The vile gang-rape of a 23 year old student in Delhi, India and her resultant death in December 2012 has brought the social scourge of rape into sharp focus. Horrifically, this particular case was in no way out of the ordinary in its nature or severity. What made it exceptional was the explosive response to the travesty – the “rage against rape” that brought masses of women as well as of men opposed to the huge prevalence of rape and sexual violence perpetrated in the main against women and children, onto the streets in outrage.
Notwithstanding the problematic nature of calls for the death penalty and castration for perpetrators, (as well as this not addressing the underlying causes of rape, this would further empower a state that has and will repress social and workers’ struggles and movements), the “rage against rape” in India, the development of the “Slutwalk” phenomenon of recent years which has spearheaded a growing challenging of “rape culture”, are really positive developments.
“Rape culture”, can be described as a response to rape and sexual violence that puts the blame on victims and survivors by questioning mode of dress, past sexual history, alcohol / drug consumption in both a subtle, and overt fashion, the latter being woven into the police and court handling of cases to varying degrees in different states globally. It’s a trivialising of rape. This is also occurring in the context of an explosion of the sexist objectification of women and women’s bodies in culture in the recent period.
Rape is about power
Rape is not about sexual desire, rather it is the ultimate expression of power, control and supremacy over another human being. The majority of survivors and victims are female, and the vast majority of perpetrators of rape are male. Male survivors of rape are particularly stigmatised, partially as it’s portrayed as an emasculating experience. The example of female soldiers participating in the sexual degradation of male prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, is an example of how rape and sexual abuse are fundamentally about an expression of power, with the imperialist forces in this instance using sexual abuse in a very conscious way to degrade and to demoralise.
Thousands of years of female oppression have meant thousands of years of subjugation, including rape. The prevalence of rape of female slaves, perpetrated by male slave-owners in the South in the US prior to the US Civil War, is one of many examples of rape as an expression of such subjugation that’s interlinked with the economic oppression also being experienced. The beginning of class society about ten thousand years ago was a key moment in the moulding of social structures and ideology that oppressed women. The ideology of the nuclear and patriarchal family in particular, reaching its apotheosis in Ancient Rome when father had ultimate say over his wife and children, including whether they lived or died, was an ideology shaped and utilised by the current economic system of capitalism. Despite huge struggle and change since, the promotion of this ideology has contributed to the continued oppression of women.
It is no coincidence that most rape and sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the victim, often a family member, or partner or ex-partner. Under capitalism, the ideology of the patriarchal family that was pushed from its outset ensured that women were sources of hours of unpaid labour, as they still are today in many ways and cases, in carrying out work in the home and work caring for children, and sick and elderly relatives. Such an ideology was contradicted by the necessity of a female labour force within the profit-system, but it did aid the justification of lower wages for women workers, a reality still present today in the advanced capitalist world. In Ireland a recent OECD report, for example indicates that women earn on average 14% less than men, and this gap rises to 31% for women who have children.
The Age of Austerity & its impact on women
The entering of women into the workforce en masse in recent decades, and especially throughout the boom in Ireland, while often increasing the exploitation women can face both as workers and as women, has had a progressive impact. With women engaging in the workforce, increased confidence has ensued, and in reality, backward ideas about the patriarchal family and the subservient role of women have been profoundly undermined. The vast majority of ordinary people in Europe for example, both men and women, do not accept the idea that women aren’t equal or shouldn’t be equal.
The age of austerity means a tremendous destruction of jobs, of public services and of living standards. Women are particularly harshly affected by the assault on the public sector, as they are the majority in the workforce within it, especially the low paid public sector workforce, and because of the progressive nature of public services that can socialise what have been in the past, private issues and problems for women such as care for sick and elderly relatives.
Services such as the home help service – a service that in fact began as a voluntary and unpaid one (note the impact of patriarchal ideology that promotes women as ‘natural carers’), and was fought for to become a service that was funded and developed by the state – are being completely eroded. Women in particular will bear the burden of this erosion, with a reactionary reverting to traditional gender roles as a likely outcome. The elite in power need to find ways to justify this backward step. Advertising and other propaganda in the US in particular were used to emphasise women’s ‘place in the home’ as wives, carers and unpaid domestic servants, as well as their subservience to men in the aftermath of the Second World War during which time women had entered the workforce en masse.
Such propaganda seems farcically sexist and outmoded to today’s audience. However, it’s absolutely the case that other forms of sexist propaganda have been increasingly pushed by the media in particular. In the last decade there has been an increasing onslaught – the objectification of women, the commodification of women’s bodies and the ‘pornification’ of culture.
The impact of ‘New Sexism’
This ‘new sexism’, pushed in no small-part by the hugely profitable beauty industry, actually plays a role in reinforcing old-fashioned ideas whereby women are valued for their looks and appearance, denigrating their value as human beings and equals. It’s a form of ideological backlash and it allows politicians the space to venture comments and policy that are sexist and backward. For example, there was an attempt by some politicians to blame the breakdown of the family or lone parents for the 2010 riots in London, a social phenomenon fuelled by massive youth unemployment, alienation and poverty.
