A response to Germaine Greer: Should we accept defeat?

The extent of the violence against women, and of the present pandemic of rape in particular, has reached such overwhelming proportions across the globe, that even battle-hardened feminists of long standing are regressing to a passive-aggressive stand

14 Haziran 2018 14:29

Consider the following scene. A young Turkish woman in her thirties, having been raped at knife point while studying abroad, finally manages to tell her mother about the ordeal, once she is back home in Istanbul.

The mother, a stoic, turning all colors of the rainbow and barely managing to keep her cool, blurts out a sorry consolation: “Try to think of it as bad sex.”

I wonder if Germaine Greer, had she had a daughter, would have made the same feeble comment in a similar situation.

Her recent declaration that rape is not a serious crime has wounded all women, I expect, not only feminists like myself, and probably many civilized men as well.

She thinks we should downplay rape, legally “downsize” it, reduce jail sentences and get more convictions, since the burden of proof on the victims is too heavy.

It is true that the issue of proof is a tough one, but is this the solution? I cannot believe it. I am appalled.

Rape is the most serious crime I can think of. It degrades women, it strips them of their dignity.

Rape is the worst hate crime.

The women I know who have been raped have spent decades, a life-time, carrying the scars. I think Greer is wrong to take this lightly, especially since she has been a victim of violent rape herself.

In the example I mentioned, which happened to a very close friend of mine, posttraumatic stress syndrome meant years of anxiety disorder and panic attacks, doctors and therapy, creative energy wasted.

The fact that my friend managed to deflect the violence to some extent and was not seriously injured does not mean that the psychological damage was negligible, on the contrary, it was quite serious.

She was unable to travel or even walk on the street alone for many years, or use public transport, let alone drive on her own.

It is one of the most debilitating conditions I have ever witnessed. Humiliating as well, because she found herself incapable of doing the most mundane things, which other people took for granted, like taking a ferry across the water to join friends for lunch.

She often has to rush out of films or concerts, even today. She was condemned to a lifetime of anxiety medicine and antidepressants. In short, she was robbed of her freedom.

Rape disabled her. After nearly thirty years, sudden gestures or sounds still make her jump. The beauty of life was marred for her. Many of her prospects were blighted.

Rape is a heinous crime, because it is so simple for the perpetrator to break the victim’s life.

It is a crime of power, a desperate attempt by someone to feel powerful, to exert power by brute force, which then makes it near impossible for the other person to ever achieve personal empowerment, which is the most wonderful thing a human being can strive for in my view, i.e., a full enjoyment of one’s faculties, including one’s sexuality, and one’s talents - in short, the path to fulfilment.

I shall not carry on, the picture is clear enough I think.

Back to that mother for a moment.

I have always felt that women across all generations, backgrounds and walks of life, all over the world, share a complicity that is instantly and wordlessly recognizable - the complicity of the powerless.

My rape survivor friend and I often talk about this. It is an age old cultural thing I suspect, an atavistic, deep knowledge transmitted from mother to daughter.

I am not just talking here about the harsh surface reality of social, political or economic powerlessness that women have experienced for centuries and which feminism has been struggling to roll back for the past hundred years or so.

I am talking of a deeper reality of both actual and potential male violence within which women have existed since time immemorial, even as they have become both sexual and reproductive commodities in the transaction of material life.

The constant awareness of this violence creates a powerful bond amongst the powerless. There are serious taboos that the violence upholds and protects.

Most women obey these taboos that map their lives. Many of them survive by manipulating the system to their advantage through whatever means are at hand, including their sexuality. Some try to negotiate and blur the borders to some extent, like handling contraband. Others transgress them, at enormous risk. There are also women who transcend the terms altogether, either spiritually or outright bodily sometimes.

But whichever spot of this map any woman happens to stand on, each recognizes the other immediately and sees through the strategies employed.

The mother in my friend’s story sought refuge in a low-risk, passive strategy that attempts to trivialize the horror, although there is nothing trivial about unwanted or bad sex either. It probably summarizes marriage at its worst, as it is experienced in many women’s lives. It prostitutes or enslaves them. Sexless marriage or celibacy is infinitely preferable.

The choice to say yes or no, the freedom of one’s body and conscience, is something women still struggle for, all over the world.

