After finishing reading Hildur Lilliendahl’s editorial piece ‘CAR CLAIMS TO HAVE CAUGHT FIRE’ one can hardly be blamed for losing their appetite or losing their lunch. I am sitting here with smoke blowing out of my every cranial orifice trying to collect my rage at the prevalence of misused language in journalism’s approach to sexual assault, in this particular case that of Iman al-Obaidi, a Libyan woman raped and assaulted by Gaddafi’s troops.
The initial reports I had the misfortune of reading all had al-Obaidi “claiming” to have undergone the brutal assault she reported to the foreign press at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli on March 26. She experienced being gang raped, beaten, urinated and defecated on and cut, as she displayed to the press by lifting her robe to reveal a wound on her thigh. She was silenced and dragged out by Libyan forces and her credibility and mental health were immediately put into question.
Hildur has now brought it to all of our attention that Visir has one-upped the shoddy reporting of this story, going beyond discrediting her experiences as “claims” but also by omitting important aspects of the story and manipulating wordplay to describe al-Obaidi’s emotional state. This lousy excuse for journalism is yet another blunder in an already serious problem in Icelandic culture and society at large: the incredibility of the rape victim.
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL
I must preface with something very difficult which many of you may not be willing to read or feel is relevant, but it is. So fuck you.
When I was twelve years old, I was psychologically sexually abused over a six-month period by an internet paedophile. Two years later, at fourteen, I was drugged, abducted and raped by a complete stranger. I never reported either of these incidents to the police and have only told one family member about the latter.
For the past week leading up to reading Hildur’s article, I have been plagued with the idea of truly coming clean and going public with my experiences. I feel now is as good a time as any—since my rage has reached a boiling point—to be the voice of subject of the rape victim.
The only thing worse than having endured both experiences is the fact that if I reported them, I would have to justify myself to be believed. The idea that I would be called a liar was more torturous than that of suppression. So I just shut up, until now. I am PISSED OFF.
For al-Obaidi and the thousands of Muslim women raped each year, not suppressing these experiences quite literally leads to shunning, torture and often death at the hands of their government and their families. Iman al-Obaidi performed a rare act of unspeakable courage, not only for a woman of her region and religion but also for any person who has been raped and lived in shame and silence.
THE NUMBERS LIE, NOT THE VICTIMS
What is especially troubling about Visir’s discrediting use of language in their article is that it reflects the overall trend in Icelandic justice of disbelieving rape victims. As reported in the Grapevine on February 16, only 12% of reported rapes result in convictions while 63% of reported rapes had their investigations dismissed by the police and a quarter of the remaining cases dismissed by the state prosecutor.
What’s more, as stated in the article above by a sexual assault crisis counsellor at Stígamót, sentences for rape convictions are ridiculously short and are even known to be lightened after sentencing. In one 2007 case, Americo Luis De Silva Conclaves was originally sentenced to a paltry four years which was then reduced to three-and-a-half plus a fine. The most depressing part of this is the fact that this wrist-slap of a sentence was touted as a victory by Stígamót, only making the case weaker for judges to give harsher sentences for this horrible act of violence.
Two years later, Iceland issued its longest sentence for rape ever in the case of a 40-year old man who repeatedly raped his stepdaughter aged 11-14. He got eight years. And Justice wept.
Rape is the most underreported violent crime worldwide. In my native Canada where my assaults took place, reported rapes are placed around 6%. According to a 2010 report by the UN, Iceland had 21.6 reported rapes per 100.000 in 2008. It’s encouraging that the numbers are in double digits while most countries are in singles or decimals, but they are still deceiving. Stígamót reports that less than 10% of the cases that come to them have gone through the legal system.
A SAD STATE OF AFFAIRS
There is a serious problem.
The Western world is driving in reverse on the issue of rape and victims’ rights. In the United States, a lawmaker in Georgia recently tried to introduce a bill that would amend criminal codes and redefine rape victims as “accusers” until a conviction is in place. Canada is rallying coast-to-coast with SlutWalks in furious response to a Toronto Police constable who recently told a university class that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”
Sweden has the highest rate of reported rapes in Europe—the number of has quadrupled over the past 20 years—yet in 2009 the Supreme Court passed a ruling saying that victim testimony was insufficient to prove that a rape was committed. So basically the victim’s word is worthless.
While we can’t hold this one article by Visir entirely to blame for the Icelandic justice system failing to take sexual assault as seriously as they should, we can hold them accountable for contributing to a discourse of incredibility and hope that they take notice. Each seed planted that suggests rape victims are simply flinging allegations at innocent men (rapists are mostly men, deal with it) only grows into a much larger beast that discourages and terrifies any victim from ever telling even their most loved ones what has happened to them.
Iceland needs to change its entire discourse on the matter. Scratch that—Iceland needs to START the discourse.
YOU CAN’T SEE IT, BUT YOU CAN FEEL IT
It is understandable from a human point of view to want to not believe that these things happen to people we love, and are committed by people we love. We cannot see the wounds of a rape victims as we can see a murdered body, a beaten child, a burnt down home.
The wounds are the memories that cannot be sewn shut or put on life support. The words to describe the event are the hardest thing to ever say, and it is relived in your thoughts at involuntary moments, making daily life a gruelling, twisted play. Rape victims are the best actors you’ll ever meet.
Rape victims are FUBAR on the inside.
And every time they’re told they “claim”, “allege” or “accuse”, they are fucked up all over again.