What Happened at Berkeley in 1985

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Kimberly Latta walking in the Berkeley woods, 1985

During the first semester of my first year as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, in 1985, I took a class with Franco Moretti, who was then a visiting professor from Italy. He was considered one of the up-and-coming literary critics at the time and there was much excitement about his work. He was cool. He was hip. He hung out with the New Historicist and critical theory professors in the departments of English, German, French, and Hispanic literatures. I was particularly interested in studying with him because I had been told that he had particular expertise in the Frankfurt School of social theory and philosophy. I was 25 and very naïve. I had spent the previous year in Northern Germany as a Fulbright Scholar and was still coping with the shock of beginning graduate school in a country that felt strange even though it was “home.” Franco demonstrated a great deal of interest in me, and I foolishly believed it was because he found me intelligent. The quotidian details of our relationship—how it began, how many times we saw each other, and where—are difficult for me to recall, but I know that the relationship lasted for the entire semester, about 3 or 4 months. It seemed romantic at first. Quickly it became traumatic.

People want me to spin the narrative, run the film, so they can see it, comprehend it, fashion it into a chronology that makes sense to them. But traumatic memory does not work that way. Traumatic memory is fragmentary because trauma –the word derives from the Greek word for wound—injures the body and brain. As trauma experts Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk assert, traumatized people commonly report memory loss and dissociation because experiences of helplessness and terror cannot be integrated into normal autobiographical memory. Traumatic memories are jumpy, disjointed, incoherent, indigestible, cut off, separated, split away, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be put together.

I remember images, sensations, words, events, but could not say exactly in what order they took place. I remember meeting with him during office hours—his light coming in from the window behind him on the other side of his desk. He commented on my indigo-stained fingers. I apologized (!) and said I used a fountain pen. I remember him telling me, later, that he wasn’t attracted to me at first because he thought I had fat legs. Why? Because he had only seen me wearing those loose boots from the 1980s, the ones I got from my mother. They were real leather and I thought they were cool. The weather must have warmed up because, he said, he later saw me in shorts. It was then, when he pruriently gazed at me as though I were some Suzanna in the garden, that he decided to come after me.

He told me I was beautiful like Mathilde in The Red and the Black—not exactly a compliment. He said he had told “everyone” in the English department that he was in love with me. I remember feeling vulnerable, exposed, ashamed. I remember him inviting me to dinner in his apartment with other faculty friends. I remember being excited about the opportunity to socialize with the women and men I admired so much. I remember the dingy white walls in my apartment in Oakland. I remember him pushing me down onto my futon, going too fast, too far. I remember I said, “No.” I remember I said, “I’m not comfortable with this.” “I don’t want to.” I remember him saying, “O, you American women, when you say no you mean yes.” I remember leaving my body and hovering somewhere around the ceiling, looking down and telling myself, “This is not happening to me. It is happening to her, to that body, not to me, not to me, not to me.” I will never forget the bleak, blank despair of that moment, the collapse of consciousness , the escape into nothingness, the fall into disgust and shame.

I remember him telling me that professors in Italy routinely slept with their graduate students, so why was I being such a prude? I remember the yellowish late afternoon light in his office, the window just opposite to the windows in the library. I remember panicking and feeling paralyzed, terrified that someone would witness my defilement, would see him pushing me against the wall, unbuttoning my blouse, putting his hands on my breasts, his tongue in my mouth. I remember the cold against my back, my clenched and churning gut. I remember being stricken, immobilized, and ashamed. Ashamed of my degradation, my helplessness, my passivity. I remember feeling dirty.

I remember another time when he pushed me against the wall in his apartment. It was dark in there; the sunlight was outside. I didn’t protest when he undressed me. I stood there, allowed it to happen, and what came next. I was a doll, a puppet, a thing. “This isn’t happening to me,” I told myself. I absented my flesh, myself. My mind seemed to disintegrate, to become turgid and stupid. And for days and weeks and months it was impossible to think. I felt dead, utterly alone, separated, alienated, cast adrift, cut off from care, from concern, from love, from life. In class I felt such a sordid lurching in my belly and dizziness that I had to leave the room. Finally I stopped going. I took an incomplete.

