We Have the Right to Discuss Sexual Assault Crimes and Not to Self-Blame

One of the goals Sakhi for South Asian Women has set for itself is to continue to open up the dialogue in our communities concerning issues that are persistently silenced and which are causing damage to us as individuals and to our communities at large.

The term “violence against women” can invoke horrible images.   Within many South Asian languages, the terminology and language around sexual assault are not in common usage or even known to the average person.  Some of the many forms this violence takes are unspeakable to many of us. And yet this is the reality faced by many women from our communities today.

Statistics and anecdotal evidence alike show the staggering and offensively high numbers surrounding sexual violence.  It can feel like an overwhelming and negative reality when we consider that within our lifetimes, the chances of us as women being subjected to sexual violence are quite high.  If not now, then at some point in our lifetimes, the odds are in favor of some form of a sexual assault (ranging from harassment to rape).  This is what we call the “the unspeakable.”   But it is our right to talk about the crimes being committed against us and to remove the stigma unjustly placed on us for the criminal acts of others and for the web of societal constructs that perpetuates the violence.

Our individual reactions to sexual assault are our own.  We are all entitled to the myriad of emotions that accompany the horror of sexual assault, whether it is sheer disbelief, shame, fear, the guilt, the loss of trust, or the loss of confidence in oneself that come with assault.  Many of us take on the brunt of the stigma of being assaulted.  We try to reason out these attacks to detail why they happened and why it was our fault.  In this swirl of shame, we overlook being fair to ourselves as individuals.  Rather than blaming ourselves, can we instead ask:  What about the social contracts and norms that allow self-blame to be the norm for women?  Are the criminals who committed sexual assault being held accountable?  Does our society condone this violence when we see it perpetrated in advertisements, in music videos and in popular culture?

As part of a recent staff discussion gauging on our own comfort levels around the topic, Sakhi staff and interns identified some of the reasons why there is discomfort talking about sexual violence in our communities.   We realized that we are conditioned to equate sexual assault with sex and we have been taught since a young age that talking about sex is generally wrong and so talking about sexual assault is also wrong.  The confounding of the two subjects allows for the criminality of sexual assault – the crime of violating another person – to become a secondary consideration.  Assault gets pushed under the rubric of “private matters” and we end up believing that criminal invasion of our bodies is a matter which we must not speak about. The tragedy is that we as women end up blaming and punishing ourselves rather than putting the blame on the perpetrators.

We at Sakhi would like to continue the dialogue of our tendency to self-blame and to address the violation of the basic human rights of us as individuals when we are assaulted. The patriarchal structure of most societies, in the United States and in much of the world alike, accommodates this oppression. We want to raise awareness and chip away at the societal constructs that are holding up this system of injustice.

Here in the United States, where stringent sexual assault laws have been enacted due to the tireless years of efforts of so many women and men before us, we can say that indeed criminals are responsible for sexual assault. Why does the shame and guilt still fall on the shoulders of those of us against whom these crimes have been committed?  This reprehensible category of crime is so routinely perpetrated that we deem it a common part of lives – an everyday reality though it is interfering with our right to live healthy and happy lives.   We can only imagine the shame and the guilt being felt by women where the laws do not treat these acts as real crimes.

We as women have the right to know and discuss the issues that are affecting us. As service providers we see the intersectionality of sexual assault and domestic violence and are preparing to meet the challenges of these issues face on. As survivors of violence begin to feel comfortable disclosing all types of assaults to which they have been subjected, no doubt the burden of shame will be shifted. Our goal to protect women’s rights as human rights requires us to lift that silence, to talk about these issues, and to provide a safe space so that others who have experienced a crime will feel like they can tell us their story without feeling any shame or receiving any judgment.