Racing violence against women – honour killings and corrective rape

I just received an email from Avaaz about lesbians in South Africa being raped, in significant numbers, because of their sexuality and gender.  The term coined to describe this hate crime is “corrective rape”, because it is fuelled not just by ideas of women’s sexual availability to men, but ideas that same-sex attraction can be “cured” by forced sex.  Lesbian sexuality able to be “corrected” back to proper gendered female behaviour, ie sexual availability to all men.

I’ve read other feminists opposing both Avaaz actions (as not real activism, and because they target President Zuma, a man accused of rape in the past), and the term “corrective rape” itself.

I’ve found both arguments troubling, to be honest.  Firstly, the idea that we should not be expecting President Zuma to shift his views about violence against women – without knowing anything about whether he continues to act in rape-supportive ways – is abhorrent to me.  Yes, we can be cynical about men who use violence against women and then justify it publically using misogyny and their own institutional power.  Readers might even call me out on this.

But should we, ever, stop trying to change their minds?  I’d say no – for me that’s exactly what activism around male violence against women looks like.  Trying to shift people’s ideas.  Trying to shift people’s empathy.  Believing we are all capable of change.  So violence against women becomes literally unthinkable.

I know my views, as a Pakeha woman for example, have shifted enormously from my well-meaning but ill-informed liberal anti-racism of my late teens.  That’s because my friends who were not white took the trouble to keep talking to me, keep explaining why insisting “we were all the same really” was a form of cultural tunnel vision my whiteness and background kept me from recognising.

Secondly, while I take Not Afraid of Ruin’s point that “corrective” is a term which suggests lesbianism can be “corrected”, I don’t agree that we should not be specific about how different types of violence against women operate, are supported, are resisted, are experienced.

Language is frustratingly limiting.  And it’s certainly true that using a phrase like “date rape” can and has been used to hierarchise different “types” of rape, and suggest some are less horrifying and violating than others.

But how do women understand our own experiences of male violence against women?  Do we “count” all kinds of violence in the same way?  Even if we find them all horrific, do we really equate rape by a partner, a man who might have held us while we have cried say, cooked us dinner, read us to sleep, and made love to us on other occasions – to rape by a stranger who we do not know and who targets us in the park when we’re walking home a little drunk?  Do they make us feel the same way?  Do we recover from them in the same way?  Do people respond to us when we talk about them in the same way?

I am not saying one kind of violence against women is worse than another.  I think impacts of violence against women vary from woman to woman.  I once supported a woman, trafficked into prostitution in London from Eastern Europe, who in choosing to report the man who pimped her for his numerous rapes of her, explained to me she drew a line between those (horrific) experiences, and the other, later (horrific) experiences of being raped by multitudes of men buying her for sex.

She told me “If I don’t, I will go mad”.

Which brings me to a related point which Not Afraid of Ruins raises – the phrase “honour killing” and whether it is just a racist way of westerners ignoring the gendered power dynamics at play in our own, abundant cases of domestic violence murders (let’s not forget, a woman killed by her ex or current partner every four weeks in Aotearoa.  No honour here, folks.)

I absolutely admit to frustration over the exoticisation of “honour” killings – the high media profile waxing lyrical over how awful, how can “they” do that to “their” women – when we do not pay enough attention to how common men killing their female (ex)/current partners is.  None of which takes away from how awful honour killings are.

But to misunderstand “honour” crimes and just conflate them with other kinds of domestic violence seems to me equally race/culture blind, and therefore dangerous.  Because “honour” crimes do operate differently than domestic violence in “mainstream” Aotearoa.

The Stop Honour Killings campaign, started by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, lists a number of ways they believe “honour” based crimes differ from other kinds of domestic violence:

  1. Gender relations that problematise and control women’s behaviour, shaping and controlling women’s sexuality in particular
  2. Women may play a role policing and monitoring the behavior of other women
  3. Collective decisions regarding punishment, or in upholding the action considered appropriate, for the transgression of these boundaries
  4. Premeditation
  5. The potential for women’s participation in killings
  6. The ability to reclaim ‘honour’ through enforced compliance or killings
  7. ‘Honour’ killings may occur publically or theatrically in order to demonstrate ‘honour’ reclaimed and to terrorise other women into accepting male control
  8. In some cases, there is state sanction of such killings through recognition of ‘honour’ in mitigation

I take issue with some of these points – but the involvement of female family members in violence and policing other women’s behaviour and the idea that collective decisions can and often are made by a family, a village, a religious group – these are significant points of difference which need to be unpacked and understood so the ways we support women in these situations are useful.

