Jennifer Drew: The Depoliticisation of Women's Rights Print E-mail

Issue 49 (Winter 2010): Annual Activism Issue


By Jennifer Drew

Women's rights are now increasingly being framed within the rhetoric of 'gender equality' since it is assumed all that needs changing is how our male supremacist/patriarchal society incorporates women's experiences and needs into a male-centered and male-defined framework, without disrupting or changing how the male supremacist system operates. This is why the term 'gender violence' is now increasingly being used as it neatly incorporates widespread belief that 'violence' is being committed against men, women and children in equal proportion. This not only hides and invisibilises the various methods our patriarchal system uses to enforce and maintain men's control and oppression of women as a group, it also hides men's accountability.

The term 'male violence against women' has for a long time been viewed as too detrimental to men's sensibilities since this innocuous term supposedly claims all men commit violence against women. Instead the gender neutral term 'violence against women' has been used, because the identity of perpetrators must never be publicised. Now increasingly this term is being replaced by one wherein the presumption is men too, are equal victims of violence, including female on male violence. Gender violence is a 'catch-all phrase' which can be applied to any one irrespective of their biological sex. The term can be used with regards to male on female violence, male on male violence, female on female violence and not forgetting female on male violence. The politics of male violence against women are no longer relevant or even worthy of discussion because 'gender' is the perpetrator and it is 'gender' which commits violence against individuals.

Since women in western society have now supposedly gained equal rights and status, focusing on men as the perpetrators of violence against women is 'sexist' and discriminatory to men as a group. Now it is men and boys who are the ones supposedly disproportionately disadvantaged and subjected to discrimination, because women have achieved equal status at the expense of men's rights. But this view takes no account of how the patriarchal system operates, because it was never created in order to grant all men equal rights and equal power. Men devised the patriarchal system as the most suitable method of maintaining and perpetuating a hierarchy of power among men, whilst simultaneously granting all men socio-economic power over women as a group, because females must always be viewed and treated in relation to men – not as equal autonomous human beings. (2)

We can now ignore the fact 'male violence against women' was a term created by feminists not only to define which group is responsible for predominantly committing violence against women but also to highlight the fact men commit violence against women not as 'isolated acts of individual men' but as a very effective method of maintaining and perpetuating male supremacy over women as a group. Women know this and so the constant threat of male violence against women is used to reinforce and maintain men's control and oppression of women.

But whilst the Coalition of Men and Boys claim men are the ones being subjected to discrimination and disadvantage, at the same time our patriarchal society now claims we have a 'level playing field,' wherein all women and men are individuals, have equal rights and opportunities to freely choose in a world free from male supremacy and male domination. Such claims have been very successful in depoliticising women's demands to be seen and respected as full autonomous human beings rather than as adjuncts to men, since male alone defines human status.

Not only is the issue of women's human rights being depoliticised, but the politics and analysis of how male power and male supremacy operate are also being ignored and invisibilised institutionally and socially. Pro-feminist academic Jeff Hearn submitted a paper which was subsequently published in (Male) Violence In the European Union Examined, wherein he wrote 'When there is a discussion of men as perpetrators of violence, it has become rather usual to speak of such men perpetrators as a distinct and separate group from the mass of men. ….Seen within this framework, men are and often can be seen as an 'absence presence' (Hearn 1998). An interesting example of this fact is contained in the EU Decision 779/2007 (Daphne III Programme) which aims “ contribute to the protection of children, young people and women against all forms of violence........” In that document they are constructed as objects – in this case, as objects of violence. The subjects, the primary doers, of violence – which are very much men – are absent, an absent presence. The only place where men feature in this document is, ironically, in stipulating “equal treatment for men and women” in the programme. ' (3)

At the societal level media reporting concerning incidents of male violence against women have always been constructed as 'isolated instances concerning individuals committing violence against other individuals.' Feminists have challenged this deliberate hiding strategy for decades now. However, despite feminists consistently challenging and attempting to change male-dominant views, this depoliticised view is becoming increasingly accepted as 'true.' The politics of how and why so many men inflict violence in whatever shape or form against women because they are women not men is irrelevant because women have now supposedly achieved full human status.

