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This is part 1 of a guest post from Michele Phillips, her reflections on the InFocus session, Silence, Agency, and Gender in an Increasingly Violent World
Panel: Cynthia Enloe Ph.D, Clark University, USA; Jane L. Parpart Ph.D, University of the West Indies, Trinidad & Tobago; Jeanne Roach-Baptiste, University of the West Indies, Trinidad & Tobago; Dr. Ritu Verma, ICIMOD, Nepal
My favorite quote of the evening is: “There is a difference between keeping quiet and being silent.” When I think of the relationship between gender and silence I think of abused women being isolated from their friends, I think of children who have been abused and who were sworn to secrecy, I think of women living in conflict who cannot speak out. I think of fear. Academics have the ability to take a term and investigate it from many different angles. This particular panel will present diverse views of the word “silence.”
Dr. Enloe studies silence as a weapon of the powerful. Silence is a way for the elite to maintain its status quo through state secrecy, lies, destruction of evidence, and a denial of access to information… Sound familiar? These are tactics used by government agencies and by powerful organizations in order to maintain patriarchal control over the population.
Dr. Parpart sees silence as a tool of empowerment in situations where it is not necessarily advantageous or possible for women to speak out. It is possible to challenge political power without speaking. For example, in Liberia the Women in Peacebuilding Network wore white shirts and held a silent vigil as a protest against conflict. Although they were silent, their message was loud and clear.
Jeanne Roach-Baptiste examines silence as a choice and as a means of protection for women in Trinidad. In Trinidad, sexual freedom is valued. However, women have been dehumanized for so many years and violence is increasing at such a rapid rate that women are choosing to convert to Islam for protection. According to police reports and to Ms. Roach-Baptiste’s research, Muslim women in Trinidad have no reported cases of violence or abuse. These women are choosing to wear the Hijab as a means of taking back their bodies and as protection against rape and other forms of violence.
Dr. Ritu Verma investigates silence as context specific. Whatever the context may be, the agent calculates the consequences of a woman expressing herself overtly vs. covertly. For example, in Madagascar, women hold the household purse but do not determine how the money is spent. A program was set up to help empower these women by teaching them to budget. However, once the program had ceased the women stopped budgeting. Why? When they had to budget they were accountable for every penny, but when they didn’t budget they had a little leeway to spend money as they please. They essentially maintain more power by using Guerrilla tactics, which rely on small victories rather than total control of the household purse.
Four different views of the same word; the way we view silence depends on the individual and the context. It can be used to empower as it can also be used to dominate.