The sorry consolation of bad sex does not even come near describing the horror of rape. In this instance, the subliminal complicity of women produced a weak link, a failure of true solidarity on the part of my friend’s mother, a desire to sweep things under the carpet, which was also a nod towards the taboos that surround women.

The mother in the story also immediately censured disclosure to male relatives: do not tell your father, your brothers must not know! Why? To protect them from what? This sanction reminds me of the years of complicit silence about sexual assault and harassment that the #metoo movement finally broke through. I shall come back to that in a moment.

We have in Turkish culture a deep layer of shame that is incumbent on women and holds them back even further. I suspect the cultural variables at play in the Hollywood case also had a little to do with this.

It is as if we are called upon to protect men from their own crimes, their own gender’s excesses and abuses, through a pact of silence that helps them and society at large to keep the mask of decency intact. In the Turkish case, the implication is that the male relatives of the rape victim cannot handle the stain on their honor. It somehow reminds me of the late Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain.

Either punishment is called for, or, if it is not available, the men feel contaminated and castrated. The onus again falls on the women, they get punished or reviled for having been raped.

What the men are mostly unaware of is that they constantly and systematically castrate women with the taboos that they uphold at all costs, by violence if they deem it necessary. Violence is their domain.

Of course, the atavistic complicity of women in the face of this male violence does not, alas, always lead to ties of solidarity either, and it is sometimes women themselves who defend and protect their chains more readily than any man, but there is increasingly a move towards larger solidarity, I am happy to see.

However, there is something even larger at stake here.

The fact that a feminist icon of Greer’s standing has opted for this passive and sorry response to rape, shows something significant in my view. It shows us that the extent of the violence against women, and of the present pandemic of rape in particular, has reached such overwhelming proportions across the globe, that even battle-hardened feminists of long standing are regressing to a passive-aggressive position. The tide cannot be stemmed. It is an admission of defeat.

As far as I could gather from the debate, this defeatism owes a lot to the difficulty of prosecuting rape cases.

In the case of my friend, the rapist was apprehended, tried and sentenced to the maximum jail sentence allowed by the law. The prints on the knife and my friend’s courageous willingness to testify in court (she did not have to in the end) turned things around.

The police called her and asked if she would take the witness stand and give evidence. Although she was understandably loath to re-live the horror and talk about it in public this time, she said yes and that clinched it. The defendant immediately changed his plea to guilty.

Even then it was a close thing, as the defence was highly motivated, to say the least. But she did not have to contend with the terrible issue of whether her testimony would be believed.

I must add that all this happened in the U.K and that the British police were impeccable throughout. The justice system worked. But this was many years ago and not all cases are so clear cut, I know.

I also realize that the intricacies of litigation are a great obstacle at present and Germaine Greer’s outburst seems to reflect this frustration.

Nevertheless, what are we to do, should we accept defeat?

Thanks to this incident, it dawned on me that we are once again at a critical moment. We must not let the momentum go. If “legal correctness”, to coin a phrase, is causing the present flood of violence to overwhelm us, that means we must erect more powerful barriers to contain it. For contain it we must. We cannot allow any form of violence or terror to be normalized, let alone a horrendous crime like rape.

The reasons for the confusion over this new wave of violence are manifold I imagine. But it is my belief that fundamentally it stems from the sea change occurring in the balance of power between the genders. Perhaps “balance of power” is not the right term, it is too old fashioned and still feels like the old “battle of the sexes” mentality. What is really happening, I feel, is the dismantling of previous power structures, including patriarchy and male dominance, and the strong backlash that this has caused. A kind of last stand of the old male order as it were.

So we too must stand and be counted yet again. If Germaine Greer will not stand with us, that would be a big shame, but not a great loss. The real pity is, of course, that such a valiant fighter against taboos, as the author of The Female Eunuch was, must now take this taboo bolstering position. She has certainly injured all women who are victims of rape, including herself, but I still cannot help seeing her in the role of a jaded or wizened mother, like the mother in my friend’s story, trying to spare her daughters more grief, no matter how deluded or defeatist her attitude may be.

Greer’s recent comments in no way diminish her achievements or her contribution to the women’s movement. We cannot know what resources, other than writing and militancy, might have helped her through her own ordeal. She chose not to disclose it at the time. She obviously had her reasons. But to try and dissuade women from the same militancy now, at a time when it is needed as much as, if not more than ever, is unfair to say the least.

