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Violence against women – how can we go about addressing it?

Violence against women is indeed a troubling phenomenon and in spite of various initiatives that have been taken or not been taken, there has been some progress, but we still continue to witness instances of it and sadly, at times, the worst forms of it, both in media and in our lived experiences as well. I am a futurist, not a fortune-teller, but I deal with ideas that people have about the future and within futures studies, the study of alternative futures, I would like to share a particular framework that has helped me wrapped my head around potential strategies/actions that we could consider while addressing violence against women. That framework is called a Causal Layered Analysis, developed by the futurist Sohail Inayatullah, someone I consider a mentor and grateful for introducing me to methods and concepts around futures thinking. A base concept, of course, to take note of that there is not just one future, but multiple futures, multiple possibilities of what may happen, which is why it is called futures studies or futures thinking, where futures is in plural.

…when it comes to violence against women, what we see all around us in our media is just the tip of the iceberg. There are layers of causes that has resulted in what we see or experience, the current reality.

Now, in a Causal Layered Analysis, I would like you to imagine an iceberg and as we know that the tip of the iceberg is visible, around 10%, while most of the iceberg, around 90%, is beneath the water. Forgive me, if I have the ratios wrong, but you get the point. Similarly, when it comes to violence against women, what we see all around us in our media (newspaper, social media, radio, television, etc.), all that is visible and is just the tip of the iceberg. There are layers of causes that has resulted in what we see or experience, the current reality. This visible layer is called The Litany and what a Causal Layered Analysis attempts to do is analyze the layers of causes that has resulted in this visible reality. This litany is public data, there are no secrets and can usually be quantifiable – violence against women is typically quantified by the number of deaths, injuries, rapes, harassment cases, etc. Of course, there can be alternative frames through which this violence can be seen or quantified and I hope that this framework provokes you to think along those lines.

Now, why is the litany/visible reality the way it is? For this, we move onto the second layer of causes, right below the water – the system layer and it is usually the case that to address violence against women, various systemic solutions are suggested – such as a change in law or policy, an increase in the number of policy or security forces, increased light in public spaces, an increase in the price of acid, the institution of graver punishment such as the death penalty, etc. However, it has not been noticed that at times, that even though we may have well-intentioned laws and policies, they do not get implemented or visible realities do not change irrespective of systemic initiatives. The CLA suggests that this is because of the third layer of causes, the layer below the System – the Worldview layer.

It is because that the underlying worldviews, beliefs, discourse, philosophies, mindsets have not changed that systemic approaches do not seem successful. In this case, it is the patriarchal or male chauvinistic mindset/worldview that has resulted in such a reality that even if policies change, acts of violence against women continue or you can see other instances of injustice, where men get paid more than women, even though it is the same position or having the same qualifications. It needs to shift to an alternative worldview, such as a worldview of feminism, post-feminism or humanism. As long as the patriarchal worldview exists, the reality does not change.

However, how can worldviews, mindsets or beliefs change? This is where most theories of change seem to stop, where mindsets need to shift. The CLA offers another layer of causes that results in the worldview, the bottom-most layer, know as the Myth/Metaphor layer. It is because of certain myths and metaphors (or narratives) that the patriarchal worldview exists – in this particular case, it is the myth of “Boys are better than girls” or “Boys are stronger than girls”. This myth is perpetuated throughout culture through various storytelling mechanisms – such as novels, songs, movies, films, memes, jokes, art, advertisements, etc. As long as this myth is the dominant myth, the worldview persists and systems do not change, resulting in a reality where violence against women is an issue.

There has to be an alternative myth or narrative – from “Boys are better than girls”, it should “Boys and girls are equal”, which would result in a feminist worldview. It could be that “Girls and boys are different, but each have their own rights,” which is a post-feminist worldview. It could also be that “All humans are equal”, which is a humanist worldview. The point is that if the myth remains the same, then the worldview does not change.

Now, who is responsible for change in the different layers. In the visible/litany layer, the actors are the women who are victimized, the men (and women) who are perpetrators of violence, the security forces involved – essentially all the actors involved in the events in the headlines. In the systems layer, the policymakers are the ones who are meant to change systems – these can be from government, large NGOs, local leaders or organizational leaders as well. However, the policymakers are not the ones who are tasked to change the worldview. The worldviews are usually changed by philosophers or intellectuals, who come up with alternative worldviews, such as feminism, humanism, etc. Finally, the myth/metaphor layer is changed by the storytellers, the artists, the actors, the film-makers, the novelists, the sculptors, the dancers, the graphic designers, the meme-makers, the standup comedians, etc. They are the ones who introduce new myths/metaphors into culture and that is where the change begins and it is probably even why Albert Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

It is the science fiction writer or Leonardo Da Vinci that imagined flight, which eventually became an engineering reality. Notice that in stories like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, it is the princess always being saved by the prince – the woman being saved by the man, where the woman’s role is passive. Some of these stories are being rewritten, where Cinderella is a scientist or even if you note newer Disney movies, like Moana, Frozen, Brave – female characters are the main protagonists and no longer in passive, supporting roles. Now, how long does it take for such change to happen.

In the Litany level, it takes 0 to 5 years. In the Systems level, it takes 5 to 10 years. In the Worldview level, it takes 10 to 20 years, whereas in the Myth/Metaphor layer, it takes 20 to 40 years. Thus, it does take time. This framework shows that everyone, irrespective of your subject of expertise, whether it be sciences, arts, humanities, etc has a part to play in change. Thus, it is important for actors from the different layers of change to come to the same room from time to time and discuss what part can each play in addressing violence against women. Each and everyone of you reading this can indeed play a part in the tapestry of change. Of course, the deeper you go down the CLA, the less linear or planned you can be. It is not the case that you can write one story and automatically assume that change will happen in 40 years, however, if you do not unleash the story at all, then the possibility of change ceases to exist. Some stories have already been unleashed in the past that can indeed make use of (thank you, Rokeya Begum for your dream), but there are stories waiting to be told – what story do you think is waiting to be unleashed?


Shakil Ahmed is an educator, futurist and storyteller at Ridiculous Futures and is the Bangladesh Country Lead for EdTech Hub.

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