Originally published: 26.06.15
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about FGM and the outpouring of cultural condemnations around the practice that has been flying around at large at the moment. Whilst we certainly should be condemning FGM, I wrote of my concerns about the cultural coverage of the practice which easily becomes misappropriated, used and abused by those wanting to make xenophobic, anti-immigration arguments, whilst glossing over the point that FGM is child abuse and violence against women and girls. What I didn’t write about was how the response to FGM in media and social media outlets in the UK is an example of the wider response to domestic and gender based abuse that is typical of the Western world; that is, the othering of sexual violence.
The thing that brought this to mind and got me thinking about this was watching the Majorité Opprimée video that has recently become viral. When I first watched this video, which flips gender roles so that the main male character is accosted by various women, at first humorous and then at once chilling, I thought it was a very clever way of highlighting the stereotypes, oppression, and violence that women face daily on account of their gender. However, on watching it again I couldn’t help but notice some sinister undertones to the creators’ message of equality. Watch again and consider the other identities of the women who attack white, middle class Pierre – the video chooses not just any female characters to make their point but homeless, lower class, North African characters. Watch again and note that Islam is referred to twice in the 10 minute clip – once when Pierre comes across his pitiful, timid Muslim friend whose wife has forced him to wear a hijab, and in the final moments when Pierre shouts back at his victim-blaming wife ‘You want me to wear a balaclava?!’ What is this film saying about those who perpetrate violence against the female majority oppressed? That they’re not white, middle class and secular that’s for sure.
It seems that whenever an issue of sexual and gender based violence arises, people are want to find some sort of cultural explanation of that violence so they may detach themselves from the issue with greater ease. It makes it easier for people to fold up their sunday newspaper and go about their life without feeling any obligation to act in solidarity with the global sisterhood if they can put the attacks down to barbaric cultures that are never going to change anyway. It’s hopeless, there’s no point, can you pass the supplements please?
But actually it’s more than that, it’s about using the issue of sexual violence to construct notions of ethnic and cultural superiority. We’ve seen this all the way through coverage of the Congo wars and, more recently, India’s ‘women problem’. The issue is not that we shouldn’t be covering mass rape and sexual assault, far from it – current coverage of rape as a weapon of war, or rape in general, is far from reflecting the actual severity and extent of what is going on in today. It’s about how we cover it. In the UK, the US, and elsewhere people will happily blame victims of rape as inviting their attacks when those accused belong to the social and cultural majority, but these same people will be outraged when similar attacks occur outside our continental boundaries or by minority men. When it comes to sexual violence against ‘our’ women they will be doubted and blamed for not being stronger or better; for being stupid or careless enough to drink too much and wear the wrong kind of clothes, for being vain enough to start something with a confused, unsuspecting (white) man without the intention to follow through. But when it comes to ‘other’ women outside of the ethnic or cultural majority they will be pitied as helpless; poor defenceless victims that are too weak to fend off the barbaric acts of savage (brown) men. I mentioned recent examples but it goes way back when to colonialism when Lord Cromer felt no apparent internal conflict about condemning ‘uncivilised’ Egyptian men for ‘forcing’ their women to wear the hijab whilst also being a member of the National League Against Women’s Suffrage at home. Then as now it creates a false orientalist dichotomy of superiority with savagery and weakness on one hand, and dignity and civilisation on the other.
This dichotomy is false because it pretends that sexual violence doesn’t happen here. Last year, in response to widespread reports of sexual violence and harassment in Egypt, the writer Joyce Carol Oates tweeted “If 99.3% of women reported being treated equitably, fairly, generously–it would be natural to ask: what’s the predominant religion?” and yet this kind of cultural reductionism never happens when its our men who are doing the harassing, when its our culture and our religion. Apparently 85,000 women can be raped every year in England and Wales, 1 in 5 women can experience some sort of sexual assault and about 93% of these attacks can go unpunished, without any sign of protest, any soul searching or exclamations that we have a ‘women problem’, any natural questioning of what our main religion is. We have absolutely nothing to feel superior about.
We should of course speak out against gender oppression and abuse no matter where it happens, and by no means do I want to suggest that we should avoid involving ourselves in the debate on harassment and rape when it happens outside our national, social and cultural boundaries. But we should be wary of selective cultural condemnation that ignores the fact that sexual violence against women is something that truly, cruelly, unites all cultures, and start standing up for women everywhere not as their saviours but as their sisters.
The Joy in my Feet Inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, my blog The Joy in My Feet is about celebrating the work of women activists and artists around the world campaigning to end gender oppression. I am an intern with Equality Now working on a campaign to end FGM in the UK, so most of the posts you’ll find are covering current issues of sexual or gender based violence against women, interspersed with poetry and art.