Like many universities around America, Notre Dame recognized Sexual Assault Awareness Week at the end of last month (February 20-27) in a world in which sexual violence against women and girls—and sometimes men and boys—remains a persistent evil. As one of the world’s oldest forms of violence, present throughout the ages, particularly in situations of conflict and war, sexual violence seems distinctly anti-modern from both religious and secular perspectives. How is it that sexual violence remains such a blot on human nature, human society and, particularly, the relationship between men and women?
The sexual assault of CBS war correspondent Lara Logan by a mob of men amidst the euphoria of Tahrir Square on the day of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, on February 11th—a sexual assault described as “brutal and sustained”—is just the most recent high-profile instance of the scourge of sexual violence inflicted on women throughout the African continent, most heinously in the Congo. This scourge is well-known to brave and seasoned conflict journalists like Logan, who hails from South Africa, a country with the highest incidence of sexual assault in the world.
The Horror of a Ugandan Girl’s Story
At the “Contending Modernities” project launch in New York in November 2010, Jacqueline Moturi Ogega, director of the Women’s Mobilization Program at Religions for Peace, gave a compelling testimony of the gravity of such violence. She told the story of a fifteen-year-old who had been abducted into sexual slavery as a young girl by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Continually raped and almost certainly denied any form of medical care as she accompanied the “soldiers” in their campaign of terror, she gave birth to five children in captivity and was pregnant with a sixth child when she came to the attention and care of Ogega’s group. The idea of “forced pregnancy” rankles those who are justifiably keen not to disparage the circumstances that give rise to new life—and yet there seems no more apt description of the girl’s ordeal.
As Ogega recounted this girl’s story, there was near complete silence in the large and virtually packed hall of attendees at the “Contending Modernities” launch. The story was not addressed in the rich discussion following the panel of women scholars who introduced the “Contending Modernities” project’s inaugural focus on “Women, Family, and State.” In truth, the audience and panelists may have been struggling simply to register and reconcile the horror of the Ugandan girl’s story.
Muslims and Catholics: Together Against Sexual Violence?
And yet one of the inaugural questions of the “Contending Modernities” project was “Where can Catholics and Muslims come together to address the problems of modernity?” I would suggest that the issue of sexual violence is such a problem, where they can come together, and that something like a religiously-grounded “truth and reconciliation” process around gender and sexual violence might be a step towards a common effort and solution.
Both Catholicism and Islam have complicated histories when it comes to sexual violence. Islam has a strong concern for women’s honor, but requires multiple witnesses to establish guilt in cases of rape and sometimes metes out harsh punishments for sexual improprieties, including stoning—sometimes for the female victims themselves. In Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the crime of rape mostly as an offense to a woman’s father, husband, or possibility of obtaining a husband, does not tend to sit well with modern ears. And yet in his discussion of the sexual violence that can result from the sin of lust, Thomas is clear that the first harm is to the woman “by reason of due honor not being paid to her” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 154, a. l). St. Augustine also addressed the problem of sexual violence in the context of conflict and war, urging women who had been raped not to commit suicide—perhaps not the most enlightened comment in light of modern understandings of women’s capacity for resilience and survival—and yet here Augustine, like Thomas, references women’s honor in maintaining that “[t]hey have the glory of chastity within them, the testimony of their conscience. They have this in the sight of God, and they ask for nothing more” (City of God, bk. I, ch. XIX).
This charity from the fathers of the Church is certainly more than women can expect today in many, if not most, societies around the world. In secular feminist discussions of sexual violence there has, at times, been discussion of whether rape is a crime of lust or a crime of violence—the prevailing view being that it is a matter of violence. Noted feminist legal theorist, Catharine MacKinnon (Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues) has sought to transcend this debate, arguing that rape, while certainly a crime of violence, has an inescapably gendered dimension. Even men who are the victims of sexual violence are victimized largely by being treated as women.
In fact, it seems that women who suffer sexual violence in many parts of the world are not being treated even as women but rather precisely as objects and instruments. Particularly in the case of gang rapes or family members being forced to rape one another at gunpoint, as has happened regularly in the Congo, there is a way in which the intended victims of such assaults are not women as such but the families and communities of which they are members. The women in such cases are merely instruments and tools—inhuman, inanimate objects to be used to inflict violence and terror on whole groups. Moreover, the tendency of the male perpetrators to participate in such acts in groups, suggests another audience, as well. They are watching each other—and assessing the strength of their fellows’ perverse displays of masculinity and power.
Towards “Truth and Reconciliation” around Sexual Violence
The Muslim tradition has as many resources as the Catholic tradition for addressing men’s abuses of power in sexual violence. Would that both religions would revisit and, where necessary, reinterpret their traditions to intensify the struggle against such abuses!
One way Muslims and Christians might collaborate would be to engage in something like an interfaith “truth and reconciliation” commission to investigate the roots of, and responses to, sexual violence in their traditions. Such a process might produce strong statements from both religions on sexual violence in all its forms. Perhaps then, as Cathleen Kaveny suggested in her address that preceded Ogega’s at the “Contending Modernities” launch—men and women might truly be able to be “friends” in modernity.