaten so hard with her own walking stick that the wood splintered, 1 beaten, 1 strangled, and 1 smothered.

I hadn’t planned it and I had no idea that this was going to end up playing such a big role in my life but once I’d started, it didn’t feel right to stop. Stopping means the next woman isn’t important enough. Just that simple act of bearing witness, remembering and commemorating feels necessary. I had a vague thought at some point that I might continue for a year, but over 1,119 women and almost 8 years later, I’m still going because men’s fatal violence against women is still going. I don’t think as a society we’re asking the right questions or doing enough to stop it – so I’ll continue to highlight it.

From the office of National Statistics Data, you can see how many women (and men) are killed by their partners but this data, which unhelpfully also includes those killed by third parties, termed ‘love–rivals’ does not tell us not the sex of their partners. For women that’s not statistically significant, very few women are killed by female partners (or so-called love–rivals). Hardly any, but for men, it is.

We know that roughly 80% of those killed by an intimate partner are women and we can realistically and fairly assume that almost all are killed by men. This means that 20% of those killed by intimate partners or former intimate partners are men. But it doesn’t mean that 20% of killers of intimate partners are women. About half of the intimate partner homicide killers of men are other men, of those roughly half are gay men and roughly half are male ‘love-rivals’ killing another male. And there’s another crucial sex difference in intimate partner homicides, when a man kills a female partner or ex-partner, he usually does after abusing her for months or years. When a woman kills a male intimate partner, she usually does it after HE has been abusing HER for years.

Focusing only on intimate partner homicides – whilst they are very important, I’m not saying otherwise – but it disguises the full extent of men’s fatal violence against women.

We don’t get data about:

A. The number of women were killed by their sons, in fact about 7% of all women killed by men are killed by their sons, they’re the next biggest group after partner/ex-partner, or

B. And the sometimes very brutal murders of elderly women in the context of burglaries. If you’d asked me about this before, I think I would’ve said that I could imagine how a women might be killed if she disturbed or challenged a burglar, perhaps he’s push her out of the way and she’d bang her head, of course that doesn’t make it ok, but I could imagine it. Often that’s not what we’re seeing. What we’re seeing is grossly brutal deaths, women being battered with their own walking stick until it breaks, ribs and skulls broken, kicked until their blood and brains are splattered in the walls, sometimes raped and/or sexually violated in other ways. Some men have been found to be looking for pornography featuring older women before they kill, some have searched for it immediately after the killing, when they are still in the vicinity of the dead women’s body.

And then there are sexually-motivated murders committed by predators, some examples include:

1. Cathy Burke, 55, she was killed in London in November 2017. She was found naked, except for a pair of odd socks, in a bed of her terraced house under a pile of clothes. She had been bound and gagged with a pashmina scarf and stabbed in the neck, back and stomach.

2. One month later, on Christmas Eve 2017, the naked body of 22-year-old Iuliana Tudos was found, with a suspected Batman logo carved into her chest, she had been hit on the head, stabbed with a broken bottle in the neck, on her abdomen and on her wrists.

Neither woman showed signs of sexual assault, apart from being naked, but the judge hearing the case against Kasim Lewis, 31, who had killed both women said they were victims of sadistic sexually motivated attacks. Police said that his phone was loaded with explicit pornography, and that within hours of the murder of Cathy, the convicted sex predator and burglar had trawled the internet for "granny sex" pornography.

3. Dorothy Woolmer, 89, was raped and murdered in July 2019. She died of multiple blunt force injuries. Reece Dempster, 22, has been charged with murder, rape, burglary, and two counts of sexual assault.

4. Quyen Ngoc Nguyen, 28, was raped and murdered by William McFall, 51, and Stephen Unwin, 40, in a 4 hour assault in 2017. Both men were on probation and serving life sentences for murdering pensioners. Investigators of her murder found a series of messages between the two men including some that referred to “raping the Chink”, using the drug Rohipnol and “do you want a Vietnamese?”. They raped her, beat her and partially strangled her. Her postmortem suggested that she was still alive in the boot of the car used to move her body when it set was on fire.

If you look at enough sexually motivated murders, targeted groups emerge: older women, young women and girls, women in prostitution, women whose killings were racially-motivated and murders of lesbians. But it’s the pretty (by white supremacist standards) young white women who almost always get most media attention. Probably everyone in this room knows the name of Grace Millane, but how many know that of Quyen Ngoc Nguyen?

Too many murders of women by men are missing from so-called official analysis and the real extent of men’s fatal violence against women is being hidden. Murders of women by men who have never been their intimate partner, have more in common with those of women killed by an intimate partner, than those of men killed by women they have been abusing for years.

As I said earlier, and as I’m sure all here already know, today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. There is no official remembrance day for women killed by men.

I am done with those who try to tell me that I cannot or should not prioritise women. I am done with those who tell me that prioritising women is hate, bigotry or is unspeakable.

Thank you.