Stephen Lewis, the Congo, and rape as a weapon of war

This speech (major trigger warnings if you follow that link; generally horrifying stuff even aside from trigger issues) by Stephen Lewis about violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is overwhelming. First, I have to say that it strikes hard to hear another Canadian UN figure essentially begging for the world (and the UN in particular) to take note of a situation in Africa, now that publicity surrounding Romeo Dallaire’s book and appointment to the senate, plus the film Hotel Rwanda have disappeared. When it was in the past, we could look back and shake our heads and deconstruct in preparation for, heaven forbid, next time. We could hold up heroes or tragic figures like Paul Rusesabagina or General Dallaire, we could develop a narrative that we could get comfortable with, and we could pat ourselves on the back for getting it now. Except that here it is, and here we are, again.

What’s worse is that it’s not even ‘next time’. We’re still on the same time. The crisis in the DRC has been largely the result of mass quantities of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide and continuing exactly the same violence that was going on in 1994. And yet:

What is so incredible about the inertia and passivity of the international community is the weight of evidence they had before them, and the total blank indifference with which the evidence was treated.

In 2004, Amnesty International produced a 39-page treatise titled Democratic Republic of Congo: Mass Rape Time for Remedies. It makes very tough reading. But its almost unimaginable that it would engender almost no response whatsoever…

As history has shown, those who could intervene, primarily the governments of the international community, remained impassive. It forces one to think of the meaning of misogyny.

Yeah, it does. That it should take this much and more to force that thought is what is genuinely ‘incredible’ to me. That these are the kinds of issues Eve Ensler, quoted in the speech, is working on publicizing at the same time as she’s being mocked as a self-centred, vagina-gazing Western feminazi is incomprehensible. That we can start this conversation on what the horrors of Rwanda showed us about white, racist indifference and not learn from it…fuck, I don’t know.

The speech by Lewis is brilliant beyond just the specifics, however. The situation in the DRC is horrifying in its scope, magnitude, intensity and details, but it is absolutely vital that we recognize that rape is used constantly as a war tactic. Stories about sexual violence in conflicts are often treated with disbelief, as aberrations, as something that can be changed within the system, rather than as the system itself. When we’re talking about casualties of war, we’re almost always talking about soldiers or fighters who suffer physical injury and mental trauma. And I would *never* say we shouldn’t talk about that, but to pretend that rape is not a major component of war, to use the nostalgic, chivalrous sounding ‘protect women and children’ rhetoric without being willing to talk about what they’re being protected from, is refusing to recognize the depths of what’s happening. We’re refusing to talk about it in a general sense, and we’re refusing to talk about the worst-of-the-worst of it in this specific case.

The big picture:

Allow me to say that what has come to pass in the eastern Congo is an inevitable result of marginalizing 52% of the worlds population, and permitting multilateralism to turn its back on gender equality. AIDS and rampant sexual violence are just two of the resulting pandemics; one doesnt need a crystal ball to predict that were in store for more. Thats why we so desperately need an international agency for women. There must be a voice, tenacious, indefatigable, unrelenting, well-financed, that never lets the world forget the indignities and human rights abuses visited on women.

This isn’t because things are just that fucked up in the DRC (though, obviously, they are). This is what happens when we talk about violence against women as private, domestic and individual, when we make ‘women’s issues’ lesser-than, and when we exclude women–both as conversants and topics–from discussions about the consequences of international politics and war. We will reach the point of things being just so goddamn horrifying we don’t even know how to talk about them anymore, and, apparently, even then we’ll be indifferent about it.


The Loaves and the Fishes

The concept of miracles intrigues me, theologically speaking. Some scholars spend a lot of time trying to ‘explain’ the miracles described in the bible–on the assumption that something observable happened, historically speaking, but that there must have been a materially comprehensible mechanism that was merely attributed to Christ (I’m not the biggest fan of South Park, but damn do I love the satire of this in the Jesus v. David Blaine episode).

