On Rape Culture (and The Violent Systems and Structures We Support That Allow it to Flourish)
For the last few days I have been trying to get on with the expectations and requirements of life and parenting but truth be told, I have been struggling to focus. I’ve tried to finish several pieces of writing I have on the go but found myself weary and unmotivated when I turned up at the page. I’ve been trying to push away and deny the fact that I feel triggered and very emotionally connected to the disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard.
Events are still unfolding but what we do know is that a woman lost her life at the hands of male violence. I have tried to avoid news reports and the usual rolling news performance where tragedy is screened like a soap opera narrative. There are recurring themes and details that drift to the surface. We are told that Sarah was ‘sensible’ – which of course we are meant to read as not the kind of girl or woman who would take unnecessary risks with her personal safety. I find myself wondering as opposed to what? The brazen, overtly sexual hussy who, not particularly sensible and therefore is somehow complicit with any violence that inevitably falls upon her?
We are told that Sarah wore bright clothing and trainers – another sign of a sensible and pragmatic approach to trying to stay alive/exist as a woman after dark. Had Sarah (or any other woman), worn heels or a tiny little black dress, would that make her complicit? Would that present as being less ‘sensible’? And therefore just a little bit culpable? If a woman was out on a first date with a stranger, in the evening, as countless men do everyday, would that be considered sensible?
I read that Sarah Everard called her partner as she walked the short distance home. Perhaps she just happened to call, as we all do in between snatched moments or perhaps she made the call to dampen her fear and anxiety of walking home in the dark. I read that Sarah took a clear, direct route home. Does that mean that those of us who don’t call someone on the phone and or decide to take a time-saving, figure hugging short-cut are being less ‘sensible’, or exhibiting risky behaviour?
I can’t ignore the fact too, of how the police feature in these narratives. In Sarah’s case it appears as if a taxpayer-paid, serving police officer is responsible for this brutal violence, furthermore, the fact he is a police officer may have led to his gaining Sarah’s trust momentarily – time enough to disappear her and end her life.
I can’t ignore the fact that Sarah was white, blond, attractive and as mentioned earlier, framed as ‘sensible’ and a good daughter. She did not, under any circumstances deserve what happened to her – no woman or girl does. A woman, not blond, white, attractive does not deserve this. A woman lazily judged as reckless in some way does not deserve this. A woman, whether she is a nun, sexworker, mother or shop-worker, whoever she is, did not bring this on herself. She is not responsible and at the bare minimum deserves justice.
Last year, the body of Blessing Olusegun, 21, of Eltham, was discovered 60 miles away in Bexhill near Galley Hill at 6.20am. Blessing was a bright, beloved young woman and had arrived in Bexhill to fulfil an educational placement for her course at a residential care unit. She also happens to be Black. Her mother has spoken at length about the fact that Ms Olusegun was a compassionate and considerate person. Whilst walking outside she had been speaking on the phone to her boyfriend and a close friend and told them to stay on the line. Her death barely made it to one newscycle and the Evening Standard reported that, “Police have been investigating the circumstances and the death is being treated as unexplained though not suspicious at this stage.” Blessing’s death did not disrupt our emotional landscapes in the way Sarah’s has done – simply because our attention was not directed towards it.
R.J Lundman in the Sociological Forum in 2003 referred to ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ – a term used to show how incidents of missing young white women and girls from middle-class backgrounds receive national and even international attention for months on end, while others are ignored. This extends not only to young women of colour but also to women from lower socioeconomic classes.
In April 2019, Jada L. Moss published her paper “The Forgotten Victims of Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Examination of Legal Measures That Contribute to the Lack of Search and Recovery of Missing Black Girls and Women.” Her research indicated that “Missing White Woman Syndrome is a danger to all living minority people worldwide, as the possibility of being the victim of abduction or chance of disappearing exists no matter what gender or race a person is. Comedian Jon Stewart brought awareness to this issue in one of his routines by declaring that “TV (minutes of media coverage) = Family Income x (Abductee Cuteness ÷ Skin Color) + Length of Abduction x Media Savvy of Grieving Parents” is the official formula for the indication of how much media airtime a missing child might receive.” ”
There are thousands of instances of this and it has a strong historic narrative rooted in colonisation, slavery and indenture – the message is clear – Black and brown lives do not matter. In our reasonably enlightened times we have a new variation – we like to believe that every human life is precious, but not all human lives are valued equally. This is applicable as much to the murder of Blessing Olesegun as it is to the faceless deaths of brown and Black migrants in the meditarreanean sea to the murder of Stephen Lawerence – there is a melancholy, poetic, interconnectedness to it all. This is intersectionality in action – that our struggles have many faces, including ableism, homophobia and class, which must be attended to simultaneously.
