our words make worlds

Silence Is Not an Option: On why the language we use to talk about violence against women really matters

Since the news first emerged of the disappearance of Sarah Everard I have been following the case obsessively - perhaps too obsessively. But I have found that the strange space of isolation that I (and many others) have occupied during lockdown can be conducive to a constant search for information. My experience of the coronavirus pandemic, during which I have worked entirely from home, has been marked by frequent, anxiety-driven quests for updates about how the university I work for is responding and what they are expecting of me, whether certain facilities in my local area are open, and how and when the coronavirus restrictions might change so that I can see my family and friends. My desire for new information about Sarah Everard was different because what I was so desperately searching for was the piece of news, evidence or information that would tell me that it wasn’t true, that Sarah Everard had not been abducted and murdered as she walked home alone from a friend’s house in London. We now know that this is an extremely distressing case of violence against women and girls and so, like the pandemic, it affects us all, it requires a change in society and it demands that we work together to bring about change.

I’ve had a very personal response to the Sarah Everard case because it speaks both to me and to my research. I am upset and angered by the murder of a woman in London, the city where I, a woman, live and walk, and where I inhabit and enjoy the outside space. But throughout the whole unfolding of this terrible murder case, I’ve constantly returned to two key questions that have underpinned my recent research: how is the language used shaping the debate? What can we learn from other contexts, in particular the Latin American context, in order to make change happen? My research focuses on how we understand, negotiate and translate language, and how it links to action. Language has an essential role to play in how we bring about change. When Sarah Everard’s murder has been discussed in public, I’ve been acutely aware of the ways in which language is employed to fire up debates and to apportion blame. The language that we use to discuss Sarah Everard’s murder is significant. This is because the questions that we ask, the ways in which we frame the debate and the terms we use to specify the systemic violence that caused her death all have an impact upon who is included in dialogues about how we create change.

Language shapes our understanding

Language can be used to raise awareness. In the days immediately after Sarah Everard’s disappearance, social media was filled with accounts from women of their experiences of violence, harassment and abuse. These heartbreaking stories indicate the ways in which women calculate risks every day as they move through the world. Hashtags, such as #SarahEverard #TakeBackTheStreets and #ReclaimTheNight, were used to link these accounts and create a sense of unity when, due to the pandemic, we are necessarily apart. These hashtags not only connected people across perceived geographic borders but also across history, as women used slogans previously used in campaigns, movements and protests about women’s rights and safety.

Language can be used to instruct. After Sarah Everard’s murder, women were told not to go out at night in order to protect themselves. Reclaim the Night was used in the 1970s and 80s, in the wake of murders by Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper), as well as in recent days, to protest against this instruction. This instruction fails to address the issue of gender-based violence. This instruction doesn’t work to understand, prevent or educate about the issue. When this instruction is given, whilst hashtags such as #NotAllMen circulate to defend the many men who do not commit acts of violence, then it creates divides. It actually serves to perpetuate violence by placing the emphasis on women and their behaviour rather than on what needs to change in society. It takes the focus away from societal structures which allow violence to continue and becomes a barrier to collective action.

Latin American artists, activists and feminists have long understood this need for collective action and the need to understand violence against women as a structural problem. We should look to what they’ve done, the language they’ve used and the ways in which they’ve sought to change the narrative about violence exerted upon female bodies. They’ve worked to actively implicate the state and to create terms to specify this state-sanctioned violence against women. Feminicidio was a term introduced into the academic world in 1987 by Mexican feminist scholar, activist, and politician Marcela Lagarde y de los Rios. It is used to refer to the killing of women because they are women and because of the structures and inequalities within society that enable violence against women to exist. The term connects the public and the private: whilst the majority of instances of violence occur in private, it is the state which creates a public sphere in which this is permissible.[1]

