Letters //

In defence of self-defence

A letter from Bridget Harilaou.

Dear Honi,

I am teaching autonomous wom*n’s self-defence classes with accompanying feminist discussion groups at the University of Sydney. Our flyers were funded by the SRC Wom*n’s Collective and the USYD Greens on Campus. The workshops are free. A group of wom*n organised them because we are passionate feminists who want to empower willing wom*n.

Self-defence does not prevent sexual assault. We explicitly state in our flyer; “Offenders bear sole responsibility for their assault.” Self-defence by definition means an assault has occurred, that one is reacting to an offense. Giving wom*n access to self-defence knowledge can still help wom*n escape an assault more quickly and with less injury. It teaches wom*n that they are powerful agents, with full control over their bodies.

Most importantly, it gives wom*n a new perspective on the passivity and physical disempowerment culturally conditioned into them since someone first pronounced them ‘a little girl.’ I. M. Young’s ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility and Spatiality’ illustrates that culturally conditioned ‘femininity’ manifests in girls’ physicality. Girls do not use their “body’s spatial and lateral potentialities” while boys “bring their whole bodies” into movements. The patriarchy stifled us into verbal and physical submission while ‘boys will be boys’ played on a loop throughout our childhood. Wom*n learning to assert themselves affects every interaction they have and impacts the gender binary’s power-imbalance by directly subverting ‘feminine-passive masculine-active’ dichotomies. This is how wom*n’s self-defence addresses sexual violence. By empowering wom*n.

Additionally, our first discussion group focuses on victim-blaming and how opposed we are to this mentality. While we advocate wom*n’s physical empowerment and knowledge of self-defence (as wom*n are disproportionately affected by sexual violence) this never places responsibility of their safety or past assaults on them. In the 7th week of the course (Week 10 of semester 1) we have scheduled ‘Bring an Ally Day,’ in which allies are invited to participate – to educate them through our discussion group. We aim to define consent and teach men how to have solidarity with wom*n-identifying people.

I, as their instructor, am serving wom*n who want to learn how to assert themselves, both physically and generally. I do not endorse victim-blaming. I do not see empowering wom*n and changing gender dynamics as victim-blaming. If I was a person who felt uncomfortable with these classes, I might message the organisers about how they are addressing such issues before accusing them of victim-blaming (it was these arguments which inspired our classes in the first place). I would not criticise and label other wom*n’s self-organised autonomous initiatives without engaging with the organisers, because that is not inclusive feminism.

If you still disagree with these workshops, please attend and talk us through your concerns. Alternatively, every wom*n has the right to different forms of action: hold your own event! This would be particularly accessible if you were an executive member of the USYD Feminist Society, which has sadly not held one event since the Welcome Drinks six months ago. I would love more dialogue about gendered violence on campus, especially during the USU Sex and Consent Day in Semester 2, so if you have any interest please get involved.

Learning self-defence can be equated to learning how to swim. If someone pushes a non-swimmer into the water intending to drown them – it is never the non-swimmer’s fault. Swimming can still be a useful and empowering skill. Let us destroy victim-blaming and work together to advance wom*n’s rights.

Bridget Harilaou, INGS/Law II
USYD Wom*n’s Self-Defence Workshops Organiser 2014