What I know from my friend’s example is that a kind of forgiveness comes at some point, it has to, because one needs to let go. The hurt and the anger, though, always remain, even if they soften with time. But looking back in anger is one thing. If Greer’s ideas were to be implemented, every rape victim has to also look forward in anger, without any redress, and that’s no way to live a life.

Not to be believed in court is an awful affliction, but trying to barter credibility with lighter jail sentences, as Germaine Greer seems to suggest, is even more awful to me, something I cannot in all conscience accept.

I am not going to go into the philosophy of crime and punishment here, but something has to be said.

The perpetrator’s incarceration or its length clearly changes nothing for the victim at one level, she still suffers and has to rebuild herself. But for the crime not to be duly acknowledged and sanctioned is intolerable, in the sense that the person violated feels doubly worthless or undervalued.

It is the social recognition of the crime, rather than the punishment itself which is important for the restoration, however partial, of the victim’s self-worth and her healing process. And it so happens that that recognition can only be demonstrated through just and proportionate sentencing.

To be disbelieved or unacknowledged is to be cast out.

The reduction of jail sentences to speed up justice that Greer proposes is also a shabby idea, because every crime is specific and cannot be reduced to a formula. That again diminishes human worth. Why should rape victims deserve this, while other crimes, equally difficult to prove, are not so treated by the law? There can be no such thing as discount justice. The idea is a terrible one.

On the other hand, Germaine Greer is spot-on right about one thing. There is a rising culture of victimhood that threatens to box women in. Her refusal to go along with this mediatized trend is commendable. But refusal of victimhood does not make crime go away. This is an extraordinarily difficult issue that certainly needs to be addressed.

Also, her idea that instead of focusing on rape cases, legislation could be based on the broader category of sexual assault certainly seems to have some merit, though I would still oppose the idea of reduced sentences, but I am no legal expert.

I do,however, think Greer is again wrong when she qualifies as “whingeing” certain allegations in the #metoo movement. She may be right to point out that there will be those who will speak out for the sake of publicity, but that is a risk every movement has to take on. I also agree with her that as women we ought to act and complain immediately when subjected to sexual harassment. But this course of action is not always readily available to all women. Retrospective justice is obviously difficult, but that does not and should not mean it is impossible or unnecessary. If that were the case, no war crimes could ever have been prosecuted, no reconciliation commissions could have been set-up. Abusive and predatory men should not get away with it. Their reputations must not remain intact.

Greer’s dismissive attitude about #metoo is also misjudged in my opinion. Harassment in the workplace is the most insidious and sinister form of abusing power. I personally not only resigned from my post as editor and writer in a national newspaper in Turkey many years ago because of it, but also abandoned my career in journalism, because refusal to bow meant increased mobbing. It was my choice and I do not regret it, but we cannot expect all women to leave their jobs or careers because of it.

On the contrary, we are trying to get more women to join the workforce and be productive and make a living with their heads held up high.

That is the feminism I learned when I went to college in America at nineteen. Those were the years of bra-burning, Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, and that will to freedom has always remained with me. I am anticipating with great expectation how my alma mater, Wellesley, will join the conversation. In my own #metoo experience, as I remember, the lack or weakness of labour organizations had a lot to do with the silence. And that brings us back to solidarity.

I must end on a Turkish note again. So far, the #metoo movement has not opened the floodgates of disclosure over here, but the reverberations are rumbling in the deep and it shall happen any moment now. In fact, we at K24 are preparing to run a special issue soon, so watch this space.

I believe that the world’s last shreds of decorum stand on the silence of women, that atavistic, complicit, millennial silence. There is some pity that this silence has to be broken, the world will not be the same again, but broken it must be, women have carried the burden long enough.

I trust that the world’s beauty can restore itself as more women heal and find justice as well as self-empowerment. It will be a long conversation, a longer struggle still. What we can do in the meantime is not let our voices get too shrill.

Germaine Greer has in a way reinvigorated the debate and she is also right about another thing, perhaps the most important one: “Heterosex is in trouble, we do not know how to love anymore.”

I loved those words of hers. And they echoed the words of the commencement speaker at Wellesley this year, the poet laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith.

“As you go into the world” she said to the graduates, “you will teach it to love itself in ways that it does not yet know it can.”

If the world can still be saved, I think it will be women who shall save it.