Let me begin with my position: I have no opinion on the allegations regarding Julian Assange. I do believe rape is unconditionally wrong. But what we are talking about in the Assange case are allegations, with the associated presumption of innocence. This is further complicated, however, as rape allegations are so rarely taken seriously by the state.
It has been disconcerting of late, since the allegations against Julian Assange surfaced, to read the internet, listen to the radio, watch Democracy Now!.
In one corner of the ring we have people – often men – taking the iniquitous approach of publishing intimate details of these sexual misconduct allegations and attempting to dismantle them one by one through their own, unflawed, privileged logic: champions for the new poster boy of the Left. Evidently, this is not only reserved for men; Naomi Wolf has taken a similar, equally presumptive stance, as well as implying that she knows the intimate life of Julian Assange.
In the other corner are those baying for blood, clambering for some sense of justice for the billions of times women have been sexually violated. But here’s the thing I don’t get about this corner of the ring: what happens when Assange is extradited – for questioning, which is unheard of – what then? A victory for abused women, neatly delivered by the Swedish state, who has recently become a defender of women everywhere?
Since when has the state – any state – had the interests and protection of women at its capitalist heart? Why would any feminist continue to put their trust in the state and its current legal system after the way it neglects at best, abuses at worst, women?
It’s as though people no longer understand the role of the state. The state’s interest lies in perpetuating a system that is racist, sexist and homophobic; that breeds inequity, hostility, division and war; and though there are those who try to reform it – through campaigns for same-sex marriage or equal pay, for example – it’s ultimately a system that’s malevolent and mendacious, because it does not want or need equality for all.
Rape and sexual violence is a sensitive issue, understandably so. Rape conviction rates here in Australia, or in Sweden, the US, or somewhere like the Congo, with perhaps the highest rate of sexual and gender-based violence in the world, are for all intents and purposes, negligible, bordering on nonexistent. Anyone who is familiar with sexual violence knows that first you have to endure the act(s), then the aftermath. If you do turn to the law, you face multiple, endless interrogations, examinations and humiliations, all compounded by the ordeal of a trial. If you make it that far.
‘Let me say that again: nine out of ten times, when women report they have been raped,’ wrote the now notorious Michael Moore to the Swedish government, ‘you never even bother to start legal proceedings. No wonder that, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, it is now statistically more likely that someone in Sweden will be sexually assaulted than that they will be robbed.’
People are afraid of rape. People have been hurt by rape. But these charges against Assange are not about rape.
We should be focussing on the real issue here: the fact that an individual who hasn’t even been charged – but has humiliated and exposed world leaders, intelligence operatives and imperial misadventures across the globe – is going to be forcibly removed and flown to another country for questioning. You don’t need to be questioned or conferred with in order to be charged. (Lawyers, help me out here.)
If Sweden is really serious about justice for these women, surely they should just charge Assange. Extraditing someone to have a conversation is nothing short of bizarre. Why require a statement at all? It’s an individual’s right not to talk to police; that’s what the court is for, to determine whether allegations are true.
Mark Stephens, Assange’s lawyer is suspicious too. When interviewed on Al Jazeera he claimed:
We have heard from the Swedish authorities there has been a secretly empaneled grand jury in Alexandria [Virgina]… just over the river from Washington, DC, next to the Pentagon. They are currently investigating this, and indeed the Swedes we understand have said that if he [Assange] comes to Sweden, they will defer their interest in him to the Americans. Now that shows some level of collusion and embarrassment, so it does seem to me what we have here is nothing more than holding charges…so ultimately, they can get their mitts on him.
Even those who feel that Assange’s sentencing will be a win for women everywhere and change the tide of rape convictions forever must realise that Sweden intends to hold Assange until the US determines what they can charge him with.
The problem, as I see it, can be summarised like so:
1. Rape is a crime of capitalism. It’s about power and dominance, and capitalism takes people’s power away. It is systemic.
2. The state will do anything to hide its secrets – even using women as a political tool.
3. WikiLeaks has done outstanding work; this is separate to the individual behaviours of Julian Assange.
4. Just because you’re a woman, it doesn’t make you a feminist.
5. The state currently has no interest in protecting women’s rights.
6. We want a justice system that works for the people.
7. Women are being used, as usual, for political purposes.
About a fortnight ago, Katrin Axelsson, an activist for the UK’s Women Against Rape, wrote a response to the Assange allegations in the Guardian:
Many women in both Sweden and Britain will wonder at the unusual zeal with which Julian Assange is being pursued for rape allegations (Report, 8 December). Women in Sweden don’t fare better than we do in Britain when it comes to rape. Though Sweden has the highest per capita number of reported rapes in Europe and these have quadrupled in the last 20 years, conviction rates have decreased. On 23 April 2010 Carina Hägg and Nalin Pekgul (respectively MP and chairwoman of Social Democratic Women in Sweden) wrote in the Göteborgs-Posten that “up to 90% of all reported rapes never get to court. In 2006 six people were convicted of rape though almost 4,000 people were reported”. They endorsed Amnesty International’s call for an independent inquiry to examine the rape cases that had been closed and the quality of the original investigations.
Assange, who it seems has no criminal convictions, was refused bail in England despite sureties of more than £120,000. Yet bail following rape allegations is routine. For two years we have been supporting a woman who suffered rape and domestic violence from a man previously convicted after attempting to murder an ex-partner and her children – he was granted bail while police investigated.
There is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women’s safety. In the south of the US, the lynching of black men was often justified on grounds that they had raped or even looked at a white woman. Women don’t take kindly to our demand for safety being misused, while rape continues to be neglected at best or protected at worst.
The following day the Guardian published an opinion piece by a feminist dismissing Axelsson’s words as anti-women propaganda.
But this is ostensibly how the argument continues to be resolved: you’re either for feminism, and, as such, want Assange uncomplicatedly extradited, a win for women everywhere, or you’re pro-rape.
We need to refocus on the cables and what they contain. We must defend WikiLeaks and support their publishing of materials the state thinks are too dangerous for our eyes. Because even calls for Assange’s assassination pale in comparison to deeds these governments performed on our behalves, but on which we never got a vote.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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