Gloria Steinem challenges BBC presenter on violence against women

By — March 7, 2013

On Tuesday, Gloria Steinem, who originated WMC’s Women Under Siege, spoke to BBC “Hardtalk” presenter Stephen Sackur about the women’s movement. But I wanted to do more than point you to the video (which you can watch here) and highlight something I found particularly interesting about their chat.  

Below is the full transcript of the segment, which starts out with a simple question of relevance—with all of Steinem’s experience, where does she see the movement now? However, as you’ll read, the back and forth devolves quite quickly, with Sackur interrupting in seeming disbelief when Steinem suggests that feminism is more urgently needed than ever before because of what we’ve learned about violence against women and war.  

When she explains her thinking (and ours) that “the root of democracy outside the home is democracy inside the home,” Sackur interjects, arguing that most women in what he terms the “Western, developed” world would say they “have democracy in the home.”  

Steinem in a screenshot of her BBC interview with Sackur.

I’ll leave it to Steinem to answer this assertion in her own, powerful words, but first I want to show you why what she’s saying about the home vs. the public realm is essential to figuring out how to stop the horrifyingly high rates of sexualized violence against women—and its attending victim-blaming and shaming—in conflict and in public spaces around the world. It is a concept emphasized by Valerie Hudson, a professor of government at Texas A&M University:  

“The template for living with other human beings who are different from us is forged within every society by the character of male-female relations,” Hudson writes in Foreign Policy. “In countries where males rule the home through violence, male-dominant hierarchies rule the state through violence.”  

When nearly a third of men surveyed in the Democratic Republic of Congo—the so-called “rape capital of the world”—tell researchers that women “sometimes want to be raped and that when a woman is raped she may enjoy it,” we might want to consider this concept carefully.  

When 17 senior cops across India are caught on camera “blaming everything from fashionable or revealing clothes to having boyfriends to visiting pubs to consuming alcohol to working alongside men as the main reasons for instances of rape” in a country that recently witnessed the public Boschian rape and murder of a young woman, we may want to take a close look at what is going on beneath the surface.  

When a husband in Burma chastises his wife, newly raped by a soldier and returned home: “Prostitute! If you want to sell sex, we will build you a small hut in the jungle. You can sell sex there,” and her own children say to her: “Whore, you are not our mother, don’t come see us anymore,” we really, probably should pay attention to what Steinem, one of the world’s great thinkers on the struggles of women for safety and equality, is saying.  

This morning, I was talking about this concept of democracy in the home vs. in the street with my friend, writer Soraya Chemaly. She emphasized that we spend way too much time ignoring commonplace gender inequality—that most of us don’t even see it, as if misogyny is the white background noise of our existence, that is, until something like the evisceration of the Dehli gang-rape briefly breaks through the unheard, continuous hum. 

"What is processed in everyday life at the household level emerges as structure in society,” Chemaly explained. “We don’t think of them as inequities because they are invisible: traditionally, culturally sanctioned ways of organizing and behaving.”  

Now, here’s what Steinem said to Sackur:

Stephen Sackur: Does the feminist cause feel as urgent to you today as when you rose to international prominence in the late ’60s, early ’70s?

Gloria Steinem: More. Because when we began, we were talking more about personal injustices, about domestic violence, about things that were within our ken, and now we’ve come to understand through length of work and also through international studies that the single most important factor in whether a country is violent within itself or willing to use violence against other countries, is violence against females. Because that normalizes—it’s the earliest, it’s the biggest…it’s not that female life is worth more than male life, it’s not, but that subject-object, conquered-conqueror kind of paradigm in varying degrees normalizes it everywhere else. And that now has been proved in depth. So in a way we’ve gone deeper now and seen how much more important it is.  

[Click here for a story by Chemaly that explains more about the relationship between gender imbalance and propensity to engage in war.]  

SS: So are you saying that the priorities of the women’s movement, if I can loosely call it that, have fundamentally changed, away from the sort of nuts and bolts sort of equal-pay-for-equal-work and, and, control of fertility, to something that is perhaps less tangible?

GS: No, no, no, what I’m saying is that the root of democracy outside the home is democracy inside the home, so it’s even more important. The root of violence elsewhere is the normalization of violence in an intimate way in the home.  

SS: Sorry to interrupt, but when you put it like that it just makes me wonder whether most women these days in Western, developed societies would feel the same way that you do. Because when you talk about the importance of democracy in the home, wouldn’t most women in the developed world today feel that—

GS: No. Of course not.  

SS: —they have democracy in the home.

GS: Of course not. Are you kidding? Do men raise children as much as women? No.  

SS: But do women feel oppressed today in the way that they did in the ’60s and ’70s?

GS: Yes, more so because now, for instance, when we started we didn’t have a word for “domestic violence.” It was just called “life.” People would constantly say, “Why didn’t she leave?” “What did she do?” Now we understand that domestic violence is original violence.

And, for instance, in my country, there are…if you count up all the people who were killed in 9/11, plus Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you count up all the women who were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the same amount of time, more women were murdered by their husbands and boyfriends than were killed in those three events.  

To read more about Steinem’s thoughts on the normalization of violence in the world, take a look at this Q&A we did in 2012.