In this week’s Mail on Sunday, Peter Hitchens sneeringly prescribes reporters of sexual harassment, pestering and assault a simple remedy: a black head-to-toe niqab. “No Minister would put his hand on the knee of anyone dressed like this; indeed, he’d have trouble finding her knee, or anything else.” Echoes of misjudged school dress codes and misplaced responsibility ring loudly; the onus forever on females to prevent harassment by way of modest dress, never on their male peers and staff not to harass. This week, the playground is Parliament and the school bully Peter Hitchens himself.
The piece is announced by the petulant title, “What will women gain from all this squawking about sex pests?” – Hitchens positioning the women accusing MPs of harassment (and – if we are to see his argument to its logical conclusion – all victims speaking out against abuse and assault) as the ones at fault. What will they gain? Why are they “squawking”? When will they shut up? Reading this headline, I experience the same genre of full-body-shudder that comes when women are referred to as “birds”; that minimising epithet that at once manages to suggest shrillness, inferiority, and enslavement. Hitchens’ own choice – “squawking” – has precisely the same effect: it reduces the meaningful and powerful words of women speaking out to something subhuman and thus dismissable – mere noise.
This bestialisation of females and female speech is nothing new. In fact – as Mary Beard writes in her latest book, Women & Power, published this week – it is positively ancient. A cursory examination of Roman and Greek literature provides fertile examples of vocal women being perceived as animalistic: in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Beard points to Io being turned into a cow by Jupiter so she cannot talk, but only moo; and in the records of a Roman anthologist we find Afrania, a woman who used to initiate legal cases in the Forum, tiring everyone with her “barking” and “yapping”. This emerging pattern, consistent throughout history, of ascribing animal qualities to women who speak out represents a deeply rooted conception of serious speech as male territory, not to be invaded by women.
Beard cites Henry James’ skin-crawling anxieties on this matter, when he insists that under the influence of women, language risks becoming a “generalised mumble or jumble, a tongueless slobber or snarl or whine”, which will sound like “the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog”. The bottom line is simple: men have historically believed the dominant voice lies within themselves, and female utterance – by comparison – is trivial, vacuous, and unintelligent. When women’s voices are viewed as such, they can be more easily disregarded and devalued; even when they are reporting offences as serious as those against Britain’s MPs this week and Hollywood’s moguls this month.
If we can, for a moment, put entirely to one side the gross monstrosity of Hitchens telling women to cover up to avoid being preyed upon (not to mention the subtext that niqab-wearing women wouldn’t be assaulted or harassed), let’s just look at the language he uses to address them. As he opens his piece with a question to “all you squawking flapping denouncers of groping men and ‘inappropriate’ jokes”, the image is undeniable: women are birds – hysterically rattling their cage and making an ear-piercing din that really is rather unpleasant for poor Peter. “Are you all off your heads?” he asks them. Don’t they know “the country is in the midst of its biggest constitutional crisis for a century, and wobbling on the precipice of bankruptcy”? The message is plain and simple. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual violation of any kind are not Real Problems. They are the trivial, silly problems of trivial, silly birds who – if they really are that bothered by it – should just cover themselves up to avoid being preyed upon.
Well no, Peter Hitchens, we will not don a self-protective niqab. We will not shroud ourselves away to make the job of not being a predator a little bit easier: that’s on him (because it is, mostly, a him). We will instead keep speaking out – speaking, not squawking, because we are human beings who deserve the right to be heard and to claim the importance and atrocity of our own experiences – until men finally do better.
Fear and intimidation simmer under every sentence of your article. In this post-Weinstein moment, in the era of #MeToo, men like you should be scared. You are the men who think groping a woman does and should come to nothing. You are the men who think – consciously or not – that women’s voices should not be awarded the immediate respect, credibility and value that is granted to yours and other men’s. You are the men whose foundational ideologies are being taken to task by the media this season and so you call us “squawking” to put us back in the birdcage. It won’t work, Peter. We’re talking your language and our message is clear: enough is enough.