I was listening to Dick Gordon’s The Story segment the other night on my way to Los Angeles and completely engulfed by that night’s story, “Facing Their Accusers.” The segment consisted of Dick talking to Peggy Kuo, a trial attorney for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal in regards to the Bosnian war and the crimes against humanity that were carried out. Peggy specifically worked with the women who were raped in the town of Foca.
Peggy talked about the systematic rape of Muslim women and her work to gather the stories of the women in order to make a case against their rapists. Many of the women didn’t want to testify as witnesses originally, for various reasons.
For one, the war happened so many years prior that many women had moved on (at least figuratively). They had jobs, partners, lives that existed beyond the scope of their being raped. Many of the women had also not divulged the details of their rape to others, so sharing these stories with Peggy or her peers would be the first time some of the women ever spoke of their experience. Another reason the women didn’t want to speak up was fear. They were fearful of the power their rapists still likely had. The last, most poignant factor, I think, was the fact that the women simply did not think their voice and testimony would matter. Imagine, being so dehumanized that you still do not think that speaking up will matter.
The women, during the war, were taken out of their homes. Oftentimes, they were paraded through town naked after being raped. Peggy said that the experience of the women “wasn’t just the physical act of rape, it was the entire degrading, humiliating treatment they were forced to undergo.” Peggy said that the Bosnian Muslim women were subjected to all sorts of violations by these Serbian men of rank in the military and police. She went on to describe the men’s actions signifying their attitude towards the women of, “you can do what I want, your feelings, your humanity, your dignity doesn’t matter.”
I can’t imagine what it would be like, to have had my husband and sons taken out of my house, killed or put into labor camps, while my daughter and I sit with many other women, basically fearing for the moment we’re pulled up, beaten, savagely raped, our dignity and our humanity completely disregarded, oppressed, to be seen as just a piece of meat to be used, humiliated, then discarded.
When Peggy spoke about the women’s “day in court” and their experience in testifying, I got chills. Peggy described the women’s hesitance and explains the various ways she tried to ensure their safety, security and protection. Psychologists were present, guards were present, their true identities were masked, their faces were hidden from their rapists. She said that when the women were preparing to enter the court room and testify, she always told them they did not have to look at their rapists, the defendants. But, almost always, the women would walk into the room, look at their rapists handcuffed and surrounded by guards, and “almost every instance, they walked in, they looked, they recognized, they’d sit up straighter, like suddenly getting sense of power and confidence.” This part of the story told by Peggy brought tears to my eyes. I was quite literally walking through the entire experience with Peggy and the women, feeling their fear, feeling their loss of dignity, and then sitting up straighter, myself, feeling empowered.
Peggy commented on how “remarkable” it was to see the women respond so positively to what they were able to accomplish, in letting their voices be heard. In that sense, the plight of the “victim,” (or survivor, as I like to refer to them) is so universal. A survivor of rape, of sexual harassment, of molestation, yearns to be able to gain closure, to look their attacker in the eyes, and say, “You did this to me. You hurt me. You tried to defeat me. But here I am.” Listening to Peggy tell the story of these Bulgarian women reminded me of how powerful our own voices are, how empowered we become when we can literally look fear in the eyes and say, “I can overcome you, I can beat you.” (To get a more in depth look at these crimes against humanity in Bosnia, check out Women War & Peace’s documentary on PBS, “I Came to Testify”)
When I was listening to the story, I couldn’t help but think, to myself, “shit, America isn’t so much better than Bulgaria, is it??” I thought of Herman Cain and his attempt at discrediting his accusers. Cain’s name-calling of his accusers, labeling them as liars, is just as bad as those Bosnian women being stripped of their dignity. I’m not saying that the women who have come forward about Cain have undergone equal pain or physical and psychological damage, but the action of trying to silence any survivor of sexual assault leads to the same dehumanizing. And it’s not just Cain doing this to these women! Today, on Jezebel, there is a post about Katie Rophie’s op-ed from the Sunday New York Times. Rophie defends sexual harassment (but only to a point!!!):
“So should we be legislating against rogue flirtations, the floating out of invitations? Obviously there is a line, which if the allegations against Mr. Cain are true, he has crossed, but there are many behaviors loosely included under the creative, capacious rubric of sexual harassment that do not cross that line.”
(Thanks, Rophie, for showing that it’s not just men who are part of the problem of dehumanizing those whose boundaries, privacy, bodies have been violated. It’s women, too! Fair is fair.)
In line with the women of Bosnia and Cain and Rophie’s disregard for the feelings and legitimacy of Cain’s own alleged sexual harassment victims, I think of Joe Paterno.
I’ve been slightly following the story of Penn State and Joe Paterno’s connection to it all. I am of the belief that by remaining quiet about child molestation, Paterno was an accomplice. He turned a blind eye, to (I assume), protect his team, his employers, his staff, and for the brotherhood. By keeping quiet for so long, he participated in the dehumanizing of those young kids who were molested.
What does this have to do with Bosnian systematic rape survivors and Cain’s treatment of his sexual harassment accusers? Well, in America, we don’t call it dehumanizing victims or stripping people of their dignity. We simply call it victim-shaming. It’s all the same, people. While there are many different degrees of this shame felt and attributed, essentially victim-shaming is a shield to protect the guilty, the harassers, the molesters, the rapists, the violators. Victim-shaming caters to a world that is not ready to release itself of patriarchy, to admit that we need to start raising our kids differently, to let go of hard-earned titles of masculinity and power. “Well, those Bosnian women shouldn’t have been Muslim.” “Those women should have known Cain was just kidding.” “Poor Penn State and its football team for going through this kind of embarrassing debacle!”
Here in America, we’re no better than 1995 war-torn Bosnia. We are one in the same. Our rape culture and victim-shaming are cut from the same cloth as the silencing, dehumanizing and reduction of those who were violated in Bosnia. Victim-shaming, abuse of power, sexual violation have no boundaries, and will never stop until we stop questioning those people who come forward with their horrid stories. The day we stop asking a rape survivor what she/he was wearing, stop allowing people in positions of power to abuse said power, and start empathizing with those who have gone through such horrifying experiences will be the day when dignity is returned.
In an attempt to leave you on a note of strength, resilience and fed-up-ness, here is Eve Ensler’s “Over It,” published on Huffington Post on 11/11/11. “I am over this rape culture where the privileged with political and physical and economic might, take what and who they want, when they want it, as much as they want, any time they want it.”