How Not to Discuss Sexual Violence against Third World Women

Last week I was invited to the Dutch embassy to celebrate the launching of the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s report on sexual violence against women in Sudan. The report is titled “Survivors Speak Out: Sexual Violence in Sudan,” and it is meant to address the situation of “mass rape” and other forms of sexual violence against Sudanese women of all religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

As a Masters student interested in issues of gender and gendered violence, I was quite excited to be one of three students chosen to represent my university. I, a Mexican of indigenous background and a convert to Islam, was chosen alongside one Christian Lebanese PhD student and a second-year Masters student of Iraqi and Muslim background. Upon arrival to the embassy, the first thing we noticed was the demographic. We were three of the five minorities in a group of more than 50 people. There were only about four men, including the ambassador and a representative from Amnesty international. Whereas demographics may be irrelevant in some contexts, I think the demographics of this event set the tone for what would be an afternoon of drawing dichotomies, praising the big bucks coming from abroad, and presenting few recommendations to solve the issues. As three of the five minorities we were photographed constantly… My Iraqi friend, who is also a hijabi, attracted numerous people who kept asking to take a picture with her. It was like being in the zoo. Nonetheless, perhaps one of the most shocking (but not really) facts was that in an event celebrating the launching of a report about Sudanese women, there were no Sudanese people.

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On Sexual Violence and Media Portrayal in Pakistan

Years ago, loose gravel on a trail up Margalla Hills landed me in the emergency room with a sprained ankle.  All I remember at the time was the excruciating pain radiating from my ankle and worrying if it was broken and whether I’d be able catch a plane on time to return to university.  My mother and I were waiting for the doctor to finally see us when we heard a commotion in the main foyer.  A muffled siren could be heard just outside and medical personnel whizzed by us, yelling orders, but even they couldn’t drown out the choked wails of several women who had gathered nearby.  Curious and petrified in equal amounts, we watched as a little girl was wheeled into a nearby alcove, whimpering and shuffling under a yellowing sheet that covered much of her body.  Only when the crowd started to disperse did my mother ask a passing aide about the commotion.  She leaned in, face weary, and whispered that ever dreadful word: rape.  We were stunned.

The horrific tale of this child never made the news.  Then again, it was 1998, a time when incidences of violence against women and children were only occasionally reported in print editions of national newspapers.  Recently, a five-year-old girl from a low-income neighborhood in Lahore was sexually assaulted and left outside a hospital in critical condition.  This time around, however, news outlets were abuzz with the story and the media hype was overwhelming, thanks to the internet and the 24 hour news cycle.  It is a definite change from years past when the only TV channel was the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV), largely considered an extension of the government pulpit.

The era of purported “enlightened moderation” under former President Musharraf, coupled with the electronic media boom in 2002, saw an emergence of a number of private TV stations that provided audiences with additional news content, thereby providing a modicum of balance and neutrality to Pakistan’s news industry.  Also on the agenda of various current affairs programming were attempts to address a number of socio-economic issues including crime and incidences of violence against women and children.  Unfortunately, however, prevailing trends in the media’s treatment of female survivors of rape suggest levels of bias in addition to being exploitive in nature.  This is partly evident in the news coverage of the aforementioned five-year old; CCTV footage of the girl being dropped off at the hospital by her alleged attacker(s) – no one has been formally charged – was played ad nauseam on TV channels.  Additionally, the young survivor’s name was revealed (in addition to her face) and those of her family members thereby violating an unwritten code of ethics in the media industry when reporting about victims of sexual crime – particularly those so young.   [Read more...]

“Outlawed in Pakistan”: A Powerful Look at Violence Against Women

FRONTLINE is one of my favorite shows to watch on television. Their documentaries are thoughtful and available to watch indefinitely online in the United States. In addition to airing documentaries, they have a fantastic online presence and provide additional commentary, interviews, and chats for each of their shows to further engage with viewers. I watched The Interrupters in 2012 for Muslimah Media Watch, when it aired under FRONTLINE in the United States. You can still watch that film online.

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I recently watched Outlawed in Pakistan, which aired on FRONTLINE in May of this year. Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellman’s documentary follows the heartbreaking story of 13-year-old Kainat Sumroo as she brings her gang rape case to court in Pakistan. The film portrays the systematic challenges of bringing a rape case to trial in Pakistan and includes commentary from a variety of people related to the case: her supportive family, attorney, women’s rights organizations in Pakistan, and even those accused of the crime. The filmmakers traveled to Pakistan to film the documentary over the past four years. [Read more...]

Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan and the rape/adultery fallacy

This post was written by Aziz Poonawalla and originally appeared at City of Brass.

I found this argument by Munawar Hassan of the political party Jamaat-i-Islami to be unbelievably disgusting and fundamentally blasphemous in the way he invokes the Qur’an to justify blatant misogyny:

Here is the most disturbing part of Hassan’s comments:

Anchor: The fundamental purpose of the women protection act was (is) to provide women with the right to file cases on the basis of circumstantial and forensic evidence, making convictions of rape easier. Where is the obscenity in that?