Feminicide and engaging with Latin American activists and artivists

Feminicidio is employed by Latin American activists, scholars, practitioners and theorists as a way to actively work to expand the scope of the term femicide to include systemic violence. Femicide is often used in English to refer to the murder of women because they are women and could be translated into Spanish as femicidio. [2] Feminicidio plays an important role in reminding us of the importance of understanding the context in which violence against women takes place, because it is never in isolation. It requires that we acknowledge that if we want to understand how and why Sarah Everard’s death occurred, we have to explore the ways in which the state makes violence permissible. In using the term feminicide (so translating feminicidio into English), we also recognise the contribution that scholars from Latin America have made to feminist studies, studies on gender violence and women’s rights.[3] Therefore, as we develop and seek to articulate the multiple ways in which violence against women exists in society in London and the UK, we should be in dialogue with the work of feminist scholars globally who can provide terms of reference to help us to understand how the conditions for violence are created and sustained.[4]

Feminicide places emphasis upon the female bodies that are distorted, destroyed and often left unfound. This emphasis on the female body and women’s rights to occupy the public space has also been achieved through performances which intervene in that public space. One example is the performance of Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in Your Path) created by Chilean theatre collective LasTesis and first performed in front of a police building in Valparaíso, Chile. It was then performed in Santiago on 25 November 2019, The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recorded and disseminated via social media and used as the basis for a series of follow-on performances by women throughout the world. The lyrics draw on the work of Argentine feminist scholar Rita Segato to show how language can also be used to accuse and express anger: as the bodies challenge the absence of women, the lyrics accuse the police, judges, state and president of being part of a mechanics of oppression and rape.

In Uruguay, the performance La caída de las campanas (The falling of the bells), directed by Hekatherina Delgado, took place in a public space every time a woman was murdered as a result of gender-based violence. The chosen site for performance was always symbolically linked to Uruguayan democracy as a way to question the pervasiveness of violence in democratic society. The repetition of the performance in public spaces (over a two-year period) powerfully depicted how violence against women becomes an ever-increasing burden of fear, anger and loss for other women. The performance also questioned how the loss of women’s lives is mourned. This issue of how and where mourning takes place also emerged in relation to a vigil for Sarah Everard and the ways in which, given the coronavirus pandemic, this also had to be sanctioned by relevant authorities. Art, performance and literature can create ways of understanding and thinking through issues facing contemporary society, including feminicide. As we read, watch, listen and participate we are inspired to think creatively and so we should not underestimate the ways in which art can instigate change.

The ways in which we choose to speak about Sarah Everard’s murder are fundamental to bringing about change. The words and terms that we use will enable us to articulate the experience of Sarah Everard and many other women. We should develop these terms and this language to speak about women’s experiences of violence in dialogue with scholars, activists and feminists from around the world. We must research globally and discuss violence against women in society, amongst policymakers and with leaders. These discussions need to involve as many voices as possible, including male voices, to root out the societal causes of gender-based violence and specify what they are so that they can be tackled. We must work to ensure that this language leads to action, that greater awareness leads to greater instruction and that this instruction does not simply tell women what to do. This must be instruction in its most creative and powerful sense: we need to recognise that violence against women and girls is an issue for everyone and use this as a basis to create new discourses about this issue to educate and transform individuals, communities, institutions and state organisations.

Dr Sophie Stevens is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her research project, Latin American Women Dramatists as Artists, Activists and Agents of Change, investigates the work of Latin American women dramatists in order to explore links between activism, performance, digital networking and translation. She is part of the Language Acts and Worldmaking project team on the Translation Acts research strand and is also a member of the Out of the Wings Theatre Collective.

[1] Fregoso, Rosa-Linda, and Cynthia Bejarano. “A Cartography of Feminicide in the Américas.” Introduction. Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Américas, edited by Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 1-42 (p.5).

[2] Fregoso and Bejarano. p.5.

[3] Fregoso and Bejarano. p.5, and Finnegan, Nuala. Cultural Representations of Feminicidio at the US-Mexico Border. Routledge, 2019, pp.4-5.

[4] The ideas in this paragraph and the previous one are taken from a longer article in which I explore the significance of using the term feminicidio in relationship to understanding activism about violence against women in the Uruguayan context: Stevens, Sophie. “Disrupting Narratives of Gender Violence: Hekatherina Delgado and Performing La caída de las campanas in Uruguay”, Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures, 74:4 (2020), 191-204, DOI: 10.1080/00397709.2020.1819585. Please contact me via Language Acts if you are unable to access the article via the DOI link.