What do we do when its the ‘Same Old, Same Old’

A very thoughtful – and timely – column in Open Magazine (19 May 2012) by Aimee Ginsburg, the India correspondent for Yedioth Achronoth, Israel’s largest daily. In ‘Same Old, Same Old‘, Ginsburg goes back 25 years, to when she was part of a fledgling campaign called ‘You are not Alone’ and the fight for Tel Aviv’s first rape crises centre.

Same Old, Same Old

How do you make a new story every time out of a problem that just won’t go away?

TL, a young colleague who writes for a daily in north India, was in touch the other day through Facebook (God bless Facebook). She has been trying to come up with an original way to cover the frequent rapes and the misogynist attitude of police in the National Capital Region (NCR) “and everywhere else”. Her editor has refused, saying it has been “done to death”. “But everything is still the same,” she told him. “Sorry, the story is old,” was the reply. TL feels a deep need to add her voice for change (‘the reason I became a journalist,’ she writes), and asked if I might have an idea on how to report one of the oldest stories in the world.

This takes me back 25 years, to when I took part in the birth of the first rape crises centre in Tel Aviv. We’d had enough. It was clear the police were never going to change their blame-the-victim attitude; that left to themselves, they would never change the abrasive, intimidating, humiliating protocols they invoked when it came to crimes involving ‘sex’. Police officers, politicians, judges, all voiced this well-worn opinion: it’s the women themselves who ask for it, and therefore deserve what they get. We were fed up, and started an awareness-raising campaign called ‘You Are Not Alone’.

I was a radio journalist and a columnist of feminist affairs (a pioneering venture at the time). I asked many women, some VIPs and celebrities among them, to share their experiences. Everyone had a story—about the guy on the bus or movie theatre; their boss, army commander, professor; their uncle, brother-in-law, father. Some did come out and speak on air, but many more stayed quiet, ashamed. For all my pioneering spunk, I was part of the latter lot.

If I’d had the nerve, this (of many such) is the story I might have told. Once when I was relatively junior, I did a late night radio interview with G, a superstar journalist, bohemian, radical leftwinger, cool guy. I had admired him immensely, for years. After the show, he and S, a friend of his, pulled out a bottle of cheap cognac and we drank and smoked right there in the studio. I was thrilled, obviously, and so glad I had worn my Mao hat and Nicaraguan hoop earrings. It must have been 3 am by the time S drove us all home. When we stopped to drop off G, he insisted I come in to see how great his house was, “just for a sec”, while S stayed in the car. The moment I walked in, he locked the door, pinned me to it, yelled out to S to drive away, and started sending his hands everywhere. I was trying to break free. He was surprisingly strong. I was really scared. I was yelling to S “Don’t go! Don’t go!” and G was yelling “Go! F—k off now!” Finally, I kneed him, opened the door, and ran to the car. “Thanks,” I said, trying to catch my breath. G drove a few blocks, to where there were no houses or streetlights, stopped the car, and jumped on me, my head banging on the window. When I managed to push him off and get out of the car, I realised I would have to walk 7 km through a very dark Jerusalem. I agreed to let him drive me home, my hand tight on the door handle. I stayed in bed for three days, small, ashamed.

Three years later, I received a journalism award for my ‘work to improve the lives of women’. The new spokesperson for the awarding (feminist) organisation called to give me the news and congratulate me. He introduced himself. It was S. I reminded him of that night. Silence. “So that was you,” he finally said. “Yup,” I answered. I fantasised about outing him at the award ceremony, but did not.

(I just learnt while writing this piece that S, a leftist and sympathiser of the Palestinian cause, was shot and killed several years ago by Palestinians during a terror attack. Should I hold my peace? What is the equation here? I am lost. I’ve changed his initials to deepen his anonymity, and send my prayers to his family.)

Twenty-five years later, what started as a noisy ‘You Are Not Alone’ campaign, has led to profound improvements in protocol and attitudes to this issue—the conviction and imprisonment of the country’s ex-president on charges of rape and sexual harassment not the least of them. Stick with it, I told TL. This is our news, old or new, and we can tell it any way we want.

The Angriest Eye

A powerful first-person essay in Open Magazine (2 July 2011) on many things that continue to bother/anger many of us – how we react to rape, how we write about it, talk about it, don’t write about it, don’t talk about it. Read it.

The Angriest Eye

Sexual assault cannot be explained away by geography, morality, emotionality, causality, and certainly not anodyne reportage that allows you to skim and move on, says A Ranganayaki, who knows
True life

One morning, two months ago, I read a horrific news report in the Hindustan Times about the rape and subsequent gangrape of an 18-year-old girl in Delhi. She was first raped by her brother’s father-in-law, who had asked her to his home on some familial pretext; she managed to escape him, found a taxi driver in her catatonic state, and asked to be dropped home. Instead, the driver and his companions took her someplace in Dwarka and gangraped her.

It was the use of the word ‘allegedly’ littered throughout the very short report that I first registered. It made me so angry, for some reason. I don’t think the word has been used or drawn my attention as sharply in reports about other crimes. Allegedly. Supposedly. Apparently. Maybe. We’re not sure.