I read in the news that Moretti said we remained on good terms. Maybe he meant that he gave me an A for the final paper I struggled to birth, that document of wretchedness. We did not remain on good terms. I saw him once, on an airplane on the way to the MLA. I think it was 1998. He came over with a big smile on his face and said, “Hello, hello! Do you remember me?” I was sitting with a friend, a tremendous supporter, and we were both on our way to our first interviews. My friend’s presence gave me courage. “Of course I remember you,” I said, “and I will never forgive you for what you did to me.” He turned away, ran back to his seat and never contacted me again.

Towards the end of the semester in 1985 I was unable to focus on my studies. I was constantly ill and nervous and frazzled, distressed, and ashamed. I didn’t know what to do. One of my friends must have suggested I go to the Title IX officer.  I don’t remember. I have forgotten—repressed?—so many things about that period in my life. The difference between ordinary forgetfulness and traumatic amnesia is that, in the latter case, although many moments are gone, the particularly grisly scenes remain permanently burned in. As van der Kolk puts it, “traumatized people simultaneously remember too little and too much.” Some memories are too much to bear.

I would never have gone to the Title IX office had I known who held it. It took all my courage to get myself there. With dismay and the familiar sensations of despairing helplessness, I discovered that the person responsible for protecting me was a not a neutral party, but rather, one of his colleagues, someone I was pretty sure he knew well. She was on his side. Or so I thought, reading her dispassionate expression and body language. She was not warm. She did not want to hear about it.   I was so ragged that I blurted out my story anyways. I told her that I was being harassed, sexually pursued. It’s possible I didn’t tell her that he had already raped me. I was so ashamed, ashamed of having been violated, of being unable to protect myself.   I remember her adamantly commanding me, “Don’t tell me his name.” This confused me. I had already told her enough about him—he was Italian, a visiting professor, in the English department—for her to know who he was. Of course she knew who he was. She discouraged me from filing a formal report, by describing the process as involving a scrutiny that sounded more traumatizing than what I was already undergoing. I remember insisting that she at least write down his initials, in case he did this to anyone else. She said she would. She also said there was nothing she could or would do for me unless I was willing to file formal charges. I do not remember her offering me the option to have the university administration write something like a cease and desist letter. Perhaps she did. I doubt I would have agreed to take such a path—it would only have led to retaliation and further abuse.

When I told Franco Moretti I had told Frances Ferguson that he was sexually harassing me, he said that if I pressed charges he would ruin my career. He said he would hire the powerful attorney-wife of a colleague in the English department (whose name I have forgotten, of course) and shred me. No one would believe me, he said. I believed him. The relationship ended there. I left the course, avoided him and his cronies, and did my best to carry on.

After he left Berkeley, Franco sent me two chatty letters, which I have not saved. I remember feeling flabbergasted by them. Why would he write to me? Did he think we were friends? Was he so narcissistically deranged that he actually believed that he hadn’t hurt me? After I had told him how devastated I felt? How I couldn’t even sit in his class any more, could not be around him or his faculty friends? I destroyed them. I didn’t want anything around me that was linked to him. My interest the Frankfurt school evaporated, and I turned to Simone de Beauvoir and other French feminists. It was difficult to go on, but I resolved not to let him destroy me completely. I avoided courses with people who I believed where close to him, but never really knew whom I could trust. A few good guys, especially Jeffrey Knapp in English and Michael Rogin in Political Science, were tremendous teachers and mentors for me at Berkeley.  But I didn’t tell them. I wanted to, but couldn’t. As soon as I passed the qualifying exams for the Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature—then a grueling four hours a day for five days in a row answering written and oral questions in three languages—I fled.

