Is Violence Inescapable?

Hauwa Ibrahim talks about the role of influential elders in changing public opinion on spousal violence.Hauwa Ibrahim talks about the role of influential elders in changing public opinion on spousal violence.
By Deborah Blagg

As lead attorney on a legal team devoted to the cause of human rights for women in Nigeria, Hauwa Ibrahim RI ’09 has won a number of precedent-setting cases in Sharia law courts. But some of her most successful victories have been won in the court of public opinion. In her presentation at Radcliffe’s “Confronting Violence” conference this spring, which explored the power of activism to affect public policy and reduce violence, Ibrahim related the disposition of a wife-beating case she once brought to the attention of a respected village elder. Publicly disgraced by just one word of derision from the elder, Ibrahim said, “the husband never beat his wife again.”

Speaking Out

The need to increase the extent to which communities define, identify, and address acts of violence was a common theme during the two-day conference, which featured perspectives from international panelists on the front lines of changing how society thinks about and acts toward violence. Organized around the themes of activism, policy, and culture, the conference examined what Harvard professor Jacqueline Bhabha termed “the multiple layers of violence embedded in racial, sexual, economic, and social inequality.”

Alexandra Brodsky describes a "new energy surrounding a push for change" as moderator Diane Rosenfeld (left) and panelists Mitchell Garabedian and Irene Santiago look on.Alexandra Brodsky describes a "new energy surrounding a push for change" as moderator Diane Rosenfeld (left) and panelists Mitchell Garabedian and Irene Santiago look on.

Opening remarks by the Harvard professor and conference organizer Janet Rich-Edwards ’84, SD ’95 stressed the difficulty of addressing sexual violence, a topic that has been “shrouded in silence and shame.” Rich-Edwards is a faculty codirector of the science program at the Radcliffe Institute and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. An epidemiologist who studies links between early-life abuse and the risk of developing chronic adult diseases, she said it took nearly a decade to persuade the leaders of a national women’s health study to add questions about physical and sexual violence to a periodic questionnaire. When they finally did, she reported, the survey’s response rate soared. “Women wanted us to listen; they wanted us to speak out.”

Janet Rich-EdwardsJanet Rich-EdwardsIntroducing a panel on “The Power of Activism,” Harvard Law School lecturer Diane L. Rosenfeld LLM ’96 suggested that society may have reached a tipping point regarding at least some aspects of violence, such as campus sexual assault. Startling many in the audience with the statistic that 20 percent of women students are raped while in college, Rosenfeld introduced the panelist Alexandra Brodsky, cofounder of Know Your IX, a survivor-run, student-driven campaign that seeks to end sexual violence by educating students about their civil rights.

Conference attendee Nataly Garcia, of the University of Rhode Island, asks a question about the label of victim.Conference attendee Nataly Garcia, of the University of Rhode Island, asks a question about the label of victim.In 2011 Brodsky was among 16 Yale undergraduates who filed a Title IX complaint alleging a “hostile sexual environment.” Now a student at Yale Law School, Brodsky spoke about “new energy surrounding a push for change,” as evidenced by student-led antiviolence strategies taking hold on many campuses. As part of that change, she said, conversations about violence need to acknowledge “the ways sexual abuse has been used to preserve a culture of misogyny. . . . We need to remember why this is a civil rights issue to begin with.”

Sharing her experience confronting violence on the world stage, the peace and women’s rights activist Irene Santiago spoke about her role in negotiations that resolved a conflict between the Philippine government and Muslim separatists a decade ago. One of the few women in the world to participate in formal peace talks, she realized early on that pressing women’s rights issues would leave her marginalized. “Peace talks don’t involve women because women don’t have a role in war,” explained Santiago, who gained influence instead by developing expertise in cease-fire strategies.

Policies and Procedures

Gina M. Grosso answers questions from the audience between panels.Gina M. Grosso answers questions from the audience between panels.The conversation shifted from women as peacemakers to women in the US military, who too often encounter violence inside their own ranks. Gina M. Grosso, a US Air Force major general, noted that with the implementation of roughly 100 new Department of Defense policies addressing sexual assault against women and men, there has been a 25 percent decrease in this kind of crime since 2012. Highlighting increased emphasis on “victim care” in responding to these incidents, Grosso, who directs the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, said more women are now stepping forward to report attacks. Key factors in this progress, she said, are assessing commanders on the basis of incidents and a new stipulation that provides dedicated military attorneys who support sexual assault victims throughout the military justice process.

