Photo by Valentina Quintano
Back in the early 70s, Golda Meir, the then prime minister of Israel, was faced with a government cabinet full of men discussing how best to curb a wave of violent rapes. The idea of banning women from the streets after dark was floated. Meir made a counteroffer.
"Men are attacking women," she said. "Not the other way around. If there is going to be a curfew, let the men be locked up, not the women."
Ultimately, the idea was dismissed as unworkable. But since then it has been seriously considered by a handful of communities around the world. This time, it's Bucaramanga—a city in the Colombian state of Santander—that will be taking up Meir's metaphorical baton. Next week—on Thursday, October 9—the city of just under 600,000 will experience its first "women-only" night as part of a campaign launched by the state governor's office.
Speaking to the Colombian media, Juan Camilo Beltrán—president of the Bucaramanga Chamber of Commerce and one of the scheme's champions—said that the curfew itself, though symbolic in nature, is a drive to thwart the plague of violent attacks taking place against the city's women.
"When it comes to peaceful partying," Beltrán said, "women are always the best behaved."
Bars and clubs are being encouraged to host women-only events, while men who have to be out and about in the evening will need to carry a safe-conduct permit issued by the mayor's office, explaining why they are out during the curfew.
Any fines handed out are likely to be symbolic, however. The success of the scheme will rest on whether men choose to go along with the campaign. As Beltrán conceded, "We can only hope men accept the challenge [to stay at home]," which is far from a certainty.
Colombia is no stranger to the idea, a similar curfew having been partially successful in the country's capital at the turn of the millennium. And a less successful attempt took place in Europe back in 2003, when a Spanish town gave it a go. But when all's said and done, is the idea of a curfew for men really an effective way to deal with violence against women?
Suzanne Clisby, the director of postgraduate studies at Hull University's School of Social Sciences, doesn’t think so.
“I do not think curfews are an effective way to deal with violence against women,” she told me. “The best a formal curfew could hope to do is send a message from the state that violence against women is seen as unacceptable and will be taken seriously, but unless this were followed through in a whole range of other ways, it is fairly pointless.”
To date, it is this flaw that has limited the success of these curfews. They have all been symbolic in nature, and while they may stimulate debate, they have so far failed to make any real difference in preventing gender-based violence in society.
Perversely, they may even have a negative effect. As Clisby puts it, “It could perpetuate the myth that violence against women happens only at night by strangers.”
Creating a narrative that drunkenness on nights out is the main cause of violent attacks on women obscures the stark facts of the situation. The perpetrators of gender-based violence are usually known to the victim, and these tend to happen at home or places of work, rather than nightclubs or pubs.
Alison Phipps, the director of gender studies at the University of Sussex, argues that one of the problems with the curfew is “it sits within the rhetoric that male violence is inevitable and women have to either try to avoid it or be removed from it—which is unhelpful at best. The message we need to convey is that men need to behave differently, rather than women and men being separated—in whatever way—for women's protection.”
And it is here where we can find a positive aspect of male-only night curfews. As a pedagogical tool, it does tend to encourage a debate about gender-based violence. But perhaps the efforts and energies could be better channeled into more effective educational campaigns.
“We need to look at and challenge the ways boys can be gendered into particular forms of hegemonic masculinities that can be damaging for themselves, as well as for women and other people around them," Clisby added. "Also, we need to look at the ways girls may learn normative constructions of femininities that can leave them vulnerable to sexual exploitation."
So could we ever see a curfew happening in a country like the UK? Phipps suggested we shouldn’t hold our breath.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like that in the UK, as I can’t see how it could be enforced. Unless it had a consensual element, where men took part willingly as part of a social experiment or political statement, which might be quite effective."
We’ll see whether the men of Bucaramanga embrace this social experiment next week.
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