Writing about this takes a toll. Speaking about it, telling the story over and over again, has been far more stressful than I could have imagined. My throat constricts; my heart, thudding furiously, jumps into my mouth; my stomach aches; my forehead throbs. It hurts, physically, to remember and to tell the truth. My body knows what my consciousness refuses to acknowledge. I don’t go here often. I had buried all this deep down in the darkness, and now that I am bringing it back to the surface I am flooded with unbearable discomfort. I had not expected this.

Folks want to know what prompted me to speak out now. Because it is the right thing to do. Because I wanted to speak out long ago, but was afraid. He threatened me, after all. Now, thirty-odd years later, I know he can’t hurt me. Too many people can corroborate my story. As I have told my story to various friends in the academy of the years, many told me that they had heard that he had abused and harassed other graduate students. I was not the only one. Of course he denies it. Of course he is lying. Would you expect otherwise?

The hundreds of brave women who have spoken out—including Anita Hill, and all the women who exposed Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others—inspired me to tell my story. Women writing about what feminine beings endure, such as Rebecca Solnit and Laurie Penny, give me courage. We are warriors. I speak because I respect myself and because silence almost always helps the oppressors, rarely the oppressed.

This story is not just about Moretti and Ferguson. It is also about the unacknowledged power to intimidate and abuse that professors wield over students. It is about the men who harass female graduate students and the women who cover up for them or look the other way. Ever since patriarchy became the dominant mode of reproduction—Gerda Lerner traces its origins in emergence of Mesopotamian temple-towns 3,000 years before the current era—women have cooperated with misogynist power structures to advance their own social and political capital. I think most academics start out with good intentions but too many are perverted by the institutions in which they achieve fame and fortune. I can forgive but not excuse their corruption.

Why don’t more women speak out about their abuse? Rape survivors very often doubt themselves because our point of view differs dramatically from commonly held beliefs about sexual assault. As Herman observes, returning veterans who have been traumatized are at least recognized for having been to war, but the terrorizing violence that rape survivors experience is rarely acknowledged: “Women learn that in rape they are not only violated but dishonored. They are treated with greater contempt than defeated soldiers, for there is no acknowledgement that they have lost an unfair fight.” Sexist viewpoints, shared by women as well as men, too often dismiss what survivors experienced as terrorizing violations. Sometimes even close relations refuse to understand, forcing victims to choose between expressing their point of view and remaining part of the masculinist community, a community that routinely blames the violated for their violation. Masculinism privileges the masculine over the feminine in all aspects of being and in all body-minds and defines the masculine over and against the not-masculine, the not-strong, the weak, the helpless, the shameful.  I want people to know what happened to me and to all those who fight for dignity in an academic system riddled with institutionalized masculinism.

In my letter to Stanford, I wrote that I wanted to bring Moretti to justice. I mean that people should know about what he did and decide for themselves what consequences he should suffer. It is not my place to say what would be fair, what would be just. It is my place to demand that all people in the world start paying closer attention to the suffering of graduate students who are tremendously vulnerable to the kind of abuse that I experienced at the hands of men and women. The University of California has had a problem with professors harassing students verbally and physically for a long time, as William Kidder shows in his forthcoming essay. Moreover, as Ali Colleen Neff suggests in her piece about academic precarity, the cut-throat academy enables, even encourages, people to do terrible things to others in order to get a job, tenure, full professorship, endowed chair, distinguished emeritus status. Does the university regard this behavior as distinguished?

As I said, it hurts to talk and write about it. The truth hurts whether we utter it or not, and I feel compassion for and solidarity with those who cannot. Too many still suffer. Too many will continue to suffer until we change.   I want our society to transform by rejecting masculinism and embracing the worth and dignity of feminine beings as equal to (not the same as) masculine beings in every way. We start by believing the individuals who have had the courage to speak up, to talk back to the powers that have demeaned and abused them for so long. #Metoo.

 

Coda: I wish to thank all the wonderful people who read my letter to Stanford University and who have written to express their solidarity with me. You have helped me to heal more than you know.

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Kimberly Latta reading at her home in Santa Barbara, 1985

 

 

 

Trump signs gag rule, harming women world-wide.