In Spain and in the UK, political parties are in power that wish to curb abortion rights – a real indication of a scapegoating of women as well as a concrete agenda to curb women’s rights and choices. In the US, the degree to which the tea-party right wing have influenced discourse and policy represents both an ideological backlash and a physical threat to the rights of women – restrictions to abortion access have been growing so much that some states only have one abortion clinic left. Paul Ryan, unsuccessful candidate for Vice President in 2012 has previously sponsored a bill that attempted to empower rapists to sue survivors who they impregnated, in order to prevent them accessing abortion. This is the context in which ‘rape culture’ exists, and it’s also the context in which it’s being challenged.
Sexual Violence as a weapon of domination & war
Rape as an expression of supremacy and domination is illustrated by the abuse that was systematically covered up by the Catholic Church hierarchy, implemented by many priests in positions of power. It’s also seen in the Jimmy Saville case whereby Saville, a friend of Thatcher and protected by the BBC institution, abused vulnerable and marginalised children and young people with impunity for decades.
Sexual violence is used to intimidate and degrade the enemy as a weapon of war; in Syria, it is in fact the primary reason there has been a mass exodus of women and children to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The attack on women and girls by armed, sometimes multiple men is a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian civil war. This is occurring in warzones globally; the Democratic Republic of Congo has 200,000 surviving victims of war related sexual violence, and rape was described as a weapon “cheaper than bullets or bombs”.
South Africa has some of the most disturbing statistics and has the world’s highest recorded incidents of child and baby rape. 37% of the male population admit to rape and over 500,000 sex attacks take place annually. The problem is rooted in the wide spread belief that sex with a virgin will cure aids, the country has the highest number of HIV positive people with 11% of its citizens being affected. Zambia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria are also being plagued with sexual attacks because of this dangerous myth.
Attacks on women in Tahrir Square
Perhaps one of the most striking examples of what rape represents and what it stems from can be seen in the context of the unfolding revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt currently, in the core symbol of the revolution, Tahrir Square. The heroic revolution that toppled the dictator Mubarrak in 2011 was half a revolution; the corrupt dictator was overthrown by mass struggle and general strike, but the bedrock of capitalism and imperialism was not replaced by a government representing workers and poor that sought to take wealth into democratic public ownership – without such democracy the door was left open for the army and the political Islamists to gain control. However the women, the workers and the poor who fought heroically in the revolution are not subdued yet. Women were present throughout the revolutionary upsurge in recent years in Egypt, and are still present in the movement today. In the poem, “Bread and Roses” by James Oppenheim, that details a strike of female textile workers in the US in 1912, the lines as follows speak volumes;
As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
The participation of women in struggle, in revolutionary upsurges, and in the quest to change society is not only essential, it’s also a really positive indication of the struggle itself. The reactionaries in Egypt understand that and are specifically targeting women in an attempt to quell the movement as a whole. Rape is a tool of these reactionaries. There are reports of the Islamic Brotherhood organising and paying groups of men to brutally attack and sexually assault female activists in Tahrir square. Already, women are arming themselves in order to assert that they will not be forced back into the home, and groups of men and of women demonstrators are organising defence in order to resist the attacks.
Rape & sexual violence in Ireland
In 2011 in Ireland, over 2000 female survivors of sexual violence attended the RCC (Rape Crisis Centre). Thousands more cases are not reported and it is estimated that as many as 1 in 7 Irish women suffer severe abuse sexual, physical or emotional. In Ireland the issue of rape and sexual abuse is a complex one. Historically the country has been dominated by the church’s control and its twisted ideas of morality. The attitude around sex was one drenched with fear and shame, particularly towards women. Sex was believed to be a tool of procreation only and a girl thought to be promiscuous was known as a ‘fallen woman’. Despite a rejection of these backward ideas by most today, the so-called “Catholic guilt”, as well as more “modern” pushing of sexist objectification of women and commercialisation of sex has all contributed to a victim-blaming culture that still thrives.
A recent survey shows 41% of people believe a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drinking alcohol, 37% felt she holds some responsibility if she flirted excessively with a man, and 26% felt she was responsible if she wore revealing clothing. Fear-inducing sensationalism that’s cynically pushed by the billionaire-owned tabloid press in particular have helped to perpetuate the myth that rape is something that’s committed only by strange men in dark alleys, when in fact 1 in 5 women are abused by their current or former partner, 39% by a friend or acquaintance and the most likely place a woman is to be raped is in her own home.
It is estimated that only 7% of all rapes in Ireland are convicted. The DPP only prosecutes 1 out of every 3 that make it to his office, meaning 70 out of every 100 cases are lost at this point alone. “Lack of evidence” is the primary reason as to why the majority of reports are not taken further. There is a significantly higher chance of conviction if the attack occurs in a public place by a stranger, compared to the much more common assault where the perpetrator is known to the victim. Since the introduction in 1990 to criminalise rape in marriage there has been only one conviction, shocking when you consider that 18% of sexual attacks on women are by men they are or have been in an intimate relationship with.