One example of how the invisibilisation of the politics of men's violence against women operates are these two media reports. Despite the fact two men living in different countries in the same week murdered their ex-female partners for the same reasons, media reported these cases as 'a family tragedy.' The reasons why Briton Andy Copland and Kosovan born Ibrahim Shkupolli murdered their ex-female partners were invisibilised because they were deemed to be 'family tragedies' not deliberate acts of femicide committed by two men. Andy Copland and Ibrahim Shkupolli both adhered to the patriarchal concept that once a woman has entered in to a sexual relationship with a man she becomes the man's personal property. It is the man who has the right to decide if and when he will end a heterosexual relationship not the woman and because these two women dared to challenge male authority and male power, both men decided to take lethal revenge against the women. Copland not only murdered his ex partner Ms. Harrison he also murdered her child. Shkupolli murdered a Finnish young woman who had ended her relationship with him. Shkupolli also murdered three of her work colleagues because he believed they had provided support to the woman when she attempted to gain a legal injunction to prevent him from contacting her. The UK media glossed over evidence concerning Copland's history of violence against women and instead focused on portraying this femicide as 'a family tragedy.' Finnish and international media focused on Shkupolli's Kosovan ethnicity and the fact he had migrated to Finland some years prior to entering into a relationship with the Finnish born woman. The media inferred Shkupolli's ethnicity was to blame because he is not white European.(4 & 5)

Not only does the media report cases concerning men's lethal violence against women and children as 'family tragedies' but men's sexual violence against women is now commonly misrepresented as 'women's responsibility.' How did this arise and what is the connection between the increasing use of 'gender violence' as opposed to 'male violence against women' and the depoliticisation of women's rights?

The answer lies in the widespread belief and promotion of individualism and so-called 'choice.' Social and economic constraints imposed on women by men as a group are apparently now non-existent. Patriarchy does not exist any longer and how women and men learn their supposedly 'natural gender roles' as children is irrelevant – because everyone is now equal and everyone has 'free choice.'

Gail Dines debunks such claims as follows: ''What is largely ignored is that all choices are made within a set of social, economic and political conditions that are often not of our own making. (This applies overwhelmingly to women rather than men). The more real power a person has, then the more they get to re-articulate the conditions of their lives, and the less powerful (such as young women) end up being constrained and limited by forces that are beyond their control. Radical feminism unlike the Third Wave is not about individual choices as about changing the very conditions under which these choices are made. This is what makes it both powerful and unpopular – a steadfast belief that accommodation on the part of women to a system that men have constructed is not feminism.” (6)

Rape is now defined as 'gender violence' and it is increasingly believed women commonly falsely charge men with raping them. (7) Patriarchy has always demanded men's issues must be central with women's issues relegated to the margins. Because feminists were for a time successful in raising the issue of male sexual violence against women, the male-defined status quo had to be reimposed with men's issues once again taking centre stage and women's issues sidelined or ignored. Patriarchal dogma claims that if women are oppressed because they are female, then so too are men because they are male! Hence the term 'gender violence' has been created in order to demonstrate that 'gender' is responsible for perpetrating violence against women and men in equal numbers. It is 'gender' not men who are the ones responsible for committing violence against women. But this conveniently ignores that 'gender' is a political term used to define women's and men's supposedly diametrically opposite social roles. Johnson shows 'how femininity and masculinity are cultural roles about who women and men are, who they are supposed to be and why these roles have to be diametrically opposite in order to uphold male power and control over women.'(8).

If individualism means women and men are equal why then is there now a cacophony of voices blaming women for supposedly causing 'innocent' men to rape and commit other forms of sexual violence against them. Why are not men equally blamed for supposedly engaging in 'risky behaviour' which is likely to be life-threatening or cause other men to commit violence against them? Why is it only women who are being admonished, cajoled and held wholly or partially responsible for putting themselves 'at risk' of inviting a male to coerce or force unwanted sexual activity on them? Note: such claims conveniently deny rape has occurred, instead it is interpreted as 'a misunderstanding' or else 'it was the woman's fault because she had been drinking prior to a known male(s) gaining sexual access to her body.' It is very odd given women have supposedly achieved equality with men, that society continues to hold women responsible and accountable for not preventing men from raping and/or committing other forms of sexual violence against them.(9)

A few days before Christmas, 2009 British student Miles Robinson was reported missing whilst on holiday in the Swiss ski resort Wengen. Swiss police discovered his body a week later on a trail judged impassable in winter and extremely hazardous in summer. Swiss police discovered that prior to Robinson being declared missing he had spent the evening consuming large amounts of alcohol and became intoxicated. Swiss police believe Robinson took the wrong path back to his hotel, became lost and found himself on the impassable trail. He subsequently fell 100 metres off an icy cliff and died. UK media reported this death as a 'tragic accident' and did not mention Robinson’s ’risky behaviour’ wherein he voluntarily consumed alcohol until he was intoxicated and thereby had a direct bearing on his death. US media has also reported cases of college men who have become so intoxicated that they have fallen into rivers and drowned. Other boys and men have also died as a result of alcohol consumption and hypothermia. (10, 11 & 12).