Are Pregnant Women Persons? The Assault on Women’s Subjectivity

 

Trump signs gag rule, harming women world-wide.
My uncle Lars (not his real name) was troubled for much of his life.   He had three daughters by two mothers.   Well after his daughters were grown, with children of their own, he impregnated a young Mexican woman–let’s call her Elena–and then had her imprisoned on charges that she was harming “his” fetus with substances.    I do not know whether or not Elena used drugs or alcohol while she was pregnant.   Uncle Lars alleged that she did, and managed have her locked up in a State prison for the duration of her pregnancy, directly in violation of her constitutional rights.

Read moreAre Pregnant Women Persons? The Assault on Women’s Subjectivity

Jimmy Carter is My Hero

I have always loved and respected President Carter.  My admiration for him increases every year.  If Protestants had saints, he’d be a good candidate.

Losing my religion for equality…by Jimmy Carter

25 JANUARY 2013

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

OBSERVER

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

Copyright © 2013 Fairfax Media

 

 

Kalidas’s House

As soon as I moved into Kalidas’s unhappy house, I realized that I had had it with Nepal.  I like Kalidas, in spite of his domineering ways.  He looks me straight in the eyes, which Sugandha rarely did.   And he shows the pain of their terrible loss.  Not five months ago, they lost their 19 year-old daughter to cancer.  He told me directly that the reason he wanted me to live with them was to keep his wife company and to teach her English.  I feel sorry for them, but I also think they expect too much from me.

I needed a place where I could relax and recover from the long, hot days.  Communal dinners with the other volunteers living at Sugandha’s house provided a wonderful respite.  There was much laughter, usually because Brendan was entertaining everyone with silly impersonations of redneck, gun-toting Americans trying to speak Nepali or interacting with foreigners of any kind.  He has a gift for jokes—they just tumble out of his mouth.  The Brits found him hilarious and insisted that he should be on TV.   At Kalidas’s house, I was the entertainment and the teacher at once.  Dinner was an exhausting ordeal of answering personal questions or dodging obvious traps such as the following:

Kalidas: We Nepalis have such a relaxed way of life, whereas you westerners are rushing around all the time.

Me: Yes, we live to work, while you work to live.

Kalidas: Who has the better life, Nepalis or Westerners?

Me:  Um, well, it depends on which Nepalis and which Westerners you’re talking about.  Do you mean Kathmandu street children?  Do you mean wealthy businessmen such as yourself?

Kalidas, ignoring my efforts to complicate the question entirely: Which lifestyle is healthier?  Who has the better life?

Me:  I really couldn’t say. I’m sorry, I just can’t seem to decide.

Kalidas: We Nepalis have the better life….

And here would commence another long lecture about the superiority of Nepal.  After two days in his house, Kalidas had convinced himself that I would soon see the light, marry a proper Nepali man, and settle here, in Pepsi-Cola.

It was awkward.  I had to get out of there, and did.  After a week at this house I rode my bike to Boudha.  The ride home that night was hilarious and harrowing. I will write about it in a separate post

Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work

These hilarious and poignant pointers come from my favorite spinster aunt:

Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work

1. Don’t put drugs in women’s drinks.

2. When you see a woman walking by herself, leave her alone.

3. If you pull over to help a woman whose car has broken down, remember not to rape her.

4. If you are in a lift and a woman gets in, don’t rape her.

5. When you encounter a woman who is asleep, the safest course of action is to not rape her.

6. Never creep into a woman’s home through an unlocked door or window, or spring out at her from between parked cars, or rape her.

7. When you lurk in bushes and doorways with criminal intentions, always wear bright clothing, wave a flashlight, or play “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)” by the Raveonettes on a boombox really loud, so women in the vicinity will know where to aim their flamethrowers.

8. USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM! If it is inconvenient for you to stop yourself from raping women, ask a trusted friend to accompany you when lurking in shadows.