Perhaps it is to do with my own ghosts, perhaps not. Reportage on sexual violence has, in recent years, become far more prevalent; popular, even. The typical ‘progressive’ response to this is one of affirmation, validation; the willingness to talk about it in public. My response was different. My entire being revolted against the ambivalence of the writing, because if anything, its uncertainty made the monstrosity of the act palatable. It gave me the option of feeling a passing horror at the article, and moving on. Then, there were responses from people on Delhi and its total lack of safety. That appalled me too.

Is geography central to this story? I don’t believe it is. Relevant as an aside perhaps, nothing more. The cab driver and his mates raped her again. Because she told them what happened? Because she was already a tainted, violated body? Did it excite them?

Sexual violence and abuse are primal and unspeakable. It is far more comfortable to denounce them in terms of morality, emotionality and religiosity than to actually engage with them. They defy historicity, context and the narratives of modernisation. They are liminal, suspended, beyond the reach of articulation. Predicated upon cornerstones of morality, anything remotely related to sexuality is always exciting press, but it’s a fine line—you don’t want to offend sensibilities. People ask me if talking about experiences of rape, abuse and violence help “get over” it. “Is it somehow therapeutic?” they enquire sweetly and cluelessly. No, I tell them. You never “get over” violence. The experience of violence is always constitutive of our beings, our identities and sexualities. The reason I speak is because I can; because I want to; because it affords some navigability through a maelstrom which holds no “rationale”, escape or solace.

The one thing that always haunted my own experiences of violence; sexual abuse as a child and as an adult, from familiars and strangers; relatives, friends, men who worked in the house, was validation—a desperate search for a reason, for it to somehow be explained. I realise now that this intellectual privileging of explicability and causality in our societies is almost as abusive as physical violence.

This is why I find the rhetoric of ‘justice’ so difficult to digest; as much as I think it imperative, it leaves no room for ambivalence, guilt, or just unmitigated grief and rage. Pop cinema either kills its raped women by way of suicide, or conjures a bloodthirsty story of vengeance. The real story, though, cutting across borders of class, ethnicity, education and colour, is one of silence, which sinuously metamorphoses into either strength or culpability; narratives of morality. As I read the story of this woman, my own memories bleeding copiously into it, I wondered: how do we transpose the story of our bodies, our corporeality, into the realm of our minds, making it more palatable, an abstract matter of societal morals and justice?

I have for some time now been interested in the exclusion of the body within the ‘intellectual’ strongholds of our societies—politics, law, medicine, culture. I have, in my academic bubble, been reading and writing about the forcibly silenced knowledges, experiences and narratives of the body. The idea that our bodies are systems—perfect, machinic and self-regulating forms—is at the core of our internal and personal definitions. Miracles of science, miracles of God, whichever you fancy.

Every time I come across an incident of sexual violence in the papers or
on the internet, I have a total breakdown. Every bit of feminist writing I’ve ever read swirls in my head. I try to remember it, hold on to it and be able to articulate it. Everything except a searing shame forsakes me. It’s in my body that this shame is branded. Not in my mind, not in the papers I write, or the endless debates I’ve had and continue to have. None of it abates my increasing terror at the realisation of the Foucauldian nightmare: that we’re either diseased bodies that must be cured, or docile bodies that must regulate themselves. When I choose sexual freedom, I’m almost constantly haunted by the spectre of disease or the nagging doubt of whether I’m complying with the hetero-patriarchal regime. I forget whether I was a desiring body or not. I forget if I revelled in my freedom of choice. I forget if agency had anything to do with it, or if I just needed validation from the fascist, violent, aesthetic laws of a system that categorically elides the stories that bodies tell. And I wonder; if I
can’t tell stories of freedom and celebrate them without fear and shame, because I’m never sure if they are in fact stories of freedom, how will I
ever do it with stories of violence and pain?

After facing unspoken judgement and humiliation at several medical stores in the city, I finally read a news snippet informing me that there was state opposition to the free availability of emergency contraception in pharmacies because it ‘promotes free sex and irresponsibility amongst unmarried people’. I’m still not sure how to respond to this. At every level it invisiblises my body, my agency, my choice. It denies me medical safety, it silences my desire. It tells me that the only reason I should need to have sex is if I was married, or wanted children. Not only must I struggle with the biology of my body, but also with the moral depravity that my society inscribes it with.

Among most women and many men I know and love, stories of violence and abuse are not uncommon. Our minds may hold the narratives, but our bodies bear the scars, memories and stories—a young child in the afternoon, when nobody is home to hear her scream. A teenager in her cousin’s home for the summer vacation, the gardener who came home every week, the cook who lived at home, her father, his sister. All these are stories of silenced bodies. I wonder what will become of the girl—the relentless media, the moral boulders she’ll be made to swallow. The ‘objective’ investigations, the panels, the decisions of arbitrary people about whether or not she’s telling the ‘truth’. Her body will become an altar, dead and unspeaking, upon which ‘justice’ will play out. What of us, you ask? We will forget, and drink deeply of our amnesia until the next time there is an alleged rape. My daughter, my sister, my dearest friend.