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Posts tagged ‘Rape Culture’

Agency is Agency, No Matter What It Wears

By Taylor Marvin

At The American Prospect E.J, Graff has a thought-provoking piece on rape culture in the US and abroad. If Americans are tempted to view the horrific torture, rape, and murder of a New Delhi woman as evidence that rape culture is endemic only to foreign societies, they’re wrong; in Graff’s words, rape culture “lives anywhere that has a ‘traditional’ vision of women’s sexuality.” This, of course, includes the US, where slut-shaming is epidemic, politicians restrict their sympathy for survivors of “legitimate” rape, and all too many people continue to blame rape survivors for being the victim of crimes.

Graff makes her argument in graphic detail, and her piece is well worth reading. However, one troubling line jumps out:

“A culture in which women must cover up or be threatened is a rape culture. You’re thinking of hijab and burquas, right? Think also of the now well-known SlutWalks, which were launched after a Toronto police officer told young women that they could avoid rape by not dressing like ‘sluts.'”

Graff’s point is that the coerced covering of female bodies in the West is just as indicative of rape culture as in the Muslim world. The reference to hijabs and burquas is evoked to emphasize this point: if Canadian police telling women not to dress like “sluts” is comparable to Muslim head and body coverings it must be oppressive, because the veil is a perfect synonym for patriarchy. Here the Muslim world is the alien other, identified only by definitional oppression. There’s the threat — if we, the West, don’t change our ways we’ll be like them.

This is a troublingly Orientalist view of the female experience in the Muslim world. This isn’t to say that Muslim societies are not crippled by widespread misogyny and sexual violence; they clearly are, and the costs of patriarchy are arguably higher in these societies than anywhere else. This also doesn’t suggest that hijabs and other female religious garments are not a product of patriarchy. In an alternative reality where Islam — and of course Christianity — arose in egalitarian, rather than patriarchal, societies, it’s difficult to believe that these religious traditions would stress concealing clothing for women and not men. But assuming that the veil always represents a denial of female freedom is a condescending and simplistic dismissal of a complex tradition, and denies agency to the millions of Muslim women who chose to wear the garment.

Artist unknown; please contact me if you know.

Artist unknown; please contact me if you know.

Are many women forced to wear clothing they otherwise would not, on the justification of religious tradition? Of course. But assuming that all women wear the hijab because they are forced to compresses millions of Muslim women’s varied experiences into a single condemnation of their culture. In this view, Western women’s choices are valid, while Muslim women’s are not. It is difficult to imagine a more condescending narrative, because this story of oppressed, subservient Muslim women denies them the agency to choose. Reza Aslan ably explains this distinction in his history of Islam, No god but God:

‘The fact is that the traditional colonial image of the veiled Muslim woman as the sheltered, docile sexual property of her husband is just as misleading and simpleminded as the postmodernist image of the veil as the emblem of female freedom and empowerment from Western cultural hegemony. The veil may be neither or both of these things, but that is up to Muslim women to decide for themselves. [p. 73]”

To Westerners, the narrative of the veil as a tool of oppression is both satisfying and comforting: satisfying because it reaffirms the West’s cultural superiority, and comforting because it simplifies a bewildering variety of religious and cultural traditions into a simple narrative of backwardness. Again, this does not mean that patriarchy is absent from the practice — as Aslan notes, reading the veil as empowering freedom from the male gaze is just as simplistic as understanding it solely as patriarchal barbarism. But lumping all women who wear the veil into the category of pitied victims reflects an inherent narrative of cultural superiority. It is up to individual Muslim women, not non-Muslim observers, to decide whether the practice is oppressive. The veil is not incompatible with feminism; only the lack of female agency is.