9. Carry a rape whistle. If you find that you are about to rape a woman, you can hand the whistle to your buddy, so s/he can blow it to call for help.

10. Give your buddy a revolver, so that when indifferent passers-by either ignore the rape whistle, or gather round to enjoy the spectacle, s/he can pistol-whip you.

11. Don’t forget: Honesty is the best policy. When asking a woman out on a date, don’t pretend that you are interested in her as a person; tell her straight up that you expect to be raping her later. If you don’t communicate your intentions, the woman may take it as a sign that you do not plan to rape her.

In other words, the best way to prevent rape is to not rape anybody.

The Media Assault on Women and a Lecture on Gender

The Mis-representation of Women in the Media, Or, Insidious Violence Against Human Beings Gendered Feminine is the subject of today’s rant, and it is prompted by Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s  documentary, Miss Representation.

We’ve seen many of these images before, of course, but not while thinking about them as Newsome allows us to.  She skillfully juxaposes the pornographic male gaze with a more honest look at actual women and girls.  Seeing these images out of context, away from the narratives that lull us to sleep, or encourage us to buy products, or vote the way particular corporate interests direct us to think about ourselves as women or men, allows us to understand how they damage us.

Distorted and insulting portraits of women as sex objects for men to use, deride, revile, and torment with abandon express the fantasies of adolescent porn addicts.  Sut Jhally makes a similar point in his compelling Dreamsworlds 3: Sex and Power in Music Video. These phantasms of the misogynist mind do real harm because they seep into the collective unconscious and register there as accurate, acceptable, even laudable.  That is why we see eleven year-olds vamping up in sexy outfits and heavy makeup and housewives taking up pole-dancing, or imagining that such activities are appropriate and authentic means of self-expression, even artistry, and that dressing and behaving like slaves will garner them genuine love, affection, companionship.

These perverted images do not directly rape women, but they do a symbolic violence that is as devastating and long-lasting as rape, and this symbolic violence, this grotesque representation of women as sex-starved sluts desperate for male attention, or as “bitches” or “dykes” when they refuse to defer to men and stand up for themselves, leads to actual, physical violence.  This symbolic violence encourages men to rape and to brutalize women, and then trivializes these horrific crimes.

Media symbols of degraded femininity do real violence not only because they broadcast a particularly narrow and misogynist message, but also because they reinforce the underlying patriarchal structure of our society.  They reiterate the male/female dichotomies that organize our culture and guide the way that we learn to understand ourselves narrowly as masculine or feminine, rational or irrational, subject or object, light or dark, good or bad.

As my favorite Spinster Aunt at I Blame the Patriarchy notes, femininity is not inherent or natural, but rather a way of being that is acquired, developed, within a patriarchal and heterosexist culture:

That’s right. Femininity is not a natural expression of femaleness. It is not an hereditary, hormone-based fascination for fashion, submissiveness, mani-peddies, baby-soft skin, or catfighting. It is not a fun-loving lifestyle choice. Femininity is a rigid system of behaviors imposed on us by the Global Accords Governing the Fair Use of Women as a means to control, subjugate, and marginalize us, entirely at our expense, for the benefit of the male-controlled megatheocorporatocracy.

Some people believe that

the practice of femininity is but one facet of an exciting smorgasbord…of lifestyle choices available to today’s busy autonomous gal-on-the-go. They feel that “choosing” feminine conduct is an act of feminist rebellion, on the grounds that the choicing is entirely the chooser’s own personal idea. They aver that femininity can be an expression of a woman’s personal personality, and that it is “fun.” It is irrelevant, apparently, that femininity just happens to align precisely with the pornified desires, yucky fetishes, and vulgar business interests of the entire dudely culture of domination.

…It’s so much easier to go with the flow and comfy up with the familiar old gender stereotypes than it is to come to grips with the fact that our woman-hating world order enforces femininity with a rigorous system of hollow, joyless rewards and uncompromising, murderous punishments, and that the enforcement of feminine behavior is a global humanitarian crisis.

