Dario Martinelli: Femicide and the different ideas of freedom

Research | 2021-08-27

Dario Martinelli, semiotician, professor at Kaunas University of Technology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.

The recent femicide that occurred in the very centre of Vilnius, where a man shot his wife inside a BMW car, is only the most visible tip of that huge iceberg of violence against women (VAW) that can be no longer ignored at both institutional and individual level. I am using this particular crime as an opportunity to propose a reflection in Lithuania, but not necessarily about Lithuania.

Statistics tell us that this country is sometimes above and sometimes below the European average in the various parameters analyzed. It is certainly disquieting to learn that Lithuania is the second in the EU for the percentage of femicides within a family (either intimate partner or family member), the third for known cases of domestic violence, or even the first in the opinion that forced sex is not wrong and should be legal (4% of the population thinks this, apparently, against a 1% of EU average). More comforting is to see it much lower in cases of sexual harassment (only the 24th in EU) or unwelcome contact (the 13th place, and still under the EU average).

However, figures have their own limits and anyway require interpretation. Being the third in EU for “known” cases of domestic violence, for instance, also means that there is a high number of women who find the courage to report those cases, which is a positive datum – and not by chance the first place in this statistic is occupied by Finland, the country with the highest index of women emancipation in the whole continent. From what we know, there may be much more domestic violence in other countries where women are too terrified to go to the police.

So, no: what I point the finger at is not Lithuania or any other country as such. What I point the finger at is men, as a category I am part of, and as the only point of view I find it reasonable to take within an important discussion like this.

Male privileges in a patriarchal society are endless

I am a man who is very happy to be a man, and therefore I always feel a sense of defeat when some event makes me ashamed to be a man. The Vilnius case was one of such events, along with the fact that the COVID emergency, among its various disasters, has also increased the VAW figures everywhere – something that says an awful lot about my gender’s ability to share and co-exist in situations of difficulty. And of course, staying within current news, one cannot miss the tragedy within the tragedy that Afghan women are experiencing in their country.

Again, all this makes me feel ashamed – and I hate that feeling. I like and enjoy many of the privileges that come with my gender, however, as I grew up, I came to realize that 99% of them were not implanted in my male biology but were the results of millennia of progressive domination and neglection that men imposed on women. Basically, except for a generally superior physical strength and the ability to stay upright when I urinate, every other privilege that makes me happy to be a man stems from this abusive process. When I go out, I can do it pretty much in any outfit I wish, and without using any particular product on my body, except those for personal hygiene. When I sit down, I can take any posture I like, and I don’t have to get worried about how much space I am taking. When I walk on a street, I don’t have to worry about the time of the day or the state of illumination of the area. When I am mocked for supposedly typical men’s flaws (say, not being able to do two things at the same time), I can just laugh, because I know that the joke does not reflect the expectations and the pressure of a whole society on me. When a woman flirts with me, I have the privilege to just feel flattered and nothing else: I never have to worry about being in danger, in case I reject that woman. And so on and so forth: the list of my male privileges is virtually endless and has nothing to do with my biology or my anatomy. It has to do with the fact that I live in a patriarchal society.

Less mansplaining

The philosopher Lorenzo Gasparrini (one of the few male feminist philosophers: as I said, a man’s point of view is what I find reasonable here – I will soon elaborate on this) said that men and women have two different definitions of “freedom”: for a man, freedom is more or less to do what he wants, and – in most western societies – it is also something that he has the privilege (another privilege!) to take for granted. On the contrary, a woman learns very early in her life that freedom means to find a way not to suffer someone else’s actions. For example, a woman can feel free to walk, if she avoids certain areas if she avoids walking when it’s too dark, if she dresses in a certain way, etc.

Now. To subject any category’s freedom to the freedom of another category means, quite simply, to create a hierarchy of power, in which the daily practices and interactions imply that the members of the subdued category “stay at their place”, and that place is under the other category. Many of us men do not understand how strongly limiting a woman’s freedom to move, to act, to organize her time, is to have to worry for her own safety. The simple decision to spend an evening out is for a woman a problem ten times bigger than it is for a man.

