When Is Rape Justified?

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have been reading too many huffingtonpost articles, so forgive me for the title sounding sensationalist. Some of what I have below might make you squirm and wince and want to close that browser. Don’t. I wrote this specifically for people like you. Just so you know, it’s not been an easy topic to think, let alone, write about.

Several years ago, I found myself accidentally clicking on a youtube link to a clip of a Ugandan man being burned alive by a mob for witchcraft. It was the saddest look I’ve ever seen of any human. Here was this lanky man slouched on a grassy slope in quite despair as men took turns hitting him with stones and long planks of 2-by-4s. He seemed completely resigned to his fate as I found myself imploring him to make a run for a river steps from his feet. The flames weren’t huge, but they looked like a hundred candle lights sprouting from his body. I couldn’t watch another second of that video. I’m usually not moved by gore. I guess I’ve grown desensitized to some violent imagery especially when it’s presented in still pictures. I still get that queasy feeling in my stomach and often close browsers when my heart can’t take any more of what I’m viewing.

A few months ago, I found myself reading Lara Logan’s account of her assault in Egypt during the January revolution. She described it as hundreds of men raping her with their hands in Tahrir Square. My first thought was to scoff at that claim. I’ve often dismissed her as a mouthpiece for the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m also very defensive about Africans (including our Berber and Arab cousins) being unfairly castigated – as we’ve often been- and dehumanized as savages (a word I really hate) by western societies through their media. U.S. media and government tend to inflame and exaggerate and even lie about events for dramatic effect (see Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch stories), so I never trust stories unless there’s unedited video or primary source accounts backing them. But I wasn’t being fair to this woman. I hadn’t questioned whether an assault took place. I had used my sense that something so horrendous wasn’t possible and my bias against her allowed me to momentarily forget that it was probable an assault took place. I didn’t do the blame the victim thing you sometimes see from some bloviators in the media, but I hadn’t given her a fair shake as I stopped reading after three paragraphs. I wondered later if I had really stopped reading after growing uncomfortable with what I should only assume was an honest account of a sexual assault, or whether I had subconsciously concluded that maybe those Mubarak supporters had been justified in doing what she and CBS claimed actually happened. What later bothered me was the thought of whether my dislike of her could’ve allowed even a millisecond of the idea that she deserved whatever happened to her in Tahrir Square. It also made me wonder how many times we allow our negative emotions about others to completely remove the empathy we should have for them as fellow human beings. Would I have rushed in like those heroic women and soldiers to rescue her? Absolutely! But I can’t help feeling guilty that even the mere possibility that I could allow the thought her assault was justified makes me no better than the men who attacked her.

Several weeks ago, a friend forwarded me a video of what was supposed to be a University of Ghana- Legon student caught stealing a laptop. I can be voyeuristic like anyone else out there and clicked away. Neither of us really knew or understood what he had sent me, as we both later regretted viewing. What I saw was a video of a girl being dragged down what looked like a dorm hallway by about 30 of her fellow school mates. Like the Ugandan video, I quickly grew squeamish and closed the browser, especially after having read the title of the video which was something like ‘female laptop thief fingered.’ I felt sorry for her, but I had closed the browser anyway. About a week later, I watched on local television a 20-second mention of the assault and an announcement of police arrests. There was no further mention or discussion about the student’s case as the telecast quickly moved on to the president at a school opening. I imagined if they didn’t consider it that serious, then maybe nothing happened as the video title implied.

Yesterday, I sat on a short wall with my neighbors to watch a football game I myself had just stepped out of after being exhausted. A 20-something year old kid sat a few feet away and started playing a video on his phone, but I was too tired to grow enough curiosity to inch over to see what he was watching. A few minutes later, more people gathered around him, including 6 kids younger than age 7 (including a 3-year-old) as they all laughed and cheered in unison. I was curious this time, but I didn’t move to see what had their attention. I finally stood up when boy with the phone yelled to another on the pitch “it’s the Legon girl. She should’ve known better than to not cover her vagina.” I knew immediately what they were watching and implored them to stop. “That’s someone’s child. You shouldn’t have these kids watching this stuff,” I pleaded, although even I knew it was a half-assed appeal, which they didn’t bother to heed. I decided to walk away, but something kept me around. I wondered back to not giving Ms. Logan a fair shake in her account of her assault in Cairo. Then back to all those pictures and videos I couldn’t watch because I thought they had been too gruesome to watch. I’d already ignored this girl twice, and I didn’t want to be like how many of us are when we simply turn away and wash our minds clean of the things we can’t stomach.

