The media circus surrounding the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case dishes out more drama each day, with a side of lurid fascination. But we basically know how the story ends. The narrative of the immigrant housekeeper allegedly assaulted by a European official perfectly illustrates an axiom of violence and power: the wider the gap between genders and races, the greater the latitude of injustice.*
Yet the same story plays out every day on an endless loop around the globe: a retaliatory rape against a young girl sends a warning to the enemy militia; a wife is pummeled into bloody silence, her bedroom beyond the purview of traditional local courts; a daughter is married off to pay down a farm debt. The stories weave into a pattern that a media-fatigued public has come to normalize.
To resensitize us to those numbing tragedies, an annual report of Minority Rights Group International documents the cruel synergy between being a woman and being the other on every continent. Young girls from the rural hill tribes of Thailand, who lack full citizenship rights, are “easy prey” for forced sex trafficking. Canadian First Nations women, long alienated from mainstream society, suffer epidemic rates of sexual assault as well as HIV/AIDS infection. Sexual and gender minority status often compound each other, as with the rash of “corrective rapes” targeting lesbians in South Africa.
Women of marginalized ethnicities suffer violence at the hands of their own, as well. Domestic violence is rampant in some indigenous communities, according to MRI, in large part because mainstream legal structures provide no protection or access to justice. The resulting erosion of the social fabric feeds into racialized stereotypes of moral deviance.
Rape has always been a potent tool for demarcating difference. During the war on indigenous Mayans that exploded across Guatemala a generation ago, MRI notes, mass rape was part of a military strategy to destroy communities from within:
According to the Truth Commission, the most under-reported human rights violation was the rape of indigenous women. No overall estimates as to the number of women affected exist. Of the 1,465 cases of rape that were documented by the Commission, 88.7 percent were of Mayan women and girls of all ages. As one survivor states: ‘it’s the campesinos, the Indians, who get raped because they used to say we were animals, that’s why they did it to us, because they thought we were worthless’.
The pattern plays out today in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mark Lattimer, executive director of MRI, told Colorlines:
We’re only now beginning to understand just how profound the effect can be when rape is used as a weapon of war. And from our point of view, looking specifically at the rights of minorities, we can see that in about three-quarters of the world’s conflicts today, most of the violence is targeted either by ethnicity or by religion. So overwhelmingly, women who are being subjected to systematic sexual violence are from a particular ethnic or religious group that’s being targeted.
Yakın Erturkm, former United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, describes violence against women as a threat coming from both inside and outside their communities:
As members of a minority group, they may be assaulted by members of the majority population and/or by agents of the state. … Such assaults, in turn, leave women in danger of further abuse and ostracism from within their own communities, where—due to a rigid, patriarchal morality code—they are accused of having “dishonored” themselves and their families.
Globalization breeds the impunity that enables violence against women. In countries that rely on imported labor—say, the United States—migrant women work in a shadow economy and live outside the law.
In Malaysia, for instance, reports of beatings and sexual abuse suffered by Indonesian domestic workers were widespread enough to prompt international intervention and attempts to reform labor regulations. Indonesia recently halted labor-export programs to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, which is also known for its brutality to migrants. But in the end, the structure of discrimination remains intact, and one group of desperate workers is swapped for another. Human Rights Watch reports that in 2009, when Indonesia blocked workers from migrating to Malaysia, “recruiters from Malaysia turned to Cambodian workers instead.”
Sometimes, an ethnic or sectarian battle line hides gender oppression. As we’ve seen in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, as gender-based violence persists despite social change, women swept up in a popular struggle can become stuck in a “liberated” society on old constructs of patriarchy.
At Ms. Magazine blog, Lauren Bohn, recounted a moment at a March protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that revealed that for many women, the revolution had not overturned a male-dominated power structure:
Reporting of that day has focused on the subsequent clashes between Christian and Muslim men. But what I saw first were men intent on breaking up the women’s protest. “Go home,” one sheik, hoisted on the shoulders of another man, told women. Others shouted slogans such as “Not valid!” that had been used against Mubarak in the same space just weeks earlier. One man held up a sign reading “Not now,” arguing to me that the demonstrations were “instruments of the West.”
Redraw the Line
But more and more, women themselves are drawing their own battle line on two fronts, calling for empowerment of their communities as well as their own self-determination. The U.N. Organization for Women presents one example of an indigenous women’s movement in Ecuador that fuses progress and tradition in an evolving legal system.
Traditionally, [indigenous community laws and] regulations have not addressed issues of violence against women. So, the women have developed their own ‘Regulations for Good Living’ (Reglamentos de Buena Convivencia). …They aim to regulate family and community life and are in line with indigenous justice principles in relation to rehabilitation and reintegration.
While the regulations leave the adjudication of serious crimes such as rape to state authorities, they condemn forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence, as well as restrictions on women’s participation in public affairs and economic activities. Both men and women have been trained to promote the regulations in indigenous and state justice forums to increase women’s access to justice and the realization of their rights.
The adage that you can judge a society’s level of civility by the way it treats its women, tells only part of the story. It’s true that systems of violence make excellent use of women’s bodies—as weapons of war, currency for exploitation, or objects of genocide. But the strength borne of that violence can militate against tragedy, when women become the sheer embodiment of survival.
*This post has been altered since publication.