Book: Explorations in Women, Rights, and Religions
Chapter: Sexual Violence, Religion and Women’s Rights in a Global Perspective
In her 2014 PhD study on The Role of African Christian Churches in Dealing with Sexual Violence against Women: The Case of the DRC, Rwanda and Liberia, Elisabet le Roux (Le Roux 2014, 201–204), concludes that in these three post-conflict African states, neither governments and states, nor international security and peacekeeping bodies, nor various CSOs, including the churches, manage (or even try) to create a culture of accountability for war and post-war rape. Le Roux’s research participants widely echo the sentiment of gynaecologist for Panzi Hospital’s center for survivors of sexual violence in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (hereafter DRC), doctor Neema Rukunghu. Linking the post-war child rapes in communities with the legacy of war rape, Rukunghu says men do not rape because they believe sex with a virgin girl may bring them wealth or cure them of disease (while they may in fact believe these things); instead, “they do it because they know that there is no prison waiting for them, no death penalty. They know they can get away with it” (Baker 2016). Not only, Le Roux finds, are there no legal consequences for rape, but equally there are no social sanctions, and no strong condemnation emanating from the influential religious leadership.
In all three countries Le Roux found that the churches “have a good record of effectively filling roles usually associated with the state.” Moreover, the vast majority of people in these countries (up to 90%) are affiliated to at least one of these churches and “consider them to have authority and social impact … and the ability to influence behaviour, facilitate social change, and provide societal solidarity and cohesion,” and importantly, they have often been instrumental in fighting for social justice. She thus hypothesizes that they can play a key role in addressing sexual violence – both in preventing and remedying the phenomenon at grassroots level – and most of her informants underwrite this view. Allowing for important differences between the different contexts – for example the direct involvement of the Catholic Church in Rwanda in the genocide - Le Roux however found on a general level that the African Christian churches in all three these countries at the very least do not address the problem of sexual violence. In fact, she found that churches “vary from non-involvement (and a form of lethargy) to active promotion of sexual violence against women” (Le Roux 2014, 197). Most churches indirectly promote male sexual violence through their patriarchal teachings, all-male leadership structures, and most damagingly, in their overtly censuring responses to sexual violence survivors.
These churches play a key role in silencing and stigmatizing congregation members who are such survivors. They do not openly discuss or critique sexual violence against women. In this, Le Roux (2014: 197) claims, the churches “largely reflect community attitudes, beliefs and practices in their opinions and treatment of sexual violence survivors.” The furthest most churches will go in acknowledging the problem is through providing support in the form of food and clothing when survivors become destitute. They fail utterly to engage with the root causes of sexual violence. By silencing, shaming and stigmatizing the victims of male sexual violence, the churches largely reflect the attitudes of society, which includes blaming the victim. Husbands also often adopt or replicate this attitude, regarding a raped spouse as an immense threat to their own masculinity, to which they then ‘justly’ respond with violence and abuse of their own. Also, children who are suspected to be products of rape are very often actively shunned, neglected, beaten and/or raped. By punishing sexual violence survivors, these churches, Le Roux argues, “enforce their [sexual] beliefs and values – such as the importance of virginity, chastity, purity, monogamy, etc.”; by stigmatizing them, churches “reinforce their own power as in-group and create greater social cohesion amongst church members … [through] othering survivors,” thus reinforcing “patriarchal constructions of women, men and sex.” Importantly, women also join in: the female leader of the Rwandan Mother’s Union explained to Le Roux that they teach women “to be humble before their husbands, to obey them” (Le Roux 2014, 199). In other words, although these churches wield enormous formative power in their local communities and even nationally, and even though they have at times played important roles voicing social critique, they are largely either passive, or silent, when it comes to sexual violence.
