Abuse on women has always existed but it used to be denied by society. Now that it is more open, the government is going to punish rapists with 45 years imprisonment. But repression can’t resolve socially caused ills that must be addressed by collective political actions.
Our society for centuries denied that rape was a problem for women. When noticed at all, it was firmly assumed to be the victim’s shame. And hidden. Or, if men could blame an “enemy” for touching one of “their” women, this might ignite a lynch mob. So, there was a pattern of denial, shame, secrecy, and exceptionally, male gang-revenge. Whether the rape took place at work, at home, or elsewhere, until recently, the pattern was to hide it. Society could thus deny its existence. But all along, slave women suffered it; planters’ wives suffered it, often within marriage; indentured women suffered it. Modern working women suffer it. No woman in patriarchal society is exempt. And we are all very angry. But anger alone will not change the world. Nor will excessive punishments. For years, the fear of patriarchy – rape, itself, and the threat of retribution – kept women quiet.
● Labourers’ strike against rape
That was until the rolling strike by Médine labourers in the early 1970s against the practice of koloms and sirdars using their positions of power to rape women labourers. Everyday the strike was organised to move to another Annex to avoid anyone being absent more than a day at a time, thus risking their job. Women and men labourers went on strike against rape. Showing society it existed, showing society they disagreed. There was open debate then, but it was localized, not national.
A few years later, the issue was taken up by the women’s movement, when we had toute la peine du monde to get the issue on the political agenda or in the media. The only force to respond, as a party, to women’s movements call for political debate was Lalit. Governments have sometimes responded through changing bureaucratic practices or laws, but reluctantly, and as governments, not as parties.
● What the women’s movement wants
We should remember what it is that the women’s movement actually wants?
We should get beyond the narrowly legalistic notions being debated everyday on the issue of the Sexual Offenses Act, and debate the actual issues around rape and forced sodomy. And, more importantly, let us try to get beyond the illogical, punitive attitudes of the Social Alliance Government’s Bill, on the one hand, and the neo-fundamentalism of the MMM and MSM, who block the Bill on the grounds that the law must continue to set the police on people who do not follow religious proscriptions.
Rape is unfortunately very common in our society, and we must understand the entire phenomenon, which we cannot do by looking only at the small percentage of victims and perpetrators who will end up before the judiciary. It is, of course, not in the aims of the women’s movement to make life easier for lawyers or policemen. Our aim is to make life better for all women, and thus, for the whole society. But let us be more specific.
●Rape as aggression
Our aim in the women’s movement since 1976 was, and still is, to have society recognize first and foremost, both in its discourse and in its dealing with the issue, that rape is a serious form of aggression. Not a big demand. This does not mean we want lynch-gangs roaming around looking for a whipping boy. That would remind us too much of the days we were just the chattels of fathers and husbands, who avenged our loss of chastity. Nor do we want very long sentences handed down to offenders. Nor do we want to do away with the general presumption of innocence of an accused. We do not want revenge to be exalted by the State. Nor do we want to perpetuate vicious cycles of violence in society. At the time of rape and afterwards, the woman often feels profound anger, and a sincere desire to strangle the rapist. This is a normal emotional reaction. The women’s movement recognizes any woman’s need to burst out in anger. But our program is not to strangle rapists or get the Judiciary to impose draconian punishments on them. When we say we are sick of impunity, we do not mean we want more punishment for rapists. We just want men to be held responsible for their acts of aggression, to have to rann kont to society, to have to face up to their own destructive act. We want society to recognize soberly that macho men’s domineering tendencies must be curbed socially, instead of being praised.
We aim at all these things; we work towards them by specific, rationally prepared demands for changes: for children not to be married off young, for rape to be outlawed within marriage, for incest laws to be voted, for Sexual Assault Units to be opened in hospitals to avoid women having to go to the Police Station. By debating and rallying around agreed demands, we have, in fact, changed the balance of social forces somewhat.
● The rapist is the offender
Secondly, we want something very simple. We want society to identify the rapist, not the victim, as the offender. And treat him as such. We object to male lawyers, for example, sniggering during rape trials. We object to the tone and content of many news articles on rape. We want this changed. And it has changed.
● Rape in the family and social circle
Thirdly, we oppose rape being condoned, socially or legally, when perpetrated by a family member or husband. We campaigned for incest laws, exposed and opposed the pro-incest proverb, “Mo ti plant sa pye ziromon, alor premye leker bred pu mwa.” We criticize the old fundamentalist concept of ‘marital duty to have sexual intercourse because, amongst other things, it implicitly condones marital rape.
