There is a new wave of public moral outrage at crimes perpetrated against women, and we must embrace it – writes Sonja Eggerickx
Rape is a sexual assault that is carried out by physical or psychological force, or abuse of authority, on persons who do not consent. Sometimes the victims fiercely resist, sometimes they are too afraid to speak out. Stories about rape and violence are probably as old as mankind and most victims are women. Often, around the world, it is the only crime where the victims are routinely blamed and sometimes are even punishable under law, instead of the perpetrators. It is also a common feature of warfare, where women of the defeated faction are raped as a sign of triumph for the victors, and annihilation for the losing side. Whether one is a woman in East Congo, India or Sweden, or anywhere else in the world, one is vulnerable. Here are some recent newspaper headlines: “6 men confess to the rape of 6 Spanish women in Acapulco, Mexico”; “Women in Syria are dragged away as if they were sheep”; “Rapes in Thailand are a big problem and a culture change will be needed to change this”; “The declaration of rape rose by 20% between 2009 and 2011 (from 3360 to 4038) in Belgium”.
Too much of the time, society just rolls on, as if – while rape is horrible and a stain on humanity – it is nonetheless an unavoidable part of life. But in recent months and years many have sensed a shift in attitude. Last year in the United States anger grew over an apparent “war on women”, as hard-won rights appeared to become the playthings of a still male-dominated political game. Recently in India, the brutal assault on a young woman and her male friend in Delhi was followed by a mass protest, reported around the world, with thousands of people marching in the streets and not only asking for severe punishments for the perpetrators but also highlighting the wider inequalities and indifference of society and flaws in the justice system.
Though the horror hasn’t stopped, the awareness is growing. Now there is public indignation when a six-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped and abandoned, in Delhi, and she was understood as a victim; she was not blamed for the attack. In countless similar situations previously, even this very young girl might have been blamed for the crime.
There is a new wave of indignation rippling around the world. It is public moral outrage at crimes and injustices perpetrated against women and girls, whether because they are socially vulnerable as women or because they are targeted due to their sex.
Not so widely reported as India’s outrage, last month in Saudi Arabia a prominent TV cleric was charged with raping and torturing to death his own five-year-old daughter. It was reported that he had been released having paid only a fine (“blood money”) to the girls’ mother. But there was national outrage, even here fomented on social networks and spilling into wider society. Regardless the traditional status of women, regardless the tendency to turn away, regardless the established religious and cultural pattern of victim-blaming, the response was outrage. Apparently stung by the criticism, swelling like a revolution, the authorities insisted that the trial was not over and the cleric would remain in prison.
International Women’s Day
The examples show that International Women's Day (today, 8 March) is not a superfluous luxury. Even in 2013 women are blamed for ‘inviting’ rape, are still not respected as equal members of society.
Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, a Salafist preacher, declared that'female activists don’t go to Tahrir Square to protest but to be raped! They are “crusaders” who don’t know shame, fear or even feminism.’ According to such people, a woman clearly does not belong in public spaces, and could have no interest in society, politics or revolution. By appearing in a place where most are men, she could only be inviting rape.
A problem everywhere
It is not only women who suffer rape, of course, and the rape of men where it occurs is often spoken of in hushed tones, if at all. But is a fact that cruelty and violence against women – very often domestic violence – is taken for granted too much of the time and in all regions of the world.
A few years ago, Amnesty International launched a campaign on sexual violence. In Belgium, leaders of different life stances – including me as a humanist – were asked to put their signature on a manifesto declaring that they would do everything possible in their organisations to fight rape and violence against women. Ironically they all signed, they all declared that violence was not acceptable by their organisations, but also they said that their real followers weren’t the culprits. What I heard time and time again was a denial of the existence of sexual violence, it was declared that all their laws, holy books, commandments, etc condemned it fiercely, therefore by definition this is not a problem for my religion, for my community. It was even categorically stated that there was no discrimination against women. Only my response stated that sexual violence occurred everywhere, and that we must promise to fight it as it happened regardless of conviction, social status, and so on.
There is hope: the demonstrations all over India, at the end of last year and beginning of this one, prove that more and more people are channeling their indignation, revolting against injustice. We should not be afraid of indignation, of expressing our moral outrage. Indignation is not unbecoming, it is not shameful, it is not frivolous. It will change the world.
Sonja Eggerickx is the president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union