'The torture of women'

Woman's-eye View
Stabroek News
August 20, 2000

by Andaiye In an essay on rape and other violence against women which she calls, The Torture of Women, global women's activist and writer Devaki Jain mentions the story of a South African woman whose son had been tortured to death: "Now the woman belonged to a tradition which believed that unless the clothes in which a person died are washed, there is no sense that the soul has gone to rest, in other words, the burial or funeral or the separation is not complete. The perpetrators would return neither the body, nor even the clothes, and therefore for almost four years, this woman had all her son's clothes with her, waiting for that last garment and could not fully reconcile herself to her son's death."

Give or take details, what is said of this woman's tradition may be said of all traditions: in all traditions, people are unable to separate themselves from a wrong done if there is no accounting for that wrong.

That is what is at the heart of Mothers in Black (which is why the mothers there are unable to do what a male friend suggested and "get over it"). It's also at the heart of calls for investigations into acts of racial violence, including racial violence against women, whether these took place in the 1960s or the 1990s. In all traditions, people's only chance of "getting over it" comes when the crime against them has been accounted for.

Women and girls seldom get an accounting from anyone for sexual assault committed against them. Not even when they are public crimes, crimes committed by strangers, the kind of sexual assault caused by what Devaki Jain again (though in a different essay) calls "the idea that women are the 'nation' and dishonouring them is dishonouring the nation." In these cases, she adds, men rape or brutalise women meaning it as an insult to the honour of the men of the nation. As another woman, Himani Bannerji puts it, we are talking here about the conversion of women into a figure of speech - of women existing not as real persons, but as metaphors for a race or a country. Each war and warlike occasion creates examples.

The August 14 Newsweek magazine carries a new story of Kosovo Albanian women which begins with Drita, a woman who, as she looks around, sees the real damage of the war in her country not in the ruins of bridges and houses and roads but in "the ruin within": she herself was raped by a Serb policeman and by another man who waited out the first rape, waiting his turn. But in the accounting of the war, the inventorising of its damage, the rapes of Drita and other women are undercounted because they are not spoken about. Drita reports that when she asked her husband what would happen to their marriage if she was ever raped (afraid to "admit" that she had been) he answered "I would never keep you". In extreme cases men have killed "their" women to prevent them from being dishonoured. In less extreme circumstances they silence them. One kind of silencing happens when, in their defence of "their" women, men of the nation whose women have been raped think of the assault in the same terms as the rapists did - as a dishonouring of them, or of their group, the women only the objects of that dishonouring.

This is where rape is committed against the women of one group by men of another. What of rape committed inside the group? Here women are even less valued objects. Many years ago a man called Elridge Cleaver, an African-American who described himself as a revolutionary in the cause of black freedom, spoke of how he practised on black women to better rape white women. The rape of the latter would be part of his war on white men. He did not discuss who the enemy was in his rape of black women. They were nothing except property on which he could practise how to make war against other men's property. It did not escape the notice of black women hearing his words that they and the white women - whatever other differences there were between them - were both objects of less value than say, cows.

Then there is the sexual assault that is committed, so to speak, one on one, often against girl children. The newspapers of two successive days, August 16 and August 17, carry reports on two different incidents of men "carnally knowing a girl above the age of 12 and under the age of 13." Then there is the story of the Trinidad father sentenced to 10 years' jail time (55 years virtual time) for committing incest against two of his daughters; he had also committed incest with a third.

I do not know what the defence lawyer said during his defence of the Trinidadian father other than that he was a good father, a view with which his wife apparently agreed. I know what too many defence lawyers here say and do in defence of their clients. Last year, a female defence lawyer subjected a five year old child to three days cross-examination, asking her questions again and again in a clear attempt to confuse. In another example, a female magistrate in a case of indecent assault had the child stand on a bench to give her testimony since she (the magistrate) couldn't hear the child; there was no thought, it seemed, of humanising her court to make the child less intimidated.

Here and everywhere, in and out of court, by laypersons and law professionals, by law professionals both male and female, the favoured approach is that the victim in some way provoked her assault. In the sexual abuse that was publicly committed against several women a few weeks ago in the United States during and after a Puerto Rican Day parade, several commentators offered the defence that the women had dressed and acted provocatively. But the Kosovo Albanian women who were raped had covered their faces with mud and hair in order not to provoke. There have been cases here of Muslim women traditionally dressed and veiled who have been sexually abused.

Looking at all this, Devaki Jain calls it "the torture that women experience within families, households and society, in war and in peace and in times of civil conflict".

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