End assaults on women, starting with the violence in words

Alice Wu says the brutal attacks on women will only be stopped once words of aggression are punished as well as the violence they spawn

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 3:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2014, 6:06pm

There has been a lot of talk of violence lately. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held in London last week, was a historic attempt to address one of the many serious problems plaguing the world today. It had major star power in Angelina Jolie as UN special envoy, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, which at least pushed an important issue to the forefront of global consciousness. It's unfortunate, though, that it takes that much star power to get attention.

The fact of the matter is that violence against women doesn't only occur during times of conflict. During times of celebration, women are attacked as well. Take Egypt's recent presidential inauguration for Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi: women were violently assaulted during the festivities. It should be deeply disturbing when calls for celebration require the stripping, beating and raping of women in the vicinity. This happened in the same place - Tahrir Square - where CBS correspondent Lara Logan was raped and almost murdered when Egyptians celebrated the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

We should be outraged when an anchorwoman laughs and says it's "because they're happy" when told there have been several cases of sexual harassment during a live telecast of Egypt's presidential inauguration celebrations.

Politicians have continuously vowed to stop violence against women. But while India's new government has vowed "zero tolerance" following the gruesome gang rape and murder of two teenage sisters, two officials have given that phrase a very different meaning. One said that "no one commits rape deliberately"; the other saw rape as "sometimes right, sometimes wrong". Such comments are unacceptable.

Perhaps even more infuriating is a Washington Post opinion article last week, in which women were told to "stop taking lovers" and get married, so as to prevent violence. The blame, again, is on the victims of violence. Again and again, women are told they are at fault.

Women aren't the only ones vulnerable to violence and abuse, and this is the reason men and women must unite against violence of any kind, beginning with holding people accountable for their words of aggression as well as their actions.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned the world about the recent rise in xenophobic rhetoric from European Union politicians, saying that tolerance for intolerance would pave the way for violence.

It is hard to tell whether her warnings will be heeded. Xenophobia, like misogyny, preys on people's discontent and frustrations. It's a dangerous combination of close-mindedness and self-deception, and it works precisely because it's so unsophisticated: it exonerates responsibility by blaming the "other". It's so much easier than exercising self-restraint.

We must stand up against all the rhetoric that inflames, that stems from discrimination and aggression, and that is a pathetic excuse for the lack of self-restraint. Reckless actions begin, first and foremost, with reckless words.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA