Perspectives on Violence

The rage of the oppressed is never the same as the rage of the privileged. – bell hooks


To first understand the rage of the oppressed, we have to continue to examine what it is that animates their fury – it is oppression.


Oppression is characterised by the superior power of the dominant group that exists in all socio-political arenas. It is also the fact that it is a one-way street – the oppressed are and simply will never be on the same footing as their oppressors. That’s what makes it oppression because unless there is a radical overhaul of the socio-political constraints that maintains the power of oppressors, the oppressed, the masses, the people are simply never given their say.


Such anger, such rage, is never spontaneous. It is not because people are magically emboldened or driven by the passion of justice that they take to the streets, or engage in interpersonal violence to physically overthrow their oppressors – rather it is a culmination of unjust acts, the perpetual experience of attrition along with an analysis of the self in relation to the powers that harm them. It is anger that has purpose and direction, and even desire. It is a desire that is grounded in a form of awareness and self-consciousness of who they are in the social context of oppression – this context is systems and the contradictory machinations that dictates one’s own being.


A fundamental problem when understanding the rage of the oppressed, and their violence, is how it is stripped off its context. For example, for many women who are pushed into prison cells for homicide is never permitted the context as to why they are in there. The main reason why women fill up prison systems is because they fought back against abusive partners. But this, too, is misunderstood as a spontaneous moment of rage, a rage that went awry and unfortunately led them to kill their partner.


Let’s look at the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia. She is an Indian woman who was imprisoned in 1992 for 10 years after she had set her husband alight while he was asleep.


Was she in imminent danger at the time, considering her husband was fast asleep? No, and the prosecution thought so too, and concluded that, as she had the knowledge to mix caustic soda with petrol to create napalm, this was premeditated murder.


But why on earth would a woman set her husband on fire, in the middle of the night, while he was asleep? As many in society would surmise, and so did the court of law, she simply murdered her husband. What it did not account for was the fact that she was repeatedly beaten, emotionally abused, suffered marital rape by her husband, and all her calls for help from her family was rejected for 10 cruel years. It was on the night when her husband demanded money from her, to which she refused to give him any, that then had him try to break her ankles and held a hot iron to her face. Ahluwalia, who was consumed with 10 years’ worth of rage, decided to set his feet on fire when he was asleep, so as to punish him.


After the Southhall Black Sisters, an Asian feminist organisation, found her case and pushed for a mistrial, Ahluwalia’s conviction was overturned on appeal, and her sentence was reduced to manslaughter due to her suffering from Battered Women Syndrome (a subcategory of PTSD). She is now a free woman.


If we look at the instance of Marissa Alexander, a Black woman in Florida, who fired a warning shot at the ceiling in self-defence from her abusive husband who threatened to kill her, we see that the then District Attorney pursued to increase her sentence to 60 years. A racial context must be applied here as Marissa Alexander is a Black woman. Black women are stereotypically seen as “aggressive” and “angry”, a trope that is highly perpetrated by media, and because she was seen as “angry” instead of fearing for her life, she was facing an extremely harsh sentence. And she did; 3 years behind bars, and 2 years of house detention. All this for firing a warning shot at a husband who threatened to kill her.


Aside from the fact that this illustrates a severely poor understanding of issues faced by women, it also does not understand rage. What are the tens and hundreds and thousands of cuts a person takes by systems of oppression, such as patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, a wayward justice system, an apathetic society, a society that wilfully works to dehumanise these “criminals” so as to project themselves as better than – when criminality is arbitrarily dictated by a state that refuses to understand the contextual contours that shape these peoples’ lives?


It becomes insufficient to explain women’s rage as just self-defence. A reflection of the self, especially in relation to the various cuts marginalised groups are subjected to, can only lead them to flesh themselves out – it is no longer the gaze of the oppressor that they have internalised, where learned helplessness is the preferred state by oppressors. It is a gaze that permits them to enact on their self-governance and will.


Violence is political, because violence has class character. This means that those who get to determine what is and isn’t violent happen to be in positions of absolute power – power that refuses to see context of those who revolt against them. And it is not out of sheer ignorance by the State, it is wilfully done, and it is by design. It is why power – be it the governmental State or the patriarch at home – refuses to reckon with the will of those who use violence to fight back, as their violence – be it women/people of racial, class or caste minorities – are never humanised and their contexts are always flattened.


One must not perceive this as the fetishization of violence, as the fetishization of violence requires further stripping of the contexts that animate acts of violence. However, to conflate those who resist violence by using violence as the same would not just be on the wrong side of justice, it would be ahistorical. It is ahistorical because movements that have fought for justice have almost always been violent ones, as the status quo never cedes power willingly. The power imbalance between the oppressed and the oppressor is vastly different, therefore cannot be collapsed as one and the same. One has institutional and systemic power. One does not. They are simply not and never will be the same, and to moralise over the actions of the oppressed is to continue to do the work of the oppressor because, once again, they are the ones who arbitrarily assign criminality to those who question power.


Whether it be women fighting back against their abusers, or whether it be the people fighting back against the State, this is a repossession of their self-determination and autonomy, their will for their existence. Because such violence is much bigger than the individual act, it is a collective effort to reclaim the self.


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