Where it was once verboten to discuss such things, our broader community has arguably come a long way in terms of its willingness to acknowledge the issue of men’s violence against women. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore statistics that show at least one woman is murdered every week in Australia as a result of this violence. Countless more are subjected to ongoing abuse and intimidation. One in five girls over the age of 15 in this country will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. That’s one-fifth of all the women you know.
Frustratingly, there are people who believe such statistics can never be changed. Instead of recognising this as a problem of patriarchy and power imbalance, they prefer to think of it as a part of human nature. We are all equal now, they seem to be saying, and rape is just a part of that.
What if the women subjected to this abuse took matters into their own hands? I don’t mean by retaliating with violence (although, who among us hasn’t had a daydream of going on a rampage and wiping out a third of the male population, AMIRITE?) but with taking back self determination? What if there were other measures like, oh I don’t know, creating entire communities classified as women and children only? Communities where women worked together to support and care for their community members, and did this by denying access to the one natural predator which posed the most risk to them – men?
A recent piece in The Guardian profiled the village of Umoja, located in the grasslands of northern Kenya’s Samburu. Umoja is unique in its region in that it was founded by, and is still entirely run by, women fleeing subjugation and abuse. The village elders’ commitment to keeping women safe from physical and sexual violence is so keen that men aren’t even allowed to live in the village environs.
Founded in 1990, Umoja is the creation of 15 local women and rape survivors victimised by British soldiers. Originally intended as a refuge for these women (many of whom were rejected by their families and further victimised by their husbands in retaliation for the rapes), Umoja now welcomes ‘any women escaping child marriage, FGM, domestic violence and rape – all of which are cultural norms among the Samburu’. The village’s inhabitants include women who have escaped child marriages, abusive extended families and repeated beatings. As one resident remembers her arrival at Umoja, ‘I was given a goat. I was given water. I started to feel safe and secure.’ Another says, ‘I don’t ever want to leave this supportive community of women.’
Separatist communities have always existed and they have typically been frowned upon. In what we’ve come to recognise as ‘whataboutery’ and ‘not-all-men’ deflection, women-run and women-occupied communities make some people very uncomfortable. There seems to be a fear attached to the idea that women not only would want to remove themselves to communities which restrict access to men, but that they might actually be successful in pulling it off.
If patriarchy doesn’t have women around to marginalise and thus bolster its power, how will it survive? It’s no coincidence that Umoja’s matriarch, Rebecca Lolosoli, is the recipient of ongoing threats because of the role she’s played in empowering women. After all, it was while lying in hospital that Lolosoli first considered the idea of a women-only village. Lolosoli was recovering from a gang bashing meted out as punishment for her speaking to other Samburu women about their political rights.
The Guardian’s profile on the Ujoma village was written by columnist Julie Bindel, and it would be remiss at this point not to reference her exclusionary views on trans women. If these separatist communities are imagined as refuges to women and children targeted by the gendered violence that underpins patriarchy, trans women must surely be welcomed into their folds. Statistically speaking, approximately 50 per cent of transgender people experience sexual violence in their lifetime and trans women of colour in particular face an increased risk of this form of violence. If the point of communities like Ujoma’s is to provide safety and self determination to women who have been stripped of it in dehumanising and violent ways, then they have to be inclusive of all women no matter their race, physical ability or chromosomal make up.
It’s likely that the concept of separatist communities will go on terrifying people invested in maintaining men’s power over women. After all, if some women demonstrate the ability to successfully govern themselves and dictate their own economic, social and sexual freedom (because funnily enough, the women of Ujoma continue to have sex with men – it’s just based on their terms and desires) then what’s to stop all women from pursuing that path?
When you consider the extent of abuse endured by women, it seems incredible that we don’t see even more of these communities popping up. In Australia, the withdrawal of government funds to the refuges designed to temporarily protect women and children escaping abusive homes has resulted in the devastating scenario whereby every second woman seeking shelter is turned away. A separatist community of women and children only is certainly not desirable to everyone – but it would be distinctly attractive to some.
And if that scares you, perhaps consider that the problem is more insidious than you previously thought.