Le Roux’s own understanding of this situation includes the patriarchal nature of the sub-Saharan African cultures in which they are embedded, coupled with a kind of hyper-masculinity, “characterised by [sexually] violent and callous attitudes towards women” (Le Roux 2014, 201), driven by the militarization of masculinities during the recent and ongoing armed conflicts in these regions. Drawing on other studies, for example one done in Liberia, Le Roux views the high rates of sex crimes as indicative of “the persistence of hyper-masculinity within the country … eleven years after the war” (Jones et al. 2014, referenced in Le Roux 202). On top of the constant threat of sexual violation, women fear the stigma and discrimination which invariably follow on the violation. Survivors are labelled and stigmatized as ‘deviant’ and ‘other,’ which leads to further discrimination and even further sexual and other forms of violence visited upon them (Le Roux 2014, 202). Le Roux sees the churches as thereby replicating state and other CSO responses that seek to protect patriarchy, and she ascribes the stance to the patriarchal nature of the Christian churches themselves. She claims: “Truly engaging with sexual violence against women would mean that the patriarchal structure of society, culture and church will have to be dismantled, and this would mean a loss of power for [the] men [leading the churches]” (Le Roux 2014, 202).
While I largely agree with Le Roux’s understanding, I wish in this article to extend the scope of analysis. In the first place, I would point to the racist-colonial assumptions that feed into an overly narrow and potentially spectacularizing focus on sexual violence on the African continent. Problematizing the sexuality of the African man as predatory (either essentially and biologically or in terms of his static and a-historical ‘patriarchal’ culture) and of the African woman as pure victim figures as a consistent trope in European empire building. As Elizabeth Philipose (2009, 198) cautions, feminist analyses must be vigilant not to sustain “assumptions about the racial and national hierarchies central to international legal systems and meanings.” From the perspective of colonial history, she argues, feminists should become more conscious of the extent to which “the contemporary practice of naming war crimes and spectacular violence is both a racialized and a racializing enterprise that reflects gendered and sexualized assumptions about the perverse sexuality of the Other.” In the second section, I follow Joseph Conrad in linking the ‘heart of darkness,’ sexual violence in the DRC, with the heart of darkness of and in London, one of the centres of the European empire. I do this by claiming that sexual violence against women in the DRC, figured in western media as one of the global depths of human depravity, cannot be de-linked from western economic interests in that region. For African Christian churches in the Congo to denounce and address the root causes of this form of violence, they have to not only stand up to their own cultures, societies and governments, but they must also stand up to the much more powerful neo-colonial interests and constitutive influences of western powers in the region. In line with the argument of Philipose, one may say that western powers economically active in the Congo have a lively interest in the portrayal of African men as sexually deviant, as well as in the social destabilization that accompanies large-scale sexual violence perpetrated against African women and girls. One may thus arguably speak of western and African patriarchies colluding. In this second section I therefore wish to thoroughly problematize the Enlightenment narrative that would have us believe that if only the light of western-style human rights could shine into the darkest heart of Africa, all will be well with her women.
Thirdly and finally, I draw attention to the systemic failure of western secular liberalism to protect women against sexual violence. This time around, I locate another ‘heart of darkness’ in and of empire, and this time on the North American continent. My main claim in this section of the article is that the globally dominant institutions and cultural constructs facilitate the subjugation of women through ostensibly private but widespread sexual violence. Following thinkers like Heberle and Boulous Walker, I moreover diagnose the dominant institutions of our time – including the corporation, the state and the church – with a masculine psychosis which projects evil and instability onto the feminized other, while at the same time exempting itself of the possibility of evil-doing. This il-logic or rationale of a fragile and threatened victim-perpetrator also underlies the logic of human rights, the systematic othering of ‘evil’ violence and the justification of one’s own, ‘legitimate’ violence. In the same way, this dynamic of dominant modern masculine subject-formation underpins the intimate violence of the individual rapist or batterer, the anguished violence of the husband of the rape survivor, the victimization of rape victims by churches, and the structural violence of the neo-colonial corporation.