Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. (definition previously found on Wikipedia).
Throughout history, certain bodies have tried to control other bodies through violence and legislation. There have been a seemingly endless supply of examples of this type of somatic coup ever since the unfortunate invention of private property and the induced necessity of controlling women’s reproduction. While the first wave of feminists is said to have begun rebelling in the 1800s, women have been fighting back in unrecognized ways for thousands of years, claiming secret bits of dignity in daily life. With voices unheard in politics, medicine, education, or any sphere of collective life, women lived in a muted circle.
Men have controlled women’s bodies in ways that are both general and deeply personal. In the general realm, laws written by men reduced women to the status of property and neglected to include women as beings with essential rights and freedoms. Certainly, progress has been made from the time in which women were summarily disregarded as essentially chattel breeders of inheriting sons. Yet still we see legislators attempting to keep power and control over the bodies of women. The laws they create and maintain enable the government to reach it’s hands into women’s private and sacred spaces. In areas besides women’s bodies, these same politicians advocate less governmental overreach and deregulation.
In the personal realm, men – some men – continue to do bodily harm to friends, partners and strangers. Nine out of ten rape survivors are female, and survivors of sexual abuse still have to move mountains to pursue justice, with untested rape kits and failures in the justice system. Years ago, working in domestic violence shelters, I was a witness to the wreckage of lives after repeated abuse. The impulse to abuse a partner is an extension of the feeling of a need to subjugate and control, the same inclination that results in limitations to women’s reproductive rights.
Of course, women are not the only ones affected by a breech in sovereignty rights; we can see expansive branches of this problem. Black people in the U.S. are affected by a long history of control and manipulation by others. There are stunning and sickening examples in history, but we don’t have to look backward to see medical racism in effect. At the intersection of these oppressions, Black and brown women continue to experience the implicit bias of health care providers, resulting in medical mistakes that are dangerous and possibly deadly. In the past, even while oppressed groups were experimented on they did not receive the benefit of medicine and therapies that were designed for them. Intersex people are denied their right to their own body sovereignty shortly after birth. The list could go on.
There is work to be done, and the first step of asking, listening and learning seems simple, but is not easy. In order to understand the realities of other people, we need to be open, curious and interested. Ironically, people who seek to control others often aren’t actually interested in those they seek to subjugate, not as individuals anyway. Even those who do want to change often find it difficult to get past the blinders of their own privilege. The mute button needs to come off, for good this time. In order to truly respect the autonomy of others and understand consent, the foundations of sovereignty, we need to begin with listening.