One example is the suggestion that when Jesus fed the 5000 (plus the women and children, because they weren’t counted) with just 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 13-21), what had actually happened is that people in the crowd initially said they had only this small amount, but when they were asked again by the disciples, each of them found some additional small amount to contribute, leading ultimately to an abundance. Leaving aside questions of historiography and scientific causality in order to assume the truth of this idea for a moment, I would ask why that ‘explanation’ is seen by some as reductive/dismissive. If, for any reason and by nearly any means, a group of more than 5000 people were convinced to quietly, humbly and generously offer what each of them had for redistribution, and the entire crowd were fed to satisfaction, I would certainly be extremely moved and see a great force at work in that event.

In my spirituality, the historical ‘truth’ of an event is much less important than the moral, metaphysical, underlying ‘truth’ it communicates, especially when it comes to the miracles. I won’t go so heretically far as to say that I see the events of Jesus’ life as described in the bible as purely metaphorical, but I do think that their ‘meaning’ in contemporary life comes from more from the symbolic than from the literal truths.

I was struck yesterday by a symbolic element of this particular miracle that had never really hit me before. Often, when we do small, nice things for others, the impact that they have on those individuals is exponentially greater than the sacrifice they cost us. Giving an hour of one’s time and energy to cook dinner for an overwhelmed single mother may resonate with her for a week. To me, that’s a gift from God, taking the small offerings and turning them into something much larger, much more powerful. Something changed between the action and the reaction, the gift grew between giver and recipient.

Just 5 loaves and 2 fish are expanded into something much more sustaining. That symbolic point underlying the story awakens a level of gratitude in me now, for the ways my own small actions can be transformed, and for the way the smallest actions of others have been sustaining me. If the story were merely literal, it would be just a neat parlour trick, perhaps a bit of magic, the specifics of which are irrelevant, included in the gospels to add to the affirmations of Jesus’ divinity (figuring out the mechanism behind it would also matter, since the David Blaine-style illusionist explanations would, in fact, reduce it to propaganda or rhetoric). As I see it today, it’s miraculous.

Being politically ‘wooed’

From the CBC a few days ago:

Hampton woos women’s votes

First of all, I don’t see any indication that the leader of the either of the two biggest parties spoke at a large “Women Vote” conference, even though, you know, they do. Vote. Second, how anyone can see statistics like that and argue the irrelevance/borderline aggressive insanity of feminism is beyond me. To highlight:

  • Almost half of single, widowed or divorced women over the age of 65 live in poverty
  • more than 40 per cent of unattached women under 65 fall below the poverty line
  • Of the approximately 237,000 workers on minimum wage in Ontario, 61 per cent are women

Those first two say nearly the same thing, and in combination spell out that almost half of all women functioning economically without men (or another partner) are not making living wages, and doesn’t even mention the impact of single motherhood. Since these kinds of statistics threaten to break me sometimes, I can focus on the much more manageable question of that headline.

Would we ever see a term like that used to describe the attempt to target men’s votes? Well, ‘men’ aren’t discussed as a unique demographic category, because ‘men’s issues’ are generally known as just ‘issues’ in an election. But beyond that, I can’t imagine that words that evoke rom-com imagery, the idea of being swept off one’s feet and becoming somewhat irrationally blinded to reality would be applied to anyone but women.

The heavy political issues covered in Hampton’s speech make the word choice worse. It’s a subtle, near-thoughtless reminder that women’s issues are less-than, likened to cheesy romantic fantasies, and that women as voters are not all that rational, making decisions because we’re being courted/swept off our feet by a knight in shining armour with the unfortunately comic name of ‘Howard’. Hampton himself adds to my pain with his joke that he wishes he could start every morning before a crowd of enthusiastic women. The specifics of the statistics mentioned provide an added bonus–we’re talking about the ways in which women unattached to (usually) men are struggling based on systemic conditions, and the CBC is telling us that believing that this matters and that the NDP platform is the one best addressing it is akin to being ‘wooed’ into a relationship that would generally contribute to economic stability.