Twisty has it right. The enforcement of feminine behavior–feminine as defined by the media who pander to adolescent porn-addled male fantasies, which the media reinforces and sustains in order to perpetuate itself–is a global humanitarian crisis because women constitute more than 50 per cent of the global population and women across the world have been under siege for thousands of years, since patriarchy was invented.

Feel like watching another video?  Check out this great ad by the Dove Self-Esteem fund:

Feel better now?  No?  The director is sending an message, but also shows us how the media assaults us in order to manipulate us! It blasts away at us every day all the time.  Actual men assault actual women every day, all the time, too.   Officially estimated, men rape women and girls every 15 seconds in this country, and 1 in 4 women has been or will be sexually violated in her lifetime.   But when you consider the whole picture of Intimate Partner Violence, it is no overstatement to say that every single second of every single day multiple men demean, insult, harass, beat, rape, and assault women or girls they know.

I volunteer at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, which is one of the oldest and best-respected institutions of its kind.  Please consider supporting them. They need your help very much.

Because of the economic crisis in this country,  battering has increased at the very same time that funding for crisis shelters has dried up.  The GOP’s war on women and disingenuous and foolish campaign to slash federal money for all agencies that offer support, medical assistance, and psychological care for women (Planned Parenthood, WIC and Head Start are all under attack) will make the situation worse.  This is not to say that poor people commit domestic violence at higher rates than the rich.   Men of every station, race, income level, and education batter and abuse women with impunity in this country.   The media, which makes billions of dollars portraying women in disturbingly demeaned and perverted roles, encourages this criminal abuse.

Speak out.  Represent yourself, in all your complex gender-bending beauty.

The Culture of Rape in the Congo

 

In the last few days, Congolese thugs raped 60 women, men, and children.  Sexual violence in the Congo has escalated at a terrifying rate.  Over 15,000 cases of  sexual were reported there in 2009.   And in the first six months of 2010, there were 7,685 cases.  More than half of the victims were younger than 18 years old.  The catastrophic transformation of the region has become so severe that Nene Rukunghu, a local doctor was moved to say, “This is no longer a crisis, it’s becoming a culture.”

What does it mean to say that a crisis has become a culture?  What is a culture of rape? What could possibly sustain such a culture, and what happens to people who live in a rape culture?

Let us begin with some definitions:

Culture, -noun: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Rape, -noun: an act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.

In a rape culture, dominant human beings sexually force themselves onto others and transmit this “way of living” from one generation to another.  In a rape culture, sexual violation becomes a way of life.

It has long been established that most rapists are men and that rape is an act of extreme violence and aggression, as opposed to an act of sexual desire.  The aggressor inflicts himself on another to get power over another person by humiliating, degrading, and injuring that person.

Rape is a uniquely human act, barbaric but not like other animals’ aggression.  Only human beings rape because rape involves the complex, cultural understanding of “self” and “other” which the act itself reinforces.

Rape is a weapon of war that is used to shatter and erode the morale and dignity of an entire village, community, or people.  The act itself registers differently in different cultures.  It is most effective, or destructive, in cultures in which women are considered to be valuable only insofar as they remain sexually inexperienced and chaste.

This attitude is pervasive in cultures in which women are regarded as the property of their fathers or husbands, as chattel or goods that have a symbolic value that accrues to the owner of that property.  According to this way of thinking, the personal honor of the possessor suffers grievous injury when his chattel, his woman, wife, or daughter, loses her value through unauthorized sexual contact.   This way of thinking dominated Europe throughout the first millennium B.C.E. and is still vigorous in fundamentalist Christian pockets of the United States.

Rape, or any outlawed sexual experience, not only depletes the putative value of the woman, it also allegedly pollutes the honor of her father or husband.  In many cultures the rape of a woman is thought to pollute the honor of that woman’s entire family or tribe.  If you don’t already know about this, you should.  Introduce yourself to the topic with this video:

In order to recover their lost dignity and standing in the patriarchal community, the family or tribe will shame and ostracize the victim.  This practice was widespread in Bosnia and Serbia during and after the wars in that region, where rape was routinely used as a weapon of mass humiliation.  In aggressively patriarchal cultures, it is felt that male/tribal honor can only be restored through the murder of the victim.