Otherwise, my sense is activists like the awe-inspiring Southall Black Sisters in London would not feel the need to list the services they provide for women like this:

Southall Black Sisters provides information, advice, advocacy, practical help, counselling and support to women and children experiencing domestic and sexual violence (including forced marriage and honour crimes). Our holistic services aim to help them escape violence and abuse and deal with a range of inter related problems.

5 thoughts on “Racing violence against women – honour killings and corrective rape

  1. I think you’ve missed my point slightly – it wasn’t that because he was a rapist he couldn’t care about violence against women (in fact men I’ve known who have been abusive to women in their personal life are often particularly vocal about how wrong they think violence against women is). My point was that the petition did not address the fact that Zuma was a rapist. My reaction would have been very different if they had addressed the fact that that he had himself raped at least one woman in any way. The equivalent in your metaphor with your own change on your analysis of racism is people who held racist views towards NZ indigenous people being implored to do something about the terrible racism in South Africa (something that happened and was acknowledged as problematic at the time).

    I think you raise interesting points about how to talk about the difference between difference experiences. I think the way that I’d conceptualise useful and non-useful ways of talking about violence against women is to think about who is using the terms. I think that those terms should be developed and used by women collectively and individually to describe their own experiences. I think for all ‘honour killing’ may have a use in some times and places, it does not in the NZ media for that reason. As I understand (and I may be wrong) the term ‘corrective rape’ was not developed as a way of women describing their own experiences, but a concept by aid agencies. I think we can acknowledge that women make their own distinctions about experiences, but that doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for other people to impose those distinctions on other people.

    • Hey Maia,
      ta for point clarification and agree entirely that there are many men who say one thing while perpetrating another when it comes to violence against women.
      And also agree that naming best comes from the affected group, in this case women surviving/victimised by violence – I don’t know the history of “corrective rape” as a term, but know for a fact that distinctions around rape are absolutely something driven by many survivors, for precisely the reasons I’ve given. Also think with “honour” crimes that how they have been analysed and problematised and even categorised comes from women working with survivors, many of whom come from those communities themselves, and are survivors themselves. Hence the Southall Black Sisters reference. There are lots more examples of feminist groups working on this issue across and within non-western and western nations.
      But how those words get appropriated – and used for example by NZ media – total and utter minefield without doubt.

  2. Pingback: Racing violence against women – honour killings and corrective … | Midia Social

  3. i think one of the reasons that a social service agency in the west would include “honour killing” as part of their brief is (and i hate to sound so callous about this) that is “sells well”. ie when you are an agency applying for government & non-governmental funding, it makes it so much easier to buy into the prevailing stereotypes of violence against ethnic minority women. what doesn’t sell as well is the notion that services by non-ethnic minority women don’t cater well to the needs of ethnic minority women (for any number of reasons – english as a barrier, racist or judgemental attitudes, lack of understanding etc). this doesn’t sell as well because it criticises the prevailing stereotypes and highlights racism of the group of people who are more likely to be the ones making funding decisions. i don’t know if i’m explaining things very well, but it’s the notion that you are more likely to win if you play the game properly and don’t criticse the wrong people and certainly not the ethnic majority and their way of doing things.

    having said that, i understand and agree with your point about different dynamics in honour killings, particular family and community involvement. my own post you linked to was criticising the use of the term “honour killing” in nz, when there was no evidence of any family or community involvement in any media report that i’d seen. in fact the only basis for speculation on whether that particular incident was an honour killing was the ethnicity of the killer and the victim. and to me, that kind of speculation then simply becomes racist and harmful. had there been any actual evidence that it was an honour killing, then i don’t think i would have had a problem with that descriptor.

    great post by the way.

    • Hey Stargazer,
      yeah, take your point about social services agencies needing to play the game to be funded – but really don’t think it fits for Southall Black Sisters in the UK, because in many ways they are the reason any understanding of cultural differences in how violence against women is supported and enacted exists in the UK. They are a very, very special organisation.
      Hey and I know your post was attending to the racism of NZ media in assuming ethnicity = particular activity, in this case “honour” killing – I was linking to it to agree around that in terms of “exoticisation”. Nice to hear from you 🙂

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