Monday, June 30, 2008

Sworn Virgins

In rural Albania, the ancient custom of women becoming what are known as "sworn virgins" is slowly dying out due to the progression of feminism in that country and the expansion of women's rights. In the past,women in these areas were not seen as equal human beings. They were simple commodities to be used as bargaining chips and procreation vehicles. The only way a woman could inherit property, or preserve any sense of autonomy, was to become a man.

The process is not surgical -- in these mountains there is little knowledge that sex-change surgery is even possible. Rather, sworn virgins cut their hair and wear baggy men's clothes and take up manly livelihoods as shepherds or truck drivers or even political leaders. And those around them -- despite knowing the sworn virgins are women -- treat them as men.
Currently there are 30 to 40 known sworn virgins in northern Albania along with a handful in surrounding areas. They range in age from 88 to about 28 and they enjoy all of the same freedoms as the men of their villages including the ability to hold positions of authority.

One virgin that Dones interviews in the documentary, Shkurtan Hasanpapaj, once served as the local secretary of the Communist Party, the top office in her region. She was in charge of all the men, and though they knew the reality of her anatomy, her authority was unquestioned.

Asked if she would have felt restricted in a marriage, the virgin Ivanaj responds, "Absolutely! More like squashed than restricted. . . . Even when there's love and harmony, only men have the right to decide. I want total equity or nothing."

It is terrible that for so many years women in northern Albania had to choose between their freedom and who they were. However, it is also remarkable that in a culture ruled for hundreds of years by a set of laws that includes the mandate "a woman is a sack made to endure" there existed any method for women to be allowed the same freedoms as men. In addition, the idea that gender is that fluid is progressive by even modern standards. (Though it is important to note that no such oath existed for men.)

The contribution these "virgins" have made to the expansion of women's rights cannot be overlooked. Joshua Zumbrun of the Washington Post states, "The existence of sworn virgins reveals a cultural belief, however inchoate, that a biological woman can do all the work of a man." Beyond the effect of their mere presence in the male sphere, sworn virgins also were known to intervene as much as possible whenever they perceived that a woman was being mistreated. These sorts of interventions would not have been possible without their new status as men. Without this institution, women's rights in Albania may have been even slower in coming.

"I asked the young girls of the region what they think of the sworn virgins," Dones says. "They said they respect them, but they would never follow their path. Not now."

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Torture Game 2

According to the creator and many of the players of a new on-line video game, graphic simulations of torture are a "great stress reliever" and "simple and pointless, only meant for entertainment."

Here, a pale, androgynous human hangs from ropes on the computer screen before you. Among the devices at your disposal — a chainsaw, a razor blade, spikes, a pistol … and a paintbrush (take that!)

There’s little in the way of instructions and no points to be earned. Instead, this dangling ragdoll offers you a canvas to do with what you will — stab him with spikes, flay the skin from his body with a razor, pull his limbs off with your bare hands, paint him every color of the rainbow. No matter what you do to him, he never screams and his expression never changes. He only utters a vague “uuungh” when you’ve inflicted enough damage to kill him.

And that’s pretty much it.

We have to question where we are as a society when a 19-year-old creates a game that has no end goal other than to be "entertained" by simulating grotesque acts of torture. Everyone has a stupid idea now and then, but this didn't end with a 19-year-old's morbid mentality. "The Torture Game 2" is the sequel to "The Torture Game" and players are begging for a third installment.
With more than 200,000 views and a rating of 9.3 (out 10) from the 200 players who’ve reviewed it, “The Torture Game 2” has been more than well received at, the game’s many fans use the words “fun,” “amazing” and “totally awesome” to describe it. They post comments begging the creator to make a “Torture Game 3.” They happily suggest ways to improve it: “You need a samurai sword in the next one, a flamethrower, a fist, a mace, a grenade…”
Between the popularity of video games like this and the box office success of movies like the SAW franchise, it's hard to argue that violence is not heavily engrained in our culture, in an increasingly blurring line between real-life and entertainment.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why Supreme Court Justices Matter

On Wednesday, June 25th in a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn the murder conviction of Dwayne Giles. In the original trial, a police officer read the statements of Brenda Avie from a police report that was filed a few weeks before the murder, in which Avie states that Giles had threatened to kill her.

This case involved interpretation of the Confrontation Clause, the 6th Amendment Constutitutional right to confront one's accuser, and whether that right is revoked in a murder trial where the "accuser" is dead.

