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Blaming victims of rape largely misses the mark: when does the onus begin to fall on those who carry out the crime, instead of it perpetually falling on those who have been assaulted?

Seven years after the World Health Organisation’s study on “Violence against Women”, how much has changed? Has society succeeded in providing safety for women? War zones across the globe—Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo-DRC—indicate failure. More needs to be done. Lindsay Collen’s The Rape of Sita is a thought-provoking hard read about sexual violence (Collen 1993). Written in the early 1990s, it is still as pertinent today in getting us to think about the corner we’ve pushed our mothers, sisters, wives and nieces into—a tight spot where trauma and abuse reign supreme. Is there a way out of this? Can we imagine a society where a woman’s “no” is respected? I believe so, and the path there involves our acceptance of a woman’s right to say “yes.”

I want to think through Collen’s work by invoking a member of my extended family. Let’s just call her Susan. She was married to my cousin for about five years and in that time they had been “blessed” with two boys. I guess you could call their existence blessed, if you ignore the fact that their dysfunctional relationship was characterized by domestic violence, bouts of heavy drinking and the mistresses my cousin kept. From Monday through Saturday evening Susan’s husband lived in Njiru, 3 hours away. She lived with her in-laws, struggling to get along with a mother-in-law, my aunt, who is often hard to please. Her husband came home every Saturday evening, to rest for a day from his job at the Njiru Kichinjio.

After years of this life Susan decided she’d had enough, I imagine. So one holiday she went to Gikambura, the nearest town with several hangout spots, for a few beers. The exact details of the night are hard to determine but the end result was her becoming intoxicated, and being sexually assaulted by several men. In the reaction to this incident lies Collen’s contribution: identifying society’s knee-jerk reaction to blame the victim.

Susan and my cousin were already having a rocky marriage, but after the rape they separated. He got custody of their two boys. In his words, he had no space for “a woman who went out to drink and ended up violated by a gang of men.” I wonder at the wisdom of this. It was clear from speaking with him that she should not have been out at that time of the night, let alone at a bar. The Rape of Sita describes trespassing laws that society has proscribed for women: there are certain places a woman should not go, at certain times, and certain clothes a woman should not wear; there is a certain vigilance that a woman should always maintain – ever on the look-out for predator men. Collen asks us, ‘Should a woman ever, dear reader, relax her attention … be off her guard? Or should a woman always be vigilant?’ (Collenn 2003). There has to be something wrong with a society where half its members live in perpetual fear of physical harm, like hunted prey forever looking over their shoulders.

Collen does a great job with her rhetorical questions: ‘Should a woman stop an unknown pair of lights at night, when she is in distress, or hide from it?’ That is, where can victims seek help? It comes as no surprise that families and law enforcement officers are not always the best place to go seeking refuge. Globally, the majority of sexual assaults are committed by close male family members or acquaintances. I do not know how Susan’s family reacted to the news of her trauma, but her in-laws were definitely not kind. Nine months later, she had a child, likely from the assault. One of the responses I heard about the new baby was that, “She must now be happy; she was looking for another boy and she got what she was after!” At what point does society shut its eyes to the suffering of others?

The moment a woman’s power of agency is abdicated she holds no potential to decide her fate—obviously. What I love about Collen’s novel is how it connects “normal” male-female relationships to the question of violence. She lays out a dilemma thus: a woman cannot say “yes,” even when she wants to, since doing so turns her into a “bad” woman. As a result, “’no’ has two meanings ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’” We need to free women’s “yes” so that these cannot be confused with “no.” Fairly simple, we all know this. And yet during rape trials, a woman’s sexual history always comes up, always dredged up to represent her promiscuity and absolve her assailant. Patriarchy stifles women’s ability to make decisions about their sexuality and their bodies. Women taking charge of their lives cause deep-seated anxiety about the nation’s welfare and masculinity’s ability to perpetuate its hegemony. I want to celebrate a society where women are empowered to say “yes” and their agency is taken at face-value—“yes” means yes, and “no” means no.


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