A patriarchal society is not the only but the main reason why, as a society and as private citizens, we make many mistakes, when we discuss femicide and VAW in general. This is why I want (and I can only) address the issue “as a man”. Not certainly to stand on my “mansplaining” pedestal (another privilege!), but rather for the opposite reason: I cannot pretend, in full honesty, to really understand what it means to have that limited idea of freedom and not to have all those privileges that I enjoy. I want to address this issue as a man because I want to place on the table all the little I have understood about this problem, and after I do that I want to listen and listen and listen: listen and learn, from women, about how they really feel to live that kind of life, and how we can really change for the better. The process of full women emancipation has to be carried out by both women and men, no doubt, but it’s not men who should “dictate the conditions”, so to speak. This is the first mistake we make.

There was a recent case of sexual abuse, in Italy, that involved the son of Beppe Grillo, the well-known founder of the “5-star movement” party, so obviously there was a huge media hype about it. I had the chance to watch a full TV program dedicated to the case. Three eminent guests were invited to share their opinion: one was a middle-aged male journalist, another one was a middle-aged male journalist and the third one was a middle-aged male journalist. There you go: until an opportunity to discuss VAW is entrusted to three identical profiles who have nothing to do with it, starting from their gender, we will keep on perpetuating the very dynamics VAW feeds off. Imagine a world where the latest game played by the Lithuanian basketball team is discussed by three Peruvian violinists, and you may get an idea of how accurately we discuss VAW in our society.

Femicide is a special “genre” of a crime

Second mistake: many people, mostly men, still think that femicide is not a “special” form of homicide but is instead assimilable to the general category of murders. When a woman is killed “because she’s a woman” (for instance, by a raged partner she had just broken up with), many people still think that there is no inherent gender-versus-gender process involved. This line of reasoning can no longer be tolerated. As cynical as it may sound, crimes are like movies: there are “genres”. Some movies contain characteristics that are so varied and eclectic that they escape any stylistic classification, and so do many murders. However, there is a whole range of films that display very recognizable features, and not acknowledging those features is wrong. If you watch a movie located in the American Wild West during the late 19th century, and you see gunfights, cowboys, Native Americans, Winchester rifles and saloons with batwing doors where people constantly order whisky, well, my friends, there are not many chances that this movie is not a western. Similarly, we know and have accepted that there are religiously motivated homicides, mafia homicides, racially motivated homicides, and so forth: in other words, we have already accepted the fact that not every murder is ascribable to a general category, but can be related to specific groups of people, who kill and get killed because they are, or are not, part of that group. It is high time that we accept femicide for what it is, without trying to make it disappear into a bigger cauldron.

The third mistake, a particularly hideous one, is what we may call the “She asked for it tactics”, that is, the strategy of blaming the victim. It is something we hear every time a woman is sexually abused, and it perfectly reflects that limited definition of freedom we were discussing above: it’s how she was dressed, it’s where she was going, it’s how she behaved… had she not done any of that – in other words: had she stayed “in her place” – none of this would have happened. The tiny detail that there was also a predator who employed violence and caused psychological and physical damage suddenly ends up in the background of the scene, transforming a criminal into someone who had no other choice than surrendering to the obvious provocation of the sinful woman. Similarly, on the occasion of the recent Vilnius femicide, a certain narrative started to spread out, especially in social media: “she had driven him nuts with her behaviour” – we have read in some comments. Hence, what? A murder??? When did we exactly take (and justify) a leap from sending someone to hell because they make us crazy to actually killing that person?  When did taking a life became an “inevitable response”? Is the sentence “don’t drive me nuts otherwise I’ll kill you” really how we want to measure a relationship in the 21st century?

