Rape: Violation of Embodied Sexual Subjectivity

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For women and other marginalized genders, who make up more than half of the world’s population, sexual violence is an everyday reality. But when language is created by the privileged, those that violate instead of being violated, how would we know what happens when someone violates another sexually? How would we understand the harm it causes? What are the words of pain that can connect with the experience of being violated? When the experience of being violated is expressed through the language of those who violate, how would we know what exactly it damages?

In 1971, rape was used as a violent weapon of war to terrorise Bengalis. It was a military strategy of ethnic cleansing. But it was more than that. After the war, the raped women were named Birangana (war heroine), but their actual existence was erased and replaced with an abstract nationalist imagination as those ‘who sacrificed their honour’. For the victory of Bangladesh and for the sake of this victorious image, the ‘impurity’ of rape victimhood was needed to assemble an abstract image as a ‘pure’ new-born Bangladeshi nation.[i] To reclaim the masculinity of Bangaldeshi men from the ‘shame’ of the ‘emasculation’ caused by the rape of their daughters and mothers, the existence of Birangana and their experiences were silenced from the nationalist narratives.[ii] One of the first testimonies of the Biranganas emerged  from that silence after more than two decades, through Nilima Ibrahim’s book of statements by seven Biranganas “Ami Birangona Bolchi – I am the War Heroine Speaking”. When rape is used as a weapon of war, it assumes women are the weapons, not warriors. While nationalist pride shames with the ‘emasculation of the rape of their mothers and daughters’, it also assumes that the men are the owners of their women’s bodies. The autonomy of the raped women’s own bodies have been denied in these narratives.

One of the most influential feminists, Susan Brownmiller,[iii] who analysed war rapes, including the rape of Biranganas, argues that rape is just violence, and has nothing to do with sexuality. Echoing Foucault on this matter, her emphasis on violence explains how rape is used as a weapon to control women and keep them in their ‘place’, which is subordinate to men. While her analysis helped disassociate rape from a ‘normal’ sexual encounter which overlap each other in the patriarchal discourse, it doesn’t explain how the idea of (hetero)sexuality makes it possible to use rape as an effective weapon against women. The effectiveness of that weapon depends on the validation by  rape culture that assumes women as passive and men as the actors of sexual relations. For Brownmiller, women are biologically rape-able, but it is not about sex. For Foucault and Brownmiller, the shame and issues of purity concerning that happen in our heads, because of patriarchal discourse, and have nothing to do with the body or biology. This way of understanding rape, while somewhat helpful in understanding its use in war, dismisses the embodied pain and experience associated with sexual violence.

However, that patriarchal discourse associates rape with ‘normal sex’ cannot be disassociated from what we understand as sex, as this is part of the sexual politics that create and reproduce rape culture. Catharine MacKinnon[iv] argues that the basis of sexual violence is sexual politics, where men are assumed as dominant, and women as submissive. Sexual politics happen  when this power relation remains embedded in the idea of normative sex. For her, rape and sexuality are not necessarily two different things in normative (hetero)sexuality. While her analysis explains the nuances of sexual violation and the discursive sphere where rape culture exists and breeds, it also doesn’t show us the complexity of women’s experiences and their day-to-day agency; instead, it puts all heterosexual activity in the dock without distinction.

These two conceptual frames, one: rape has nothing to do with sex and two: all (hetero)sexual activities are potential sexual violations, are insufficient to understand what happens to the victims of sexual offences and how they feel. Defining sexual offences in these ways don’t show how the subject and social structure interact and determine each other. It does not let us see that women are violated by the heterosexual social norm while simultaneously being part of that very norm. These understandings also remain in the epistemological binary between body and mind. The interrelation between body and mind, society and the individual, remain unexplored by those conceptual frames.

Another common way to conceptualise rape is by ‘objectification’ theory, where it assumes that rape is caused by the objectification of women. However, contemporary feminist philosopher Ann Cahill argues that rape or sexual violence is not only about the objectification of women’s bodies for men’s pleasure but also that it denies the desires of women. Therefore, it is also not about the subject-object binary. It is about denying victims sexual subjectivity. Understanding rape only through the lens of ‘objectification’ does not let us understand cases where a woman desires her own objectification for her own wilful pleasure.[v] Being or willing to be an object of desire doesn’t necessarily deny one’s own subjectivity; sexual violation does. The intersubjective relation with others constructs that sense of embodied subjectivity. Rape doesn’t only objectify women’s bodies for men’s pleasure. It denies the victim’s embodied sexual subjectivity, her participation as a sexual being, her consent, her will, her desire, her pleasure, and even her will to be the object of desire. This very act of ‘denial’ is central to understanding rape.

The hierarchy of mind over body, subject over object, abstract over matter has been fundamental to the western epistemology, that prevents us from understanding the embodied subjectivity. It has been one of the causes of the dismissal of the impact of sexual violation on the embodied self. Sexual violence violates the victims’ sexual subjectivity, the ownership of their body, and their agency to say no, or yes. The body and mind are not separate here, just as the individual is not separate from their surroundings. Contemporary feminists’ exploration of sexual violation acknowledges this entanglement between body and mind, between the individual and society, and between experience and discourse. They argue that sexual violations damage the sense of embodied self, ownership, and the autonomy of one’s embodied subjectivity. To understand what happens through sexual violation, one has to understand that the body is central as it directly violates the body, but that the body is not separate from the mind. Linda Alcoff,[vi] a feminist philosopher and  rape survivor, argues that what is violated by rape is our sexual subjectivity, our sense of self as a sexual being. And that sense of self of being a sexual being is not only created in the mind, it is embodied. One’s own body is the fundamental thing for ones’ own sense of self, and it is the most intimate thing one can have. Violation of that body, therefore, damages the embodied subjectivity. Reclaiming that embodied sexual subjectivity, with respect, is therefore, a key to defying sexual violation.

In Nilima Ibrahim’s book, Birangana Tara described, “One day I wondered how I would look after all this torture and abuse? There was no mirror here, nor were there any glass windows or doors in case we committed suicide. What they didn’t know was that I was keeping my abused body alive with a lot of love and tenderness so that I could take revenge.”[vii] Tara’s testimony shows her agency to regain her own body’s autonomy that was violated by rape. It is the moment where she claims and establishes her subjectivity that was harmed and damaged. Her damaged embodied sexual subjectivity was destroyed, and she claims it back. To fight rape, we need to stand in solidarity with that claim.

 

 

[i] Sayema Khatun, ‘Muktijuddher His-story: Ijjot o Lojja (The His-story of the Liberation War: Honour and Shame)’, Public Nribigyan, 2, Probol o Prantik (February 2015).

[ii] Nayanika Mookherjee, The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 (Duke University Press, 2015).

[iii] Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Reprinted edition (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975).

[iv] Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of State. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, n.d.).

[v] Ann J. Cahill, ‘The Difference Sameness Makes: Objectification, Sex Work, and Queerness’, Hypatia 29, no. 4 (2014): 840–56.

[vi] Linda Martin Alcoff, Rape and Resistance (Polity, 2018).

[vii] ইব্রাহিম, নীলিমা, আমি বীরাঙ্গনা বলছি (জাগৃতি প্রকাশনী, ১৯৯৪), ১৯.

 

 

Image credit: Aanmona Priyadarshini

 

 

 

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