● Making it easier to speak out
Fourthly, we work to help women speak about rape. As recently as 1995, for the first time, a serious, nation-wide debate took place in organizations outside the women’s movement and in the press. Through the years, Muvman Liberasyon Fam has put emphasis on avoiding hysteria when addressing this societal problem. And when Sandra O’Reilly spoke out so courageously on radio even more recently, the issue of rape was again dealt with in public.
More recently still, the Arc-en-Ciel collective spoke out against the violence of homophobia. For the first time, society is facing the issue of the need to distinguish, both in life and in the law, between forced sodomy, imposed by macho males, a form of rape, and consensual relationships between adults. Ms Pramila Patten pertinently raised the issue of how the State cannot “s’immiscer dans la chambre à coucher de la nation”.
● Reporting rape at the hospital
Fifthly, we have developed particular demands, closely argued, to change the social conditions under which women report rape.
● Risk of murder, if sentence high
Sixthly, we have repeatedly warned of the dangers of too high sentences increasing the risk of murder after a rape. Rada Gungaloo and Sandra O’Reilly have, too. While most studies show that punishment is not a deterrent to crime, we also know that, after a rapist has committed his offense, during the course of covering his traces, he will soon realize that his victim is the only witness, and an excessive sentence may contribute directly to a decision to murder her.
● Political demands & a change in the balance of social forces
Seventhly, and perhaps the key issue and most neglected one outside the women’s movement, we work to change the balance of social forces into women’s favour, to make it easier for women to protect themselves from rape. This we do through demands for affordable housing, jobs for all women and a decent wage. Once women make coherent demands and stand up for them, as we know, it changes the balance of forces even before any other part of reality gets changed.
Sexual Assault Units have been set up in most big hospitals, so victims of rape can go to the caring atmosphere of a hospital. It is there that a woman police officer will come and take the statement, if the woman wants to give one, but only after she has been cared for medically.
Marital rape is now considered immoral as well as illegal. Incest is now universally condemned and illegal both in private discourse, and in the public domain. Laws against incest were introduced in 1990. Sniggering in Court during rape trials has decreased drastically. The tenor of press articles on rape cases has improved. The NHDC puts houses in women’s names. Equal pay has been introduced in some sectors.
Very important in changing the balance of forces is that the women’s movement, in its alliance with the Chagossian women, during a series of street demonstrations and then arrests and court hearings in the 1980s, learnt an immense lesson from the women from Diego Garcia on how to know the power of women, relative not only to men, but to male bureaucratic hierarchies like the police.
● Society, having denied rape first, now over-reacts
Ever so recently society admitted that rape even exists. Now, no sooner does it recognize that rape exists, than it goes berserk and threatens, without even a mea culpa for its past treatment of women, to bring in barbarian punishments for the acts that went on for so long with its blithe blessing. The heavy sentences in the Government’s Sexual Offenses Bill, now going to a Select Committee, is part of an hysterical reaction. Further hysterical reactions, often homophobic, from the parliamentary opposition and religious fundamentalists of all ilk, have begun against the more enlightened aspects of the Bill, like criminalizing sodomy when it is forced, thus correctly making caduque the old fundamentalist law against sodomy. Pravind Jugnauth and Paul Bérenger seem blind to the fact that their position means they are in favour of police officers standing on their jeeps, like in Apartheid South Africa, to see who is committing a sexual “offense” in their own beds, after their neighbours reported them. In this article we are looking principally at the roots of the hysteria around the present debate on rape laws.
● Marrying off 9-year-olds in recent past
Until 1981, our polite Mauritian society allowed parents to marry off their daughters at 15, and under special circumstances with the agreement of a Judge, at the age of nine. Before, not only did society acquiesce in this archaic practice, but the law also permitted it. Those marriages were so much socially consecrated rape. The only political movement that took position at the time was the Lalit current. We should also admit that editorialists never bemoaned the situation. Priests of all denominations remained silent, at best. We need to let the truth sink in. Instead of brushing it under the carpet.
Then, in the women’s movement, we got organizing - petitions, forums, outdoor meetings, programs of demands and street demonstrations. There was Muvman Liberasyon Fam, La Ligue féministe, Mauritius Alliance of Women, Association des femmes mauriciennes plus scores of local secular women’s associations, and we were all together in the Solidarite Fam. Even the conservative Ecole ménagère of France Boyer de la Giroday was part of the movement. We set up big common fronts of women’s organizations to confront “society” on this kind of practice and this kind of law that was abusive of girls. And, in our struggle for a new legal framework, we succeeded in changing society’s prejudices to get the major legislative amendments of 1981 through Parliament. This was a mere 25 years ago. And yet practices such as marrying 9-year-olds, and the laws that allowed them, got forgotten on the spot by male-dominated society. As did the struggle that had been necessary to get them changed. As if they had never existed. But all this past lives on, if not in our conscious minds, in the collective unconscious. Because today’s consciousness grows out of yesterdays. And, when we think we are just ‘forgetting about’ the past, without re-working it into the present, it tends to surface as hysteria.
