The 12-year hunt for Yaser Said came to a close last week as the FBI finally captured him for murdering his two teenage daughters in 2008. Their deaths had hit me hard; I was their same age, in the same city of Lewisville, Texas, and we shared the same cultural identity.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
But such stories are far from over: On Monday, a whistleblower named Dawn Wooten who worked as a nurse at ICE detention center in Irwin County, Ga., expressed concerns about the high number of hysterectomies performed on Spanish-speaking women in the detention center.
The violence that left Amina and Sarah Said lifeless and these detained women without their uteruses is reflective of a greater cultural norm that sanctions violence against women.
President Donald Trump’s dismissive comments towards New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) confirmed her assertion that, “this issue is not about one incident. It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting of violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that.”
Abuse of women and girls is as ingrained in our cultural fabric as racism and the American Dream.
Women across the world shared the video of Ocasio-Cortez’s response to Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) after he verbally attacked her on the steps of our nation’s capital.
“He called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind, and he called me dangerous … in front of reporters Representative Yoho called me, and I quote, ‘a f*cking b*tch.’”
Such behavior is all too familiar to women, even for women in Congress—who despite record-breaking strides make up just 25 percent of the 116th legislature. Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris is already receiving a barrage of such sexist and racist comments.
This behavior is rewarded by men’s proximity to privilege and far too often left unchallenged by other men. It’s so pervasive that over 99 percent of female respondents reported that they’d been verbally harassed on the street. With statistics that high, it isn’t surprising that this type of language was publicly displayed on the steps of our Capitol.
Women are speaking out. We need men to speak out, too.
Yoho’s verbal assault is one of the many forms of violence against women that Ocasio-Cortez highlighted in her impassioned speech. Such language should not be taken lightly. In spectrum models emphasizing the progression of abuse, what starts as nonviolent behavior has the potential to end fatally.
It all depends on how much gas a perpetrator feels like adding to the fire.
The Centers for Disease Control calls domestic violence a public health issue, experienced by one in three women and one in 10 men. While women and girls are more likely to suffer abuse by men, men and boys are also victimized by the toxic behaviors learned from their own.
Men are often gender policed by their own and are penalized for straying from typical masculine norms. The evidence strongly points to parents and peers as playing a key role in the gender socialization of boys where male peers will often endorse and uphold social masculine norms including physical toughness, autonomy, emotional stoicism, and heterosexual prowess.
These social norms drive minimizing beliefs about women and girls which is reflective in the messaging of sexist popular culture that men and boys consume.
We see a lacking response from leaders in the military and faith-based institutions when faced with the knowledge of abuses perpetrated by men in their midst. Their efforts are usually to sweep it under the rug or ignore it all together.
Minimizing women and girls to objects who are to be seen and not heard is the message of men like our president who make sarcastic statements about their political opponents. (“She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?”)
For men to live and operate in obscurity both as witnesses to and in the aftermath of abuse is a deafening silence that echoes in the ears of women around the world.
It’s a silence that men grow comfortable in.
It’s a silence that eases their conscience.
It’s a silence that allows men to abdicate responsibility for creating the cultural shift necessary for women to live safely amongst them.
Don’t reduce a woman’s words to her physical appearance. Don’t let them fall on deaf ears. Now is the perfect opportunity for men as allies to change the cultural narrative.
Consider initiatives like The Representation Project’s: The Mask You Live In and books like The Macho Paradox as catalysts of transformation for any man who feels inclined to be a part of the cultural shift we so desperately need. Consider allowing shame or defensiveness to inspire necessary change within to beget necessary change without. Consider joining the conversation.
The only thing that will make women, girls, and yes, other men safer is for men to prioritize unlearning toxic behaviors they’ve inherited. If degrading attitudes towards women wasn’t a cultural norm, we would have heard the loud outcry of men well before Ocasio-Cortez had to defend herself on the floor of the house.
Would Yoho have had the confidence to speak as he did if he knew he’d be challenged on it by other men? Would Yaser Said’s son and brother have been able to keep him hidden for 12 years if they weren’t safe in their masculine circumstance? Would ICE have turned one of its detention centers into “an experimental concentration camp” if they thought they’d face consequences?
Circumstances for women won’t change until men are willing to change the circumstances.