Whataboutism more popular than football

The fourth mistake is the only sport that is more popular than football, worldwide: whataboutism. That irritating attitude that there is always another problem that one should deal with, always something more urgent, more important and usually in the opposite moral direction. Black lives matter: and “what about” white lives?  #MeToo movement: and “what about” harassment towards men? Animal rights: and don’t you know that plants have feelings too? Attacking the legitimacy of a given problem, and putting it at the bottom of this perverse Billboard Chart of social issues, is not just a way to diminish its importance: it’s rather a way to deny it, and to accuse the person who is interested in it to be a fanatic weirdo. To “whataboutize” femicide and VAW is a way to both dismiss the problem as irrelevant and to fuel the stereotype of feminist women as nut cases with a vagina dentata.

A special case of whataboutism has been the recent protests against the Istanbul Convention, a document that a few countries (unfortunately including Lithuania) have signed but not ratified yet. In a treaty that aims at criminalizing many of previously underestimated offences such as psychological, physical and sexual violence, stalking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion and forced sterilization, crimes of honour and others, a few people, after adding a frame to their Facebook profile, decided not to pay attention to all this and focused instead on the “real problem” raised by the convention – one that will forever threaten the sanctity of traditional families: the promotion of non-stereotyped gender roles. Was there ever a better illustration of the “finger pointing at the moon” parable?

Incidentally: I could not help noticing that many of those Facebook contacts who applied the “No to Istanbul Convention” frame to their profile were in fact, women. There is a need to discuss very thoroughly the way so many women happily accept to be servants of the patriarchal society, perhaps unconsciously hoping to reach a sort of “house slave” higher status, in comparison to other women. But this is not the place. I repeat: I am approaching this issue as a man, and I am interested in a self-critical analysis of my own gender group.

It’s not easy to cope with the transformations of a society

To conclude (but the list is much longer), the fifth mistake brings us back to that idea of “different freedoms”. Without wanting to generalize the situation to every single man, we can safely say that there is a distinct tendency, among individuals of my gender, to build what we may call “a wall of unaccountability” (it is again Gasparrini’s terminology I borrow from) when the question of women’s limited freedom is addressed. “Wait a minute! – many of us say – I am not a violent man: if there are violent men around it’s not really my fault”. This typical reaction, which I am sure all of us have experienced whenever topics like this come up, tells us that there are two things that, as men, we keep on misunderstanding: first of all, it seems we have not exactly understood how the concept of “freedom” works in general, in a complex, interrelated society like ours. Second, more specifically, we seem to miss the fact that we are not being “accused” of anything in particular, at a personal level. Nobody is telling us that we are violent individuals when we are not. We are only being told that we should feel responsible at “gender level”, that is, at the level of a category we belong to. Because if it’s true that, as a person, I may have not laid a finger on a woman in my entire life, it is also true that my body (with the complicity of heavy cultural pressure and, yes, the stereotyped gender roles promoted by it) is “potentially” threatening for a woman – which means that I belong to a gender that is intrinsically threatening for the other gender. It’s not my fault, sure, but there is an accountability that comes with my biology and my culture, and therefore a set of responsibilities. To make it clear, it is similar to the accountability we have as human beings towards the environment, even if, at the personal level, we may be the kind of people who never take a plane or only buy local products.

These are confusing and uncertain times – no doubt about it. We hear expressions like “decay of traditional values”, “disappearance of masculinity”, “crisis of the man-woman relationship”, and very often we don’t know what to make of them: do they relate to us as well? Do they happen to us as well? It’s not easy to cope with the transformations of society when we are in the middle of them. But there is always that lovely quote from Vivian Greene: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain”. As men, as private citizens and as members of a civilized society like Lithuania, we have all the tools (including listening more to women) to learn and to understand these changes and to tidy up a bit of this confusion. Many tools means also fewer excuses. We have fewer excuses not to face our gender responsibilities, fewer excuses not to dance in the rain. Let’s dance, thus. Or maybe we are afraid that dancing is not for “real men”?