Polite society also denied the existence of any form of rape until some 12 years ago. We, in the women’s movement, were derided for being extremists for mentioning it. Rape was “the woman’s fault” because she wore “provocative clothes”, said the great majority of opinion leaders in society. A priest said exactly that at a public forum, when he and MLF were speaking on the subject on the same platform. “Women,” it was regularly said in the press until last week,“like” being raped because they supposedly “like strong men”. Women, people said, should not go to lonely places, or out at night, etc. A tourist, raped inside her hotel room, was criticized in the press for sleeping without clothes on. Her fault again. Many newspapers used the words ‘allegedly’ about 20 times in an article in which the text informed you that a woman had clearly been raped. Marital rape was considered a contradiction in terms. A man, all polite society assumed, had the right and even the duty to have sex with his wife, like it or not.
● What the women’s movement wants
The women’s movement wants society to acknowledge that rape is assault. We want society to criticize macho men when they impose themselves on women, other men, or children. We want clear laws, not punitive sentences. We want women to be strong enough to refuse unwanted sex. We demand to be financially independent, so that we can leave partners that rape us. We demand housing for single women at affordable prices. We want men, in cases where it can be proved in Court beyond a reasonable doubt, to be found guilty. We would like them never to rape us or anyone else again. We want society to organize for them to re-habilitate themselves, or, as Ombudsperson for Children, Shirin Aumeeruddy-Cziffra, correctly states, “aussi de faire de la prévention”. We do not want rapists sent to prisons where they will themselves be raped and mentally damaged so that, when they come out again, they are so messed up that they abuse women even more than before.
● Who are the rapists?
We want people, including lawmakers, police, the press and lawyers to recognize and remember, day-in and day-out, that most rapes are within the family, or close circle of friends. It’s not mainly to do with a load of “criminals out there” that, if we can just round them up, lock them up, then society will be forever free of rape. No, it’s not like that. Our most ordinary friend/cousin/colleague is often the rapist. The person next to us in the office/ the boss/a neighbour. That’s what is so terrible about rape. Patriarchy allows ordinary, nice men to get away with hideously domineering behaviour. In the women’s movement, we estimate that only a small minority of men can honestly say they never have and never will rape a woman, given our patriarchal society. It’s ordinary groups of ordinary men that perpetrate the worst of rapes, gang rapes, after all.
● What do rapists do with their pasts?
What proportion of men now over 18 years old have had sex with a girl under 16? Maybe a third? They would face 45-year sentences soon. Imagine the psychological pressure when, just when they, together with the rest of society, are consciously accepting that rape exists and is reprehensible, they simultaneously realize that they are amongst the rapists? What are they doing with their own pasts now? They panic. They want to hide it, naturally. They deny it, even to themselves. They want to forget it. Lock the very thought of it away for 45 years, or even 60. That’s how bad things are… and, how ordinary. Those who have on occasion raped young girls under 16, just like those who have on occasion raped their wives, are all around us.
In the women’s movement, we are in the privileged position of even knowing many rapists by name. Women tell us their true stories. We don’t go hysterical. The men concerned, it might surprise people to know, are often in respectable jobs, sitting behind executive desks, making speeches in public and writing in press columns. Many seem quite re-habilitated, we are pleased to say. What we would wish is that they, and the whole of society, acknowledge their own recent pasts, so that they can admit, at least to themselves, that the attitudes that permitted them to abuse women, were unacceptable. And that what they did was harmful. This realization would be progress. It’s not a question of telling the police about them.
● Not just the cases the police hear of
In reality, many rape victims do not go to the police. Just as for other criminal case – burglary or “threat in writing” – before reporting a case to the police, you discuss with friends whether it’s worth the emotional energy, days off work, potential reprisals, social upheaval, police brutality you might provoke, money to pay a lawyer for a watching brief, risk of not being able to prove rape, and the risk of being liable for making a false and malicious denunciation. These issues are added to what are accepted now as the particular torments, some eminently avoidable if procedures were different, that women have to go through: having to go into a police station, having to tell police officers, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, the press, the public about a traumatic experience, having to use sexual terms used little in public discourse, having to refer to the private areas of one’s body and having reference made in Court to one’s past sexual experience or having to get the family’s breadwinner jailed.
