Post to the mailing list faces about violence against women, January 1999

I saved every single posting to this list on violence against women in Indonesia from the first one, and my inability to respond then blocked everything else and kept me from joining other threads. I can't speak for anyone else, but my silence was not due to the situation being "too far away" - but rather much too close.

In 1994, when my period of maternity leave ended and it was time to "go back to work", I closed the project I had been working on since December 1992 and packed up boxes of books and papers and turned in my key to the Office for Women's Affairs for the city of Linz. I was physically and especially emotionally exhausted and depressed, because it seemed that for all the effort I had put into the project, I has achieved essentially nothing. I have no idea if it was worth it now.

It must have been in the Fall of 1992 that the first reports of mass rapes of women in former Yugoslavia started appearing in our newspapers in Austria. In December that year Women's Amnesty in Switzerland sent out a call for protests on December 10. The Women's Council for the city of Linz, of which I was a member, responded by holding a vigil (Mahnwache) in the main square all that day with hastily formulated petition for people to sign - more as a symbolic expression (of solidarity? Of fear? Of something else? Many older women approached us with tears in their eyes, asking what they could do) than anything else. There seemed to be a sense of urgency everywhere, and every political party and church and civic organization started setting up a committee to "help the women victims of rape." A small group of us from the Women's Council initiated the "Aktionskomittee: Asyl für verfolgte Frauen und Mädchen" ("political asylum for persecuted women and girls"), and I was named coordinator for the committee.

Our objectives were to facilitate communication and coordination among various different projects and organizations, while critically examining the motivations and presuppositions of these organizations and especially the representation of violence against women in our mass media in Austria. To this end, we put together a "Reader" with articles on war crimes against women from different perspectives and on the ways in which the regulations regarding political asylum specifically disregard the needs of women. Finally we organized a symposium and invited women from very different backgrounds, resulting in some quite surprising alliances and connections.

One of my tasks was to work through mountains of articles and information on war crimes against women from very different sources, from boulevard press to feminist journals and e-mail messages that had been passed on to me from everywhere. There was no end to the horror, there were no geographic limitations: women all over the world have been and are being terrorized, tortured and murdered. The reports I read literally made me sick and I went through periods of depression and dreadful nightmares. And the account that was posted to faces sounded so chillingly familiar - and it goes on, over and over and over....

Please understand me: the last thing I want to do is trivialize or disregard the very real suffering of women in Indonesia. My greatest concern is that their suffering may be "used", as has also happened over and over again.

Working through all this written material, comparing accounts from different sources, it became very clearly evident that the most graphic and appalling accounts of violence against women were to be found in more boulevard press-type newspapers, especially very conservative ones. Why would a newspaper known more for its support of extreme right-wing, xenophobic politicians than for serious or accurate journalism be interested in publishing extensive accounts of violence against women in another country? What happens to us as women, what does it do to our minds, our sense of identity as women, when we read of brutal cruelty to other women's bodies? The threat of violence against women is implicitly present all around us, everywhere. Accounts of women's bodies being raped is a reminder that in the world we live in, women's bodies are considered vulnerable. That means that any person living in a woman's body is vulnerable, which implicitly implies a need for "protection." Unfortunately, "protection" very often means "control" as well. In this way, it is entirely logical for right-wing conservative papers to carry extensive reports of violence against women: underlying explicitly stated concern for victimized women is an implicit warning to all women not to seek too much independence from their male "protectors." I do not believe it is a coincidence that, in general, reports of women being abused, attacked, raped, murdered are far more easily to be found in most mass media than accounts of women successfully defending themselves against attacks. For this reason, I think it is extremely important that we think very carefully about how we call attention to a need for action.

This notion of women's vulnerability and need for protection has several functions, I think. As far as I know, it is almost a traditional practice to try to trip up conscientious objectors by asking what they would do, if they saw their sister being raped by the respective enemy. The threat of "our" women being raped by whoever the current enemy is has been a successful practice of pro-war propaganda for generations at least. The "enemy" is always depicted as the barbarian Other, who will plunder and rape if not stopped by "our" brave soldiers. In this context, women automatically become categorized as "possessions" along with land, livestock, valuables, which must be protected. This pattern only works, though, as long as it is clear who the enemy is. The other side of this is that women are raped by men, and men have sisters, wives, mothers, daughters, neighbors... What happens to these women? Where do they fit into the picture in accounts of war crimes against women that focus so sharply on the suffering of victimized women?

