Strong Trigger Warning for discussions and descriptions of sexual violence, rape apologism, war, murder, and racism.
This morning, an incredible op-ed by Lisa Shannon was published in the New York Times, entitled “No, Sexual Violence is Not ‘Cultural.'” Of course, those of us here know that rape culture is very, very real. But the context of the word “culture” in this piece is very different. Culture does not refer to a set oppressive of social systems reinforced through every day actions, but to the way that a group of “othered,” presumably “inferior” people live their lives.
A month into my first trip to eastern Congo, site of the deadliest conflict since World War II, I had heard plenty of horror stories — from forced cannibalism to the burning alive of the inhabitants of entire villages. I was no longer easily shocked. But one exchange with an aid worker stopped me cold.
I arrived in Baraka, a town on Lake Tanganyika that was overrun with Congolese soldiers and international aid workers, in February 2007. I asked a disheveled European woman working with the United Nations about security. She enthusiastically described her pet video project, to convince refugees in neighboring Tanzania that it was safe to return home.
“Foreign militias are gone,” she said. “Just rapes and looting for the moment. No attacks.”
Stunned, I asked, “You don’t consider rape a security threat?”
“Rape here is so common,” she said. “It’s cultural.”
That was the first of many times I would hear mass rape in Congo dismissed as “cultural.”
Shannon points out the offensive nature of this line of thinking, and though she doesn’t use the word racism and I wish she had, it seems clear to me that she’s exposing the racist roots to this type of thinking nonetheless, as well as the grave insult it presents to Congolese men.
Any Congolese will tell you rape is not “traditional.” It did occur in Congo before the war, as it does everywhere. But the proliferation of sexual violence came with the war. Militias and Congolese soldiers alike now use sexual violence as a weapon. Left unchecked, sexual violence has festered in Congo’s war-ravaged east. This does not make rape cultural. It makes it easy to commit. There is a difference.
Analysts often use the phrase “culture of impunity” to describe Congo. John Prendergast, who has worked in African conflict zones for 25 years, explains: “The rule of law breaks down and perpetrators commit crimes without fear of conviction or punishment. Over time, this leads to further breakdown of societal codes and the very social fabric of a community.”
The media, aid workers and activists alike have consistently failed to tell the stories of Congolese men who were killed by fighters because they refused to commit rape. In interviews with hundreds of women, I heard countless stories of men who chose to take a bullet in the head, literally, rather than violate their child, sister or mother. In Baraka, one survivor recalled: “They tried to make my older brother rape me. He refused and was killed. So they raped me.”
At first I just wanted to share this piece with you, because it is excellent, and thought that I myself had nothing to add. But after several hours it stuck with me, and I decided to read it again. And I realized that I did have something, after all.
I think that Shannon had a good reason to focus on men in her piece — indeed, those who work against rape culture regularly argue that we need to spend more time looking at the perpetrators of violence and preventing rape, rather than only assisting victims as though rape is inevitable. And the dishonor done to those many men who gave their own lives rather than commit rape on behalf of other men matters. It matters deeply — it deserves to be known, and those doing the dishonoring deserve to be shamed.
But I want to expand on what this type of thinking Shannon rebuts says about and does to Congolese women. Of them, Shannon writes:
The European aid worker who dismissed the violence as “cultural” implied that Congolese women should expect to be raped. In so doing, she dismissed her responsibility to so much as warn returning refuges about the extreme security threat.
Later that day in 2007, I met 20 Congolese women who had returned from refugee camps in the last six months. In that time, half had been raped.
“Cultural relativism legitimizes the violence and discredits the victims, because when you accept rape as cultural, you make rape inevitable,” Ms. Wallstrom explained in a recent opinion essay co-authored with the Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store. “This shields the perpetrators and allows world leaders to shrug off sexual violence as an immutable — if regrettable — truth.”
And I think that we can take that just a little bit further. In saying “it’s cultural,” the woman did even more than dismiss her responsibility to the women she was trying to get to return home — and it should go without saying that dismissing her responsibility was beyond forgivable already. She didn’t just dismiss her responsibility, she more or less said that if these women are raped, it does not matter.
A European woman readily, easily dismissed the idea of rape against African women as a genuine security threat. Never mind that Congolese women are routinely killed by rape, or permanently disabled by rape (usually without access to medical care, no less). Never mind that Congolese women are routinely impregnated by rape, and having no access to abortion are forced to carry their rapist’s child. Never mind that even if these things were not true, even if rapes in the Congo were not notoriously violent, that rape, any rape, is more than bad enough. Never mind that rape should not be committed against anyone, and yet it is admittedly being systematically committed against Congolese women.
This European woman did not reflect on the sides of privilege and oppression that she and the African women whose security she rejected each fell as both mere accidents of birth and upheld systems of subjugation. She did not stop and consider that as bad as rape culture is in her home country, no one would dare actually speak those words about her own body. And yet somehow, she still knew these things about her own position of privilege. I see no other way that the words could have left her mouth so easily, if somewhere she did not also realize that she was not at risk of falling victim to them herself.
It’s true that something more horrifying than what most people have ever experienced can occur for other people so frequently that they “get used to it,” that it can in fact become normal. Marginalized people have for centuries gotten “used to” all kinds of atrocious, horrific, and oppressive behavior. For example, untold women have “gotten used to” being beaten every night. They have gotten used to it because they had to. Because they had no choice. Because it’s what they needed to do to survive.
I don’t know whether, as the European woman seems to think, many or most Congolese women have gotten “used to” rape, whether or not it has become such a part of their lives that they see it as “normal,” and I’m not going to pretend to know. But what I do know is that if they have, if they have gotten used to it, if they do see it as normal, that what any woman has to do in order to survive violence doesn’t change a goddamn fucking thing about whether or not the violence matters. No matter how used to abuse a person gets, no matter how tragically normal violence may be as a part of a person’s life, it is never okay. It is never less of a threat to them. It always matters. It always fucking matters.
By saying that rape in the Congo is “cultural,” just “the way things are,” and “what those people are like,” we’re engaging in racism and colonialist tropes about a brutal “savage” black male that is sexually insatiable, immoral, and violent. We’re engaging in tropes that have been used to kill countless black men throughout history, and which continue to justify Western capitalist colonization and imperialism today.
And we’re also saying that some women just don’t fucking matter. That some women’s bodies just deserve to be raped. And those women’s bodies just so happen to be the bodies of poor black women in a supposedly monolithic, Othered Africa. The same exact women whose rapes by Western, white men have been excused through the same exact means. The same women who myths about what kind of oppressive, violent behavior is so “common” and normal” and deserved have always hurt the most.