SARP and HeforShe host conference on the intersections between rape and race

Cultural change means being aware of the society we live in

As part of the Sexual Assault and Rape Prevention Center’s sexual assault prevention week, BU’s chapter of HeForShe hosted an event exploring the link between rape and race in society.

HeForShe was created by United Nations Women, and according to their website, it was created “to provide a systematic approach and targeted platform where a global audience can engage and become change agents for the achievement of gender equality in our lifetime.”

To raise awareness for the danger and presence of sexual assault, “Crossroads: discovering the intersections between rape and race” was held Thursday afternoon by guest speaker, Professor Dawna Thomas. Professor Thomas is an Africana Cultural scholar and associate professor of gender studies at Simmons College.

Thomas presented her work on intimate family violence in a multicultural perspective, focusing mainly on the struggles of the Cape Verdean society and culture.

Vice-President of BU HeForShe, Grace Li, told the Tab BU the organization hopes to help students understand the importance of gender equality before entering the workforce in order to prepare to make real change.

“Change can only happen if everyone is equally educated, so that’s our first goal,” said Li.

According to Thomas, while she was interviewing women for her research project on Cape Verdean women and disabilities, “The Cape Verdean Women’s Project,” she noticed that domestic violence and discrimination were recurrent themes in their stories.

Regardless of age, profession, and marital status, all of the women she interviewed had faced family violence.

During the conference, Thomas explained that her theoretical framework for research was that the Cape Verdean community provides “the setting for a deeper conversation on the intersectionality of race and gender in the context of multiple levels of oppression that can be seen in other culturally diverse communities.”

Thomas used testimonies of her research participants’ to explain the lifestyle of women in the Cape Verdean community and it’s strong masculine ideology.

As Cape Verdean increases the socio-political participation of women, women find themselves faced with a social duality, or a “two minds state,” said Thomas. On one hand women feel empowered to be independent, and on the other they find themselves still subject to male authority, oppression, and a “code of silence” in talking about private matters in public.

Breaking the cycle of abuse

According to Thomas, the cycle of abuse is formed when one cannot depart from an abusive relationship.

“People rationalize, people love to be in love,” said Thomas.

By rationalizing the abuser’s actions, the process of abuse continues and women are stuck in a spiral of violence and helplessness. They become afraid of the consequences of speaking up, and stay involved with their abusers for the sake of their children, cultural pride and the taboo of privacy.

Thomas stresses that through education and an understanding of the taboos in their communities and cultures, this cycle of abuse can be broken. She compared gaining the knowledge of how taboos play a role in the matters of rape and discrimination, to learning your obstacles before entering a battle.

“We have to do the work, and the work is hard,” said Thomas. “People aren’t going celebrate it so you have to be ready for the backlash.”

Sexual scripts 

Thomas denounced how society in general, not simply in the Cape Verdean community, “socialize” girls to not be sexually empowered, and not know their own bodies. Through film and literature, Thomas drew on many examples of the bestial heroic man in control of his spouse or girlfriend, and where a women is not even good enough to be their sidekicks. This allows young boys to grow up modeling these actions and thinking it is okay to force women to have sex, that “no” can mean “yes.”

Normalized rigid gender roles and expectations towards women don’t help either as they create vicious justifications for violence and control allowing women and young girls to simply accept their toxic situation, said Thomas.

Recommendations and a call to action in all communities

Cultural change means being aware of the society we live in.

Thomas said we need “a self-assessment for cultural relevancy,” where each culture must be looked at and evaluated individually. However,  society should participate in this wake-up call: women need to advocate for other women victims of violence and discrimination, and men need to work with them to break this history of male violence. The media, also, should multiply the discussions and debates about domestic violence to break the taboo still surrounding it.

Women need support not only in their communities but overall. They need people to listen to their silences. As Thomas said: “there is always something in silence.”

BU HeForShe’s next event will be an art exposition around campus that will feature gender-related art by students.