When Hero and Claudio get married in Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is accused of sleeping with another man. The previous night, Claudio had witnessed villain Don Jon’s sidekick Borachio having sex with Margaret, whom Claudio mistakes for Hero. At the wedding, Hero becomes distressed and vehemently denies the allegations against her. But no matter how much she asserts her innocence, neither her fiancé nor her husband fully completely believe her until Borachio confesses.
This narrative has persisted throughout the years, and it remains today. Women aren’t believed. We’ve seen this in art, such as Much Ado, in the mainstream media and in the law. It’s a phenomenon that we now take as a given. But, why is this? Why, whenever women tell their stories, they are met with doubt and disbelief?
Feminist scholar Leigh Gilmore’s book Tainted Witness describes the concept of the female testimony, and how society finds it so hard to believe women. She highlights cases of sexual violence, in which men are the defendants and women are the accusers, as the primary situations when women are asked to bear their souls in form of witness testimonies and are only met with sceptimism. These women are told, ‘But we don’t know what really happened? How do we know that you are telling the truth?’ When a woman speaks, society doesn’t take her word for it. She is painted as a liar, an unreliable witness, her words nothing more than fairytales. And, what happens when she shows even the slightest sliver of emotion? She is either too hysterical to be taken seriously, or she’s making it up to elicit sympathy. Sometimes, women are even painted as the perpetrators of the crimes supposedly committed against them. They say, ‘When he groped you in the club, why didn’t you push his hand away? When he threw you onto the pavement, why didn’t you scream? When you wear a short skirt and eyeliner, how do you expect men not to want to have sex with you? It’s. All. Your Fault.’
I was reminded of the unreliability of women’s stories when I read Bri Lee’s memoir Eggshell Skull. In her book, Lee recounts her time working as a judge’s associate after graduating from law school. Spending the better part of a year assisting in judging predominantly sex crimes, Lee noticed a pattern. In most of the cases when the woman was the accuser, the man would walk free. She was retraumatised by her work, as it triggered her memories of being sexually assaulted as a child by a friend of her older brother’s. Eventually, several years after the assault Lee decided to press charges against this man. The latter part of Eggshell Skull follows her journey through the legal system, this time as a victim and accuser. While Lee’s assaulter was ultimately convicted, the ‘not guilty’ verdicts she had to witness in her profession didn’t hurt any less. The legal system, as the book demonstrates, is not conducive to women. Lee explains that in criminal courts a man’s lie doesn’t make him guilty, but nor does a woman’s detailed testimony make her innocent.
This all goes back to the idea that all women are overly emotional, hysterical and unintelligent. When I took the introductory gender studies course at my university, one of the first theories we learnt was the mind/body dichotomy – men are the mind, interesting and intellectual, and women are the body, sexual and salivating for attention. This myth is known as cartesian dualism, a philosophical theory dating back to the ancient times, but it remains a myth that is widely circulated. Maybe the story of Eve eating the satanic apple in the Garden of Eden had something to do with it. There was also a myth travelling around the Enlightenment era that women were actually ‘mutated men’, almost a different species rather than human beings. Funnily enough, a similar version of this theory has been spouted regarding gay, lesbian and bisexual people, the implication of which is that humans become attracted to people of their gender due to some kind of malformation in their genetics.
I say that these are all myths, because they have no empirical backing. There are countless counterexamples of the above. For instance, my Mum is an academic with five degrees, a woman whom no one could reasonably claim lacks intellect. My Dad is a highly intelligent person as well, but he also happens to harbour an interest in fashion, something that is usually seen to be the domain of women. I have several female friends who are unbelievably clever, some of whom study and work in the supposedly male field of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). And I, a bisexual person, have never been found to have had any kind of genetic mutation that caused my sexuality – I just so happen to be that way.
These myths of what it means to be a woman have even worse consequences for women of colour. Ever heard of the phrase ‘Angry Black Woman’? That’s because women of colour, especially Black and Indigenous women, are perceived to be aggressive and even physically strong in comparison to white women, particularly when they exercise their right to freedom of expression. The main takeaway? Women must be quiet and demure, always obeying the rules and never stepping a toe out of line.
A woman who accuses a man of assaulting her is considered ‘stepping a toe out of line’ because by challenging a man, she’s threatening the implicit gender hierarchy. So, the reactionary move is to disbelieve her, call her a liar, tell her that she’s not thinking straight. It is exhausting to be gaslit time and time again, just because we’re trying to seek justice. It is terrifying to think that if we do get attacked by a man the police might not take us seriously and our attacker may walk free, ready to strike again whenever the moment arises. And it is a shame that people aren’t interrogating this line of thinking enough because at the end of the day, it’s almost as dangerous as the assault itself.
What does it take to get rid of the sexist assumptions that stop the world from believing us? It must take smashing the patriarchy bit by bit from the bottom up, until there’s nothing left. We can start by challenging our own assumptions and yes, by us I do include myself. Believe it or not, some women are sexist too. Internalised misogyny is real and can manifest itself in dangerous ways, including self-hatred and hostility towards other women. We need to fight this in ourselves, and believe in the very words we speak. We must defend other women and we definitely must defend transgender and nonbinary folks, who are believed and validated even less than we are. We can influence other people too, whether it be our close relatives or complete strangers – I am hoping to influence you by writing this article.
Even though I am angered by the unfairness that women face when trying to speak about sexual assault, I have hope that this will change. I would like to think that next time I speak to a friend or loved one about sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault I will be believed but unfortunately, I can’t guarantee it. The patriarchal forces that dominate our lives and poison our minds can be fought. I just can’t do it alone. Feminism, despite what people may tell you, is still necessary today. Yes, we have the vote. Yes, we are now able to divorce whomever we may want to marry. But I just wish that I would be trusted…even if I am a woman…especially that I am a woman.