I was speaking with a friend last week about watching the third presidential debate. She remarked that she wanted to skip it, but would probably watch to remind herself that this is really happening. I understood what she meant. I, too, have wanted to turn away from the poisonous rhetoric and unprecedented divisiveness of this campaign season. It has made me feel at times sickened, appalled, and helpless.
But a book that I read recently reminds me not to bury my head in the sand. It is a compelling, disturbing, and crucial book by Susan Thistlethwaite: Women’s Bodies as Battlefield. This slim but packed volume digs deep into the history, mechanisms, and lived trauma of violence against women worldwide. The opening paragraph offers a sobering observation:
All day long, all night long, every day and every night, the bodies of women and girls are turned into battlefields. Their bodies are penetrated against their will; they are burned, maimed, bruised, slapped, kicked, threatened with weapons, confined, beaten with fists or objects, shot and knifed; their bones are broken; and they lose limbs, sight, hearing, pregnancies, and their sense of personal and physical integrity.
Yes, it is difficult to read. I had to take it in small pieces. But Thistlethwaite’s rallying cry, which slowly sunk in, is that we must not turn away from the lived realities of this violence. We must engage with embodied stories of women’s suffering, to continue to make it real in our own and the public’s consciousness. She describes what usually happens with such stories instead:
The fact of the physical effects of violence on women’s bodies, however, is aggressively hidden, qualified, reframed, reorganized, catalogued, excused, and ultimately authorized. This is how such a monumental amount of carnage continues almost unabated with very little public outcry or sustained efforts to stop it.
There was something affirming in reading this deeply truthful account, rather than going through the psychological gymnastics we usually employ to avoid acknowledging difficult truths. I think we like to disbelieve and ignore traumatic accounts because we don’t know how to make it better. It feels too uncomfortable and overwhelming to see the pain. Thistlethwaite guides us in finding a new way forward. The first step is opening our eyes.
But Thistlethwaite doesn’t stop there. Another strength of this book is the connection she makes between violence against women and war between nations. She argues that the same patriarchal mechanisms undergird both phenomena. I found this account fascinating, a feminist “ah ha” moment for me. Despite studying international politics and women’s studies as an undergraduate, I had never come across such a compelling explanation for the patriarchal causes of war.
Thistlethwaite argues that in Western society, we have enabled ongoing death and destruction by purposefully ignoring the actual bodies that are injured and killed in war, rape, and assault. She draws on philosophical, religious, and governmental texts from the founding of Greek society to the current day. She shows the reader bodies that are “burned, maimed, bruised, slapped, kicked, threatened with weapons, confined, beaten with fists or objects, shot, and knifed.” In encountering, page after page, the true effect on bodies, the true cost of war between nations and the war on women’s bodies, we can no longer turn away. We can no longer allow this violence to continue.
This is not light reading, but these are not light times. Sometimes we want a break, we want to turn away and disengage. That’s natural. But ultimately it feels more sane, more real, more compassionate and more whole to witness, be in the muck with those who are suffering, feel the grief for bodies harmed and lives lost, get angry, and get to work.