I’m obviously going to be voting NDP. I’m thrilled with the (female) candidate I get to cast my vote for in this riding, and while I’m never 100% behind everything any party says, I’m confident the NDP comes closest. But that doesn’t mean that Howard and I are dating.

Can Canada have a superhero?

I came across this post by Ami Angelwings via When Fangirls Attack!. Her main point is a good one–Supergirl is yet another example of a female character, whether strong or not, constantly defined in relation to others rather than being allowed a genuinely autonomous identity. But she offhandedly suggests

I always think that Supergirl should move to Canada. XD Just cuz.. Canada has like… no heroes…

I’ve often expressed a multitude of frustrations with Superman, and one of them is that he manifests pure American exceptionalism–what ‘truth, justice and the American way’ implies varies with the era and the incarnation of the myth, but that it is fundamentally American stays constant.

We don’t really talk much about the ‘Canadian way’. No one would ever walk around and label someone’s actions ‘Uncanadian’, let alone consider that one of the most heinous insults possible. I’m not saying we don’t have our methods of being collectively arrogant, but it’s just never quite the same. So, two questions: what would a quintessentially Canadian superhero look like? And does the successful marketing of a heroic embodiment of Canadianism require the presupposition of the possibility of actual power (because if we can’t even fantasize about how our national characteristics can save the world, can we channel those characteristics into a world-saving mythical figure)?

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On being a Christian feminist

One of the things I’m hoping to do is have a weekly faith-themed post (Sundays, not because it’s the rule, but because it’s easy), because that’s one of the main topics I’ve was struggling to post over in the old space. I have to issue a disclaimer, though, that I’ve been doing a lot of spiritual exploration lately, and my beliefs are constantly shifting, which means that what I say–particularly from one post to the next–may not always be completely intellectually rigourous. Take all that for what it’s worth.

Now then, what does it mean to be a Christian feminist?

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Today’s Moment of Misogyny

Bumper sticker: “Tell your tits to stop staring at my eyes”.

Translation: How many times do I have to tell you, woman, when you do that thing vaguely described as ‘existing’, I have absolutely no choice but to react. If that bothers you, not only is it your problem, it’s your fault. Oh, and also, I think of your tits as autonomous entities. I’d be a lot happier if I could communicate directly with them and we wouldn’t have to deal with that pesky go-between brain of yours.

That second part may involve some subtle linguistic nuances, but such is the beauty of language and translation.

What am I doing here?

I have this idea in my head that a first post should be in some way special. Establish myself, make a point, create a ‘hook’.

But here’s the thing: I’m tired. And I’m kind of here because I’m tired.

Not in any particularly unique way. Just in the way we all get, if we give a damn on any level.

I’m tired of knowing. I’m tired of hearing the voices that are saying the smallest, most mundane things and recognizing the layers of sexist, racist, classist, heterosexist, essentialist, entitled cultural baggage underlying the whole deal. I’m tired of not being able to dismiss any of that as no big deal, of being aware of how the smallest of elements are the ones that reveal the pervasive roots of the system.

I’m tired of being in conversations where I know I need to challenge something and not even knowing where to start. I’m tired of the dichotomy between preaching to the choir and talking to a brick wall.

It’s tough not to come off as superior in one of these kinds of posts (and I strongly suspect I’m failing in this case). I’m not trying to present my ideas and perceptions as infallible, and I’m absolutely willing to engage the notion that I’m misrepresenting the specifics of what’s wrong with the world and how to address it. But I’m burnt out on conversations with those who say there is no problem, or haven’t begun to genuinely interrogate the issue.

The word ‘saint’, as it’s used in the bible, doesn’t suggest the level of perfection or virtue that the words current connotations hold, but rather just a follower of Christ. It’s been said (though I couldn’t find an original source) that “Saints are the sinners who go on trying”.

And believing that that might be true gives me something. So I’m here. Again.

Trying to go on trying.