OPINION

Another vulnerable woman was let down because she was "intelligent"

When will we accept that vulnerability doesn't care where you went to school, asks Zoë Beaty

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By Zoë Beaty on

This morning, in the national news, a disturbing story emerged. A woman – a new mother – just 30-years-old, her four-day-old baby in her arms, walked out of a maternity ward and jumped into a 300ft gorge. She ended her own life and that of her baby, in a haze of despair and isolation. The reason she wasn’t helped, according to today’s reports? She was too “intelligent”. 

“Too middle class to be mentally ill,” read the foreboding headline about Charlotte Bevan’s death in the Daily Mail today. The Times reported it, too, with a headline reverberating her “middle class” status. It was so prominent because a report following an investigation three years after her death found that she was profoundly let down – and directly because of her class and, presumably, the level of education which is implied by the status. Despite suffering years of mental health problems, including schizophrenia (she had stopped taking her medication to breastfeed her baby), the serious case review found that health staff “backed off” from giving her proper support during her pregnancy because of her “intelligence”. She was “articulate” and “middle class”, they said. 

And those words feel ever more familiar this week, as they follow a judge’s utterance just last week that Mustafa Bashir, 34, should be spared jail because Fakhara Karim, 33, who he beat with a cricket bat and forced to drink bleach was clearly “intelligent with a network of friends”. 

Be aware of your vulnerability, we’re told – don’t wear short skirts, don’t wear headphones at night, don’t encourage. Then, prove it

Two things are at work here, and both are badly letting women down. The first is that the face society ascribes to vulnerability is masking the truly vulnerable: according to social rhetoric – and the health professionals who let down Charlotte Bevan, and the judge who let down Fakhara Karim – vulnerability looks poor, and stupid and scruffy alone. It probably has a heavy accent and lives in the dodgy bit of town. And the reality that we are asked to forget as a result is that it is indiscriminate – mental health, domestic violence, sexual abuse and bullying don't care what you look like or where you went to school. There is no immunity. A degree cannot protect women from harm.

The second is that there is no end to the sheer number of conflicting pre-requisites that go hand in hand with women’s vulnerability. Be aware of your vulnerability, we’re told – don’t wear short skirts, don’t wear headphones at night, don’t encourage. Then, prove it – prove you couldn’t leave, prove you didn’t ask for it, prove that you didn’t know better. Look vulnerable, and act it, too. 

It doesn’t matter how many times it is said, still these stereotypes which hang on money, and assume that education can provide a woman with a choice about mental health, or about abuse refuse to budge. And while these huge assumptions about the cut-out-and-keep, pre-moulded victim block out the view, thousands of women suffer in the dark, their voices subverted again and again.

@zoe_beaty

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