I have been raised to expect sexual assault as normal, a part of my lived experience as a woman in the same way that as a person of colour I have learned that racism is an everyday part of my life. A daily hazard that I must learn to negotiate along with learning to avoid traffic when crossing the road. As if it were a life skill along with learning to bathe or brush my teeth. I have silently, unquestioningly absorbed it as my responsibility. That as part of my daily routine, as long as I can remember, I have considered whether I would be able to run in my shoes, should I need to (from sexual predators and racists). That has been the sole criteria when I have bought shoes in general. You will not find any high heels in my wardrobe. The fact that, despite my best efforts to field the thought, I do wonder about the impact and consequences of my dress before I leave the house. It doesn’t mean that I will necessarily change, but I will try and temper any difficulties I think I may face with a strategically placed scarf or a long coat. Items to be worn until I get to my safe space: a friend’s house, inside the restaurant or a gay club for example. Sometimes it means strategically teaming up with other people, human shields if you will, whilst simply getting from A to B. This is rape culture in action. Awareness of potential rape and gender based violence in all it’s forms for me and I imagine many women, is like breathing. It is done on auto pilot. We are constantly evaluating and processing risk. We are in constant fight or flight mode. It is a geography we learn to navigate, sometimes from our own hard experience or the dreadful experiences of the women before us. We as girls and women learn the lay of the land early on. We pretend with ourselves that there are mitigating factors. That, for example, as we age or if we wear less well fitting or drab clothing, we will become less visible and vulnerable. Some of us modify our stance, butch up or cover up entirely – it’s hard to know where the armour began or if an actual aesthetic choice was made. We quickly absorb that the way we physically present to the world has consequences. We perfect our understanding as we move from culture to culture, region to region, continent to continent, adjusting to the subtle and unsubtle shifts in rape culture.
Growing up in a (working class) South Asian, North Indian family brought with it a particular brand of rape culture. The normalising of sexual assault in Indian culture is done both in stealth and in the open. A relatively innocuous memory: being with my Aunt and Mother as a young woman in Ludhiana, Punjab and riding back from the bazaar in a shared taxi. The rickety car would take on passengers en route until it was full. I sat on one side, squeezed between my Mum and Aunt. A man got on wearing a large, woollen shawl and sat opposite me. He didn’t look me in the eye. He avoided my gaze entirely. He adjusted and draped his shawl and some of it fell over my legs. I immediately felt his hand on my leg. Pressing hard in between my legs, trying to progress up my thigh. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to move my legs but I was trapped. I looked to see if anyone else was aware. Nobody knew. The man steadfastly avoided my gaze entirely. I tried to speak but no words came. I fought back by twisting my knees away. But I couldn’t say a word. The boldness of his violation rendered me silent.
To be honest, my first thought was that I had somehow misunderstood: that I had got this man’s intentions all wrong; somehow mistaken his motives. Because that’s what rape culture does to women and girls: it makes you doubt yourself, your instincts and your actual vision. Despite what your eyes tell you, it makes you double guess your actual experience. It makes you wonder, did he really do that? For real? Always cutting the abuser some slack, in case your ‘weak and feeble’ female mind got it all twisted. That as a girl/woman I transgressed some social rule and norm – that I am somehow at fault. I don’t need anyone else to tell me I may have got a poor innocent man all wrong because I am primed to automatically think that first. As I write these words I realise how similar my experiences of being gaslit around racism are – that I could very easily transfer the same language and methods of processing to both types of experience.
