Collective Self-Defence as an Act of Resistance
The right to “collective self-defence” is enshrined in the UN charter and allows all UN countries to defend any other UN country who is under attack. With the recent spike in discussions around Violence Against Women, I’ve been thinking a lot about the how self-defence can act as a form of resistance, and collective self-defence a space for healing.
Before I get into all of that let me give you some background on my views on violence. I am not non-violent. I’ve never been the one to out-rightly dismiss the use of violence, I think violence, like most things in life, needs context. There are many many forms of violence and not all forms of violence are destructive. Self-defence unfortunately, often gets thrown out the window with other forms of violence.
People who hold power, on both sides of the political spectrum, may argue that non-violent strategies are the best form of resistance. And unfortunately, they’ve been successful at pacifying us. They argue that we should not stoop to the level of our attackers and adapt violent strategies. They’ll argue that if we engage our attackers with dialogue, and force them rise to our level of civility then we can progress and achieve our goals.
While there is some truth in their words, we can negotiate and achieve rights and recognition for vulnerable groups, the proposed solution fails to respond to a critical questions: what happens when negotiations fail because attackers do not care about the quality of life of an oppressed group? What happens when the people who have committed to serve and protect are reinforcing the idea that you deserve to be attacked? What happens when systems put in place to ensure justice are out of your reach? What happens when our media and culture collaborate to blame you instead of shaming your attacker?
Non-violent resistance does not work when we’ve confirmed that your oppressor does not care about your humanity.
If I am attacked, I must defend myself. I cannot delegate this to people who do not understand (or even want to understand) what has happened to me. But what happens if I am incapable of defending myself? What happens when I’m outnumbered, not brave enough, not strong enough? Especially to deal with what happens after I’ve had the audacity to stand up for myself?
Women are faced with sexist attacks every single day. These attacks comes in many forms some less obvious than others but the truth is, not everyone is able to respond to them and claim their right to own their bodies and lives. And this is not because women are weak, we’re far from. We have well documented cases of women and minorities who’ve denied submitting to men. We also have well documented cases of women and minorities who’ve denied submission, and have been further attacked without redress. So we can understand why women won’t always be quick to defend herself.
This is where the idea of collective self-defence comes in. When I don’t feel powerful enough to respond to my attacker, I should know that there is an army of persons ready to defend me. Self-defence is a form of resistance. It’s redefining self-defence to not mean defending an individual, but a group- a community of women. There is something powerful about a community of women who are willing to support each other; an attack on one woman is an attack on all women and we will defend ourselves.
Collective self-defence challenges the notions that women are passive subjects waiting on institutions that hold power to come and save us. While we work to change these institutions to create equal distribution of power among the genders, we must learn to defend ourselves and to organise a defence strategy. This strategy must not closed off to using violence against violent oppressors.
Our ancestral women who’ve used violence to fight for liberation have largely been erased in mainstream history books, but some have managed to become symbols and signifiers of our resistance, and they are still praised today. Yet, in post-independence Jamaica we’ve been actioned silent, submissive, and are being forced to become matriarchs and protectors of this idea of nationalism that means passively responding to oppression and maintaining the peace. The post-independence Jamaica, which women played an active role in decolonising, has become an oppressive machinery thinly veiled as peace and women are being asked to passively respond to it.
People may ask why do we want war? I only ask is this peace? We were always at war, we’ve only just now found the courage to fight back. Women have always been under attack. We’re tired of trying to negotiate a peace agreement on the right to our bodies.
One of the many critiques of violence as a response to oppression is that it may cause even more trauma to the oppressed group when the dust settles. Women, the disabled, poor people, children, the elderly etc., tend to disproportionately suffer when violence is met with violence. This is why healing and community are crucial in collective self-defence. We cannot begin to organize around social justice issues that women face without creating and maintaining non-toxic and inclusive spaces for women to heal.
All women, have experienced some level or form of attack because of how we present our womanhood to the world. Women need spaces to heal from this while being strengthened to continue living; for most of us just existing and engaging everyday spaces can become tiring, at the very least least, and toxic/threatening in extreme cases.
Collective self-defence must be grounded in horizontal healing, solidarity and sisterhood.
Locally, there has been a new army of women doing what I interpret as collective self-defence and so much more. The Tambourine Army has been faced with a lot of criticism as many misunderstand (and some intentionally misconstrue) the actions the Army has undertaken. The Army comes at time when many of us are fed up with the shit society has served to women. It is a manifestation of what many of us have felt but were always hesitant to execute.
As with all forms of resistance there are those who bitterly oppose the radical change the Army demands. Society has normalised the abuse of women and women are scolded with dos and don’ts on how to react to their attackers. The no bull-shit approach of the Tambourine Army has been frowned upon by a few privileged persons who, in many twisted ways, benefit from the current veil of peace in society. (But that’s another post)
I believe collective self-defence is part of the way forward in resisting oppression. This is especially true for women who’ve had systems designed, built and remodelled to ensure their oppressions for thousands of years.
I don’t say this often but the UN may have got something right. Collective self-defence is a right. When institutions fail to protect women and girls, we must be ready to defend our sisters.