Is it males' right to freely engage in drinking alcohol to excess and not be held responsible for their safety because they are male not female? Here in the UK young women are routinely blamed for drinking alcohol to excess and supposedly 'risking their safety' by daring to venture out into public spaces at night. (13) Males are not being admonished or told they will be held accountable if they commit violence in any shape or form against women. Neither are young men being held accountable if after becoming intoxicated they commit physical violence against other males.

The UK recently experienced yet another case of 'moral panic' concerning the number of teenage males carrying a knife or knives and then subsequently accosting one or more teenage males and then lethally stabbing one or more teenage boys. Mainstream media fuelled this 'panic' by sensationalising coverage of these homicides. As a result UK government had to act swiftly and one method was a publicity campaign directed at teenagers (it was deliberately gender neutral given male is the default human so no need to identify biological sex of perpetrators) telling them if they carry knives they will be prosecuted. Yet women and men are all supposedly individuals and given some of the males targeted by other males are aged 18 and therefore adults, why were not young men admonished to take greater precautions with regards to their safety? Why was the focus on preventing teenage males from committing such crimes rather than advising teenage males not to engage in 'risky behaviour' by venturing out into public spaces or even talking to other teenage males? Is it because 'male risky behaviour' cannot be criticised since such criticism directly challenges males' right of autonomy of movement, whether it is within the public or private sphere. (14)

Women however, are increasingly blamed and held either partially or totally accountable for supposedly causing male violence to be committed against them. It is women who are being subjected to male control and policing – not men. It is women who are told to restrict their right of freedom of movement because 'the world is a very dangerous place for women.' But since women are supposedly responsible for preventing male violence committed against them, patriarchal society should advise women to remove themselves from the company of risky known and unknown males, whether it is within the workplace, public areas, the home or other social places.

Individualism does not apply to women only men, since it is men who are the ones seen as having 'choice' and freedom of movement – not women. Men are not the ones being admonished and blamed for supposedly engaging in 'risky behaviour' and putting their lives at risk. Men are not the ones told to reduce or refrain from even drinking a minute amount of alcohol, because this will be seen as 'blanket consent' to any man who wishes to engage in sexual activity with another male. Men are not told their clothing is 'provocative' and likely to provoke another male into sexually assaulting them. Men are not told to restrict their freedom of movement within public places because entering such places will cause other males to commit violence against them. No, it is men's right to move freely and engage in 'risky behaviour' despite the fact such behaviour often results in a male's death or injury. Women do not have this 'right or freedom' rather we are being subjected to even more stringent scapegoating and women-blaming, whilst men's accountability for committing violence against women continues to be ignored or hidden by using the term 'gender violence.'

It is a win-win for men and a continuing no win situation for women. Perhaps we have forgotten what women's rights means since women and men are now all individuals, with the proviso that patriarchal society places a different meaning on 'individualism' with regards to men's rights compared to women's rights. Denise Thompson reminds us very forcibly what women's rights means compared to men's rights as follows: ' Feminism is necessarily concerned with women. It is the women's movement and it is women's liberation which is at stake. (Italics in original). It is women who are harmed, women who are oppressed and subordinated, women whose consciousness changed to see oppression for what it was, and to see, too, that it wasn't inescapable or natural and that it could be challenged. What distinguishes feminism from other concerns with women is its explicit acknowledgement of and opposition to the social system which is male domination. Feminism's concern with women arises in the first place out of a concern with the harm done to women under the social conditions of male supremacy, with the aim of providing women with the means to take control of our lives into our own hands, insofar as that is possible and while recognising the constraints and limitations placed on women by men's rule over the world. It is only acknowledging the social system of male supremacy as the main enemy that gives meaning to feminism's concern with women. (15)

It is not 'gender violence' which is responsible for violence against individuals but rather men's violence against women'. The term 'gender violence' is yet another method our patriarchal system has created in order to hide male accountability and male responsibility. Depoliticising women's rights and replacing it with terms such as 'gender violence' ensures that the patriarchal system remains hidden and supposedly irrelevant because women and men now exist in a mythical world wherein all women and men have equal rights and equal access to economic and social opportunities. A mythical world wherein misogyny and rampant male contempt for women has been eradicated. Individualism is the new mantra but this mantra only applies to one group – namely men.


1.    Deel, L. $Ifeminism $ in The Battle and Backlash Rage On, edited by Stacey Elin Rossi, Xlibris , 2004
6.    Dines, G. From Stepford Wives to Stepford Sluts: How Media Constructs Femininity, Rain and Thunder, Issue 44, Autumn Equinox 2009
8.    Johnson, A.G. The Gender Knot: Unveiling Our Patriarchal Legacy, Temple University Press, 2005
15.    Thompson, D. Radical Feminism Today, Sage Publications, London, 2001