• "We know the domestic violence statistics. We are aware that at some point sexual assault is going to happen, if not to us, then to someone close to us." (Public Domain)
When it comes to rape and racism, the problem with forgiveness, writes Ruby Hamad, is that it allows society to forget.
By
Ruby Hamad

13 Mar 2017 - 3:22 PM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2017 - 3:22 PM

There is no “right” way for people to recover from trauma. What works for some survivors may be disastrous for others, and the last thing they need is outsiders judging their behaviour as sufficiently victim-worthy.

This is what made me initially reticent to make any public comments about the recent media frenzy surrounding Thordis Elva, the rape survivor who co-wrote a book and is currently on a worldwide speaking tour with her rapist.

At some point, however, the entire circus stopped being about her journey and became another example of the the pressure society places on certain victims to incorporate “forgiveness” into their healing strategy.

Forgiveness is not a prerequisite for healing. A survivor who harbours resentment or anger or even loathing for the ones who harmed them is not morally defective, nor is it a reflection of whether they have adequately “dealt” with their abuse.

Nonetheless, the forgiveness narrative refuses to go away.

Forgiveness is not a prerequisite for healing. A survivor who harbours resentment or anger or even loathing for the ones who harmed them is not morally defective, nor is it a reflection of whether they have adequately “dealt” with their abuse.

Elva may indeed have needed to forgive Stranger in order to move on from what was a horrific two-hour ordeal that 18-year-old Stranger subjected her to when she was just 16. Maybe she even needed to write that book to recover.

Her decision to tour across the world and appear alongside a self-confessed rapist at women-centred festivals, however, means this is no longer about her and Stranger, but about all of us. And while she has stated she does not believe other women should necessarily follow her example, the book’s title, South of Forgiveness, and the nature of the media coverage suggest otherwise.

Stranger is being thrust onto our television screens, our social media feeds, and firmly into our consciousness, whether or not we choose to read their book or attend their talks. The more publicity they attract, the more the forgiveness narrative takes hold in our brains.

When Thordis Elva forgave her rapist, she broke a curse.

How to forgive a rapist and other stories.

An unlikely memoir of rape and forgiveness.

The more these headlines abounded, the more I felt the male violence enacted upon me throughout my life –sexual, physical, and emotional –  was being minimised. And the more unsettling I found it that a rapist who declared his intention was to “educate men” was speaking to audiences of mostly women.

I was not alone. Following the pair’s appearance at All About Women and on Q&A this month, my social media ignited with the righteous fury of women– rape survivors – who could not believe a rapist was occupying these spaces, given a platform to talk about “his journey”, as if what he learns from this “experience” is what matters.

I witnessed women forced to relive their trauma and then get saddled with another one to boot. This is when it became impossible to stay silent.

We count the number of women killed by their intimate partners. We know the domestic violence statistics. We are aware that at some point sexual assault is going to happen, if not to us, then to someone close to us.

Are the voices of men that much more valuable than women that we actually have to listen to a rapist speak about rape before we accept rape culture is a real problem?

It is not that society does not know, is that it has found sufficient reason not to care. What was she wearing? How much did she drink? Maybe she enjoyed it?

And now, why can’t she just forgive him and move on?

Are the voices of men that much more valuable than women that we actually have to listen to a rapist speak about rape before we accept rape culture is a real problem?

The problem with the forgiveness narrative is that is not about the wellbeing of the victims, it is about the comfort of society. This is why forgiveness is only expected of certain victims.

When young white man, Dylann Roof, was convicted of shooting dead nine black worshippers in a South Carolina church, the families left behind were able to cut through the cloud of grief enveloping them to muster sympathy for the very man responsible for their pain.

“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier who lost her mother to Roof’s gun. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you.”

It takes remarkable strength of character to forgive such violence. Not least because the remorseless Roof did not even ask for it. At the same time, another killer of innocents, in a city not too far away, was asking to be forgiven.

“I am sorry for the lives I have taken, for the suffering I have caused you, and for the terrible damage I have done,” said 21-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston marathon bombers.

His apology was not met favourably.

“A simple, believable apology would have been nice,” said one survivor. “But there was nothing sincere or believable in what he said.”

“I don't think it was genuine,” agreed another.

Why doesn’t it go both ways? Because the forgiveness narrative is not justice but power.

Again, these are entirely legitimate responses by people victimised by a killer. They should not be made to forgive and I certainly wouldn’t expect them to. But that is the entire point – no one did expect them to. What people did expect is what they always expect after a Muslim commits an act of violence, and that is for innocent Muslims take on Tsarnaev’s guilt and apologise for it.

Let me repeat that. When black people are victims of white killers, they are praised for forgiving. When white people are victims, not only is forgiveness off the table, but collective blame is the main course.

Why doesn’t it go both ways? Because the forgiveness narrative is not justice but power.

“White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is,” wrote Roxanne Gay on why she couldn’t forgive Roof,  “and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present”.

“What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatised community is absolution.”

In other words, black people forgive so that white people can forget.

The same can be said of society’s attitude towards female rape victims. The forgiveness narrative is a covert, but no less insidious, way of maintaining the status quo, of pretending rape culture, like racism, is not a problem of society but of a few bad individuals.

This serves to keep certain groups in their place, to remind us we are tolerated only as long as we behave in acceptable ways, and that means never getting angry, not even at the people who abuse and kill us. This is a trap designed to keep us circling in this endless loop of crime and injustice.

It’s time to tack back the power. As long as we keep forgiving, then nothing ever has to change. Roxanne Gay says she is done forgiving, and so am I. The forgiveness narrative is no substitute for freedom from male sexual violence, and racism.

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