"Moving from victim to survivor is a complicated process."--Flavia Agnes, lawyer and activist"Moving from victim to survivor is a complicated process."--Flavia Agnes, lawyer and activistIn India, where brutal rapes have attracted international attention, the distinguished legal scholar and longtime women’s rights advocate Flavia Agnes cares for victims of gender-based violence by ensuring the enforcement of policies meant to protect them. The Majlis Legal Centre, cofounded by Agnes in 1991, provides legal aid for women and conducts training to ensure that Mumbai police know about and adhere to existing statutes. “As recently as 2011, a young girl reporting a rape in Mumbai might be held for hours, subjected to a physical exam at the police station, or even beaten,” said Agnes, herself a survivor of domestic abuse. “Our organization stands with victims to be sure they get support.“

Added Agnes, “Not all victims become survivors. Moving from victim to survivor is a complicated process.”

Cultural Messages

Documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt argued that the misogyny, homophobia, and hyperaggression sometimes perceived as originating in hip-hop culture should instead be viewed as manifestations of the “violence at the heart of American society.” (He participated in the arts oriented evening session.)

Byron Hurt--a documentary filmmaker and antisexism activist--talks about "violence at the heart of American society."Byron Hurt--a documentary filmmaker and antisexism activist--talks about "violence at the heart of American society."The cultural entrenchment of violence was further explored by Richard Weissbourd, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who said parents and educators should be addressing issues such as misogyny while young people are developing an awareness of societal norms. Noting what he called “a paradoxical shift,” Weissbourd observed that “even as girls are ascending, outnumbering men in college and graduate schools, their sexual relationships are becoming more organized around servicing men.” As girls grow up, he urged, “we need to convey better messages about agency, taking charge, and being in control of sexual and romantic relationships.”

As boys grow up, asserted panelist Jackson Katz, cofounder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, they need to hear adult role models address sexism and violence against women as “men’s issues.” “The responsibility of initiating the conversation that young men need to have is not on them,” Katz said. “This is about leadership. Men at the heart of male culture—in sports, education, business, and the military—need to take this on.”

Powerful Language

Laura Bates's www.everydaysexism.com has archived more than 80,000 testimonials of daily gender inequality to date.Laura Bates's www.everydaysexism.com has archived more than 80,000 testimonials of daily gender inequality to date.Laura Bates, a British social media antiviolence activist and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, was one of a number of conference participants who talked about the relationship between the culture of violence and the language of violence. “When I talk with young women, they often find it difficult to believe that under UK law, being groped—touched sexually without consent—is sexual assault,” Bates reported. “Groping” has become a euphemism for a crime that happens so frequently, she said, that “it’s become a normal part of life.”

Zerlina Maxwell, a writer and political analyst, is trying to change the way children are normally raised. In 2014 she launched a discussion on Twitter, at #RapeCultureIsWhen, that went viral. “Instead of teaching women to avoid rape,” she said at Radcliffe, “we need to teach men not to rape.”

At left, Zerlina MaxwellAt left, Zerlina Maxwell

Near the end of the day, Jackson Katz emphasized that “conversations about violence are conversations about power and control.” Media reports that say “a woman was raped” rather than “a man raped a woman,” for example, downplay the accountability of the perpetrator. An advocate of “shifting the paradigm” to shine light on the ways that individuals, institutions, and governments use violence to wield influence, Katz said, “We need to make visible what has been rendered invisible by unaccountable power.”

Arts and Insights

The Heart of Hip-Hop

Toni BlackmanToni BlackmanEmphasizing “the power of artistic expression to fundamentally change how we understand complex issues,” Radcliffe Dean Lizabeth Cohen introduced the conference’s opening event, an evening of hip-hop performance and discussion. The poet, educator, and activist Toni Blackman challenged the common perception that violence and misogyny are at the heart of hip-hop culture. “What we see on television is about 2 percent of what hip-hop really is,” stressed Blackman, a freestyle rapper whose performance showcased the art form’s potential to encourage social responsibility and women’s empowerment.

Jay Smooth, a veteran hip-hop DJ and cultural commentator, observed that “before the first record, hip-hop was performed in the most desolate parks in the South Bronx, where people came together to let their humanity and creative energy shine.” Agreeing with Blackman, who uses hip-hop in education, Smooth said the art form can provide “an important space to build shared values and norms of how we should treat each other.”

Critical Approaches to American Comics and Video Games

During and after the conference, comic books and video games were displayed in the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery in Byerly Hall, giving viewers the chance to explore these media as sources of ideas about gender and violence. Thirty-six comic books provided by the Harvard Square comic-book store Million Year Picnic were displayed, including feminist comics such as Lumberjanes and Momeye and the more recent Catwoman, in which Batman stays clothed while Catwoman does not.


Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.

Photos by Tony Rinaldo

Search Year: 
2015