WMC Women Under Siege

Can media keep violence against women in focus for at least #16Days?

With the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence starting tomorrow, November 25, I thought I’d share some of my favorite recent reads on gender-based violence, whether close to home or far afield.

This year’s theme for the 16 Days is “Let’s challenge militarism and end violence against women.” You’ll see below a number of stories on how militarism makes life miserable for women, but you’ll also see a roundup of some of the best recent coverage out there of major sexual assault accusations in places not currently at war.

Systemic assaults have long occurred in settings like universities and churches—institutions that remain somehow “untouchable”—just as they have within military structures. What may be new in the past few years is the realization that crimes occurring even in plain sight (see: Penn State or Steubenville) won’t be acknowledged by a country blinded to the obvious. Who wants to believe that “America’s dad” could be a serial rapist? This “unseeing” constitutes another kind of institution in itself: an unwavering belief in the innocence of men. (Call it patriarchy.) Yet allegations against famous men carry the same sad hallmarks of violence against women as those attacks that take place within established arenas like the military: there is cover-up, total impunity for crimes, and shaming of victims who speak out. Just because four walls don’t surround this kind of institution doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Here then are some recent must-reads on violence against women. Call me crazy, but in many ways the cases going on in so-called “peacetime” don’t seem all that different from what happens within war zones.

(And if you feel outraged and want an outlet in which to act, see Amnesty’s list of actions you can take to bolster the safety of women from Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

Rape is basically an epidemic on U.S. college campuses—and the media is finally figuring that out:

  • You’ve heard there is a campus rape problem. But did you know it was this bad? Rolling Stone has this excellent story about rape at the University of Virginia. I take slight issue, however, with the final quote from one of the women survivors: “Everything bad in my life now is built around that one bad decision that I made," she says. “All because I went to that stupid party.” This young woman may blame her own decision-making for her rape, but closing the piece with that thought only gives fodder to the victim-blamers instead of aiming the fault where it belongs: squarely on the men who raped her.
  • Then there’s this from Jessica Valenti in The Guardian: “I realize banning frats is likely a pipe dream—the organizations are deeply embedded in college culture, they generate student programming and are supported by powerful alumni. But if we’re ready to take on college administrators, sue under Title IX, or carry mattresses on our back in protest, why not this? Why not now?”
  • The New York Times highlights a disturbing legal development in the incredibly difficult fight to take on rapists on college campuses: “At a moment when students who have been sexually assaulted are finding new ways to make their voices heard, and as college officials across the country are rushing to meet new government standards, a specialized class of lawyers is raising its voice, too. They are speaking out on behalf of the students they describe as most vulnerable: not those who might be subjected to sexual assault, but those who have been accused of it.

“To do so, they have appropriated the legal tools most commonly used to fight sexual misconduct and turned them against the prosecution, confronting higher education’s whole approach to the issue, which they describe as a civil rights disaster.”

Bill Cosby. How did we all know yet somehow not know all these years?

  • For an excellent, comprehensive look at the allegations—from the mouths of his accusers, see this Washington Post piece.
  • Roxane Gay in The Guardian takes the Cosby scandal and gives us this bit of painful wisdom on why we look away in cases like this: “This is the ugly truth. Rapists make us less uncomfortable than rape victims.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Atlantic, personally takes on some of the blame for not outing the Cosby rumors years ago. He says he did not do what he should have done as a journalist who interviewed Cosby in 2006 and 2007: “I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough.”

And Coates goes on to knock down the doubters:

“A defender of Bill Cosby must, effectively, conjure a vast conspiracy, created to bring down one man, seemingly just out of spite. And people will do this work of conjuration, because it is hard to accept that people we love in one arena can commit great evil in another. It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn't just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.”

  • The New York Times’ David Carr adds himself to the list of journalists who missed a perfectly good chance to write about the Cosby rape allegations years ago, saying, “Those in the know also included me.”
  • Over at The New Republic, Rebecca Traister blasts through how the accusations could remain so quiet for so long: “One reason that we have collectively plugged our ears against a decade of dismal revelations about Bill Cosby is that he made lots of Americans feel good about two things we rarely have reason to feel good about: race and gender. To confront the ugliness of Cosby’s alleged criminal misdeeds, especially in light of his rhetoric around racial responsibility, would mean reckoning with what was always fraught, false, or incomplete about his messages.”

