Sunday, August 3, 2014

Uncomfortable knowledge: everyday forms of racial and gender violence

Sometimes one is made privy to information about people one knows that is disturbing or problematic, but that one cannot really do anything with. What do you do when you find out that the husband in a couple you know has beaten his wife? What do you with the knowledge that a young woman you know was raped? Other than hold onto this knowledge, respecting that both women involved have chosen to not report the incidents.

Recently I was talking with a friend whom I will call A -- not someone who is involved in the areas of my research, but just someone I met when I was living here -- and she told me that the husband in a couple we both know (the people who introduced us in the first place) beat his wife. A. didn't provide many details, nor did I ask. But there was something in the offhand way in which she related this that made me suspect that this was not the first time. A. was telling us about a retreat that her workplace had organized, and to which people had brought spouses and children, but because of this incident, in which our mutual friend had hit or beaten his wife (the word "pegar" can be used to mean just simply hitting someone, or a more serious attack or beating), the organization had decreed that in the future, only employees would be able to attend these retreats and that their spouses and companions were not welcome. A. works with the wife (which is why they were both at this retreat), and has known the couple for over a decade. Her description of the incident was that O. (the husband) had been drinking and then had beaten his wife N. The couple have been together around 20 years or more, and have two children. I stayed with them on several occasions, and we all went out together a few times. I wouldn't say we were the closest of friends, but we did have a kind of casual intimacy (since I stayed in their household). And so it was a bit of a surprise to learn that Don O., who is in many ways a lovely person, and someone with whom I have had long conversations about politics and many other things, is also an abuser. Not that I am so innocent that I cannot imagine that men who are in other ways kind and intelligent people are capable of being abusers. 

The rape I learned about from a young migrant who  was telling me about his reasons for leaving Guatemala, and in an almost offhand way (I think he thought I already knew about this) he mentioned that one of his sisters had been raped by some men who were harassing his family in other ways. 

In both cases, the person who told me about the violent incident spoke in an unemotional, matter-of-fact way. Which is an indication, I think, of how prevalent sexual violence is in Guatemala. I called this post uncomfortable knowledge, because in the first incident, both the perpetrator and the victim/survivor are people I know and like. And in the second incident, the woman and her family chose not to report the incident (which I later learned had occurred several years ago).

Without pretending to have any special insight into the minds of these women, I understand why a wife might choose not to report an incident of domestic violence and might continue living with her husband and family, perhaps "as though nothing had happened". I also understand why a rape survivor might decide not to report the rape -- in order to not be victimized again by the police and legal process. This would be true in almost any country in the world, and it is even more true in Guatemala, which is a very macho society and one where there is highly dysfunctional legal system. Although Guatemala has some of the strongest laws against domestic violence in the Americas, they are rarely applied. Many judges and attorneys do not fully understand them. The police are notoriously corrupt, and like police in many countries, are likely to view domestic violence as a private and not a public matter. Because there is so little confidence in the police - it is well known that police not only accept but actively solicit bribes for things like looking the other way when a driver does not have a license, insurance, an up-to-date sticker on his or her car - there a lot of crimes, not just domestic violence, that go unreported, since people assume that nothing is going to happen.  The culture of impunity that was created and promoted during the armed conflict still percolates through the society. The conviction rate for the crimes that reported is abysmally low: the conviction rate for extrajudicial killings is something like .32% (I have the statistic somewhere in one of the expert briefs I have written for asylum cases), and so many crime victims think, "Why bother?"  This is on top of the sense of shame and guilt that women are made to feel when they are victims of sexual crimes, and their understandable hesitancy to talk about sexual matters with male police officers. In addition, to prove rape they would have to submit to a medical examination, which many would view as a further intrusion on their privacy. And as unlikely as it would be that filing a complaint would result in a conviction, there would also be fear of retaliation. While there is little chance that the man would be convicted and forced to serve a sentence, he might view even being charged with a crime as an insult to his honor and the woman would be at further risk. 

All of these are further exacerbated when the rape victim is a Maya woman and the rapist (or rapists) is a Ladino man - and most of the authorities (health officials, judges, and so forth) with whom the victim would have to deal are also non-indigenous. Making a complaint and following through with it would mean confronting not only deep-seated machismo but perhaps even more deeply-rooted racist attitudes that see indigenous women as fair game, as sexual objects to be used at will by non-indigenous men, as "wanting it". I can only imagine what would be going through the woman's mind -- a desire to put the incident behind her as quickly as possible, and to not have to put herself in a situation where it would be her word against that of a non-indigenous man. 

And so these seemingly unrelated incidents, recounted to me at different moments by people who do not know each other, speak volumes about larger patterns of racial and gender attitudes.

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