This time, I stayed. I wanted to know what happened to her even though I knew I wouldn’t like what I’d see. I was right; I didn’t like any of it. It was really disturbing, to put it mildly. It’s reduced to a female thief being fingered, but by my definition, she was raped. There had to have been no less than 200 boys taking part in this rape. I say 200 even though not all physically assaulted her, but to me, they’re no less culpable than one who holds down a victim for another to rape as they all played a part in keeping her entrapped for the assault to continue. I felt guilty and guiltier after every frame. Had I been wrong about Ms. Logan’s accounts? What was even worse, I was watching what could’ve happened to Ms. Logan happen to a terrified girl in one of the same hallways I had walked at Legon during my only visit there this past week. This also happened in what’s considered one of the best universities in Africa. Less than 5% of the Ghanaian population attains some university-level education, and that’s not counting the fewer who manage to graduate. Entrance to Legon is very competitive and we’re left to believe the smartest, brightest, and future leaders of Ghana attend this institution and its twin, KNUST, in Kumasi. But I didn’t see mature, bright, future leaders. I saw a mob of men dragging around a defenseless girl down a hallway as they ripped every article of clothing off her skin, after which they proceeded to do the worst to her with no one coming to her aid as one of them filmed it all. I was even astonished to watch her fellow female students cheer on as the boys had their way with her. Seriously?!

Where were her defenders? There were rooms with doors lining this hallway. Couldn’t some good samaritan shove her in and lock the door behind them until more help arrived? I’m certain none of my friends will stand for this behavior and will be right there in the thick of that mayhem protecting this girl. I keep wondering how those boys felt justified in partaking in such a vicious assault; all because of a notebook computer?! Where were her roommates, or hall mates? How do you convince yourself it’s perfectly fine to rip a girl’s legs open to assault her? Who cares if she could be someone you took a seminar with; someone you might have smiled at in a stairwell, in a café, at a campus party; or perhaps the roommate of a girl you fancy? Who cares?! You heard she stole someone’s laptop or you saw a naked girl and decided it was your right to come out to her dorm and assault her. And these are supposed to be Ghana’s future leaders? I don’t buy into that mob mentality when people try to use it to excuse their despicable behavior. If I did something wrong as a kid, my mom, teachers, or any adult around wouldn’t say “well, you’re pardoned. You couldn’t help being cajoled into doing what everyone else was doing.” Where did these kids grow up? Are we really a society that accepts that even petty theft deserves rape? Why should a parent send his or her daughter to a university for her to be filmed being raped by her mates without help? I know this shouldn’t be a motivation to help, but don’t any of these boys have sisters, female friends, nieces, aunts, and moms? I nearly clubbed a 60-lbs dog that merely growled at my niece while we went on a walk several moons ago. If I’m that territorial and protective of those I care about, can you imagine what I’d do if someone actually dared touch any of them? So where were this girl’s uber protective friends?

As I finally began my walk home, I turned back a few times to see youngest of the bunch watching the rape video laughing as they ran around chasing each other to replay more of the clip. My nephew once walked in on me and an old girlfriend sitting in a couch. We weren’t doing anything. She had been sitting across on my lap. The boy stood in shock from the sight of us. He also had this crush on her like only a 3-yr-old can. I’m left wondering if my little boy was so moved by seeing a girl on my lap, how these toddlers process a video of 200 boys raping a girl as they laughed and jumped around while watching. How much would they think of a girl’s worth the first time they meet one they fancy who says no to them? And of the many cowards who weren’t arrested for that girl’s assault, what becomes of them? Where’s the remorse or accountability? Here’s the scary thing: they’ll still be around. Would they be like me in feeling guilty for not having given Ms. Logan a fair chance, or would they be so far gone from feeling any empathy for women as they had had none for this girl? I hope this girl got good treatment and counseling and a chance to finish her education, but this is Ghana and one can only imagine what became of her.

Lastly, rape is obviously never justified, and since it’s not, I’d like to ask: if we always turn away from watching or reading about violence and filth just so they don’t affect us so much, are we being fair to the victims of these brutal assaults? And how much of a prior belief or perception of our physical and emotional detachment is factored into how these perpetrators find justification for the callousness and brazenness of their crimes even when we’re in the position to offer help? If there is any, shouldn’t we now keep a different attitude to and about our reaction to these crimes so as to possibly subvert this belief justification criminals hold when committing their crimes?

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