Rape: The Culture of Silence
By Ambreen Ahmad
21st February, 2013
1989 – 2012
Then and Now
“What is the transgression?” I hear a voice ask. I falter, panic growing inside me. How can I speak now? What about my father sitting next to me? What about my mother within earshot? “What is the crime?” the voice persists. I whisper, “rape.” Then, angry, I feel an agonizing pain well up in me. Wave after wave of agony, so intense I break into a cold sweat. I open my mouth to scream out the word, to tear it from my very being, to free myself of its deadly hold. I scream, yet I am aware that there is no sound.
I am awake now, pulse racing, out of breath, afraid. I see my mother across the room. She smiles, that well-meaning smile. I smile back. Exhausted, resigned. Once again the Silence has conquered. Once again, I am defeated.”
Silence about rape – should it be broken or nurtured? The right to confidentiality is undoubtedly the inalienable right of a victim and one that women rights activists, including myself, have long struggled for. But why should silence be protective for rape victims? Do we shroud the names of murderers, cheaters and looters? Do they or their family members feel as insecure to reveal their identity? So what is it about rape that requires this secrecy?
Is it the shame and slander that society associates with the act? Does the silence serve our own need to create distance from this ugly reality?
For a victim, the silence is both a curse and a cure – protective because the shroud of silence covers her shame from others and often herself. A burden, because each time she faces that painful truth, she wants to scream.
“The silence does not seem protective to me. It feels suffocating, burdening. It has to do with being ashamed of oneself, hiding something, pretending. It is like being made, against your will, an accomplice to the crime committed against yourself and knowing that you have to carry its shameful secret for the rest of your life.”
Rape is a crime of the highest depravity. And yet, society shies away from facing it. We were glad for the thousands who reiterated their pain, demanded justice, and an end to violence after the Delhi gang rape – but we are also surprised. And that surprise betrays our complicity in this legacy of shame and denial. Why has it taken so long? Why did so many have to suffer? Why do so many continue to suffer?
“I want to look forward to a day, when I will have the courage to talk openly, when there will be no need to hide my identity. I want to hope that when I do that society will hear what I have to say without fear that I will taint it, that it will not avoid my gaze, that it will not deny my pain by telling me to forget what happened or by making light of it, that it will allow itself to feel the pain, the guilt, the shame, the helplessness and the rage that I feel.”
This silence supports all those who disempower, suppress and exploit women. It perpetuates cruel, careless, and callous attitudes – the same attitudes that allowed passer byes to ignore a young couple, injured, bleeding, begging for help, that prevented the police from acting as they should have, that prompted politicians to make remarks so crass, that they eventually had to retract them. It feeds and strengthens a system that works around the clock, every day, to devalue women, their contributions, their bodies, their very souls.
“For a victim, society offers several things. It offers me a police force that is not only intimidating but untrustworthy, a legal system that at best may be impotent and at worst condemning of me. The laws which discriminate against women are frightening to me – and I am innocent. I am the one who has been hurt and yet I am afraid to seek justice through this legal system. Instead, society offers me guilt and shame and isolation at a time when I need care and support and acknowledgment.”
Our unwillingness to talk about rape exacts a price, not just from the victims but from each member of society. Rape and violence against women become a tangible reality when a perpetrator decides to devalue, dehumanise and deface them. It is a show of dominance and a mark of indifference to another persons’ right of consent. Rapists may be foolish enough to think they are enhancing their masculinity but in truth, what they are enhancing is their brutality and what they are giving up is a part of their humanity – and each time that happens society is defeated.
Breaking this chain of violence requires both potential perpetrators and potential victims to face certain difficult aspects of themselves.
It is difficult for men to give up the power and privilege that society has bestowed on them simply for being born male. For many, it seems irrelevant that this power only comes from overpowering others. It is equally difficult for most women to not repress their powerlessness.
So how do we undo this wrong that for so long has been our way of life, that knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly we have learnt to accept?
That will require admitting to ourselves that the mindset that sets the stage for this horrific act takes roots in how we raise our children. After all, is it not a fact that it is yesterday’s children who become today’s rapists and victims?
As parents, we will need to revisit the messages we give our children about this issue.
We will have to ask our sons that although society, through an inherently unfair system may enable them on many occasions to abuse their power, do they want to grow up and use this power and privilege to violate or harm another’s human rights?
Does proving masculinity require stripping someone else of their dignity?
Can the desire to fulfill a sexual urge be greater than the humane dignity of respecting another?
We will have to teach our sons to love and respect women and not treat them as objects, or property – and this behavior more than being sermonised has to be demonstrated in our homes.
With our daughters, we must share the difficult journey women have traveled, how they have fought against this violence not just for themselves but for all of us. We must remind them that our victories, however small, must not be lost, or taken for granted. They must remain alert, continue the journey and raise their voices not just for themselves but for anyone else who has suffered injustices.
But most importantly, when discussing rape with our daughters we must not connect it to dangerous and false notions of eastern culture, feminine submissiveness, and shameful sexuality. We must clearly state that the idea that somehow the honor of the family, community, and the nation is connected to women and their bodies is irrational, unfair and wrong. It is yet another way of exploiting, manipulating and controlling women and must be rejected. And that rape does not occur because of men’s inability to control their biological urges. That last fact is insulting to all those men who are not only not violent but are equal supporters of the struggle for women’s rights.
Every woman is vulnerable to being raped. But all men are not rapists. Our daughters do not need to grow up feeling ashamed of being girls. They also do not need to grow up fearing all men.
It is time to teach our daughters to face their vulnerability courageously and with the absolute conviction that they have a right to their bodies and dignity and that it is society’s responsibility to stand by them if they are wronged.
“After the rape, the extent of my vulnerability terrified me. But now, I have faced my vulnerability and embraced it – and I am a stronger woman because of that.
I wish that feeling for other women too – this self-acceptance, this love. And I wish it for them without their having to suffer the pain that I have had to go through.”
This is an important moment in the history of the struggle against gender based violence. Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising Campaign, pointed to the sobering fact that One Billion women i.e. 1 out of every 3 women in the world will be raped or beaten in her life time. The campaign which culminated on Feb 14th mobilised millions across the globe.
Similarly, the recent protests against the Delhi gang rape, especially the involvement of the youth and men are extremely welcome steps. It is crucial to not lose this momentum.
It is time to address the issue of rape openly and boldly. Because rape affects not just the mind and body, it leaves scars on the human soul. It leaves its ugly mark through depression, fear, bitterness, hatred and anger. All these are facts amply researched and documented. Surely then, it deserves more than just the polite, low key and occasional condescension it gets today.
For once and for all, let us pledge to break the silence around rape – in our homes, our schools, our communities and in our Parliaments and Assemblies.
“It may only be a dream to strive for a society in which each child who is molested, each woman who is raped, each individual who is wronged will be able to speak out without shame or guilt or fear. But let us not stop following this dream.”
The destination is far and the journey difficult – but endure we must. This, we owe to all the victims of violence and to ourselves.
Ambreen Ahmad is a psychiatrist and a founder member of Rozan, an NGO working on the issues of gender, emotional health, and violence against women and children