Defending ourselves from women?

I’ve studied martial arts on and off for many years, and when I think of women I know who study self-defense or martial arts, there is often an implicit or explicit statement that they want to be able to defend themselves from potential rapists, i.e., men. Many defense courses even culminate in women pummeling a pretend-rapist in a padded suit. Men, too, often want to be able to defend themselves from men (though not always with rape in the fore, except in pre-prison consultancies.) Interesting, no? Add firearms and other weapons, and we have all these tools to defend ourselves from men, not women.

True, much of sport shooting and martial arts also stresses self-discipline, which is really a way of defending yourself from yourself, but even if you have an equal male-female population with an equal interest in self-discipline and self-defense, we are still fighting back men 75% of the time, or to use US incarceration ratios, 90% of the time. When we look around the globe, however, much energy and ideology seems invested in worrying that changes to womanhood destabilize society more than changes to manhood. Are women, then, really the universal aggressor, just slier?

My protagonist, Selma Saddiqi, like many a modern woman, arms herself against the world’s injustice with education, aikido, and, some may argue, near asexuality. Sure, she’s obviously feminine, just not flirty; at work, she prefers pants to something skirt-y. Keeping her womanhood out of the equation, especially in 1991, is necessary for her to play the game: national intelligence. But enough femininity must show, or else she ends up being stigmatized as was Janet Reno.

This balance poses another conundrum: do women feel a need to defend themselves against other women—not so much physically, but in opinion? The world presses heavily on Selma, and on other women, which makes her life noir more than thriller. As long as Selma’s reasonably female, which she must be to advance in her career at all, other women worry more about her behavior than men do because she sets a precedent for women, not men. Hence, if other women don’t like how Selma acts, they have more invested in transforming her. That doesn’t quite make a villain in my book, but it does make for someone else to watch out for.

My students, when they do their social rule breaking assignments, often say this: the harshest reactions they get are from women toward women who break rules, especially in front of men. It reminds me of the discussions, conducted mostly by women, of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or Lean In. Is it nefarious if social pressures lead women to worry most about the behavior of other women in the pursuit of liberation?

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