My awareness of the reality and pervasiveness of gender-based violence developed gradually, over many years, though towards the end this slow dawning eventually gave way to a tidal wave of fresh realisations rushing in on me with ever increasing frequency.
Growing up as a bi-racial boy in a very racist, predominantly white neighbourhood, much of my life was about fitting in for the sake of survival. I was always looking to assimilate to the surrounding culture, and thereby not stand out so much. In practice, this meant that I became just as partial to the odd sexist and/or homophobic joke as the next guy, since that was how to fit in. For instance, it was often casually joked about that girls with 'daddy issues' were particularly susceptible to being used and even controlled sexually, with the implication being "so what are you waiting for?" This kind of joking would be anathema in my home environment, but in my peer group, it was the norm, and thus it became for me too. Even if many of us initially felt uncomfortable around such talk, we would still all laugh, albeit awkwardly, so as not to lose street cred. And this tacit approval had a powerful effect on how we ended up thinking, and what we actually ended up doing. There was no question that girls were meant to be used, and this meant that sexual boundaries were there to be stretched and overcome, obliterated even.
For me personally, this all seemed like fun and games, until one encounter I had when I was 19, with a woman ten years older than me. I am still trying to work out who took advantage of whom, but the incident left me scarred. I realised then how easy it is for someone's boundaries to be violated, and I woke up to the fact that a philosophy of life where the ultimate goal for a man was to 'get some' was not serving me or anyone else well. So I resolved to abandon this deep-rooted default mode of thinking and invest in a more healthy approach to women and relationships. It would, however, still take me another ten years at least before I started investigating these issues more seriously at a structural level, both within me and in society.
At university, being a non-white, physically unimpressive man in a world of athletic, white, rugby players, who were used to having those around them defer to them, often placed me in conversations with the women who were bearing the brunt of their nonchalant entitlement and overbearing, patronising, manner towards them, simply because they were women. Although I sympathised, I never sought to go deeper, into the heart of the issue. It was only when I moved to Athens that these kinds of conversations started to break through the deep-seated patriarchal attitudes that resided within me.
One of the first times this was impressed upon me what when I was present at a meeting of final year students at a bachelor's degree programme, where some industry professionals had come to discuss future employment possibilities with the prospective graduates. At some point during the discussion, one of the female students on the programme commented that she would very much like to seek a career in that particular industry but that as a woman she understood that her opportunities were limited, perhaps even non-existent, so what was she to do? Upon hearing this, one of the industry professionals, a man, turned to her and with a wry smile, said to her, "wait just a bit longer, it's going to happen, but it's not time yet". I felt angry about this reply for a long time without realising exactly why, until I realised that it was the hypocrisy of someone appearing to have an attitude of support, while not committing to do anything at all about it, when they are in a position to do so. I realised that this was a subtle form of violence that men subject women to, keeping them in their place, even while presenting themselves as allies, and I resolved to identify where this existed in me and root it out wherever I could.
Another key moment took place during a conversation with another female student at an academic institution, where she noted that she and the other female students would generally not participate in academic discussions with the male students, although they would amongst each other. I had never noticed before that women, as a matter of course, would automatically self-police their ideas and thoughts in front of men, to the degree of not even voicing them in some contexts. Once it was brought to my attention, however, I realised that this is what I had been seeing my whole life, and especially in Greek culture, without ever noticing what was actually going on. The problem wasn't that women didn't have an opinion, it was that it frequently wasn't safe for them to express it. I realised then that this too was a form of violence.
At this point, I should mention that, from my teens onwards, a stable diet of pornography, most of it depicting some form of one-way violence against women, served to normalise gender-based violence and to desensitise me to it to a significant degree. Just as I had been conditioned to view the girls in my peer group as the objects of male sexual satisfaction, and little more, so pornography trained me to view all women in this way. Whether pornography could be or is sometimes produced in a way that does not portray and promote violence towards women is neither here nor there; for the most part, this is the only kind of pornography out there, and it is certainly the kind that the majority of men I know, myself included, consume throughout our formative years and thereafter, into our adult life. It is very difficult to take seriously the demands of women about the abuse and violence they suffer at the hands of the patriarchy, when the previous night you have consumed hours of violent pornography, where women are routinely debased and violently abused, while everyone around them just laughs. Seeing men being utterly unmoved by the pleas of women today around the issue of gendered violence reminds me of how unmoved I was at seeing women being violently treated in porn, and I don't think the two phenomena are unrelated.
My more active involvement in the fight against gender-based violence began when a woman in a community space I was involved in was the subject of a gender-based assault within the space itself. In the aftermath of the assault, the perpetrator apologised and removed himself from the space and she did not seek any further punishment or repercussions for him. She did, however, ask the assembly of the space itself to take a position on the incident politically and asked for a discussion about this. That was the first time I felt the need to do something other than watch from the sidelines, so I reached out and responded to her request for support. This set me on a path of actively seeking out more opportunities to educate myself about gender-based violence and to be more involved in events that stood against it.
There was, however, one key event, which brought me conclusively into this fight in a more permanent way. For me, like for so many others, it was because of Eleni. When the news broke, on 28th November 2018, that a young woman had been brutally raped and murdered on the island of Rhodes, my wife suggested that we attend the open assembly that had been called in response. Through the assembly, the march that followed, the trial, and my subsequent involvement with the collective that had called the assembly, it was impressed upon me that the issue of gender-based violence was not something I could ignore or even be lukewarm about.
The point of no return came on the final day of the trial of Eleni's murderers. I had joined the demonstration in support of Eleni's family outside the courthouse and the air was heavy with emotion. Then came the moment when Eleni's mother came out during one of the breaks to greet the supporters. As she entered the open area on the other side of the railings where we were gathered, she broke down and started shouting and wailing inconsolably. In that moment, as I looked around, I saw that the majority of the women around me had broken into tears, unable to contain their own emotion and distress. To my right was a very young woman, perhaps only 20 years old, with an undercut and wearing a green and black dress. She was doing everything in her power not to cry, but she couldn't quite manage it and was gently shaking, her eyes welling over. I had been brought up my whole life to view the tears of women as evidence of their inherent weakness compared to men. Yet here I was, a man, in this place, following their lead, and I realised that what I was witnessing was one of the greatest displays of strength I had ever seen. For these women had braved their own trauma and fears to be there, to stand in solidarity with Eleni's family, and were continuing to fight and push on, even through extreme distress and overwhelming sorrow. These are the faces I will show my daughters when I want to teach them about true strength and bravery. These women are the reason I fight today.
I recently described the patriarchy as something which one cannot unsee once they have seen it. The woman I was sharing this with immediately noted that, as a woman, she had never been given the option of a life which could be lived in oblivion to the existence of the patriarchy. I am thus keenly aware that even the way I came into this fight is largely a story of overcoming and seeing past the blinkers of privilege. I am still learning every day about the reality and pervasiveness of gender-based violence. I grieve my own role in it, which I know is still ongoing in many ways, but I also strive on, hopeful that I am now moving in a better direction. This fight is ongoing, but with such heroes around me as those I encountered outside the courtroom that day, and continue to do so on a weekly basis in small assemblies and discussions, I know that change is possible. I have seen it in myself and I know that I don't want to live any other way.