Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Letters Home

The traffic in Luanda is generally horrific. I know I know, it's bad wherever you live too. You live in the city with the worst traffic. I believe you. But for real. Literally constant gridlock with extraordinarily aggressive drivers, scant streetlights that do not work EVER, occasional police directing traffic (but they most often stand at the side of the road rather than direct), and lots of motorcycles, little van/taxis stopping every 10 feet, but oh the gridlock! So in the time I spend in cars each day being driven here are there I generally have two choices: listen or think. Listening takes much more effort as it's in Portuguese and requires my full attention, so if I'm tired I just don't listen.  Today on the way to work I was thinking about blog topics and considering which of the ones I've been considering is appropriate to write about. It occurred to me that we all edit our lives in some form or another, whether downplaying or exaggerating, we are all writing our own story, amending it for the time, place and audience. But this leaves some stories untold, I think particularly in my case as many of things I do or work on feel like they're not appropriate for public banter. On the other hand this is my blog, you all know what I do for a living, and if you don't know you will, and of course all of you are always free to ignore me. So rather than editing down where I am for public consumption, I'll see what I can do about showing you all a bit more and telling stories a bit less. Forgive me for the long introduction...

NOTE: The rest of this post addresses attitudes about rape here, feel free to skip

First a few introductory anecdotes:

After dinner with friends...
Me: Aww you like Kobe Bryant? How come!
1 of 3 men at the table: What? Why shouldn't I like him?
Me: Well he's a Laker, and a rapist for that matter.
1 of 3: Well aren't we all.
All 3 laugh.

I walk into a classroom where older kids learn to read and write, on one wall is letter with examples of words, on another are posters encouraging positive social behaviors. One poster shows a girl crying in a field and a man fastening his pants. Below it reads "What are the consequences of rape?" (called violacao or violation in Portuguese).

In the car yesterday on the way to visit pre-schools the others in my car were talking, I heard one person say "Her stepfather I can understand, but her father? And to get pregnant?", "But who is to blame in this case?"
They all agree it is the girl's fault, she should not have been "having an affair" with her father.

Each of these cases demonstrates a little bit about the climate and attitude here about rape, and incest for that matter. It is much more widely discussed than in the US, for instance on the radio on the way to work this morning a woman, live, was describing how a week ago "bandidos" broke into her home, raped her young daughter, and tried to rape her too. Can you imagine a rape survivor doing this in the US just a week after it happened? I heard through word of mouth that the 14 year old daughter of a guard at my guesthouse was raped last weekend at a family party and is still in the hospital. Rape is rarely, if ever, so known and discussed in the US.

But there are differences here. Many of the cases are discussing stranger rape, so it presents a big bad other that people can join in talking about; it is very different than spousal or acquaintance rape. On the other hand it really is a topic of conversation here, literally swapping stories of the rapes of other people over dinner. On one hand maybe this could help take the shame and blame away from survivors, but upon hearing that a daughter is to blame for incest, this is certainly not the case.

I think my conclusion is that, despite the fact that discussions of rape are not hidden here, it does not signify that the population is more sensitive to survivors, better able to provide support, or doing more to prevent rape and more harshly punish rapists. I think it's that it's titillating. It's seeing and hearing about violence without identifying or feeling empathy beyond thinking it's a shame. If we think of the poster, where the girl is crying in a field and a man is fastening his belt, and we're asked what the consequences of rape are, tells us a lot. The poster's goal is to raise our awareness about the fact that rape has victims, that it hurts someone. Can you imagine? And if we consider communal status and gender, before we can convince men (I am generalizing here, but it is generally true) not to rape, we must convince them that rape hurts women and girls. And it is not enough to show hurt, we must make them care that women and girls are hurt. Beyond decreasing their worth as brides and ability to fetch water, building a society that values its women and girls, those that are relatives and those that are not, making men believe that all women and children deserve safety and protection. 

In fact, I think ongoing conversations about rape serve to desensitize the community, so rape is not such a bad thing, since it happens to so many girls and women. This phenomenon of rape as frighteningly common, to the extent that it is expected, is not new and it is certainly not unique to Angola. On the other hand, I think we must draw a line somewhere as to what will be tolerated in media and even private conversation and I think everything from glorifying to normalizing rape has crossed it. But then, who am I? If I stopped and protested to all conversations about rape I would not only alienate myself, but my co-workers and those I am trying to work with. And so I stop listening in Portuguese and think instead, wondering if our convictions grow a little weaker every time they are unspoken.

1 comment:

  1. From my wise friend Leah:

    I ran into this with other cultures as well. In some cultures (like the US and middle east), womens sexuality is viewed as hers to control and if she is raped, it must be because she was not controlling it well or placed herself in a situation that opened her up to violation, thus it is her fault. Rape then becomes a mark on the woman (and subsequently her family, husband, etc...)

    In other cultures, rape is not tied to shame for the woman. Although certain situations may still be codified as her "fault." There isn't the same sexual shame attached to the act. Survivors are not ashamed to discuss their rape as it isn't viewed in the same private nature as it is here.