From the Wisconsin Law Journal:

The high court rejected the State of California’s theory that the defendant, by killing the witness, waived his right to question her. The majority found that theory was contrary to the common law embodied in the Confrontation Clause.
David Savage of the Los Angeles Times predicted the ruling.

Although it sounds far-fetched, Giles's claim could prevail in the Supreme Court. The court took up of the case of Giles v. California to test the outer limits to the so-called confrontation right in the Sixth Amendment. It says, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

Until 2004, judges usually allowed jurors to hear "reliable" second-hand accounts of what witnesses said if the witness was not available. For example, a police officer could report on what a missing witness had said. But in a case that year, Justice Antonin Scalia insisted this "hearsay" violated the defendant's rights under the Sixth Amendment. "Where testimonial statements are at issue, the only [test] of reliability ... is the one the Constitution actually prescribes: confrontation," Justice Scalia said at the time in Crawford v. Washington.

During yesterday's argument, Justice Scalia said the court should stick to a no-exceptions rule. He said Giles's rights were violated because a police officer had testified at his trial that the murder victim, Brenda Avie, had said Giles threatened to kill her.
And indeed, it is Justice Scalia whose majority opinion is being quoted.

Justice Antonin Scalia said in his majority opinion that domestic violence, though "an intolerable offense," does not justify "abridging the rights of criminal defendants."
The police report in question details an incident in which police were called to a domestic disturbance and found Brenda Avie and Dwayne Giles engaged in an argument. Brenda Avie appeared to have a "bump on her head" and told police that Giles had flashed a knife and threatened to kill her. Giles has confessed to shooting Avie and fleeing the scene but claims it was in self-defense. Justice Stephen Breyer echos in his dissent what this blog feels about the ruling.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court should have ruled that defendants forfeit their constitutional right to confront witnesses when they are responsible for the witness' absence from trial. Wednesday's ruling, Breyer said, "grants the defendant not fair treatment, but a windfall."
There is a small source of hope in the ruling for domestic violence advocates.
That paragraph states in relevant part, “Acts of domestic violence often are intended to dissuade a victim from resorting to outside help, and include conduct designed to prevent testimony to police officers or cooperation in criminal prosecutions. Where such an abusive relationship culminates in murder, the evidence may support a finding that the crime expressed the intent to isolate the victim and to stop her from reporting abuse to the authorities or cooperating with a criminal prosecution -- rendering her prior statements admissible under the forfeiture doctrine. Earlier abuse, or threats of abuse, intended to dissuade the victim from resorting to outside help would be highly relevant to this inquiry, as would evidence of ongoing criminal proceedings at which the victim would have been expected to testify.”
Otherwise, legal experts worry that a number of murder trials may be revisited, and even thrown out, because the victim wasn't present to share her story, thanks to the person who killed her and may now get away.

Monday, June 23, 2008

UN Comdemns Sexual Violence as a War Tactic

Women in conflict-ridden countries across the world are familiar with the use of rape as a tactic of war used to pollute gene pools during ethnic cleansing or to demoralize the opposing forces. However, this week the United Nations has officially begun to recognize it as such and to call for its immediate end in a resolution sponsored by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The resolution, sponsored by the United States, declared rape and sexual violence as a “war tactic” that aims to “humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.”

The recognition of rape as a weapon of war by the international community is significant and historic because it acknowledges what has been described as “one of history’s greatest silences” — the sexual violation of women and girls during periods of conflict.

Ever since men started fighting other men for territory and resources, rape has been used as a weapon to subdue and conquer the enemy.

Read more here and here. View the entire resolution here.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

In Honor of Father's Day

RH Reality Check recently posted a piece about Jackson Katz, an well-known writer and educator on the topic of gender violence prevention among men and boys. In the piece, Katz discusses why he feels that violence against women should be reframed as a men's issue. Katz argues that labeling violence against women a "women's issue" or even a "gender issue" (which he believes is automatically synonymous with "women's issue" for many people) encourages men to view the issue as irrelevant to their lives and "gives them an excuse to not pay attention."
Another reason why Katz has a problem with people using women's issues to describe violence against women is the issue of perpetration and who is responsible for perpetrating these acts. "Take rape for example," said Katz. "Over 99 percent of rape is perpetrated by men, but it's a women's issue?"
As a further example of this thinking, Katz uses commonly implemented "rape prevention" courses held at universities across the country. Katz argues that these courses are useful information for women in order to practice "risk reduction," but because they do not address men, they are not effective as prevention.

