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Battling sexual violence within institutions: Things we have learned

In her upcoming book Complaint! feminist scholar Sara Ahmed reminds the reader of what in another world would have been quite obvious: that the weight of complaining about sexual violence falls primarily on the survivor/victim. In a lecture titled “Mind the Gap! Complaint as a Queer Method” at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin in the summer of 2019, Ahmed explained how institutions, especially academic ones, are plagued by unpreparedness, and often unwillingness, to deal with the upheaval that sexual violence accusations bring.

Those who voice complaints, whether formal or informal, bear the cost of institutions taking an inordinate amount of time to learn to address the violence named. Not only that, but those who complain are then stigmatized as disrupting the peace and flows within institutions.

When Ismail Fayed invited us to come together for a panel at Mada Masr to reflect upon the wave of resistance to sexual violence in Egypt that emerged over the summer of 2020, I had just gone through a heartbreaking negotiation with a civil society organization about their plans to address accusations of sexual violence. The experience made me rethink how civil society organizations engage with feminists’ work in fighting sexual violence. I have been concerned with this topic for a few years now, not necessarily out of a belief that alternative justice systems are holier than others or are more redemptive, and not even out of a belief that their promises are always totally possible. I have been engaged out of a conviction that these institutions could potentially protect some vulnerable women and queer community members from the violent norms and practices the state upholds around gender generally, and in cases of sexual violence specifically. These organizations could, at least hypothetically, provide some potential alternative to those who wish to be spared the difficulties of reporting sexual violence to the state. I also continue to have hope that civil society organizations could take swift and timely sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence that, when need be, could affect the latter’s livelihoods. The question of livelihoods would make alternative justice systems less performative and more ingrained in a critical political economy; one where reparative approaches are sensitive to the emotional and material costs victims/survivors incur and the importance of factoring them into practices of justice.

Writing those lines now, I realize, cognitively at least, if not emotionally, that a second heartbreak that followed our Mada Masr panel, makes me more adamant to think of the future of sexual violence complaints. Seeing the witnesses in the case of the Fairmont assault be held behind bars for coming forward in support of the victim/survivor’s report to the police was and remains nothing short of a true heartbreak. The Fairmont heartbreak is not a light one. It cannot be thought past so straightforwardly. It was, and perhaps still is, one of the most traumatic events women collectives in Egypt interested in gender justice have experienced; its immediate effects were obvious in the silence it generated for weeks among many, rendering the writing on sexual violence, an already heavy endeavor, even more fragile and painful.

Despite the difficulty of thinking straight following the Fairmont witnesses arrests, when I push myself to try, it seems to me that what came up during our panel discussion at Mada Masr continues to linger on, if not become more pertinent following the Fairmont arrest. One of the main concerns that others and myself shared during our discussions at Mada was around the co-optation of feminist struggles, their language, tactics and logics, by the bureaucracy and sometimes simple chauvinism of members of civil society organizations who are championing the fight against sexual violence. My aforementioned engagements over the summer with the civil society organization dealing with complaints made me increasingly aware that we are at a critical junction — one where the previous resistance to and undermining of the feminist work against sexual violence are replaced by co-optation of the symbols and strategies of these very feminist groups. By co-optation here I mean the adoption of feminist language (for example, that the process of investigating sexual violence needs to be survivor/victim-centered, that it tries to aspire to something like transformative justice), tactics (for instance, having independent committees both to support the survivor/victim and look into the complaints) and logics (that the violence against women and queer folk is overwhelming and demands swift intervention) without the commitments to broader accountability and humility that would make these processes truly transformative. Of course, there is also co-optation of that struggle at the state level, but this is beyond the scope of this article.

In other words, there is a risk that the radical ethos behind much of the fervent politics against sexual violence be emptied of its content as it travels through the worlds and blockages of power dynamics at civil society organizations. This is not new. Waves of successful social justice campaigns, both locally and globally, have historically often been quickly contained through the direct co-optation of their tools and symbols, or simply with time as they became institutionalized and bureaucratized.

