It started in response to a Tweet by US President Donald Trump. After not speaking out for a few days, the US president lashed out against professor Christine Blasey Ford, who accused US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her. Trump’s Tweet laid the blame on the victim, questioning her credibility because she did not report the incident thirty years ago, when she was 15.
The response came in the form of the hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport, and as a result social media exploded with hundreds of thousands of posts by women who have been quiet for decades about sexual assaults that took place when they were 7, 9, 12 or 16 years old.
What is most troubling in cases of sexual assault is the utter lack of empathy often by relatives and friends who dismiss the complaint and portray victims as guilty. I am sure social scientists will study the phenomena that came out in these posts, but a quick read gives a very detailed answer as to picture of what usually happens. Most of the victims report being sexually assaulted or raped as children or as teenagers. The aggressors are almost always friends or friends of friends, and in many cases family members or friends of family members. The trauma is so powerful that many have reported that they chose to be silent literally for decades, some saying that their posts on Twitter were the first time that they have expressed to anyone what happened to them.
Some have said that they did report what happened but were often dismissed, not believed, or told it was their fault because of how they were dressed or convinced that those attacking them could never have done this or that it would ruin their lives. Women often reported that the aggressors were strong, many spoke of fear for their lives as a result of real or preserved threats by powerful people, who carried out these despicable acts.
A sense of shame is often reported as a reason for staying quiet. The victims often blame themselves and say they felt ashamed and wanted this incident to go away.
But it did not.
Post after post reveal a deep hurt that has festered for years, with many of the women choosing not to tell their parents or their future husbands, and many refusing to tell anyone until their assaulter had died or was no longer around.
But these moving stories, largely happening in the US, made me think of our own region.
Former US president Jimmy Carter may be right that the world’s greatest problem is the way women and girls are treated and that sexual assaults are the biggest underreported violations against them.
International effort and learning from others can be useful in this respect. I am told that Scandinavian countries have made important strides in the area of protecting girls and women in vases of sexual assault through very tough legislations, as well as an aggressive campaign in schools, houses of worship and other cultural settings. As a result, we can see how the number of women who have been elected have increased because of the confidence that laws and bylaws have given leaders from both genders to excel.
If these unreported stories happened in an open western country, how bad is the situation in our region, where the issue of shame is so much more powerful, and the patriarchal society is so authoritative and commanding that it would certainly scare away any young person who would want to report an assault on them.
The problem in our region, of course, is not just the fact that conservative societies tend to push these issues under the rug but that the predominance of men in all levels of power, whether political, social or economic make the chance of reform in this area so much harder. Surely, we have heard courageous calls from Her Majesty Queen Rania and others for the need to stand up to physical and sexual assault against children, but such calls are not enough. We need a cultural breakthrough along with real change in the way issues of sexual assault are handled.
We need to find a way to unlock the culture of silence and to initiate a campaign that translates these issues into real and strong legislation. Ignoring complaints by police or other authorities should never be tolerated and those who shame or belittle those stepping up to speak should not be allowed to continue in their positions of authority.
We need to find a way to encourage women to speak out, and simultaneously ensure that when they do, their words and testimonies are handled with respect, and are followed through seriously so that our girls and women do not have to reach the point of telling us decades later why they were reluctant to report.