Please read the following vignette of an actual incident.
I am a scientist observing the culture of the Namoyoma people. I am sitting in a shady spot just outside the village, writing up some notes, and I observe a disturbing event. Four men are trying to drag a young woman from the road into the nearby forest, and from what I hear them saying, they intend to rape her. There are also four older women trying to drag the young woman back to the village, and they are yelling that she must go back to her father’s house where she will be protected. The battle over this young woman continues for quite some time, and the whole time I consider if I should be involved. I am here to study these people, not to interfere. Yet a rape is, at least according to my cultural norms, a bad thing. Do I get involved or not?
Eventually, the four younger men, stronger than the older women, succeed in dragging the young woman into the bush. I assume they raped her. I felt bad about not helping, but I really had little choice in the matter. I did not come here to change things, I came here to observe and to learn. Intervention could have unforeseen consequences. This culture of rape and male dominance is the way things are in this society. It would be foolish and unethical to try to change it no matter how much I disagree with it.
That is a real story, and I’ve changed the details enough so that it might be difficult for you to track down where it comes from. This is because I have no intention at this time of getting into a battle over this particular incident. Rather, I tell you this story to ask the question: Is it appropriate for you, as a private citizen living in some country like the US or Australia or wherever you are reading this from, to get involved in changing the way that people’s cultures operate in areas where you happen to think they are wrong? In a culture like the one described above, where rape of women by men is “normal” and “typical” and “happens all the time” one can certainly feel badly for the women, but can you, should you, actually intervene?
My own answer to the question is substantially different from that of the person who first told the story I relate above. The answer is: “You are asking a stupid question in a stupid way, and need to step back and think about what you are saying.”
Rape may well be a “normal” and “day to day” occurrence in this culture, simply by virtue of the fact (= tautology) that it happens all the time. But there are two reasons why one should not fail to intervene.
One of these two reasons (and I hesitate to prioritize them) is that while rape is “normal” and “frequent” resistance to rape is as well. In the story cited above, there are two opposing forces, but the researcher observing them seems to focus only on one of the two. What about the perspective of the older women pulling on the other arm of this young girl? Are they not part of this culture as well? And certainly the young girl herself is at least as much an example of resistance as she is an example of object. If you must be logical and reflective in the manner of the hapless observer cited above, rather than activist, please consider that not wanting to be raped is a cultural norm as well. Duh.
The other reason is that rape is wrong. Call me a cultural chauvinist if you like.
This post is part of an effort that I was made aware of in a letter from Sheril Kirshenbaum, but with which a lot of people are involved. It is called Silence Is the Enemy, and you can read about it at The Intersection Blog at Discovermagazine.com.
The above example is from Latin America. Recently, mass rape as a tool of warfare has become increasingly exposed (this is not a new phenomenon) in Europe and Africa as part of very recent conflicts. When generation-long warfare is combined with child-solder strategies, as has happened in Liberia, the Congo, and parts of Uganda in recent decades, young men grow up understanding that sex = violent rape, and a sort of post-Apocalypic rape culture often emerges. I’ve provided a handful of links below that you should follow to learn more about this phenomenon. I also recommend the classic but not out of date Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Browmiller, and the more recently published examination of former Yugoslavia, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia
Men, by and large, have a rape switch. All men are capable of rape. Most men are enculturated in a way that reduces rape, and in some societies it is probably true that most violent rape is carried out by individuals who are reasonably labeled as pathological. In other societies, this is not so true. In post war societies such as those described in some of these links, or any society in a state of war, rape becomes routine. The rape switch is flipped to the on position as a matter of course. Most men who were in combat in Viet Nam raped. Similar circumstances have been documented for other wars. I mention this not only to emphasize the depth and breadth of this problem, but to avoid what I fear will be an assumption as Silence Is the Enemy progresses that this is a problem exclusive to the dark skinned of the third world. This is a pan-human problem. None of us, none of our societies, are immune.
Follow the links on Sheril’s blog. Read about this global and serious problem. Donate money to the causes mentioned here and on other blogs. Many of us bloggers who gain income from our blogs are donating some portion of this month’s take to these causes. Take some of your cash and put it on the line as well, please.
The Intersection: Silence Is The Enemy, Sheril’s initial post.
The Intersection: Blogger Coalition, a link farm.
Quiche Moraine: Stephanie wrote this.
Information and commentary:
New York Times OpEd: After Wars, Mass Rapes Persist
CNN.com commentary: War on women in Congo
If you are an American, you can write to Congress