Rape Exists Because Society Permits It

By Taylor Marvin

The Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking profile of the six men accused of killing a young woman in the horrific Delhi rape case. What’s striking is, as Jason Burke notes, how ordinary these men appear to be: all were poor, and two heavy drinkers and migrants. It’s this ordinariness that hints at one of the worst aspects of social misogyny and rape culture: when rape is routine, so are the people who commit it. We like to dismiss rapists and other violent criminals as an alien other that, of course, has nothing to do with us. In the overblown hyperbole of recent NRA rhetoric in the US, crimes are committed by the bad guys, not the good guys — and there’s no question which group we belong to. Of course, these lines aren’t so simple. Social norms that tolerate rape and other forms of violence make everyone their potential instrument.

This extends beyond the rapists — unfortunately, in the Delhi case murderers is the correct term — to social leaders. It took Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over a week to respond to the case, and his call for a “dispassionate debate and inquiry into the critical changes that are required in societal attitudes” does not appear indicative of a top-down drive for social change. It’s not only that politicians and other social leaders appear to completely dismiss that rape and other forms of violence against women; endemic victim-blaming allows them to — as in the US — absolve themselves of responsibility to fix the problem. As Anuradha Roy writes in her brutal take on the routine violence against women in Indian society (via the Browser), this victim-blaming is truly sickening:

“Meanwhile, with reassuring predictability, another man from the ruling party wagged a paternal finger at the raped woman: she should never have been out at that hour. Just because India became free at midnight did not mean she should have been out at midnight.”

Read the whole thing.

Street Harassment, Empathy, and Fighting Misogyny with Stories

398px-Brienne_of_Tarth_HBOBy Taylor Marvin

If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and have an hour to spare, you could do a lot worse than listening to Sean T. Collins and Stefan Sasse’s excellent Boiled Leather Audio Hour. In their discussion Collins and Sasse raise an interesting connection, linking the routine sexual harassment inflicted on the character Brienne to contemporary street harassment. This is very perceptive, and raises some interesting questions about the power of media to challenge sexism.

First, some cavets. I am male, and have never been sexually harassed. I also have never directly observed street harassment, or at least any that I can recall, and I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to be harassed. That said, street harassment is absolutely wrong, and is horribly widespread. Part of street harassment’s ubiquity is undoubtably due to our society’s tolerance for wider rape culture that treats women as sexual object without agency. But it’s also due to a profound lack of empathy on the part of harassers, as the vast majority of street harassers seem to genuinely believe that they aren’t doing anything wrong. I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization to say that street harassers think their catcalls and harassment should be perceived as flattering, not the demeaning threat that it absolutely is. Of course, this perception is something approaching willful blindness, because it requires ignoring the objectification, power imbalance, and implicit rape threat inherent in catcalls.

It may be optimistic to assume that street harassment would decline if more harassers empathized with their victims. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of stories to challenge perspectives. In A Song of Ice and Fire George RR Martin depicts, often through the eyes of female characters, a world where sexual violence and misogyny are ubiquitous. Brienne is a sympathetic character whose bravery and martial skill are endearing, and whose devotion to knightly chivalry is arguably greater than anyone else in the series, male or female. Through Brienne’s eyes the reader experiences an approximation of the psychological damage caused by constant sexual harassment and a society where rape is accepted.

These themes extend throughout the series. Female (and some male) characters are constantly aware of the threat of rape. Institutional misogyny excludes women from civil society. Characters that deviate from their predetermined social roles are often punished by sexual violence. [A Dance With Dragons spoiler] When a female ruler is deposed she is sexually humiliated in a way inconceivable for male leaders [End spoilers]. Perceptive readers can’t help but draw the valid link between the sexism and violence of Westerosi society and the misogyny and rape culture of our own. This is not a flattering comparison. Hopefully it encourages, among potential enablers of rape culture, an awareness of just how corrosive its effects are.

Stories that challenge their audience’s perspective are an enormously powerful tool for building empathy and breaking prejudices — including misogyny. I can’t help but think that if more widely-viewed shows depicted harassment from the perspective of female characters, men would be less likely to engage in it. Of course, these stories are rarely depicted in popular media, a rarity that probably has something to do with the underrepresentation of women in TV writers’ rooms (via The Mary Sue). Hopefully this changes soon, because these stories are important.