Munawar Hasan: This bill has been part of law for years, how has that affected the rights of women in Pakistan? What is the one issue that can be pointed out as a success of this law?

Anchor: One blaringly obvious problem with the Hudood law was the need to present four witnesses in order to convict a rapist, failure to do so resulted in the arrest of the woman on charges of confession to adultery, that was the main issue.

Munawar Hasan: What is the problem in that?

Anchor: The problem is this sir, that according to the 2003 national commission status of women report 80 per cent women were forced to languish in jails because of inability to produce witnesses of their rape.

Munawar Hasan: The objective of Islam is to discourage such acts, no one can be shameless enough to commit such an act in the presence of four people. Making it impossible to prove such acts, therefore the whole idea is to discourage bringing such acts into public light. Discouraging it to the extent that the act is never quoted. If such a crime occurs and since there are no witnesses than both men and women are suppose to keep it under wraps and not discuss it in public.

Anchor: Sir, are you suggesting that a woman should stay silent after she is raped? That she should not report the crime?

Munawar Hasan: I am saying she should keep quite if she has no witnesses. If she has witnesses than she should present them.

Anchor: What kind of an argument is that? A woman is raped and she has to look for witnesses to prove the crime?

Munawar Hasan: Argue with the Quran and not me.

Anchor: I am not questioning the Quran, I am questioning your argument.

This is unbelievable. Why do extremist Islamists always make the poorest, most ignorant religious arguments?

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The New York Post’s DSK Victim-Blaming


The New York Post's cover.

Here’s today’s front page of The New York Post, victim-blaming Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser. You can email your concerned, disgusted reactions to

Thanks to the Women’s Media Center for the tip.

The DSK Rape Victim is Everything but a Victim, According to the Media

The media response to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape charges is predictably horrific. The salacious gossip can maintain itself for weeks: the victim lives in a complex for HIV-positive residents (no wait! She doesn’t); wears hijab; and is “pious and respectable.” No, you say, she’s not unattractive—she’s actually got great breasts?

A full 57% of French citizens claim that Strauss-Kahn, who was set to unseat Sarkozy in the upcoming election, was set-up at his Sofitel Hotel. This, of course, is particularly concerning because the victim is Muslim.

The case has shed renewed light on France’s growing Islamophobia and general intolerance toward overt religious expression, but also on the problem of its politically, socially and economically marginalized Muslim and Arab communities and the discrimination they face. Amid speculation about whether Strauss-Kahn preyed on his victim because she is a Muslim woman who wears hijab or because he knew that her class and position made her less likely to report the crime, it’s interesting to note the extent to which her external expression of religion is being used to both lend her credibility (as her Guinean family suggested it should) and undermine her accusation.

Reading the comments of pieces that mention the victim’s religion, it’s interesting to note that of her many marginalized identities—immigrant; possibly HIV-positive; Guinean; young, single mother; black—her Muslim faith is the only one that opens the floodgates for conspiracy theorists and unconscionable victim-blaming. (There is obviously a more insidious kind of victim-blaming by the likes of Ben Stein and Bernard-Henri Levy, but I’m referring to the kind of comments that flatly deny the victim’s claim to truth on the basis of her religion, as opposed to the usual culprits of class or sex). Many of these comments reflect mistrust of Muslims and, by extension, a willingness to withhold judgment on Strauss-Kahn until the victim’s “motives” have been made clear. As one commenter says, “She probably is just a poor woman from Guinea who just wanted to work hard to support her daughter. I remember a few innocent students from Saudi Arabia who just wanted to learn to fly planes.”

This is, after all, a political case; so it’s not shocking that a lot is being made of the victim’s and defendant’s externalities. The dichotomies include French vs. immigrants, Jews vs. Muslims, and the standard rich vs. poor. And I don’t mean to suggest that any or all of these were not factors in Strauss-Kahn’s bad, bad decision to select a victim because—let’s face it—the grids of inequality in cases like this one are compelling enough to discuss for weeks.

But exceptionalizing this case the way the media has, with the many conspiracy theories and speculation of political motive (she must have been invested in the French election, tried to seduce him, etc.) belies America’s own denial of a strong rape culture. Rape happens every day, everywhere. And though it’s much easier to believe that there was a terrorist plot to seduce the head of the IMF, the fact is that someone we trust with what is literally the whole world’s future likely did something wholly vile and inexplicable.

The assumptions that come with the Sofitel maid’s external expression of Islam—she was pious, so she wouldn’t have seduced him; she was extremist, so it was a plot to kill him—only further demonstrate how far we are from what matters here: she was a victim of rape, first and foremost. In our discussion of class, race, ethnicity, background, religion, politics, and money, we seem to have let slide a more important discussion of the kind of culture that engenders victim-blaming, and, more importantly, victims of rape.

Check out an earlier post on the DSK case here.