Thursday, September 17, 2009

Women's recurrent need for self-defense

We had three related stories in the news this week:

  • India's women-only train cars, necessary due to extensive harassment and recent increase of women working outside the home;
  • the murder of a Yale graduate student by a co-worker, which New Haven police emphasize is an issue of workplace violence, not domestic or street violence;
  • a Hopkins undergraduate's accidental killing of an intruder using a samurai sword.

I'm glad that the New Haven police again emphasize that the primary risk to women is the people they know rather than strangers on the street. People have an easier time thinking about self-defense from strangers. Strangers are the least likely attackers, but the line between an attack and a non-attack is brighter, which may be why the Hopkins undergrad was able to take such decisive action; it's obvious that the intruder did not belong there and had already committed a crime. In the case of an acquaintance, it's harder to find the line between minor conflict and potential violence.

According to the National Crime Victimization NCVS survey, 2 million people are the victim of workplace violence on average each year, with homicide being only the extreme of the scale of violence. Workplace violence is the second highest cause of workplace death for women. I wonder how these figures compare with other countries, and what proportion are due to guns, or whether the US is somehow more violent due to inequalities.

Hearing these stories, I've been feeling grateful that my mother took me to a multi-week self-defense class when I was a young adolescent. The class was run by a Chicago organization Chimera that emphasized response possible at each level of escalation, and the realistic responses that women can make to each level appropriate to the situation.

Judging from the murderer's injuries --- "bruises and abrasions on his arms, a mark under his eye, a scratch on his right ear, and a bruise or deep scratch to his chest" --- the victim employed the most common ineffective self-defense tactics. If someone is intent on hurting a woman, the only way for her to stop them is to disable them somehow. Arms and chest are strong, especially on a man, but we learned that even strong people have weak parts and effective self-defense includes poking eyes, striking nose with the palm, using keys as weapons, stomping on tiny foot bones, and dislocating knees.

Of course it's impossible to know what really happened, and everything is much easier said than done especially given the judgement call necessary to realize whether one is really in danger. This attack reminds me to take a self-defense refresher course and makes me thankful that I learned self-defense from an active feminist group as an adolescent so that it became subconscious, reflexive knowledge. I hope that I never find out how well I learned this material.

May her family and fiance be comforted in their loss.

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