“She can’t be Sudanese! If she were truly Sudanese she would not have had the audacity to speak out in public and in such details!” reads one of the comments under a YouTube video in which Safia Ishaq, a peace activist, speaks of her rape. Reading this comment and others, I am overcome with immense frustration and anger. I keep asking myself so many questions. Why can she not be Sudanese? What is it about being Sudanese that makes us want to suffer in silence? How are we different from anyone else? Why can’t sexual assault perpetrated against Sudanese women seen as what it truly is: a crime?
As I seek answers to these questions, I keep coming back to this video. Regardless of the gender of the commenters, the violation and disrespect of Safia reflects a pattern of cultural norms that disregards rape as a serious issue. When Safia was raped two years ago, the incident became the driving force behind my work in helping survivors. As a Sudanese woman, I am affected by the same circumstances and ideologies that resulted in Safia’s rape, and its subsequent justification. As a result, I seek to define perceptions of my own reality, womanhood, identity and “Sudanese-ness.”
Sudanese society takes tremendous pride in cultural values. An example of such values is the social solidarity and support that we give even to strangers. However, it puzzles me how such support and solidarity turn into social exclusion and alienation when it comes to survivors of rape. As I begin to think about why this is the case, one term comes to mind: cultural chauvinism, or the view of one’s cultural superiority.
With the positive values inherent in my own culture comes a pride so extreme that it becomes impossible to acknowledge negative social aspects. From this chauvinistic view of our culture, a view of the virtuous woman emerges, making Sudanese women the sacrificial lambs of cultural pride and arrogance. With this extreme pride comes a dangerous denial of rape, a denial that maintains the shame and stigma survivors continue to experience, making Sudanese society blind to the needs of survivors of rape.
It is important to note that when it comes to sexual crimes—rape in particular—there is an alarming absence of statistics. Sundus Alarabi, a gender specialist with the Sudanese nonprofit organization Social And Human Development Consultative Group (SAHDCG), spoke to me about the apparent lack of reports and statistics regarding rape in Sudan. When I spoke with Sundus about the seemingly absent reports on rape, it became apparent that such an absence of much-needed statistics is a causality of the outlook toward rape that alienates survivors and pushes them to the brink of uncounseled silence.
Sundus says it is hard for people to speak about rape. “This is very important especially for survivors of rape in conflict zones, where there are many incidents that are glossed over and not talked about” she said. “It is very important to make people aware of it.” As Sundus describes, it is difficult to find statistics for rape for several reasons: topic sensitivity, socio-cultural structure, views on rape, lack of people’s responsiveness to the issue and a lack of proper legal systems, all of which create constraints in finding proper statistics and survivor outreach.
One of the things that results from cultural denial, and consequently, negligence toward rape, is how it can be used to oppress women under the rule of the National Congress Party in Sudan. Women in Sudan are socially and culturally molded through oppressive laws to fit the bill of the government’s Civilizational Project agenda. This project is a failed one; while it was created to lead the Sudanese people into what the government perceives as a virtuous society, it spawned a series of contradictions that can no longer be ignored in Sudanese society. Amidst such contradictions, women are constantly fighting for their identity and self-determination between the hammer of culture and anvil of the government.
For instance, while female genital mutilation (FGM) is considered a form of violence against women around the world, it is still not perceived as such in many parts of Sudan because it is in line with the “virtuosity bill” that the National Congress Party seeks to prove. As a result, many government-sympathizing Sudanese religious scholars came out in opposition to campaigns that seek to end this harmful practice, demonstrating the unholy union between ideology, and oppression.
On the other hand, if you look closely at the rape which is systematically perpetrated against women in war torn areas, as well as against activists—as is seen in Safia’s case—you can see that survivors of rape “fall from grace” are labeled as “whores” by society, and stripped of their “Sudanese-ness.” Women are made to carry the weight of proving cultural worth and integrity through their bodies, yet they are punished when the political systems—enabled by cultural norms—perpetrate sexual violence against them.
And while the government seeks to create its own version of “saints” and “sinners”, the failure of the Civilizational Project is further exemplified through laws and legal systems each day, as they fail to bring justice to survivors. It is also putting Sudanese women in the cross fires between culture and politics, where the political is allowed to be propagated at the expense of the personal.
Unlike sexual assault, the statistics of female genital mutilation are readily available, and the public is more responsive to it. According to Sundus, this is because female genital mutilation is seen as intrinsic to the culture, and in some cases religion. Thus, it is easy to gather more information about it. In other words, female genital mutilation is seen as a culturally appropriate form of violence, as opposed to sexual assault. This is indeed a paradox, which deeply affects Sudanese women. The biased treatment of sexual assault stands as a testimony not only to the failure of the Civilizational Project, but a grave failure in Sudan’s ability to see them both as forms of violence against women.
Cultural chauvinism relates to the misguided perception of such forms of violence , where the dichotomy of “virgin/whore” dominates in the cultural background. It is interesting to note that cultural chauvinism relates to the Civilizational Project instigated by the Sudanese government, as it fits perfectly in their toolbox of tactics in swaying the Sudanese public into favoring their stay in power, thus substantiating their rule and justifying it through women.Cultural chauvinism is the perfect accessory for the government to prolong its rule by justifying it through striking the chords of patriarchy, and the oppression of women. Thus the Civilizational Project and cultural chauvinism are part in parcel with each other: a combination that works to the detriment of survivors of sexual assaults, and the women who are deeply affected by the lack of proper response to violence perpetrated against them.
Safia’s so-called audacity is one of inspiring courage. Like me, she dreamed of a better homeland for her people. Unfortunately she paid a price she had not imagined she would pay. Safia could have been a sister, or a friend and even me. Through her courage she became an inspiration for me to work on the issue of changing the cultural mindset that alienates survivors of sexual assault. While it is easier said than done, regime change will bring an end to a political structure, however, it will not change the deeply rooted cultural mindset through which the regime operates and feeds. Thus, regime change can only come when the misguided mindset on which it leans is removed so that it no longer finds a nest for its oppressive ideology. I see a glimpse of hope: advocacy and raising awareness, both of which are needed to exact positive change in the face of culture and politics that intersect to isolate survivors. Rape needs to be seen as what it truly is: a heinous crime, not a deserved punishment or corrective act.
While punishment of perpetrators is far from reach because of the impunity they enjoy through the political and cultural climate, I can still offer a voice that echoes with the demands for change, for an end to using our bodies and spirits as vehicles for political agendas and proof of cultural worth. As Sundus stated, we have not reached the level where rape can openly be discussed, and where women are aware of their right to seek comfort and justice. Therefore, the lack of awareness and knowledge about this issue needs to be the new battleground for equality and justice for women. Through advocacy for survivors, rape will be confronted and brought out from the darkness in which it lurks to shine a brighter light for women in Sudan.
While the road towards punishing the perpetrators is far ahead due to lacking laws, raising our voice about this issue will lead us in the right direction to provide comfort and support for survivors of sexual assault, and with that we have won half the battle. The other half will be won when positive change occurs at the social and political levels. With this we will claim our bodies, our identities and the audacity to decide what makes us Sudanese women.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Frontline Journals