A study by the Rape Crisis Network Ireland shows that up to 40% of rape victims withdraw their complaint after a poor reaction from police. Cases handled in an insensitive fashion are common place and incidents such as the ‘rape tape’ scandal in Rossport do not help ease the worries of victims when reporting sexual violence. In this case, members of the Gardai were recorded threatening to rape two female protesters who had been arrested, should they not act in accordance with Garda instruction. Another alarming trend emerging in the Irish judicial system is the growing number of court cases where wealthy men pay compensation to their victim instead of serving a prison sentence.
Rape in India
The brutal gang rape and murder of a twenty three year old medical student in Delhi has brought the issue of sexual violence to the mainstream media, forcing people to acknowledge the true impact of ‘rape culture’ in India and question it internationally. The underhanded way in which this case was dealt with by the police highlighted the dismissive attitude around rape in India. The country’s biggest crime, at least 24,000 incidents are reported annually and it is thought that 50% of all rapes are not reported at all. This culture is a bitter after taste of India’s male dominated feudal system, and across the wide and varied political and religious spectrum there is massive contempt towards women. In direct contradiction to the discriminatory system, it is not uncommon for a male lower caste member to grope or molest an upper class woman in the street; male ownership of women trumps social status even here, indicating how ingrained the oppression of women is.
However it is the Dalit or ‘untouchable’ lowest class women that are most vulnerable. Indian society offers them little protection or justice and the majority of time attacks on these women go by unnoticed and unpunished. The ideology of male dominance in an era of abrupt and rapid social change with women and the lowest castes entering the workforce en masse with capitalist investment in India, is the context in which rape in the country is so endemic and widespread.
Challenging ‘Rape Culture’
My rapist doesn’t know he’s a rapist. You taught him it wasn’t his fault. I drank too much, I flirted, and my shorts. Too short. I was asking for it. He left me in a parking garage staircase. My (ex) boyfriend spit in my face. He called me a slut, he called me a whore. I deserved it. My friends gave me dirty looks. They called me trash, not realizing it could’ve been them. This culture, your culture, told them, told me, this was my fault. And I suffered. But, my rapist doesn’t know he’s a rapist. I am not ashamed. I will take a stand.
As this quote from a participant in the Slutwalk in Washington DC in 2011 indicates; a culture that objectifies women, that promotes a skewed view of female sexuality, that blames victims as opposed to perpetrators, that encourages women to not go anywhere alone at night, to get self-defence classes, to dress in a certain way to avoid verbal sexual harassment or attack as opposed to teaching men and boys to understand why ‘no means no’ – is absolutely part of the problem and must be challenged.
The proliferation of the pornography industry which is in general aimed at men, and centres around a very narrow, male-led, and often misogynistic view of women, women’s sexuality and sex – increasingly linking sex and violence together, is feeding into this culture. This is also in the context of the hangover of the ideological promotion of traditional gender roles that also denigrate women, and emphasise women’s subservience to men. Furthermore, it’s in the context of capitalism’s promotion of the idea of individual responsibility and individualism, which isolates women and detracts from the backward social and cultural norms which can give rise to ‘rape culture’. The ‘Slutwalk’ and ‘Rage Against Rape’ phenomena are a defiant cry in opposition to this that are in and of themselves politicising issues of rape and oppression, and playing a role in educating masses of people on these questions.
Women & Socialist Struggle
As we’ve seen, the era of austerity represents a massive threat to living standards and to rights in general. Women workers, alongside their male colleagues in the public sector and in the retail sector are at the forefront of austerity cuts and job losses. In Ireland, we’ve seen mainly women workers in Thomas Cook and in La Senza occupy their workplaces when faced with redundancy. The assault on the public sector throughout Europe requires a tremendous struggle and movement in opposition. Women must play a central role in such a movement.
As well as specific, determined fight to challenge sexism, objectification, violence and sexual violence, it’s vital that a movement against austerity also brings these issues to the fore and connects them in order to ensure that women can be at the centre of such a movement, and also to play a role in educating ordinary men who have no stake in the status quo themselves. Since the beginning of the ‘Great Recession’ of capitalist crisis, there has been a 29% fall in primary school completion for girls globally, and a corresponding 22% fall for boys. In the richest country in the world, the US, 17 million women were living in poverty in 2011, and 12.6 million men. This inequality is despicable – and so is the enormous poverty and destruction of living standards that the profit-system is bestowing upon the majority of women, men, children and young people of the world.
The struggle to end a world of violence, of oppression, of poverty, of austerity must put the socialist alternative on the agenda – namely the democratic public ownership of key wealth and resources, and the planning of the economy according to the needs of people. A mass struggle to achieve such change in Ireland, Europe and globally, and a society based on human solidarity and equality, could lay the basis to really challenge and obliterate the oppression of women that rape epitomises.
By Laura Fitzgerald and Emma Quinn