Trigger warning for rape, sexual violence, femicide, and gender-based violence.
Although it has been more than two years since its publication, I am regularly given a reason to revisit “A Stench That Won’t Subside,” an article on sexual violence by Kosovo-Canadian lawyer Hana Marku. Marku wrote this piece in February 2019, as Kosovo and Albanian women were reeling with the contemporaneous revelation that in each country, an underage girl had been blackmailed and raped for months at a time. The perpetrators and collaborators included teachers, doctors, policemen, and boys as young as 13.
There had been so many revelations before, and dozens more since. But February 2019 still haunts me. There is something about the overwhelming extent of the institutional failures that enabled the perpetrators to inflict their violence unimpeded for months, exacerbated by the knowledge that so many of the rapists were teenage boys—children basically—that floors me. It made me feel truly, inescapably hopeless.
I return to Marku’s article because she speaks to the righteous anger in me. But also, because Marku is unapologetic and incisive in her assessment of how violence against women works. From the very first paragraphs, she makes it clear that male violence against women is not an afterthought. It is not an accident, it doesn’t really come from a lack of knowledge; it is not an unfortunate mistake. Violence against women is conscious and systemic, and it is upheld not only by the perpetrators themselves, but also by the silence and complicity of those who don’t care enough to hold the men in their life accountable.
I thought a lot about this article and the deliberate nature of rape as I read Shiori Ito’s Black Box, translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. In Black Box, Ito recounts her own rape and her attempt to find justice in the hostile labyrinth represented by the Japanese legal system. She does so with a level of clarity and empathy that reminds me of this double bind that survivors of sexual assault often find themselves in: be “too calm,” and people will say what happened to you couldn’t possibly be that bad. Or be “too emotional,” and you can’t be considered a reliable witness to your own experience.
In a book that is full of moments of pain, anger, and vulnerability, there is one particular line that stuck with me. Ito was raped by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a prominent media figure in Japan with ties to Prime Miner Shinzo Abe. Powerful and connected, Yamaguchi had promised to assist Ito’s budding career as an international journalist. Instead, he took her to dinner under false pretenses, possibly spiked her drink, and raped her while she was unconscious. Afterwards, Yamaguchi tells a hurt and bewildered Ito, “Before, you seemed like a strong, capable woman, but now you’re like a troubled child. It’s adorable.”
It’s one line, but it condenses an entire philosophy, if we may call misogynistic violence a “philosophy.” There is no doubt that sexual violence, and rape in particular, comes partly as a result of men feeling entitled to women’s bodies and to sex. But there is also this other aspect to it, the use of rape as a tool to put, or rather to keep, women “in their place.” American radical feminists, to whom we owe much of the language and framework that are used today to talk about rape and rape culture, produced a body of work that argued precisely this. That rape, and male-made political and legal institutions, are tools of patriarchal oppression that conspire to limit women’s freedom. As Susan Brownmiller controversially argued in Against Our Will, “[rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”
So much of Ito’s experience fits into this pattern. Not just Yamaguchi’s words and his behavior, but also the incessant legal hurdles that Ito faced in the aftermath. The lack of information at hospitals and even shelters, investigators not trained to help survivors, reenactments of the rape to establish the “facts,” and even the dismissal of the case and arrest warrant issued against Yamaguchi, most probably because of his connections and his reputation. Or, the fact that the Japanese legal system qualified what happened to Ito as “quasi-rape,” because she was unconscious during the act. An amalgamation of events and processes that amounted to a “second rape” according to Ito herself.
I called Black Box a memoir, but Ito intended it to be more than that. In tracing step by step her experiences with all these institutions, Ito shares the hope that this book would be useful to women going through the same thing, but also provide a roadmap to bring about institutional change. In this, Black Box reminds me of the writings produced by the women of the 1970s anti-rape movement. These activists organized consciousness raising groups and speak-outs, wrote anti-rape manuals, started ad hoc rape shelters, and lobbied to change laws. These were organized efforts to build solidarity with other women and to speak and write against the silence inflicted by male-made institutions and the narratives men construct to explain away the violence they perpetrate.
