By Lauren Wolfe
This post is part of our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence series.
Women describe their rapes from behind black face scarves in videos on our site that documents sexualized violence in Syria. We have no photos of women whose faces aren’t covered. We have few photos of survivors of rape even with their faces covered. Sometimes these women hide themselves for religious reasons or for safety—for fear of retribution for speaking out—but oftentimes they cover themselves out of mortification. Rape has taken their cultural purity. And in Syria, the Middle East, and much of the world, women are supposed to hide behind the shame inflicted upon them.
In the year since we launched Women Under Siege, a project at the Women’s Media Center, I’ve struggled with how to illustrate our many stories about sexualized violence in conflict. We are a documentation project that believes in the power of the image—that it can call up emotion, invite empathy, make plain suffering that needs to be seen to be brought to an end. That women are forced to hide is why we exist. Stigma on top of rape is a crime upon a crime, and it is why we show and show and show in words and whatever images we can the horrors that will remain hidden if we don’t, with effort, put them into the light.
I’ve had photojournalists offer for publication photos and videos of rape survivors with their faces uncovered, seated on hospital beds in countries like Afghanistan, where there are multiple language and cultural barriers between a foreign journalist and local women.“Did this woman give you permission to take her image?” I always ask.
“Yes,” the journalist always says.
“But did she understand that this image might be going on the Internet on a New York-based website that has international reach? That the world will potentially see her face and understand that she has been raped?”
“No, no she didn’t,” is always the reply. How could she?
This is not to belittle any woman’s power to decide how and when her image is shown. This is to say that a woman in a rural village in Afghanistan may not be aware of how the global online media works. I cringe when I think of how many survivors have been exposed without their knowledge.
But then there are the women like the one in the video below, who wants to tell the world what has happened to her—she wants to do it in her own voice, even if she keeps her face covered. Her fear is not discussing her own pain; it is that others will know she has been violated.
Consider these women, who I met in February in Guatemala. They had all been raped in that country’s civil war, which officially ended more than 15 years ago. None have told their own husbands what happened to them. They knew that revealing their pain might push them onto the street. That the stigma of rape is too great in their country to allow their husbands to accept them after they’d been violated—or “damaged,” “made impure.”
Recently, Dr. Frank Ochberg, the renowned trauma psychiatrist who coined the term “Stockholm Syndrome,” told me a little about how he views shame.
“Shame has physiological manifestations,” he said. “You blush; you cower; you may sweat; you avert your eyes; you have a feeling that people are looking at you and looking down at you and you don’t want to look back.”
More than that, Ochberg said, “Shame causes you to retreat. Shame is the feeling I believe we feel as we are lowered in dominance.”
As we continue to document the abuse of women around the world, whether in Latin America or the Middle East or elsewhere, we can continue to respect each woman’s decision on whether she wants to show her face. But we can also make clear to her that we do not accept the stigma that keeps her behind a curtain or in shadow or without her face showing at all—we can let her know that she has done nothing wrong. That we do not consider her lowered in any way. She does not have to retreat, because instead we honor her.
It is her perpetrator who should be shamed.
Let us show his face.
Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and the director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. The group’s site features a real-time interactive map on reports of rape in Syria. Wolfe is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and blogs at laurenmwolfe.com. Follow her on Twitter.