Fortunately, women no longer have to go to the police station, but can report directly to the Sexual Assault Unit at Jeetoo, Victoria, J. Nehru, Flacq or SSR Hospitals. According to a government “Protocol”, a woman police officer will come to the Unit in due course, should you wish to give a statement. The police medical officer will consult you, as a patient in a medical environment, and not as a specimen in a criminal case in a police environment.
● Within marriage
A woman who suffers marital rape or forced sodomy within marriage urgently needs to be able to act to prevent it happening again. She must be able to leave her husband immediately, or get a protection and eviction order to get him out immediately, she needs to get a place to stay temporarily and then permanently, to get a divorce cheaply and easily, and be able to support herself, through a job or unemployment benefit. Fortunately, the Domestic Violence Act gives some protection, and its existence protects many women who never actually use it. But, society right now seems to care little about the social needs of a raped wife, and instead, wants her to get her husband locked up in jail – even if for
45 years. What the women’s movement wants recognized is that women’s position in society must be such that they can prevent marital rape, or, when it happens, they have the power to at least avoid it recurring.
In the women’s movement, we do not want the law to sanction 45 years of sequestration. Let alone 60 years. We have not given up on the power of human beings to change, to recover from what may have been their own past trauma. But the jails, as they are, won’t help that. We have not given up on taking some risks either, in the interests of remaining civilized in our sentencing. Nor do we want the State to take revenge on our behalf.
● Unequal balance of forces must change
One thing is for sure. The unequal balance of social forces between men and women and the patriarchal hierarchy by which some men have power over women “under them”, which are the root causes of rape including marital rape, won’t be changed in women’s favour by a few men, or even many men for that matter, being locked up cruelly for 45 years. On the contrary, the balance will tip further against women. This kind of draconian punishment will just be so much more sadistic, macho, violent, anti-social behaviour in society – sanctified by the State, to boot – which will be inflicted on women again in one big vicious cycle.
● Where does the hysteria come from?
Where did this “incitement to the public to exact vengeance from offenders” come from in our own recent history. The answer is clear. When opposition political parties, are too weak to attack the Prime minister on political issues, they fall back on attacking him as Interior minister. In France, we see this from extreme right Le Pen who mobilizes people for more “law and order” i.e. more repression. It is a kind of politics that gains its social force from mass hysteria. Genuine, very serious social problems, whether drug taking or hold-ups, prostitution or rape, are pointed to, feelings are whipped up, and the Government is goaded into becoming more repressive. This started in 1983, when Paul Bérenger was in opposition, and he has maintained the line unabashedly ever since, joined by everyone else, in turn, in the mainstream opposition. This includes the present Government. He has even been overtaken on his right by Anerood Jugnauth and then Pravind Jugnauth, both in opposition and in government. The Press has unfortunately given a hand, especially when the MMM raises the hysteria. The only program implied in this “incitement to the public to exact vengeance from offenders” is simple-minded: more repression.
● Social ills must be addressed
The assumption of this totally erroneous political line is that the police and prison services can cure social ills with specific social causes that must be addressed, which every thinking person knows. The knowledge that there are other social issues that need tackling is sidestepped through creating hysteria. The generally acknowledged fact that long sentences are not a deterrent is ignored. Rehabilitation is rarely mentioned. People are roused to wanting bloodthirsty revenge. Their immediate reaction of anger against the offender is converted into harmful and of counter-productive social strategies.
Today even women’s oppression is suffering this fate. How could the strengthening of the patriarchal structures of the police and prison services ever contribute to women’s emancipation, let alone of society? Repression can never resolve socially caused ills. It only adds further ills - police brutality, to name one. And it runs the risk of inexorably bringing us nearer to engendering a police state, the ultimate enemy of women.
Social ills have other causes, and other ways of being resolved. Women’s oppression is no exception. These ills must be addressed by collective political actions around clear, shared programs. Such programs are conscious analyses and demands, which spring from the development of a common understanding of the present history of society, which happens during the process of organizations seeking real change. Programs also involve a shared comprehension of which particular forces in society are more likely to bring change for the better. Likewise, our program informs us that a police State and prisons full of lifers are totally negative forces for women’s emancipation. They are negative forces full stop.
Lindsey COLLEN, Kisna KISTNASAMY,
for the Muvman Liberasyon Fam
23 April 2007