Women’s bodies as tools of State Control | Sunday Observer

Women’s bodies as tools of State Control

WPCs holding protestors at bay
WPCs holding protestors at bay

Last week men on social media celebrated Women Police Constables (WPC) being the barrier between student protesters. This was apparently an achievement for gender equality. It is commonplace for Male Police Constables (MPC) to get all the ‘action’ of being in the frontlines, while WPCs are often restricted to the offices taking on roles as Secretaries, or other such desk jobs. While the latter is true, as WPCs are not often given opportunities to rise in rank, what most people failed to see was that this was an act that further discriminated against women; not empowered them.

The State’s Failed Strategy to Use Women

On March 2 2019, WPCs were deployed to form a human barrier to block the movement of protesting Higher National Diploma (HND) students. At first, students who unexpectedly found themselves face to face with these WPC s leered and gawked at the women.

News video footage, as well as photographs of some smitten-looking male students went viral online. Many interpreted these to mean that the deployment of WPCs in this situation was a non-violent ‘tactic’ to control protesters and defuse the situation.

What was played down or only mentioned in passing in news coverage of the protest that day was that it did turn violent. Water cannons were used and students were beaten. What was completely left out of every news report is that two of those WPCs in the frontline were attacked by the protesters, sustaining serious injuries and were admitted to hospital. Thus, to begin with, this commended ‘tactic’ actually failed. Spectacularly.

Women’s Bodies as Instruments of Control

Tactical failures aside, the faulty narrative that this incident was a praiseworthy attempt by the state to give women prominence continues. While these WPCs probably had the training to control a crowd, it was clear from the pictures and footage that they were used for their bodies. No one has questioned why these WPCs were sent to the frontline in short skirts, rather than the helmets and batons that MPCs are usually armed with. Short skirts restrict the mobility of women, and increases their vulnerability compared to trouser-wearing MPCS who can run or jump with ease if violence breaks out. If gender equality were the aim, then surely the bare minimum would be to clothe and arm the WPCs as effectively as an MPC?

If this was truly an attempt at introducing gender equality in law enforcement, we must ask what motivated the police to create a WPC-only barrier rather than one with both WPCs and MPCs. It is obvious that the police wanted to use women’s bodies as bait to provoke a response from the young male protesters that would discredit their grievances. In their estimation women are only good for seducing men. As Catherine MacKinnon describes, ‘desirability to men is commonly supposed to be a woman’s form of power’. Why are we still indulging in this trope?

Another important point I must raise is the use of women as a non-violent alternative is a false notion. Women are not impervious against the violence of men. Women get assaulted and harassed by men regularly. Placing women in the frontline does not mean that men will instantly drop their defenses, and refrain from harming the women. As mentioned above, two of the WPCs were attacked and they sustained injuries that required prolonged retreatment in a hospital.

Men Decide How Women Should Feel

When I posted my views on social media there were many men who were quick to criticise me, stating that the use of women’s sexuality was a better ‘tactical’ alternative to resorting to violence. Yes, violence is not a solution, but neither is the state’s use of women’s bodies. Reducing women to the sum of their sexuality and not actually considering their capability as police officers is not gender equality.

Others argued that the WPCs were simply doing their job. Yes, a job that put them at greater risk than MPCs who do the same job, as they were completely unequipped. In addition, when the command was given for them to go to the frontline they would have had no choice but to follow orders, despite the risks to their safety.

Some men even argued that the WPCs ‘enjoyed’ being there as a few were caught on camera smiling. Their embarrassment at being in the frontline while being taunted by the young men in front of them, unable to extricate themselves from the situation because they were following orders, is not enjoyment. MacKinnon puts it aptly when she said, ‘The man’s perceptions of the woman’s desires often determine whether she is deemed violated.’ While the expression cuts deeply into understanding gender dynamics and powers at play, I invite you to see how the narrative of the WPCs enjoying being in the frontline that was shared online is a perspective of the male gaze.

These men did not stop to think that women’s lived experiences are different and perhaps we would have a slightly better idea about how other women may feel in various uncomfortable situations.

The misogynistic actions of the state and views of the men on social media is an indication of what Foucauldians might call biopolitics. The use of women’s bodies to perpetuate oppressive ideologies — in this instance packaged as feminism — is an exertion of the state and patriarchal mechanisms of control. What we can do as women and men, who are able to see past the packaging, is to call them out on it, and demand change.

Megara Tegal is a member of the Liberation Movement

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