Monday, 24 March 2014

Oh Do Shut Up, Dear: The Silencing of Women in Public Life

An all male panel make a presentation. A woman in the room spots some gaps in their argument and seeks clarity. Her questions are interpreted as a threat and attempts are made to silence her. She is spoken over, sneered at and ultimately shouted at for a sustained period of time, by another man in the room, without any intervention from the [male] chair.

Afterwards one of the people present expresses outrage to a colleague that someone could be treated so disgracefully on their organisations’ premises. To which the colleague responds, “If she had kept her mouth shut she wouldn’t have been subjected to a barrage of abuse. She provoked them [the men]”. The message is clear. A man, or group of men, can shout at and subject a woman to a barrage of verbal abuse but it is not the mens' behaviour that comes under scrutiny, but the woman’s.

The woman, in this case, was me and the conversation was relayed to me by the person who initiated it. The discourse is instructive. There is no attempt to deny that the behaviour of the men was “disgraceful”, rather the prevailing social transgression was deemed that of a woman, first speaking out, and then refusing to be silenced when attempts were made to do so. For exhibiting such willful disobedience, I deserved, in this person’s mind, to be punished, taught a lesson. It is all the more galling (though sadly not surprising) to know that this person was a woman, who unlike me, chooses to acquiesce to gender biased social mores.

The fact that I wasn’t deterred from my line of questioning and attempts to silence me were thwarted does not diminish the actions. Being on the receiving end of snide, rude remarks and being spoken over is never pleasant. It forces the person into, either submission/silence or having to exercise uncharacteristic rigour in ensuring they are heard. It’s a no win situation. You’re either cast as a mouse or “strident” or “combative”.

When I watched the esteemed Mary Beard’s incisive lecture, "Oh Do Shut Up Dear", on BBC4 last week, I recognized the irony. Her lecture addressed the historical aversion to women being afforded a voice in the public sphere. For example, In Homer’s The Odyssey, written around three thousand years ago, Telemachus tells his mother Penelope: “Go back to your quarters… Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all, for mine is the power in the household.”

In the early 4th Century BC, Aristophanes wrote a comedy about women taking over the running of the state. The men thought it was uproarious, since women were “unable to speak properly in public.” In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Zeus turns one female character into a cow therein reducing all her utterances to “moo.” Zeus’ wife, Hera, punishes Echo, by reducing her speech to that of repeating what others say.

Women remain silenced and gagged in modern life. The emergence of social media has turned the abuse of outspoken women into a veritable past time for some. Caroline Criado Perez’s recent success in securing a female head on a bank note incurred the wrath of Twitter’s thriving misogyny community. Death and rape threats were her comeuppance for not knowing her place. For the audacity of having a voice and daring to use it, and with such powerful effect.
Beard recounted her own experiences of abuse. When she objected to an abusive tweet she replied that she was “gobsmacked,” by one male commentator’s behaviour. He responded, "The misogyny is truly gobsmacking," she whined.” The same commentator, she said, runs a “lighthearted” sideline. A contest to find “…the most stupid woman to appear on Question Time.”

I’ve documented my own experiences of death threats in the past. To some, a woman with a voice is the equivalent of storming the pentagon with a Kalashnikov. Wielding such a lethal weapon makes her a threat to civilization as we know it. Brutal force, including water boarding, should not be ruled out in a bid to disarm women found to be in possession of a voice, especially where there is known intent to use it.

*Are you struggling to find your voice/inner kalashnikov? If so & you’re a woman, I’m now scheduling dates for another women’s empowerment course. A number of you have been in touch asking me to run another one, which I’m now doing. For anyone who hasn’t been in touch before, if you contact me via my website contact page I’d be very grateful (

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