The Violence of Silence

The Violence of Silence

Heather Savigny

All women were silenced
many women are still silent
but hear the silence
of singular submission
become the silence
of collective resistance
and, produce a mighty sound [1]

In remaining silent there is the danger that we protect those who cause harm; and our silence means that others may be subject to those very same abuses. In this sense, being silenced becomes a form of inflicting violence: violence in the literal sense in that others may be subject to the abuse, harassment and assaults that we have been through, if we don’t speak out; and a metaphorical violence which reminds us of a system which shuts down to protect the interests of a particular type of man.

Throughout history we have seen women silenced: Aphra Benn, whose play The Forced Marriage earned her the accolade of being the first English woman to earn a living from writing, was nonetheless shunned by the literary community; Mary Wollstonecraft was derided as a ‘hyena in petticoats’ for writing that women should have equal legal and political rights to men. The suffragettes were imprisoned and subject to force feeding, physical and sexual abuse in a bid to silence them; and at this present time, it is particularly salient to notice how Black women’s voices, and their murders at the hands of police, are relatively absent in our media discussions (despite Black Lives Matter being founded by three women!).

Women are not only silenced through overtly physically violent means. We have cultural structures in place that ensure that women’s voices are not heard. #MeToo was heralded as a moment when women could speak up and be believed about their own experiences. And yet, what really has changed. Women being believed about their own experiences? Rape convictions are at a record low where only 4% of cases ever reach court; the implication that a woman consented to her own death, as used in the so-called ‘rough sex’ defence, suggests that women are not believed even when they have been murdered.

And women keep being murdered: Karen Ingala Smith’s ‘Counting dead women project’ and subsequent femicide census reveals that on average 2 women per week are killed by their male partners. Notably, this number had risen to an average to 5 per week under coronavirus lockdown. Not only were these women silenced by having their lives taken away from them, but they are silenced in death. Where is the relentless coverage of the daily violence enacted upon women by men? Why do we gloss over the fact that it is predominantly men enacting violence upon women, rather than some kind of ‘cuddly’ term like domestic violence which implies fault and retribution, in the comfort of your own home?

If it wasn’t enough that men kill women, we see a normalisation of male violence against women in our popular culture. Rape is used to drive movie and TV plotlines; women subject to violence are obscured in news stories; women’s objectification for the ‘male gaze’ has long been of concern to feminist media and cultural studies scholars (see for example, Boyle, 2004).

This matters as media have an effect. Not an effect that can be necessarily causally ‘proved’ but an effect so subtle and ubiquitous it is impossible to imagine a world without media. Media provide the soundtrack and the backdrop to our lives. If you’re sceptical try going 7 days without any kind of media, or even just 24 hours. Media provide the parameters to what we know, what we think about, and how we think about it. Politicians spend huge amounts on spin doctors in a bid to manage their media appearances; recent concerns about ‘fake news’ have demonstrated just how significant media are in impacting election outcomes. But media also function to generate our shared norms and values, that we deem culturally acceptable. As Justin Lewis says, media set the limits to our imagination.

If our imagination is limited to understand that it is men’s voices and experiences that matter, what happens when women raise theirs?

There is a rich history of feminist literature, of women raising their voices. bell hooks, drawing from Sojourner Truth’s powerful testimony more than 100 years earlier asked ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ when she spoke of the importance of recognising the diversity of women’s experiences; not all feminism needed to be about white middle class women. And so she, and others, broke the silence to get their voices heard.

#MeToo in that sense is also nothing new. For centuries women have been speaking up and being silenced. Perhaps what was different with #MeToo was that it appeared that women would be believed. And while Weinstein has been sent to prison (for an excellent feminist analysis see Boyle, 2019), we discover this means only some women are believed.

There are still men who are being protected by institutions and structures which function to preserve ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (Connell, 1995). When women are subject to NDAs and silenced to protect the confidentiality of perpetrators; when boys clubs ‘close ranks’; when men get promoted and women get forced out, these are all mechanisms which function to silence women and protect the vested interests of male power. Women are further denied voice in the failure to believe them when they report abuse, harassment of violence, as is still happening today. Despite #MeToo.

Women don’t have to be silenced. There is a history of women refusing to be silenced. We need to listen to that history to learn from it. In so doing we can make our voices louder and break the circle of violence that silence imposes.

hooks, b (1981) Ain’t I a Woman. Black Women and Feminism Boston, MA: South End Press
Boyle, K (2004) Media and Violence. Gendering the Debates London: Sage
Boyle, K (2019) #MeToo, Weinstein and Feminism London: Palgrave
Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities Berkeley : University of California Press
Lewis, J (2013) Beyond Consumer Capitalism: Media and the Limits to Imagination Cambridge: Polity

Sue Scott “Much Silence, a poem in response to Lubaina Himid’s ‘Our Kisses are Petals’’ The Carte Blanche Anthology 2019


Heather Savigny is Professor of Gender, Media and Politics. She has published widely in these three areas, and is author of Cultural Sexism: The Politics of Feminist Rage in the #MeToo Era

Image Credit: Kristina Flour on Unsplash