Stop Bandying about Anecdotes and Loose Commentary

by Chuck Sudetic


1) I am a feminist. I see myself as fortunate to have come of age in this age when significant, growing, but still-inadequate numbers of women have taken their rightful place in business and government and the professions and all other walks of life in many parts of the developed world and in some corners of underdeveloped countries.

2) Women are the species. Men have controlled too much too long. They continue to maintain a stranglehold on too many women in too many parts of the world, from the high rises of Manhattan and The Bronx to the highlands of Lesotho and the hills of Swaziland.


I feel disappointed at the essay under discussion. Perhaps I’m missing something in these words. Perhaps I demand too much from words and essays. But I consider this piece a lost opportunity, a bandying about of undeveloped anecdotes and loose commentary undisciplined by a honed argument and without enough definition even to foster engaging discussion of something concrete and urgently important.

This is unfortunate, because when it comes to the question of women and war, I see war everywhere. I see as much violence, and perhaps more, in places where “peace” reigns.

The really important work in overcoming barriers confining women is on behalf of the hundreds of millions of women for whom the barriers in question are maintained and defended with violence, and in too many instances deadly force. This, to me, translates into urgency. So I seek discussions grounded in the practical, in the question “What is to be done?” rather than on the ethereal or the academic.

There is much to be said about labels and their effects, positive (protection) and negative (exclusion), which this essay suggests but, for me, fails to explore. The practical cannot, I fear, be grasped well at this level. Because the real problem, as I see it, is in the deeper structure that produces the labels, the mysterious workings deep beneath the anthropology, the sociology, the psychology, the linguistics…. And in these disciplines, it is revealed not through the theoretical discussions, but through the minutiae of the case studies.

What, for instance, beyond drafting legislation and enforcing the law, must change in the culture – the deep-seated habits of mind – that lead men and, let’s be fair, women to choose to shoot or detonate bombs to prevent young girls from going to school because he or she believes some god requires women to be subservient unto men?

What must change to stop a mother in some inner city neighborhood from telling her son that he must kill his sister, as his father commands, for the “honor” of the family, because this is demanded by some patriarch back in his village?

What must be done to have mothers-in-law stop torturing young wives and slave girls?

What must be done to stop young husbands from throwing acid into the faces of unwanted spouses or from dousing them with gasoline and setting them alight?

What must be done to have “born-again” Christian men in the United States to consider rape a criminal act and not the fault of the victim, who is now to be castigated and shunned? And what must be done with the families of rape victims in Africa who send them into the bush to live, and die, alone?

Let’s discuss the nature of this war zone. And let’s explore solutions.

The term that resonated most with me in the essay at hand was “war of attrition.” But I feel that the term is not well fitted to the reality at hand, to the “struggle” that will – for it must if civilization is to become more equitable and more efficient – need to be waged for decades and generations to alter, positively, patterns that are so ingrained beneath the anthropology, the sociology, the psychology, the linguistics…etc. Here, obviously, there will be a need for persistence, perseverance, courage, and sacrifice, and more spite of the kind demonstrated by that little girl from Pakistan who lies recovering from her wound in a hospital in England. More people like her will die in this struggle.

This process, even if it did not require a blood payment, is complicated, daunting, terrifying…

How, for instance, can women and men outside of Swaziland help women inside Swaziland better defend themselves and their daughters from men who would infect them with HIV in a way that, I at least, consider premeditated murder deserving of criminal prosecution and punishment? These are men who promise vulnerable women protection and succor, but actually exploit them for sexual pleasure and abandon them when convenient, and too often leave them to deal with the killer virus in conditions of destitution that produce death in droves by pneumonia and tuberculosis and in turn leave their children orphans, to become prey, too often, to sexual predators?

How, for instance, can women and men from outside help young girls, virgins, who have, or are vulnerable to rape, by men infected with HIV who believe this will cure them?

What about saving the daughters of Roma whose fathers fall into debt to loan sharks and then sell their daughters into prostitution in Budapest and Amsterdam and Brussels to repay it?

How can mothers be taught not to spoil their sons, making them utterly dependent upon women servants, and beat their daughters into submission?

How about the Eastern Congo? This is my favorite case study example, because it shows the daunting complexities of trying to do good. In Eastern Congo, among some peoples, abduction of young girls and forced sex and payment of a dowry goat are the traditional practice of taking a wife. And here this age-old practice, combined with the impunity that has surrounded armies always and everywhere, has enabled soldiers and their officers to assume that they can engage in mass rape – the greatest spate of rape reported in the history of man.

Congo’s parliament—under pressure from wise, well-meaning, persevering, and courageous women activists—has defined in law all sex with women under the age of 18 to be rape, and has introduced tribunals to try men arrested for such crimes and punish men found guilty and award damages to the injured. This is a very, very good thing. But how to deal with the side effects, the injustices in the application of this law that ruin women and men?

In the less-than-a-dollar-a-day world of Eastern Congo, a father speaks for a minor daughter. A minor daughter who has been raped is to be shunned. So consider this scenario, which is based upon an actual case: Young soldier and a sixteen year young woman fall in love. They have consensual sex, which is rape under the law. She becomes pregnant. They decide to marry. The young man approaches the father of the pregnant young woman and offers to pay the dowry goat.

The father presses criminal charges. Not because he is interested in honor or justice. But because he is interested in the opportunity to be awarded $10,000 in damages, from the state since the young man is a soldier. (Never mind that no award of any such damages has ever been paid. The courts have made such awards on paper.) So for the father, no goat is enough. The case goes to trial. The girl pleads with the court not to put her husband in jail. She tells the court that she will be sent away to care for her still unborn child on her own with no income. She tells the court she loves her husband. The judge even pleads with the father to relent. The father refuses to drop the charges. He wants to be awarded the $10,000 that will never be and says it is a matter of “honor.” And the court is bound by the statute. Outcome: The young man is convicted and sent off to jail. The young woman goes off to some hostel to give birth to her son, before she is forced out on her own to toil as a prostitute. The child will make his or her way. And the father will have a piece of paper saying the state owes him $10,000.

There is too little time to waste on bandying about undefined terms and flitting discussions. In this is an age of opportunity, an age when rule of law might just be spreading. It is foolishness to assume it will last without being nurtured and consolidated. For this we need women—and especially women in power—and we need them to lead and wage the struggle down to the ground level.

Chuck Sudetic: Writer and former journalist and analyst for the United Naitons war crimes tribunal in The Hague. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and other publications. He authored Blood and Vengeance, a critically acclaimed book that captured the experiences of two Bosnian families, one Muslim Slav, one Serb, during the tumultuous century that ended with the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. He co-authored La Caccia, the memoirs of the war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte.

To leave a comment, please see the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.