Mind you, I and many of those who took part of the discussion at Mada Masr still believe that the circulation of feminist language, tactics and logics about sexual violence among the wider public and in these organizations is a big win to celebrate. Women and victims/survivors paid such a high price to get the basic tenets of their experience and their demands recognized by the wider public. This is not something to be brushed over so lightly. My hope is not to underestimate the impact of this collective work. Time, perhaps, will allow us to fully appreciate the new realities that women and survivors/victims of sexual violence have forged and turned into the norm.

I am also mindful however that learning takes time. In order for institutions to make the processes they adopt truly reflective of the ethos of the progressive struggles behind them, they require so much learning, work and investments but also a lot of accountability and humility. And it is precisely this that scares me and reminds me of Ahmed’s claim that the weight of the complaint of sexual violence falls always at the end on the shoulder of the victim/survivor. It is this that makes me feel compelled to engage further in asking how we protect those important and fragile wins survivors/victims made.

Sexual violence is increasingly being thought of as a crisis to be “managed” rather than one that requires rethinking the everyday practices of our work, one that requires a lot of humility to admit that the learning we all need to do is massive before we can claim to have served justice to victims of sexual violence. In other words, I want to ask: What does it mean to say that a process is trauma-informed or survivor-centered but not for instance, set up investigative committees with that rationale underpinning its structures and mandates? How can survivor-centered committees still be expected to mimic the legal system that is blind to gendered inequalities and power dynamics? What does it mean to say that a process is transformative, when for instance, the levels of consensus work needed to get everyone onboard of understanding the depth of the sexual violence injury is halted by the attempts to “manage” the responses to sexual violence complaints? How can one engage in a transformative process and simultaneously breach the policies the organization set to do this?

It has become easy to equate combating sexual violence with setting up investigative committees to look into complaints. This approach, despite its good intentions, risks emptying the fights against sexual violence from the politics that give them meaning. It risks rendering the fight against sexual violence struggles performative. Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in spaces that are rampant with a lack of accountability and where all sorts of violence, classed, gendered, racialized, religious and sexual ones are normalized. They cannot, in turn, be addressed without the recognition that we need accountable communities before we can claim to fight sexual violence in our organizations. Accountable communities look at the logics and practices of hiring, firing, promotion and the workplace politics of organizations. They evaluate the reparative work that can be done given the limited resources, time, skills and the freedoms they have. They assess the longer-term effects of the practices they have adopted on overall justice and power dynamics within these organizations. Mostly they require broader accountabilities that are harder to bring: like challenging the power of those responsible for bringing justice themselves in their institutions. Setting up investigative committees alone, without wider practices of accountability to follow, risks adding more heartbreaks to the series of heartbreaks that have marked the history of feminist work.

My call for humility and recognition of the time and resources needed in the learning process on sexual violence may come across as both dreamy or defeatist. I hope it is neither. My point is simple. Perhaps it is not even mine. The weight of bringing a complaint falls on the survivor/victim, as Sara Ahmed poignantly tells us. Our strategies thus need first and foremost to be rooted in that fact and accommodate for it. Civil society organizations cannot just “handle” sexual violence with the mentality of management in a crisis situation.

It is precisely this that makes me think that the feminist work on accountability within civil society institutions is not separate from the work done in other spheres, like the naming and shaming perpetrators on social media, which also increased over the summer of 2020. Naming and shaming works precisely because the tools we have to bring justice in sexual violence cases in civil society organizations, if not also the commitments, are still nascent and inadequate, and require women and victims/survivors of sexual violence to pay such a high cost for bringing up a complaint — a cost that they often bear alone, at least until we learn to support them better. Social media work is aware of the deeply skewed power dynamics in which institutions operate. Contrary to what many might believe, working within institutions to combat sexual violence does not substitute the work of naming and shaming. And it definitely is not holier. Naming and shaming is done with an awareness that changing the politics around sexual violence requires power, requires community and requires time.

So I see naming and shaming as complementary to the work done within civil society institutions, sometimes foregrounding it, and sometimes even as a substitution for it when institutions continuously fail victims/survivors. Naming and shaming has at its root a fragile hope, one shared by those who work on improving civil society organizations’ response to sexual violence, a hope that the survivor/victim does not bear the cost of our collective ignorance, and sometimes our complacency, alone.

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