The urgency to write, or to tell your side of the story, in order to overcome the paralyzing effect of terror is also the focal point of Cristina Rivera Garza’s Grieving, translated by Sarah Booker. In this collection of essays, Rivera Garza traces the roots, consequences, and life in the aftermath of the Mexican “war on drugs” that swept the country from 2006. A war that according to Rivera Garza has done nothing but solidify the hold that cartels have over the government and communities across Mexico. A war that showed the government cared more about profit than its people.
This is a collection that blends the academic with the journalistic and the literary. It features poems that incorporate witness statements by mothers who have lost their children to the “narco state.” It sees Rivera Garza use Marx’s writings to analyze the relationship between labor and art, speak to taxi drivers, migrants, and anti-femicide activists—and talk about her own losses and experience with grief. Rivera Garza keeps each essay personal, reminding us that if grieving has an object it is never ourselves, but others. Thus, grieving is the consummate communal project. In reminding us of this, Rivera Garza makes of Grieving a manifesto against pretend objectivity, against the debilitating silence imposed by violence so horrific, it is meant to stun us into speechlessness and inaction.
“And where there is suffering, there is voice. Those who suffer have faced horror and come back. The language of pain allows those who suffer, those who acknowledge their suffering and share it with others, to articulate an inexpressible experience as an intrinsic criticism against the sources that made it possible in the first place.”
I think an echo of this “language of pain” that Rivera Garza speaks about can also be found in Selva Almada’s Dead Girls, translated by Annie McDermot. In this essay that doubles also as an investigation, Almada feverishly tries to solve three cold femicide cases that took place in Argentina in the 1980s: the murder of María Luisa, killed on her way to work; the case of Sarita Mundín who did not return from a trip with her married lover; and the smothering of Andrea Danne in her own bed.
Their stories, and even Almada’s own almost inexplicable pull to them, feel familiar. The passion for life, the need to feel loved and even desired, not just squandered by death, but made into the very reasons and justifications for taking a girl’s life. And as Almada investigates and writes, more stories of violence come to the surface. A deluge of other murders and rapes, alongside large and small acts of violence and harassment that are meant to curtail women’s lives and ambitions. And the common threads between these stories: that the men doing the hurting are usually friends, cousins, or husbands; a sense of shame that stifles dissent and helps violence thrive. And, of course, the financial constraints that force women into exploitative and unsafe arrangements, or even to accept alimony from their sister’s potential killer.
There are clear connections between the works of Ito, Rivera Garza, and Almada. Not just the existence of gender-based violence and the parallel structures that ensure the perpetrators remain largely unscathed. But also, this belief in the power of speech and expression. It is a tenet that has underpinned many a social movement, the need to seize control of the narrative, to speak about pain and violence as a measure of agency, control, and even redemption.
As I finish re-writing this, in Kosovo two men brutalized a young woman to death and left her lifeless body on the steps of a hospital, before running away. Albanian media describe it as a crime committed for “weak reasons.” I’m assuming that is just a new synonym for “crime of passion.” When I began these reviews last week, an Albanian man killed his wife before hanging himself. I have lost count of how many femicides that makes just this year alone. The point is: any given day or week, there are plenty of examples of violence against women to make these books, this problem, feel fresh.
I wish I had an easy conclusion to this piece, other than the fact that violence against women tends to follow an eerily similar script whether it happens in Japan, Argentina, or Albania. And women have been writing about their experiences and against silence for centuries. But I am also wary and conscious of the limits of speaking out. For all the solidarity it may inspire, the need to be “courageous” puts the burden on women to find a solution to a problem we did not create. And I am also aware of the numbing effect of reading about too much violence and pain; of how it shifts the narrative, often raising the bar for what is considered “bad enough.” Though I don’t think I will ever reach that threshold myself.
Barbara Halla is the Criticism Editor for Asymptote. She works as an editor and researcher, focusing in particular on the writings of contemporary and classic Albanian women authors. Barbara has also written about the cultural roots of sexual violence in Albania for Politikja, an Albanian academic journal, and is a contributing writer for the online feminist magazine Shota. She holds a BA in History from Harvard and has lived in Cambridge, Paris, and Tirana.