Be Small, Be Silent, Be Safe

Back at home after a week in Dorset with virtually no Internet connection, I immerse myself in Twitter, to find out what I have missed. Twitter news is a subversion of the news, rants about RoyalBabyMania, petitions, observations and pictures of dinner. But standing out for me is the story of Caroline Criado Perez, a feminist campaigner who led the call for women to feature on banknotes, resulting in Jane Austen being chosen. A modest victory, one might think. Hardly risks emasculation or the extinction of men. But in return, Caroline endured hour upon hour of rape threats and abuse. Over a banknote campaign. Some cautioned her not to feed the trolls, to ignore in the hope they might go away. In other words, not to make a fuss or cause a scene. Advice dished out to women over centuries, so we are not seen as difficult, awkward harridans. Because difficult awkward harridans are not liked. By men, it seems.

I thought about this a lot in the context of the constant barrage of shaming tactics aimed at women: be beautiful, be smooth and hairless, have shiny hair, waist bands that fasten easily and soft hands to smooth brows. But most of all, lose weight, be smaller, be so small you are as light as a feather. Easy to carry over a threshold – and just as easy to pin down and rape. Slight and small, tiny and fragile, so that men feel bigger and stronger and one blow will knock us down. Of all the adjectives used about women, strong, powerful, large, imposing, solid and substantial are rarely used in any positive way. Taking up too much space is wrong, as if all space is borrowed from patriarchy, allowed us by men on condition of compliance.

And if being “larger than life” is frowned upon, so too women who are opinionated and strident are to be silenced, and if not silenced, then shamed and threatened. A few years ago, an indie news article written anonymously, called me a drunk (on the basis I sent emails out late) and a liar, and responded to my scathing response with emails calling me a pathetic bitch. I was told I had asked for it by not ignoring him, by responding. Because he and others are free to abuse and threaten, the rule is that as women, we bow our heads, hurry on and hope no one notices.

If we are good girls, if we are small enough to seem non-threatening, silent enough to be obedient, we will be safe from attack. Of course, we won’t, but this is a tactic designed to humiliate and shame those who speak out. Caroline Criado Perez refused to play by these rules and she deserves the support of every single woman and girl. Because whenever a woman is silenced, chased away from voicing opinions, made anxious by the vitriolic abuse remaining forever on line, we are all victims and we all lose power. Caroline’s latest campaign to #shouththeFUCKback is courageous, but actually necessary. Sometimes being polite doesn’t work. Turning the other cheek just results in one more black eye. For Caroline, for me and for you. For our daughters, mothers and sisters. This has to stop

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