"If a woman has done everything in her power to reduce her risk, then a man who has the proclivity for abuse or need for power will just move on to another woman or target," Katz added. "It's about the guy and his need to assert his power. And it's not just individual men, it's a cultural problem. Our culture is producing violent men, and violence against women has become institutionalized. We need to take a step back and examine the institutionalized polices drafted by men that perpetuate the problem."
This is also the thinking that drives Men Stopping Violence, a locally headquartered organization dedicated to ending men's violence against women. MSV is a national leader in the violence against women's movement who works locally and nationally to dismantle belief systems, social structures, and institutional practices that oppress women and children and dehumanize men themselves. MSV has been a long-time partner of Women's Resource Center and a regular sponsor of our own Father's Day campaign "It Takes a Man to End Domestic Violence" (found in the "For Men" section of our website.)

In this campaign, we ask men to take a public stance against domestic violence by making a restorative financial contribution to support to women and children affected by abuse. We then include each contributor's name in an advertisement in the Father's Day Sunday edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the heading:
In commemoration of Father’s Day, the men of Atlanta have united to promote peace in every home. If you think that domestic violence does not affect you or that you cannot make a difference in stopping domestic violence, these men ask that you think of your mothers, sisters and daughters. Domestic violence affects us all, and you can make a difference. The men listed below proudly state that they will not tolerate domestic violence.
We hope that men will see other men whom they know and respect taking a public stance against domestic violence, and that it will influence them to examine the violent tendencies in their own lives. Please look for our ad in the AJC this Sunday, and thank you to all who participated.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Media Violence Against Women

Via DollyMix

Sex and the City and it's lead actresses have, legitimately or not, been subjected to the great deal of criticism that tends to come with being prominent in popular culture. It is important to note the way the criticism has manifested itself, and the ways in which the gender of the intended targets shapes how that criticism is expressed.

While the criticism tends to focus on the ages and physical appearance of the stars of the film, rather than their acting or the writing quality, the imagery that accompanies this criticism has become increasingly violent and disturbing. First, Time Out New York's recent cover pictures all four actresses with duct tape over their mouths.

This image of forced silence is not gender neutral. It is insulting at best and outright threatening at worst. Unfortunately, it is the kind of cover that probably sold magazines. One can only assume so, since another New York magazine, the New York Press (the same outlet that framed stalking as a hobby) followed suit with their latest cover picturing all four women as literal garbage.

Cate Sevilla of DollyMix poignantly notes that:

Men are trashed differently than women in the press, this is not a new revelation. We've all been aware of this for a painfully long time. Yet it says something disturbing about our society that when four women become too famous or too popular, our immediate reaction is to shut them up by any means possible. Tape their mouths shut, shove them in the trash, and chop off their pretty little heads; it doesn't matter as long as they've been silenced and are kept out of site. It used to be that little girls were to be seen and not heard, but it seems as though when they tire of seeing us, that we should vanish....out of sight, out of mind, and back in the kitchen where we belong.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Response to "Dangers of Domestic Violence Calls"

Recently on Police Link, which bills itself as the Nation's Law Enforcement Community, a post entitled Dangers of Domestic Violence Calls detailed some of the hazards police officers face when responding to domestic violence calls, and offered tips for those officers to minimize the risks to their personal safety. The idea of this post is quite useful. Part of domestic violence response training for police officers should include training on how to preserve their own lives. Domestic violence calls can be some of the most dangerous, and each department should equip their officers with all of the knowledge necessary to avoid being hurt or killed in the line of duty.

Unfortunately, the author of this particular piece seems to have a special contempt for domestic violence calls.

The author recounts an (unsourced) story he/she has read about a police officer being shot by an abuser after respondeding to a domestic violence call, which leads the author to expand upon experienced-based tips on handling "domestics". With each tip category's introduction, it is clear that the author needs more training on the nature of domestic violence, and feels that the victims bring their troubles on themselves.

