Tim Kiely, Criminal Barrister at Red Lion Chambers, discusses the #CurfewForMen as a wake-up call on societal acceptance of “violent male behaviour toward women”
When Baroness Jenny Jones, a Green Party peer in the House of Lords, said during a debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill that she “might actually put in an amendment to create a curfew for men on the streets after 6pm, which I feel will make women much safer”, she probably had some idea of what would come next.
The viral reaction to #CurfewForMen
As the hashtag #CurfewForMen began trending on Twitter, the apparent extremity of the intervention called for, and the limits it would place on the freedom of men to walk the streets, prompted a number of people (mostly men) to voice their outrage on the subject, including former politician Nigel Farage who yesterday described the proposal as ‘deranged’.
Whether Baroness Jones was speaking earnestly or using mordant comic exaggeration (and whether a debate on a Bill is an appropriate forum to do this) has become something of a contested issue since then.
But the fact that similar outrage expressed by women that they should not have to alter their behaviour in order to accommodate the predatory conduct of some men was not, and historically has not been, taken as seriously, arguably makes the Baroness’ point for her rather neatly.
In some ways, as a man I am uniquely poorly equipped to speak about this issue with any authority, given that one of the absurdities highlighted by the progress of this hashtag is how we, as a society, continually ignore or belittle the voices of women who speak about gender inequality and the violence of men.
we, as a society, continually ignore or belittle the voices of women who speak about gender inequality and the violence of men.
On the other hand, in some ways I am among the most well equipped to do so. Because gender equality is, and always has been, an issue that concerns men. It is common to speak about gender-based violence as a ‘women’s issue’, which unquestionably it is, but this can obscure the way in which we often speak about gender as if it were something men didn’t have, and as if the societal norms governing male behaviour had nothing to do with the perpetuation of a gender-unequal society.
Violent male behaviour is institutionally seen as normal
There is nothing new in the idea that men have a role to play in addressing violence against women – women have been saying as much for decades. And yet seemingly this did not factor into the reported decision of the Metropolitan Police, following the disappearance of Sarah Everard and subsequent arrest of a serving officer, to advise women in the Clapham area ‘not to go out alone’. Even if it might be a common piece of standard advice following incidents of this kind, the wording here is worth dwelling on.
There is nothing new in the idea that men have a role to play in addressing violence against women
In a trial for a sexual offence, Judges may (although they are not obliged to) direct the jury as to a set of common myths and misconceptions about how and where these offences occur, in order for the jury to be disabused of them before retiring to deliberate. Jurors might be told, for example, that rape is something that occurs most often between intimate partners, rather than between strangers; that it need not necessarily involve any physical violence; that women who dress or behave in a certain way are not thereby ‘consenting’ to sexual activity.
How do these rape myths enter the justice system?
Lying behind this is, primarily, a desire not to have important legal decisions about someone’s guilt or innocence proceed from a false set of assumptions.
But it is less often stated that these myths are born primarily out of a social, political and cultural environment that is, knowingly and unknowingly, hostile to women – ‘patriarchy’ in the language of feminism – and which treats violent male behaviour towards women as a set of given, taken-for-granted circumstances which it is somehow the job of women to navigate: “obviously men will sexually assault you if you dress provocatively, so you’d best not do that”.
these myths are born primarily out of a social, political and cultural environment that is, knowingly and unknowingly, hostile to women
Seemingly well-intentioned advice that tells women to stay indoors after dark, even if delivered out of an apparently sincere wish to keep women safe, springs from the same infantilising, patriarchal source. In ways both subtle and overt it shifts the blame for misogynistic violence, overwhelmingly committed by men, onto women, and leaves the foundations of male impunity undisturbed.
#ReclaimTheseStreets gatherings stopped by police
Viewed through this lens, it is easy to understand the astonishment and fury felt by the many women who organised a march and vigil for Sarah Everard using the banner hashtag #ReclaimTheseStreets when they were told by the Metropolitan Police that the gathering would not be lawful, and the organisers may be subject to criminal penalties if they go ahead.
Quite apart from the concerns it raises about disproportionate restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly, the notion that a group of women demonstrating for their right to walk the streets in safety might face legal consequences unless they remain indoors for their ‘protection’ (whether from coronavirus or anything else) could only strike some observers as incontestable misogyny.
We can debate how effectively Baroness Jones’ intervention was framed in the course of her speech to the House; whether or not she made it sufficiently clear that she was not making a sincere proposal, or if she was being serious it was in a different way than that taken by her interlocutors. But the effect of her speech, and the subsequent hashtag, was to startle a lot of complacent men and the institutions which they represent into a sudden confrontation with the misogynistic assumptions with which they approach violence against women.
In that regard, she has succeeded magnificently.