But something rape culture brings that is unique, is a sickening, nauseous reality that I am trying to quash, trying to forever stop – the quickening heartbeat, the uncomfortable sweat and overflow of bile and vomit that comes with an ever-constant fear. Fear of violation, fear of injury – fear of death. It’s all there, it’s all possible, in that touch you didn’t ask for. In the touch you thought you might want but then decided no – which is your right. In the touch you absolutely didn’t want. Because where will he stop? I recently shared an old adage with a man who would definitely consider himself fighting the good feminist fight – I told him that men are scared of women laughing at them and women are scared of men killing them. He was genuinely flummoxed by my words – he couldn’t relate it to his lived experience as a man. It was only when I switched scared of women laughing to rejecting that a flicker of recognition took place.
It must be said that what I describe can be experienced in any culture and not all South Asian, Indian women experience what I describe and lazy assumptions that this is somehow an Asian male problem must be challenged head on. Many South Asian women have progressive, open, respectful girlhoods and womanhoods. Some don’t – just like any other culture. I need to stress that I am not stating that this is a definitive experience. I can only speak here about what I have felt, seen, experienced. I can only give voice to that. And what about women’s role in rape culture? Well, what I know about is the role that Indian women can play. An Indian woman’s body holds the concept of honour – izzat. The body of an Indian woman holds the weight of honour for the men and women, boys and girls in her family. The female body has no autonomy. Anything the female body does or endures reflects on her whole family. The behaviour of the female body affects the wedding prospects of her siblings and extended family. The behaviour of the female body determines the respect the elders in her family receive.
The female body, frail though it might be perceived, carries an infinite burden of weight. The female body’s behaviour defines how your mother is treated at Gurdwara, Mandir or Mosque. The female body must be a ‘good girl’ – obedient to elders and in particular men, virginal and subservient. The female body is a commodity. It must conform to requirements or becomes spoiled, disruptive, and therefore dangerous. Be a good girl and there is an unspecified promise of a reward. A reward on what terms? Respect from the ‘community’? What does that mean? What exactly? The opportunity, as a ‘good’ woman – one who toes the line, who does not disrupt the narrative – to do what? To bully, oppress and police other women and girls? Because your behaviour appears impeccable, you have been judged appropriate and correct in your being as a ‘good woman’ and are therefore offered the opportunity to ‘judge’ other women and girls. Your ego is fluffed and inflated. You become a passive-aggressive alpha woman in a heterosexual, heteronormative world. Trying to assert power in a space where there is little room for female autonomy. This is a role that the designated ‘good’ Indian girl is destined to play. Her focus will include her own daughters. If she is ‘lucky’ to have sons she can transition into playing the all powerful and tyrannical Mother-in-Law. Acting out all the abuse she has experienced on the next poor unfortunate girl/woman who enters her home as a daughter-in law.
If this sounds far-fetched one has only to look at documented cases of honour killings and extended family domestic violence. The matriarch is often involved along-side the ‘man of the house’. I remember at my all-female, inner city, secondary school, when I spoke out against the violence that was happening in my home, all the ‘good’ South Asian girls stopped interacting with me. I was ‘sent to Coventry’ – the analogue version of ‘ghosting,’ I suppose. A Hindu girl who had been a close friend avoided eye contact with me and strode by like I didn’t exist. This from a girl with whom I had spent hours, days, a friend who I thought knew me, understood me, but her ‘good Indian girl’ instinct was stronger than any friendship.
Years later and I know this, I am not a ‘good’ (Indian or otherwise) girl and I am frequently not sensible but that does not mean that I should have to live with the spectre of rape culture as a constant in my life.
Yet the narrative is always set up to present the need for women to keep safe. That it’s women’s responsibility to avoid rape and not men’s responsibility to not rape. The similarity with ideas around victimhood and racism are stark – the numerous times I have been told to ignore racist taunts, to avoid racist bullies, to modify my behaviour rather than have a culture that challenges and eradicates racism is significant. Considering rape culture and our part in it illuminates how ideas around birth control (again a woman’s responsibility – rarely the man) connects with how we live, participate in and support cultures where we raise girls to internalise shame and police their own behaviour in order to avoid being raped and murdered, rather than take on the necessary and vital work to parent and teach boys and men not to violate and rape.
Twitter: @MundairRaman Instagram: @ramanmundair + @rmundair