In other words, patriarchal cultures are barbaric.  They are founded on the mythical belief that women are inherently inferior to men, and that therefore men have the right to own and control women.  Women do not have the right to own themselves or to make their own choices about their sexuality in these barbaric cultures.

Rape is an ancient means by which men have destroyed the mental and physical health of women to dominate and control them, but it is more fundamentally the crude method by which men seek to elevate themselves above other men.  By damaging the goods, and more importantly, the honor of another man or another group of men through rape, a man crudely proves that he is more powerful, more masculine.  Men in patriarchal culture are caught up in a mass illusionary game of quien es mas macho.

When men rape other men, they “feminize” their victims, treat them to the ultimate indignity to gain weaken their enemies and gain power over them.  But the rape of a man’s wife or child, especially if it is performed in front of him, also effectively emasculates that man.  He is forced to experience his own puny effeminacy in the face of other, allegedly more masculine men who have the power to take, degrade, and supposedly destroy, his woman or children before his eyes.

The rapist pathetically and barbarically “proves” his masculinity–his strength, his power, his honor–to himself and to his fellows, who also must engage in the same barbaric acts to sustain the fiction of their collective superiority over the people, the women, the men, and the children whom they are terrorizing.  For this reason, the rapist is completely unable to tolerate or even imagine how he might feel if someone were to rape his sister, or his mother, or his daughter.

Consider the frightening self-delusion  of the rapists in this video:

In the culture of rape that has grown up, tragically, in the Congo, men pass on to the next generation the perverted understanding that a man is only a man if he can out-man other men by raping their women.  But this culture is itself the natural expression of a culture in which men believe that men are superior to women, and that they have the right to possess, control, and govern their inferiors.

It is common to blame the crisis that has developed in the Congo on the Belgians, who brutally colonized the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Certainly it is true that the whites committed many terrible crimes as a result of their own racist and sexist assumptions.  But the culture in the Congo had gone wrong long before the whites came.  It went bad when masculinism–the arbitrary belief that masculinity is superior to femininity–began to infect African culture, probably about 6,000 years before the current era.

One could certainly say–as Andrea Dworkin did say–that all masculinist culture is rape culture. One in four women in the United States has been raped.   In any society in which men and women have internalized the arbitrary myth that masculinity is superior to femininity, a rape culture develops.  It does not always exhibit itself in the brutally overt violence that we are seeing in the Congo.  As explained very well in one of my favorite blogs, Ben Roethlisberger, the degenerate quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a product and producer of rape culture.

At home as well as in the Congo, human beings–mostly men–appear to be degenerating utterly into something that we shudder to call human.  When gangs of children who themselves were kidnapped, raped, and tortured commit these very same crimes against other children, and against women and men who fall into their paths, the myth of masculinity has taken then down a very dark and deadly road.

The good news is it is simply a myth, a perversion of human culture.  We have the power to imagine and built a better world.

Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen

Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

What is happening in Yemen and why should we care?  Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week.  She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her.  He has no idea where she is.  “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”

Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.  She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.

With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights.  She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular.   She has also advocated taking off the veil.  In a recent interview by WJC, she said:

I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.

Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation.  In that same interview, she stated,

I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.

Will we hear from Tawakul again?  Probably not, unless the international community speaks out.  The government of  Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women  dissidents.

On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down.  They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province.  [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:

The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights

These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable.  But will they be heard?  What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?

What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years.  A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations.  Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.

I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen.  The official name of this political party is  “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen,  “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: “Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party”, cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].

Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women.  Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion.  Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa.  A similar, tragic  transformation took place in Iran.

To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women.  Clearly, they are not.  My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.

For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government.  There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.

I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it.  And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion.  And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.

So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy.  The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman.  Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution.   We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government.  We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.