Maya Angelou says that there is a space in every woman that she must not allow to be violated. It is a space that defines who we are in our idiosyncracies, in our strengths and vulnerabilities. It is the space from which we conduct our lives, one we go back to reflect, heal, access an old wisdom and re-create a new future. There is for every woman at least one moment in their lives when they have to articulate a decisive ‘NO’ to someone who oversteps the boundaries of that space through one form of abuse or another.
In my work in East Africa on the Women and Leadership Network (Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya) a main observation is that a deepseated distrust of women, combined with anger and fear about them, still pervades culture and institutions. A second is that we stand little chance of reaching gender equality if in our households, young men grow up seeing their mothers knocked unconscious by partners and are then brainwashed into believing that this is normal behaviour towards another ‘species’, one that needs to be conquered and controlled.
This state of affairs constitutes the why of my work which is centred on a personalised leadership branding for women. Branding relies on at least three principles and values that constitute the boundaries of that inner space that Angelou insists on, and on the basis of which women then build their own leadership. Branding, in that sense, constitutes a compass, a guiding light to enable one to navigate through the vagaries of life and professional life, especially in a context where a culturally ingrained view of women can overspill into abuse.It takes a huge amount of courage to acknowledge and denounce abuse because it is messy for all involved. It involves re- adjustments of self, of lives, and dealing with others’ perception. It means really going out of your comfort zone and taking that leap of faith into a new you. But, precisely, if and when you have articulated the values by which you stand and by which you wish to build, you do not walk out of abuse into the unknown. Rather, you walk into a ‘you’ that is more authentic, that is renewed in its creative energies.
Unless women put themselves through the discomfort of saying ‘No’ to any form of abuse, then any leadership they attempt to build will be a house of cards. On the other hand, in that very space in which they attempt to align their desired selves with their domestic selves and their professional selves lies power.
As women have more voice, occupy more of the public space, keep climbing the corporate ladder, unless we address the masculinity crisis, we will continue to see abuse.
The term ‘gas lighting’ comes from the 1944 film Gas Light where a husband (Charles Boyer) manipulates his wife (Ingrid Bergman) into believing that she can no longer trust her own perception of reality. Gas lighting is a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that undermines the victim’s sense of self-worth.
The gas lighter creates a negative narrative about the gas lightee. They do so by putting themselves in the position of someone who knows, like an omniscient god, exactly what’s in their victims’ head. They ‘know’ that the gas lightee’s work is embarrassing, that they are unemployable or untrustworthy. Through repetition of the same false and negative narrative they drill the same message into their victim.
Anger and verbal abuse are part of the game. The same questions are asked over and over with in- creasing aggression, sometimes over several hours, and with the effect of destabilising and cornering the partner. Isolating their victim makes it easier to break them. When challenged, the gas lighter reasons with denial, stays on the offensive and retaliates by insisting that the gas lighter is wrong and dysfunctional. An atmosphere of fear and threat is maintained at a high serving to curb the freedom of movement of the partner until the latter submits to not going out. As part of the manipulative tactic, the gas lightee will occasionally react mildly – for eg., “I did not forbid you to attend an all women business lunch” – to create false hope.
Eventually, they wear down the victim into submission or into believing what they wish them to believe. There are no limits to gas lighting, it can ultimately lead to the total withdrawal of the victim or suicide. Some women I know have been in this situation for 15 years, others have had a lucky escape after 6 months. Those who get away are often those who have a support network to whom one day they choose to talk. They then realise that what they had convinced themselves was acceptable is actually abuse.
Women do not have to wait for the 8th of March to say ‘No’, the most positive ‘No’ we will ever say, the one that preserves our sense of self, well-being and that of our children. Women do not have to wait for the 8th of March to denounce, to march, to recalibrate their lives as per the values that define each of them. But they do need the unconditional support and love of the benevolent men and women in their network to be able to come through.
On this 8th of March 2019, I pay homage to the women who denounce abuse at work, to those who walk away from abusive domestic relationships, and to the men and women who stand by them. You are beacons to others. Ubuntu. I am because you are.