But let’s not forget about another famous man in the news right now for alleged sexual assault—CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi:

  • “If you didn’t believe one woman, do you now believe nine?” writes Rosie DiManno in The Toronto Star.

“Even the most ardent defenders of media darling Jian Ghomeshi—those who worshipped at the altar of his popular CBC radio cultural affairs program—have been busy this past week deleting supportive tweets and blog postings, retracting statements and, presumably, giving their heads a shake.”

And now to militarism:

  • At WMC’s Women Under Siege, we’ve been documenting rape in Syria on a live, crowd-sourced map for three years now. The majority of the allegations are against regime forces. But what’s happened recently with Islamic State in the region has eclipsed what the Assad government appears to have been perpetrating all these years against women. This story in the Los Angeles Times reminds us to keep our eye on that ball.
  • The New York Times covers the heartbreaking return of five Yazidi girls who’d been seized by ISIS in Iraq: “The 15-year-old girl, crying and terrified, refused to release her grip on her sister’s hand. Days earlier, Islamic State fighters had torn the girls from their family, and now were trying to split them up and distribute them as spoils of war.”
  • Over in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where militarism has ripped the country to shreds for nearly 20 years, a groundbreaking conviction: “As a rebel leader during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s bloody conflict a decade ago, Gen. Jerome Kakwavu was known for his ruthlessness. Now he will be remembered for something else: as the first Congolese general successfully prosecuted for rape.”

Human Rights Watch documents the case and explains why this is a milestone: “The conviction and 10-year sentence of a single general for rape may seem like a meager achievement in a country where hundreds of thousands of women and girls, young and old, have been victims of sexual violence since Congo’s conflicts began in 1996. But it’s significant because the top brass in Congo seem untouchable for their crimes or those committed by troops under their command.”

  • Part of the reason so much remains unseen and particularly disbelieved when it comes to violence against women in wartime has to do with a lack of data, writes Jocelyn Brooks on our site. Why we aren’t counting, and why it is so problematic to even try to count proves to be as culturally entrenched as violence against women itself.

And now to feminism, gender-based violence, and the terrors of misogyny:

  • An article in The Guardian tells us about the absolute horror of being branded by a pimp—literally branded, with a tattoo marking a woman or child for life on their “arms, backs, legs, faces, breasts, and even eyelids and gums marked with pimp’s names and gang tags or with barcodes, sexual slang words or dollar signs.” Others, like Jennifer Kempton, whose story is told in-depth here, have “property of” tattoos on their groins or foreheads.
  • And remember that idiotic Time magazine poll asking if the word “feminist” should be banned? One of the Women’s Media Center’s founders, Robin Morgan, has an answer to beat the band on that one: “The dictionary definition is simple: ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.’ Anyone who can’t support something that commonsensical and fair is part of a vanishing breed: well over half of all American women and more than 30% of American men approve of the word—the percentages running even higher in communities of color and internationally.”

Feminism, for Morgan, she writes, is more profound than its dictionary definition. And with so many accusations of violence against women—and so few believers—her words feel particularly apt: “It means freeing a political force: the power, energy, and intelligence of half the human species hitherto ignored or silenced. More than any other time in history, that force is needed to save this imperiled blue planet. Feminism, for me, is the politics of the 21st century.”

At the end of 2014 and the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, can the media keep violence against women in the spotlight? If it had done a better job until now, perhaps we wouldn’t be just starting to listen to what Bill Cosby supposedly did to so many women, or maybe there would have been a number of laws put into place already to stop the violence on college campuses. Or heck, let’s dream big: Maybe, just maybe, the world might have stepped up to stop what has been perpetrated against women in Syria for years now.

Media, we have a part to play here that is as big as anyone else’s. Use the 16 Days as your starting point and do not let it end there. Ready? Go.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Military, Sexualized violence



Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
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