All the questions and doubts that emerged from my working through this mountain of papers took on an additional urgency in the other part of my work as committee coordinator. On top of all the committees and projects that were suddenly being organized by political parties and other organizations, there were platform meetings on regional and national levels, which it was my job to attend (it was actually a relief that our committee was not regarded as significant enough to be invited to international meetings as well). Since I come from the autonomous women's movement, I have no faith in the intentions of institutional politics anyway, so my position was a dubious one right from the beginning. The media reports of mass rapes had triggered an incredible amount of emotions across all the usual boundaries. The assumption at these political meetings was that we would all be automatically united in our desire to "help women." What exactly "helping women" means, however, depends very much on one's perspective and understanding of "women" and "women's needs." In addition, it is obviously in the nature of political parties that the guiding principle at the base of all their activities is to demonstrate to prospective voters that they are doing a better job than the competition in representing their prospective voters' interests.

Most of the political representatives at these meetings adopted what they considered a pragmatic approach, which meant recognizing that "our resources are limited, we can't help everyone, so we specifically want to help women who have been raped." Thus the first practical question that arose was how to find and identify rape victims, in order to help them. I wish this were a joke, but it wasn't. This question was seriously discussed at great length. Fears were voiced from the ranks of the xenophobes that the altruistic desire to "help rape victims" could be abused and women could get into Austria simply by claiming that they had been raped, even if they hadn't, thereby opening the gates to their children, husbands, parents, siblings and a whole horde of additional refugees...

I am ashamed to write this. I attended these meetings, I sat in these rooms and heard these discussions, and I could not stop them. I could not change it. Especially at the regional level, I soon had a bad reputation at these meetings for being uncooperative, unreasonable, counterproductive. Where everyone else was united in the noble goal of seeking out rape victims, who might be secretly living among us in Upper Austria, in order to help them, I always seemed to be the only one doubting the sense of this, wanting to address concrete problems in the everyday lives of women living in Upper Austria as refugees, not the least of which often involved Austrian bureaucracy. Somehow, though, the horrifying reports of rape seemed to have become in some way more "real" than everyday life, setting a measure for suffering, in a way. "Our resources are limited, we cannot help everyone, so we have to be selective: the degree of your suffering does not qualify you for our aid program." I wish I could remember that some good had come out of all this somewhere.

The more I learned of the concerns and needs of real people in their everyday lives through first-hand accounts and personal acquaintances, the more urgent it seemed to me to overcome our horror at the reports of rape. Yet the common feeling of horror often seemed to be the only thing holding these platforms together at all. Dealing with conflicts is certainly not my strong point, and I often wished that someone more competent or forceful could take my place. I began to dread going to these meetings, but each time I went - after a visit from a friend or accompanying someone visiting a group of people or even just picking up a child from kindergarten - I felt compelled to try to communicate what I had learned. I had been listening, and I was desperately determined to try to make the people at these political meetings listen to me.

I learned a great deal, in fact, but I am afraid political meetings generally have little or nothing to do with learning. The reader that we put together was distributed free of charge throughout Austria to anyone who requested it, and I heard it was frequently used as a basis for discussion in church groups, schools, women's organizations. I hope that Miriam is right about the distribution of information having an effect, even if we do not receive a direct response.

This is of course much too long, and I apologize for that, but I have been brooding over it since August, and it is only a fraction of what goes through my mind every time the topic comes up. None of this actually has anything to do with the experiences of women either in Indonesia or in former Yugoslavia or anywhere else. It only has to do with a feeling of helplessness in response to accounts of violence against women and in the context of inflexible social structures. If this keeps happening all over the world, there must be a better solution than for intelligent and concerned women to take turns beating their heads against political walls in various corners of the world. How does change really happen?