I had never heard of the BBC broadcaster Barbara Sturgeon and now I want to be one of the girlfriends who do karaoke with her, and I’ve never cared much for that. This week I met Barbara as she trained a group of women, including me, in public speaking. We are to become a group of Ambassadors for the Oasis charity, a domestic abuse service based in Margate. Barbara is funny. She has an intelligent, easy wit and humour. She made us feel safe. She made us laugh out loud. This confident speaker with more than twenty years experience persuaded us to use a microphone and really own our voices. All the women in the group felt passionately about ending male violence against women and girls. Some appeared wonderfully confident at public speaking already. Others less so. Some had experienced some form of male sexual violence – unsurprising since the odds are 1 in every 3 women.
Giving a woman the confidence to use her voice is a beautiful feminist act – a beautiful womanist act. As girls, we speak up less in a classroom with boys. Boys can get more attention from teachers and their presence and behaviour can intimidate girls. In the workplace we watch as men’s opinions win more recognition, they dominate discussions and talk over us. In social situations, we sigh as they talk over us some more, talk louder and the things we say disappear. We retreat from challenging things in public or being impolite to those who annoy us when we see how those that do are regarded as unfeminine, weird or bolshy. In her book, Do It Like A Woman, Caroline Criado Perez recalls tempering her personality at school, saying, ‘… I was talking and the boys were talking – but the other girls were more or less silent…it came to me in a flash that the boys didn’t like that I was as loud as they were. Somehow, even at the age of eleven, I knew that it mattered what boys thought of me.’ Do It Like A Woman interprets the gender dynamics of our public voices from school to the workplace, including conferences where men outnumber women. Following a talk on astronomy, attended by one woman for every 15 men, astrophysicist Sara Seager recalls, ‘I was the only woman who asked a question.’
Domestic violence, that can begin with controlling words and put-downs, serves to strip us of our sense of self, to destroy our identities. Many women have described rape as murder of the mind. Men’s desire to silence us leads them to kill two women every week in England and Wales. On Twitter, men try to silence us with threats of rape, torture and fatal violence. So helping women’s voices to rise up is deeply symbolic. And we owe it to the collective of women to tell our stories, to demand our human rights and speak for those who cannot.
For any women in the group who have experienced male violence, becoming an Oasis ambassador can transform suffering and give it meaning. The opportunity to speak up about male violence against women can turn their intimacy with pain and anger into a force for good, purpose and change. The groundbreaking Amina Scheme gave women this rare opportunity. The brainchild of the brilliant Denise Marshall, the recently deceased chief executive of the charity Eaves for Women, it gave survivors of male violence the chance to use their experience to peer support other victims. To truly comprehend women’s suffering is their strength, their power. Denise Marshall saw this, she saw beyond the victim, she saw a valuable resource, she saw women who know a hell of a lot, women who could educate the police force, the justice system, the government about tackling men’s violence. Thank you Oasis and Barbara Sturgeon for giving women a voice.