Invisible violence in STS: Lessons on challenges and tactics from the Chilean feminist movement

by Martin Pérez Comisso , Patricia Peña

“No! No! No is no! Which part do you not understand?! The N or the O?!”

Chilean Feminist Protest

Sharing is a fundamental practice of care (Buehler et al., 2015) and is even more necessary to understand cultural challenges such as the current feminist movement and its implications in Chile. This local movement denounces the phenomena of gender inequity and violence and the patriarchal culture. The figure of a masked young women exposing her nipples is an iconic image of the protests in May and June 2018 in Chile (see figure 1), taking over buildings, media and public spaces.

Figure 1: masked women protesting.

Universities are at the core of this movement, institutions where the movement has raised demands of basic social values related to respect for and the equity of women’s social roles in Chile.

We could assume the protest was a result of the daily violence experienced by Chilean women: subtle institutionalized harassment, sexist education, the lack of women in high-ranking positions, wage inequality and the endangerement of women’s lives by a culture that insufficiently punishes rape. The Chilean feminist movement has also become a place where women share affection and experiences among themselves and with others.

In this contribution, we extend the reflections and experiences articulated by the Chilean movement to the STS community (see also, Pérez Comisso, 2018). The social commitment of feminist movements focusses on the structural inequity of gender, which we refer as “invisible violence”. Practices, perspectives and experiences in STS can learn from this social movement to incorporate strategies to confront invisible violence in scholarly experience. Violence is a complex and under-examined phenomenon, due to the subjectivity of its definition. Gender violence is difficult to describe when it’s not lived, due to the diversity of subjects and cultures. The feminist social movement challenges us with a main question: Can we know what we cannot directly perceive?

Knowledge as experience is a form of power. Scientific knowledge based on the production of verifiable evidence is a primary concern for STS scholars. This knowledge is found inside black boxes that we need to access and analyze to discover its power dynamics. But violence seems difficult to recognize in current research culture and practices. From the feminist movements, we can recognize the requirement to make evident the violence, including experiences so extreme that humans typically try to avoid. The current feminist movement in Chile offers us four resources that make visible the invisible violence that we want to highlight: non-sexist education, sorority caring, the eradication of harassment culture and empathy.

Figure 2: feminist march June 6th, Santiago Chile, courtesy of Patricia Peña.

Making Violence Visible

The first strategy is non-sexist education. This refers to a set of academic transformations intended to avoid stereotypes in our research and learning and to provide visibility and knowledge of topics and questions produced by and of interest to women, as well as promoting the use of inclusive language and practices in educational context. Francesca Bray (2007) illustrates this situation by acknowledging stereotypes: “Men are considered to have a natural affinity with technology, while women are supposed to fear it or not”. These stereotypes are reproduced in the classroom as well as conferences and publications. A challenge in our field is to identify biased practices and transform them. It is a challenge to incorporate gender symmetry outside of actor-network models and to perform it in everyday learning.

A second strategy is sorority caring. Despite recognizing the contribution that gender studies have made to our field for a long time (Rose, 1997); dominant approaches have yet to incorporate the practices of feminist thought. We understand that positionality is not enough to inspire sorority behavior. The communality of interpersonal trust, support and comprehension provided a safe place for the members of the sorority, creating a care circle. The behaviors of feminist protestants in Chile (#OlaFeminista), Argentina (#NiUnaMenos, #AbortoLegalYa) or the American #MeToo don’t require explanation among their participants because their members connect through a collective feeling. This behavior happens in highly aware communities that recognize common experiences despite the inherent diversity of their members. Observing these elements in our behaviors, we could promote academic support networks in our practices and help to transform the experiences of STS scholars in more positive ways from a community grassroots perspective.

A third lesson in eradicating the harassment culture is the importance of not remaining silent. We refer to harassment as a multifaceted set of practices not limited to sexual harassment, which include several oppressive behaviors such as hierarchical mistreatment, disrespect, institutional injustices and abuse of power. These situations are common in academic life as well in gender violence because harassment is naturalized in several cultures. The feminist movement shows us that direct action is the only of confronting the harassment culture.

Denounce, protest and don’t be silent, a crystalized culture must be broken. Chilean feminists shout, “My body is not to be touched; my body is not for sale. My body is to be defended”, to exemplify how women fight against abuses. In STS recent examples also raise concerns about racial misrepresentation (Mascarenhas, 2018) and the abuse of power in hierarchies (as in the case of #HauTalk), but explicit personal and institutional action is still required to eliminate harassment, at least, in our scholastic communities.

Finally, a transformative insight from the experience of the feminist social movement must be incorporated into STS practices, namely Empathy. We define empathy as a personal skill used to connect with the feelings, thought or attitudes of another person. This is a key issue in feminist movements, which allows women in these social movements to acknowledge their internal diversity (class, nationality, race, age, privilege, etc.). Lack of empathy reproduces a shared blindness about gender inequality and despite long term feminist studies and movements the status quo remains in insensitive communities. A seminal case in arousing gender empathy in STS was the study of household magazines by Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1976). In this study, she overcame the dominant commercial perspective about the electrification of the domestic space, as well identifying an (until that moment) unrecognized industrial and intimate revolution taking place inside the houses of American middle-class housewives. With the techniques of a historian of technology Schwartz Cowan emphasized this cultural transformation, and the condition of women, making visible this fundamental industrial phenomenon. Feminist research is about seeing through our practices, reflecting on our social and intellectual blindness, to be able to observe the invisible.

Figure 3: feminist march June 6th, Santiago Chile, courtesy of Patricia Peña.

Begin for yourself, begin for the other.

Making violence visible is necessary to confront its pervasive nature. As we have learnt from contemporary social feminist movements and from our own tradition of feminist STS, we cannot keep violence encapsulated, ignored or nuanced in black boxes. Nuance is disallowed, not only because it can blur theories (Healy, 2017) but because it can even dissolve the limits of the acts of violence presented in our (research) life. For this reason we propose that exercising empathy is a way to start revealing the realities of systematic violence, particularly that which we do not experience every day.

An active and dialogic engagement is required with these emerging tools, methods and methodologies (non-sexist education, sorority caring, the eradication of harassment culture and empathy) that contemporary feminist movements have highlighted in their protests. In our view, to implement a new ethos of care inspired by the feminist movement and the experience of women (that surround us in the field) we can begin actively practicing empathy in our practices and our assessment of evidence. In the challenge to improve individually and as an academic community, to see things that we otherwise have no direct experience of, Empathy and dialogue will empower us. Those of us who have the privilege of not perceiving some of this violence have a responsibility to learning the consequences of our own blindness through empathy with others.