Exercise Caution
Consider this: There's a reason that you're called to a location. The transition from domestic bliss to domestic violence can take place in the blink of a wandering eye and the person requesting your presence often has some legitimate expectation of getting his or her [expletive] beat. And the person who may inflict such harm might not care who's on the receiving end. (Emphasis Added)

This entire paragraph demonstrates the mindset that domestic violence is the result of one incident (that is the fault of the victim) that pushes an otherwise rational human being "over the edge". Let us be clear, this is patently false. Domestic violence is systematic terroristic behavior. A person who manages to survive in a violent relationship is well-studied in the behaviors that do not upset their significant other. The problem with this type of safety plan is that the violence is not truly related to emotional responses. It isn't the result of stress, or alcohol, or infidelity. It is a thought-out way to exact control over another human being, and the violence will continue in some way or another no matter what the victim does. These rages are not uncontrolled episodes where the abuser "might not care who's on the receiving end." The abuser very much cares. And while the violence may spill over to a police officer, or someone else who is trying to offer help, those people are simply collateral damage to an abuser demonstrating that there is no one who can protect their victim.

Maintain Peace and Safety
If the person is on site and you're able to contact them, first determine if there's been a crime involved. Whether or not one has been committed, tell the person you're assisting to keep their mouth shut so they don't provoke the aggressor into going Jerry Springer on their [expletive], or more importantly, yours.

Conduct a cursory pat-down search of BOTH parties. Considering the nature of circumstances, the omnipresent threat of danger associated with such calls, the understandably agitated frame of mind of the distraught boyfriend/husband/significant other, and the possibility that one/the other/both may have a weapon to launch or prevent an attack, it shouldn't be too hard for you to justify your need for doing so. (Emphasis Added)

Here again there is the repeated theme that domestic violence is an emotional response to some sort of provocation. In addition, the emphasis is on putting responsibility on the victim to not "provoke the aggressor" rather than taking steps to effectively neutralize the abuser, i.e. the one who has actually committed a crime. The author even enters the apologist frame of mind at this point in the post, stating that the "boyfriend/husband/significant other" will have an understandably agitated frame of mind.

Personal Experience
I hate domestics, and was wounded while responding to one when an idiot ambushed another deputy and myself with an AK47. Perhaps predictably, the girlfriend we saved—the one who, along with her family, was the object of the suspect's murderous rage in the first place—[expletive] backward when it came time to go to court and testified on his behalf (he was still sentenced to 160 years).

Personally, I believe that the first time any person becomes a victim of domestic violence, law enforcement officers should do everything in their power to insulate them from any further attack. But the moment they go back to the abusive son of a [expletive], then we should be able to wash our hands of them. Professionally we don't have that discretion: We are expected to continually run interference on behalf of these Darwin Award aspirants.

Ignoring the general tone of obvious contempt and disrespect that litters the "Personal Experience" section of this post, we can still see the continuing theme of a complete misunderstanding of the nature of domestic violence. Once again, we have to reiterate that domestic violence is systematic terroristic behavior used to control another person. If, as the author states, this abuser was not only trying to kill the victim but had also threatened to kill her family, it is no way strange that she would be scared to testify and may in fact have logically felt that the only way to protect her family was to testify for the defense. It is unfortunately likely that she had had previous experience with unhelpful law enforcement and had no reason to believe that her abuser would not be right back out on the street. If the attitude of the author is consistent with his/her department, then it shouldn't shock him that the victim would feel that the criminal justice system would ultimately be of no help to her.

The author's ludicrous Darwin Award insinuation that repeat victims of domestic violence are stupid implies that the main reason the victims return to their abusers is out of a genuine belief that things will change. In fact, the number one reason that victims return to their abusers is an economic inability to go anywhere else. Economic reasons are followed closely by the desire to protect their family and themselves. It is well documented that a woman is in the greatest danger of being killed after she leaves or attempts to leave the relationship.

Perhaps if the author really doesn't want to continue to be called out to the same locations time and time again, he/she ought to lobby for better victim's resources, more law enforcement training, or more effective domestic violence legislation rather than jumping on the victim-blaming bandwagon.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Carnival Against Sexual Violence

Part of the mission of The Big Picture is to expose our readers to the ways that our local work with survivors of domestic violence connects to the larger Violence Against Women Movement. That's why we are excited to introduce you to the Carnival Against Sexual Violence. Though

Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence has no control over the content of the Carnival's blog, and some posts may contain strong language and discussions that may trigger strong emotions, we encourage you to visit their site on the 1st and 15th of each month to hear how other bloggers address the complex and multi-faceted issues that encompass the Violence Against Women Movement.