WOMEN: Take Back the Night

Violence permeates today's society and affects each of our lives. The mythology of sexual dominance that says "boys will be boys" while women must passively accept threats to their physical integrity makes violence a particularly serious problem for women. Yet, as Margaret Mead pointed out, rape is not a natural act--it is a cultural product; some cultures don't even have a word to describe that crime. Western society teaches men to link sex & violence. Although men have always had and will continue to have the capacity to rape, women need not eternally accept the violation of their autonomy that rape represents. Now is the time for us to take back the night.

Women will march on Saturday, November 8 at 6:30 p.m. to protest the daily threat of that violation and to celebrate our power to fight it. The march addresses problems of a more practical significance as well. The constant threat of personal assault challenges our daily existence and sometimes restricts our activities. Late-night studying, early-morning jobs, odd-houred athletic workouts and rehearsals characterize student life at Harvard/Radcliffe. For a woman to limit her participation because of the threat of rape or assault is to restrict her education. This is why the University must become involved. We will march on Saturday to assert each student's right to equal access to education and the university's responsibility to guarantee that right.

Women's autonomy and rights are violated not only by the actual occurrence of violence but by the fear of violence as well. This well justified fear fosters dependence and undermines a woman's self-respect. She is told to be conscious of her lack of power; to constantly think "I can't..." Whether this inhibits her from majoring in physics, a "man's major," or from walking to the library, the effect on her self-image is the same. As Adrienne Rich writes,

The undermining of self, of a woman's sense of her right to occupy space and walk freely in the world...The capacity to think independently, to take intellectual risks, to assert ourselves menatlly, is inseparable from our physical way of being in the world, our feelings of physical integrity.

The unending challenges to woman's self endangers her ability to achieve and function on an equal level with men at any institution of learning.

Fighting back is not easy. For, it is not clear on which level women should fight: on the level of the specific attack or on the level of the cultural structure that perpetuates it. Individuals, particularly women, should come to terms with the threat of crime on both levels--its reality and its mythology. Only when women have confronted the whole issue will they be able to achieve the confidence and self-possession to fight back.

Women, however, are not the only ones who must work towards creating a safer environment. Men must respect women's right to march in protest of the daily threat which affects them particularly severely. Women marching separately is an affirmation of women's power and not a rejection of men. Men will never be liberated until every woman is autonomous; the community will never be stable until it can guarantee the security of its members.

Men are pushed into the role of being "macho" when society encourages women not only to abandon their independence but to seek security from men. Man must be stable, independent, and above all, strong-physically and mentally. The media exploits and reinforces that image--in cigarette and designer jean advertisements, TV soap operas, and James Bond movies.

This stereotypical strong man is taught to be the pillar upon which every woman leans. He feels as though women are his property. This insidious notion of male possession of women limits a woman's domain to that area determined and approved by her male owner. Thus many men take offense to a rape not because the woman is in pain but because his property is damaged goods. His woman is dirty; his ability to protect her has been challenged and found lacking. Furthermore, when a man views women as powerless property, he directly curtails the quality he can achieve in a male-female relationship. Relations between men and women will only be truly successful when the two sexes deal with each other as equal personalities and not as unequal stereotypes.

The myths of society perpetuate the inequality between men and women in relationships. The ideal romance has been well defined. Lord Byron, anachronistically, described the scene so familiar in Bogart, Dean, Bond and other movies:

A little she strove, and much reprented, and whispering "I will ne'er consent"--consented. Don Juan

In fact, a woman means what she says; yes means yes and no means no.

Due to the misinterpretation of rape, the classic overpowering male has become an attractive fantasy for many women. A woman may daydream of a Bogie to come fall in love with her or of a dark handsome man to ravish her; this, in no way, means that she wants to be raped. When a woman fantasizes, she is safe and in control of both her actions and his. In reality rape is nothing like her fantasy. Rape is an act of violence, not of love, romance or sex. It is a matter of life and death; either the woman submits or she dies.

The extreme violence of rape, whether it entails a weapon, a beating or threat of death, leaves a woman totally vulnerable. For the duration of the rape, she is no one. She is dead, simply a tool through which the rapist can show his power. In the aftermath she turns to an insensitive world with raw fear. She has been violated, her own self negated by one man.

When the woman who has been raped tries to reintegrate herself into society, she encounters enormous obstacles. Her fear can expand until it defines her activities. This fear prevents her from venturing forth at night, from trusting her boyfriend or even herself. In addition the woman is made to bear society's guilt. It is her fault that she was sleeping in her bed when a man broke in or that she walked home from the library alone. This guilt is internalized and may become inwardly directed anger. Society's conspiracy of silence does nothing to prevent that anger. Instead the obvious silence urges the woman to take that anger and guilt upon herself.

Only with help will a woman come to see that she bears no responsibility for her rape, that she can turn her anger outward and effect social change. She must break through her fear, re-establish at least a rudimentary sense of invulnerability, and accept her own power before she is able to act constructively. In fact, most women break through society's myths and lead normal lives. But the woman's life is changed and she needs others to affirm and support her own positive growth after her pain.

Third world women find themselves in a worse situation since they are exploited both for their color and their sex. Western culture legitimizes this attitude with myths of the unusually erotic and sexually insatiable Asian, Black or Hispanic woman. The image of Third World women as animals of special sexual prowess pervades literature, art and the media and is totally false.

Just as men can help themselves by supporting women in their challenge for a safer environment, the community in which they both live--must also combat crime and the fear that accompanies it. The University has made significant strides in both areas. Within the last eight years, Harvard established the shuttle bus, the escort car, the double-locked door policy, the blue light phone system, increased security guards, and better lighting. Recent improvements and policy changes include the establishment of the permanent College Committee on Security, the weekly "House Blotter"--a new HUPD publication describing all crimes that occur each week, and the requirement that all police cruisers drive students home between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. We laud the efforts of the police department; however, women are still being raped, assaulted and harassed.

The University can do more, both on a direct and indirect level. It can provide floodlights and extend patrol hours. It can also encourage women themselves to take basic steps to overcome the threat of violence and recover their independence--by providing free and easily accessible self-defense courses. The present self-defense course given by Arthur Fitzhugh of HUPD offers a glimmer of hope. However, it is not regularly given and depends on the student's ability to rent necessary equipment, secure a room and guarantee attendance of twenty people.

The above suggestions are only temporary solutions. The permanent solution is to alter the power structure and attitudes that lead to violence against women. This includes replacing the present institutional sexism with institutional support of women. One example of Harvard's sexism is the two token women on the police force, brought in to deal with the "woman's issue" of rape; just as women are not token elements of society, women on the police force must not be mere tokens. Harvard must reach out to women, make women students confident and comfortable in seeking their education.

In this Saturday's H/R Take Back the Night march, students have a chance to dramatically present their objections to campus life and to demand for women the same autonomy that men already have. The march is designed to empower women, to encourage them to assert themselves. Women can and should provide emotional, intellectual, and artistic inspiration for other women. This can happen during the march and hopefully can continue for a long time afterwards.

Elisabeth Einaudi '83 and Peggy Mason '82 are members of the Harvard/Radcliffe Take Back the Night committee. Elisabeth Einaudi is president of H/R Students Organized for Security. Peggy Mason works at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.