Friday, November 16, 2012

Women Shame and the Murder of Savita Halappanavar

by Wendy Forest

"For it is not her specific feminine virtue that gives women a place of honour in human society but the use of her useful work accomplished for society , the worth of her personality as a human being ,as creative worker , as citizen , thinker or fighter".

Alexandra Kollontai –March 31,1872-March 9,1952 - Bolshevik, leader of the Russian Revolution.

The act of writing, knowing that the words I say will be read by someone, perhaps by a few, frightens me. The fear of being judged gives rise to the probability of feeling shame, perhaps one of the most uncomfortable feelings anyone can feel. Anyone who has spent time with women talking to them about their individual and collective struggles as women knows that sooner or later the issue of shame will arise.

Shame causes women to keep secrets, to be silent. Many if not most women carry many of our secrets to our graves. Somehow it feels safer to endure our silence(ing) than to take the risk of feeling shame. Many women are not even aware that we have secrets – the feeling of shame is so powerful that it forces us to silence our whispers to ourselves. For some of us, if we run into an occasion to feel safe enough to let go of some words at the risk of feeling naked and raw and exposed in an excruciating way, we take the risk.

What happens next, once the words are out can determine whether or not we will ever take the risk again. It all depends on what happens next. I hardly remember a moment in my life when my body or my words did not feel judged. This is not because I had bad parents- exactly the opposite – or bad school teachers – nothing that specific or identifiable can be pointed at and blamed. It is simply because I was born female. It is like being born black in a white dominant society. It is like being poor or gay. It does not matter – numbers do not change anything. If the values of the society into which we are born are by design values that judge us, construct us , pigeon hole us collectively, exclude us, control us and tell us who what our social roles are – we may be millions strong and without power.

It doesn’t matter if over 50 percent of the population of the world is female, or not white. Numbers do not matter. It is the power to define and classify, the power to own and promulgate ideas, to create, define and construct a norm that will prevail and exclude and force shame onto and into those who do not know their place in this world constructed by those whose ideas dominate. It’s a tricky one- the bad feeling of shame. It oozes into us before we learn to speak. No sooner are the words of the shameful out of our mouths as babes – are we taught to shape and form our ideas in a way that will help us avoid the feeling of shame.

Soon we will internalize these ideas and words – and they become our own words and ideas and we more often than not become self enforcers- collectively our own censors and cops . We learn very early to police ourselves collectively. Very young women learn that we must pre-empt the inevitable and gender specific judgment on our bodies and words and ideas. We learn to avoid shame by shaming ourselves – in order to avoid the criticism and shame from outside our selves. Like women who harm ourselves, mutilate our bodies by cutting , starve ourselves and “offer up” our bodies to be carved by cosmetic surgeons –all in order to pre-empt the shame that rolls over us. Shame is perhaps one of the most powerful weapons there is. It is by its very nature political.

Even as I write this I feel the need to pre-empt criticism – by anticipating responses and explaining why I am writing this. I should not have to explain. I should not have to plead my case before I make my case. Millions of words and ideas that are pure garbage are promulgated in the media every moment – without shame. Thousands of acts are committed everyday against women and gays, against racialized communities, against children and the old and disabled-without shame. So I will resist my own impulses to cover all my bases knowing full well that as soon as I push the button POST to this blog I will once again struggle against the feeling of being judged – the struggle to avoid shame because of the way I have written or what I have written about.

I want to say something about the murder of Savita Halappanavar in Galway Ireland. This was not an ordinary killing. It was a painful tortured death –a woman whose cervix was deliberately left open to an infection that killed her. That is the physical side of the torture. It was a deliberate murder, committed by fellow health care workers condoned and I will venture so far as to say encouraged by the state and by the catholic church in Ireland. The same church and the same collaborating state that protects and hides priests from as far away as the US who sexually assault young children and destroy the lives young and vulnerable innocent children. The children who survive these acts , who do not later in life kill themselves or harm themselves or soothe their pain with drugs and alcohol will without a doubt struggle with shame and feelings of degradation throughout their entire lives because they were assaulted and degraded by priests and adults they were told they could trust. Because their entire being was reduced to simply a physical entity – bodies to be exploited and used and degraded for some perverted and twisted sexual pleasure.

The institution that believes fundamentally that sex is base and can only be redeemed through marriage, that only “spiritual unity” achieved through marriage between heterosexual men and women can sanctify sexual acts. The same corrupt institution that protects these monsters in priests clothing condones the murder of women and enslaves them to their role as nothing more than incubators. The same church and the same state that uses shame as one of their primary weapons to control women and children every moment of every day has once again tortured and murdered a woman.

Who was Savita Halapannavar ? She was a dentist, a partner and life companion , a provider of health care. Her work was socially productive. She was a creative worker. Obviously she had a mind and was intelligent. I do not know her but I will take the liberty to assume that she was a comfort to her family and friends –that she was loved. She was alive. But when the moment came when the state and the church pitted her body against the distressed and dying fetus in her uterus she became nothing more than flesh- her entire being was reduced to nothing more than a complex physical entity. She was violently thrust entirely out of her social context, turned into pure nature. The social context within which she existed, created, thought, cared for others, loved and was loved, was stolen from her and she was turned into an incubator-a complicated mechanical and chemical life support system.

She was murdered. Her body, her mind, her emotions were in these hours before her death were dominated, manipulated, appropriated, controlled and ultimately put to death by a patriarchal state and an institution promoted by the same state. She is one of millions of women historically who have been murdered simply because they are female. Her death is a tragedy-but not an accident. The powerful weapon, shame, used throughout history against women will not be felt by the Catholic church or by the state of Ireland. Yes pressure from below will hopefully make them change the laws that oppress and violate women’s rights to control over their bodies and reproductive capacities. And yes that is what we want as way forward for women. But it goes much deeper and will not end until women understand the power of shame and are determined collectively to refuse to succumb to its paralyzing power.

We cannot afford to base our actions on what happens next.

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