Imagine a world where victims of sexual violence could easily report their experience to authorities like they would with any other crime. Imagine if the person had full confidence that the matter will be dealt with the utmost urgency and that justice will be served indiscriminately. Imagine if the person assaulted would not be ostracized from their community, made to feel somehow responsible for the assault or fear being deemed unworthy and damaged. Unfortunately, we live in a world where victims of sexual violence are vilified and shamed by society and victimised again through the justice system.
About two months ago, there was a movement happening on social media called the #Somalitoo movement. It gained attention after the death of Black Lives Matters activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Ruth Salau spoke out about her sexual assault experience and was then murdered. This incident highlighted to everyone why so many women are afraid to speak out about their experiences. Somali women in the diaspora courageously took to social media to share their experiences and show that this issue is rampant in our community. Many of our women and children have been sexually assaulted at the hands of families members, friends and partners who betrayed their trust. The movement took a sudden turn and created a rift between Somali men and women. Instead of giving women the space to be heard and use this as an opportunity to reflect upon our culture that has allowed these actions to continue, women received backlash.
My initial reaction was annoyance at the fact that women’s voices were being silenced, yet again by gatekeepers enforcing Ceeb (shame) and silence culture. I didn’t understand the impact of asking these women insensitive questions like “Why were you alone with the person?” “Why didn’t you report it sooner?” “Where is the evidence?” I thought it was common knowledge that just because a woman does not have evidence readily available, it does not mean that she was not sexually assaulted. Evidence is best collected in the first 72 hours after the incident and at most, a week later. The majority of sexual assault victims don’t report to authorities for multiple reasons. The bodies automatic response to trauma involves flight, fight or freeze. Some victims freeze and become unresponsive when confronted with such trauma, so much so that they internalise it and justify to themselves that they were somehow at fault too. Sometimes, the person is still engulfed by the trauma that it is difficult for them to even acknowledge that they had been raped. Once they come to terms with what had happened it could be too late to provide sizeable evidence that could lead to criminal charges and thus discouraging people from reporting.
Another reason women don’t report sexual violence against them is that they fear the judgement and isolation that follows; not to mention being blamed for “allowing it to happen”. Some people fail to understand that in cases of sexual assault, the perpetrator is abusing their power and they are 100% responsible for their actions. It is a choice to use violence. It is a choice to assault someone. This doesn’t happen by accident and we should never make excuses for it. In the Somali community ceeb culture coupled with this behaviour to sweep pervasive issues such as sexual assault under the rug has become very dangerous. Upholding the families reputation and honour is more important to some people than the fight for justice. Ceeb culture is not about a need to maintain modesty, it’s used as a tool to control women and silence survivors. For so long, men’s sexual entitlement has triumphed over women’s bodily autonomy and rights, justifying and protecting the actions of perpetrators whilst automatically victimising a person who has been assaulted. This behaviour is shameful and unacceptable which is why we should reject it.
That being said, a particular method that was used during the ‘Somali Too’ movement was not constructive. For instance, an Instagram account was created where survivors could anonymously share their experience but things went a step too far when in the heat of the moment, social media users publicly shared the workplace and home address of the alleged perpetrators, encouraging vigilante behaviour. This was very counterproductive and damaging to the movement. I think this is partly why such an important movement died down very quickly before it even took off.
Let’s take a step back and understand that sometimes sexual assault survivors feel like the only way they can obtain justice is by taking matters into their own hands. One of the reasons for this is that majority of the time, we don’t have access to culturally appropriate services that can understand the intricacies that come into play when someone from our cultural background has been sexually assaulted. If a Somali women shares that she has been sexually assaulted more times than not, she has a lot to lose and nothing to gain. She risks ruining her family’s reputation, being viewed as damaged goods, jeopardises her safety and has little hope to obtain meaningful justice.
Essentially, what it all comes down to is we need to listen to sexual assault survivors attentively and take their accusations seriously through investigation (preferably and if possible). If that’s not possible then as social media users, we can help one another by providing information about resources and services that already exist that may be able to help. Social media users should be very careful about encouraging vigilante actions as it could lead to legal ramifications and actually threaten the safety of survivors. Although sexual assault survivors can choose to share their experiences through social media and be given the space to be heard, it’s definitely not up to the court of public opinion to award someone a guilty sentence. Through this rigorous search for justice, we must keep in mind that the key is to balance objectivity with empathy.
The ‘Somali Too’ movement showed our community that a new dawn is upon us and we must lift the veil on the conservative stigmatization of sexual assault survivors.
Let me know your thoughts on this issue in the comment section.
If you live in Australia and you or someone you know needs help, contact 1800 RESPECT or call the police at 000.