Aug 07 2009

The social construction of rape in Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:31 AM

The subject of mistreatment of African women is neglected, both within Africa and across the world. African women generally face great obstacles in exercizing their legal rights. Sexual mistreatment of women in Africa – from mild forms of harassment at work to tragic physical abuse – remains the most flagrant problem, but not the only one. Women can have difficulty exercizing their rights to property, education, even public speech.

A new book, “The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence,” is focused on wholly on the sexual abuse of women during the Rwandan genocide. The book contains disturbing testimony from seventeen rape female  victims that lacks independent corroboration, but tracks reports stretching back many years. While many books have documented the genocide, I think this is the only book to concentrate on rape and sexual mistreatment exclusively. One shortcoming, from a standpoint of scholarship, is that the testimonies in the book were collected fairly recently, more than 13 years after the genocide – and most of the events described in the book – took place. The authors apparently only first visited Rwanda in December 2007. By this time, Rwanda society was almost entirely organized around the preservation and promotion of the genocide. Because these oral testimonies cover long-ago events and contain few surprises or dramatic tales, they lack an immediacy that might improve the readability of the book. Because these testimonies also lack analysis, they most easily fall into the category of “bearing witness.”  The woman are careful not to blame anyone in particular for the what happened to them and they ask, understandably, that the atrocities brought against them never be done to others.

A short foreword by Stephen Lewis is excellent, and his endorsement of the project is significant.

I might seem unkind, or stupid, to raise the issue of veracity and lack of context, so I will explain a bit.

One reason for concern about veracity is that Lewis and Eve Ensler, who wrote the Afterword, are both prominent actors in a campaign to draw attention to the problem of rape in Eastern Africa, notably the Congo and Rwanda. This book fits neatly into their campaign. Rape is horrible and I agree wholly with Lewis, writing in his foreword: “I don’t understand what possesses men to behave with such bestiality.” Yet by calling African men beasts, and doing so indiscriminately in this book, the tradition of demonizing African men – as presenting as beasts, as sub-human – is revived. I’m concerned about the fervor with which well-meaning Westerners criticize African men as behaving in inexplicable, bewildering and utterly repulsive ways. This reaction strikes me as trading on the entire “heart of darkness” legacy, and I wonder why critics of the brutality of African men – and evidence of this brutality is undeniable – cannot make more specific, nuanced claims.

The final chapter, Life After Death, supplies some sound criticisms of the government of Rwanda, whose officials are usually given too much credit. In the final three pages, there are references to the wider world and the decision by the UN Security council, in June 2008, to join the campaign to, as the authors put it, “end sexual violence in conflict.”

Why rape emerged as a tactic in civil wars around the world in the 1990s is not explored in this book. About the same time as the Rwandan genocide, the tactic emerged on a large scale in the former Yugoslavia, which neither Lewis nor the authors mention at all, choosing instead to make only references to African examples of rape as a tool of war. Again, I worry that the authors have some blindspot that allows them only to see African men acting as beasts and not European men in the former Soviet bloc or Japanese men, who raped with impunity and on a massive scale in China in the 1930s and 40s. That rape of African women by black men is viewed in isolation by educated women and a former Canadian UN official remains a blemish on this book, in my view. The book reinforces the idea that Africans inhabit a separate moral zone that is far far worse than anything ever experienced by non-Africans. This shortcoming is both predictable and easily remedied, by adding another short chapter that examines rape as a tool of war through history. We will find that white Americans raped Native American women with impunity in the conquest of the American; that the Japanese pillaged Asian women in the 20th century; and that advancing Soviet soldiers, in the waning months of WW2, did the same to thousands of German women. Punishment of women through rape can never be understood solely in terms of misogyny. To insist that men rape women out of some irrational hatred of them explains little or nothing. Rape as a tool in war is directed, ultimately, as much at the men who possess these victimized women as against the women themselves. That is why, in my humble opinion, rape as a tool of war is flourishing most in parts of the world where women are essentially the property of fathers and husbands. It is not only because men in war act horribly. To ruin a man’s property in war is the ultimate act of rationality. To rape his wife and daughter is to attempt to destroy his morale, his pride, his willingness to rebuild his life. Rapes in the former Yugoslavia had this very same aim. To understand that rape as a tool of war “makes sense,” however perverse, renders rape no less criminal.

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