Gender, Human Rights, and Sexual Violence

The week before last, I had the opportunity to attend an excellent forum on “Islam, Gender, and Democracy” at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. At the reception that followed, I spoke with two visitors to the Berkley Center’s workshop on the topic about a provocative question raised by a young woman in the audience about gender, democracy, and recent episodes of sexual violence in India. The questioner raised some concerns about too easy identification of violence with particular cultures, not only for the harm that this can do to women who are cast as victims, but to men in those cultures who become cast as oppressors.

At the reception, my conversation partners identified in the young woman’s remarks a strong concern about issues of sexual violence that they saw as notable in the younger generation of feminists, often referred to as third wave feminists. Indeed, concern about still persistent and pervasive sexual violence against women does seem to be a distinctive feature of the feminism expressed by today’s young women–though I have also argued that third wave feminists are also concerned to develop feminist to a wide range of other concerns, including peace, global health, environmental sustainability, economic inequality, cultural rights and other issues that fall under the heading of “third generation human rights.” Many third wave feminists also insist on the need for feminism to be more inclusive of men.

The young woman’s question and the reception conversation also raised a question for me that I first raised in another context–namely, Who is the object of sexual violence? In a blog post a few years ago, I argued that the focus of sexual violence might be as much about men as women, if not more.  In that context, I argued, drawing on the work of the noted feminist legal theorist, Catharine MacKinnon:

In fact, it seems that women who suffer sexual violence in many parts of the world are not being treated even as women but rather precisely as objects and instruments. . . . The women in such cases are merely instruments and tools—inhuman, inanimate objects to be used to inflict violence and terror on whole groups. Moreover, the tendency of the male perpetrators to participate in such acts in groups, suggests another audience, as well. They are watching each other—and assessing the strength of their fellows’ perverse displays of masculinity and power.

In a similar vein, I once heard a leading scholar of pornography report on a study showing men watching pornography in groups to be aroused not so much by the pornography, but by the experience of watching it with other men and responding to their response.  MacKinnon made arguments suggestive of this wider scope of sexual violence in essays on genocide and sexuality in her excellent book Are Women Human?  There, MacKinnon took issue with the usual feminist maxim that rape is a crime of power not sex–arguing essentially that it is both and that women are the gendered objects of rapes, not as individuals, but as women.  She also argued that “Rape in genocide is anything but rape out of control, it is rape under control”–that is, under the control of a patriarchal masculinity defined and self-defined by its subjugation of women.

But who is the object of sexual violence?  Who is its focus? What message is being conveyed? And for whom is that message intended? With the recent news headlines covering the abhorrent treatment of Yazidi women and girls by the terrorist insurgents of the Islamic state, MacKinnon’s observations about genocide and sexuality from more than a decade ago seem relevant yet again.  Again, women and girls are being treated as not even human enough to possess human rights.  And, again, as in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the Congo, the whole world is watching.

There may be a very specific way in which the men of the Islamic State are addressing not only women and girls, families and communities, but also, and crucially, the other men of the bystander world with their displays of sexual violence (not to mention videotaped beheadings). Contemporary religious terrorism is known for its appeal to theatrical spectacle and performance. It is a message aimed at very broad audience. This is not to deflect from the distinctive and disproportionate victimization of women and girls (and of LGBT people in other conflicts), nor to cast aspersions on the masculinity of other cultures, but to suggest, as I think the young woman at the Berkley Center did, the ways in which men, too, are both audience and indirect victims of these atrocities and the wider culture of sexual violence.