Q&A: How gender-based political violence is corrosive to democracy

By Yarrow Global

Dr. Jennifer Piscopo is associate professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. She studies women and political representation and political participation, especially in Latin America and has consulted on these issues for UN women and other international agencies. 

Yarrow Global recently sat down and talked with her about the growing field of gender-based political violence, why paying attention to this kind of violence matters, and two articles she recently co-authored on this topic

YG: A lot of people are familiar with political violence as a concept but not necessarily gendered political violence or gender-based political violence. I recently read an article where you broke this down. Can you explain to us the difference?

Jennifer: Political violence is about efforts of actors to disrupt, control, change or derail any part of the political process. So most often we might think about political violence in the context of elections, campaigning and election outcomes.Then there are instances where political violence is about disrupting the part of the political process that is specifically about opening it to traditionally underrepresented and excluded groups. In our case, we were interested in women, but we think that this idea could be applied to traditionally underrepresented and excluded groups. This can be racial or ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and, of course, the really important instances where those identities overlap and intersect in a single person.

When these actors are acting to drive women out of politics because they are women and they believe that women shouldn’t be in politics – one might think about an extreme stylized example of, say, the Taliban in Afghanistan – that is more a set of implicit misogynistic attitudes that are deeply embedded from the way these actors have swum in the patriarchal soup all their lives. And that’s a case where the political violence is gender motivated. So the motivation is that women don’t belong in the political sphere. And the objective is to do something to curtail their actions, make politics less attractive to them, and drive them out. 

YG: Is there a difference between gendered violence and gender based violence?

Jennifer: Different scholars and practitioners use different terms but for me, what’s essential is that we understand that this violence is being driven by gender norms, gendered structures, gender hierarchies. I see gendered norms,structures and hierarchies as that set of ideas about the appropriate roles that men and women should have, the appropriate spaces that men and women should occupy, and the appropriate ways that men and women should act. These norms, structures and hierarchies dictate the ways that we all act to enforce those ideas as well as to challenge and transform them. Gender-based violence and gendered violence both describe the kind of violence that is used as a tool to enforce gender norms, roles, and hierarchies for those that want to preserve the status quo and that want to resist transformation and change.

YG. What exactly is the spectrum of gendered violence? 

Jennifer: Most researchers think about violence against women, or gender based violence as on a spectrum.  This spectrum goes from the  “classic” sort of verbal attacks and verbal harassment up to physical assault and even murder. So that’s kind of the spectrum. We’re constantly experiencing the kind of pressure of gender norms, structures, and hierarchies, right? From what we wear to what we say to how we carry our bodies to the sort of small minded things our colleagues might say to us on a day to day basis. And there’s sort of good arguments for thinking about that itself as a form of violence. Especially when individuals don’t conform to the prescribed ideas of gender. Gender is a social hierarchy and we are all sort of being policed in that social hierarchy all the time.

“We’re constantly experiencing the kind of pressure of gender norms, structures, and hierarchies. From what we wear to what we say to how we carry our bodies to the sort of small-minded things our colleagues might say to us on a day to day basis.”

YG: Why is it important to understand what the gendered impacts of political violence are? What is at stake?

Jennifer. I think I can use a recent piece I co-authored about the Capitol Riots in the US to explain why gendered impacts matter. The Capitol riots were when Trump supporters, you know, attacked the US Capitol during the counting of the votes that would be the final step in securing the presidential election for Joe Biden back on January 6th, 2021. After that, there were a lot of statements that came out, especially from women members of Congress and especially women of color about how terrifying it was for them, how afraid they were. Of course, every member of Congress felt really threatened at that moment. It was sort of unclear what these actors were going to do. But for a lot of the women and women of color who receive disproportionately higher amounts of abuse, always, in-person and online, they couldn’t separate out that moment of the Capitol riots from the abuse that they’re constantly receiving and being exposed to.

So perhaps for a white male member of Congress, the whole day was just sort of shocking and completely out of the norm for him, right, but actually, for the women and the women of color, it was sort of out of the norm for US politics, but it wasn’t out of the norm in terms of racist, misogynistic abuse that they receive regularly. It was connected to their every-day, lived experience. And so we can think about the gendered impact in that way. Right? Which is that they read the event differently. They experienced the event differently. They experienced the event through their gender, and in the case of women of color, racialized vulnerabilities. So through their life experiences around being discriminated against and experiencing harassment and violence for reasons of race and gender, they had a different kind of experience on that day.

So I think it matters to think about impact because not everyone who tries to enter politics is similarly situated.Not everyone who enters politics is going to be similarly affected by the same kinds of obstacles that are put in place. And if we continue to just minimize these obstacles and say, “well, that’s just part of the game,” then we’re continuing to fail to do the work that we need to do to level the playing field, to have the kinds of diverse bodies and perspectives that we want to see participating in politics.

YG.How does gender-based political violence affect entry into politics of groups like women and the democratic process in general? 

Jennifer:  I think that that’s one question that we sort of urgently need more action and research on to understand. So in the U.K. parliamentary elections, for instance, there were about 10 women MPs  who stepped down and very publicly they said they weren’t going to run again. And one of the reasons they listed was that they were just tired of the abuse. They were tired of the hate mail. They were tired of the death threats.So a lot of people working in this space of violence against women in politics will say, well, this is really important because it’s deterring women and girls from entering politics. And I think the British example suggests that that’s true. And then we have also other contexts where, in fact, the violence can be motivating. We might even see empirical evidence that it is inspiring. And so, for instance, after the assassination of Marielle Franco – a gay black city councilwoman n in Rio de Janeiro – a lot of Black women ran and they called themselves the Marielitas. And they sort of said, “we have to run, we’re running for Marielle.” Of course this  is not a normatively good outcome in the sense that this is not the way we want more women running for office. But when people kind of ask that question, well, do we have empirical evidence that it always turns women away from politics? It’s kind of a mixed bag. 

“….if we continue to just minimize these obstacles and say, ‘well, that’s just part of the game,’ then we’re continuing to fail to do the work that we need to do to level the playing field, to have the kinds of diverse bodies and perspectives that we want to see participating in politics.”

YG: What is being done about this, what can be done about it?

Jennifer: We definitely need interdisciplinary teams in order to create strategies for dealing with gendered violence. Sometimes we carve up different factions or aspects because they have different kinds of solutions. Social media companies and the choices that social media companies have in respect to  content, about whether or not people reveal their true identities when they post content, about sanctions for certain kinds of content, I mean, that’s a really important set of conversations. We need tech experts. We need lawyers. We need privacy experts. It’s really different if we’re talking about in-person security for individuals that are on the campaign trail or individuals that are serving in parliament. So that’s where having conceptual portions of this is really useful. At least in Latin America, violence against women and then the political violence against women or the violence in politics, these are separate areas that might require separate solutions. I think we see this kind of different set of solutions and different places based on what’s possible and based on where most of the violence is happening. 

There are some paths to solve rates of violence taken in places like the U.K., or Canada. They made important steps towards parliamentary security, being able to understand that women are uniquely threatened. That’s a more direct line than trying to get Twitter and Facebook, in all the different national contexts that Twitter and Facebook work, to figure out what to do about, say, misinformation and attacks online.

What I hope this field will do going forward is work really hard to keep our advocacy eyes on the prize we want. Violence is corrosive for democracy. The absence of participation from women and other marginalized groups is corrosive for democracy. And we need to make democracy safe and available for the participation of all groups.That’s our eye on the prize.

Image: A protester holds a hand-drawn image of murdered Brazilian human rights defender and activists Marielle Franco at a demonstration. Credit Romerito Pontes/ Flickr Creative Commons.

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