I’ve been struggling with questions about the human condition for a few days now, mostly at a safe distance, through books, online articles, and TV/film. But this examination became closer due to the reactions to the story about the only rape centre in Lagos.
For someone who is anxious about the goodness of the human heart, the swiftness with which people responded and raised funds for Mirabel Centre is easy to point to as a case for our goodness. After all, to love is to give. But this does not erase the fact that people had to give to alleviate the pains of the victims of one of the worst forms of human depravity: rape.
If you’re in Nigeria donate to Partnership for Justice. Acc no: 0001462896, Standard Chartered Bank, Ikeja. #SaveMirabel
— Imperator Nigeriosa (@larimah) September 9, 2015
Stories of oppression and evil against fellow humans often feel alien to me. I was raised in a bubble of love and respect for other people and their stories. (My father once punished me for calling my brother a monkey.) So, when I see people talk about these things, my default reaction is to listen. This is what I was taught to do: only speak boldly about things I have heard or seen. It is at the centre of the kind of Christian faith through which I was raised: one can only talk to other people about the faith after one has truly experienced what it means to believe. How can they believe if they’ve not heard. I was raised to withhold judgement because people have stories that exist beyond the limits of my experience and imagination.
This act of listening to people tell their stories without trying to second-guess them, or fact-check their pain, has been made to appear like an act of radical goodness. But it is not. On Twitter, where I spend a lot of my online hours, whenever a group of people with voices hitherto repressed start to share their stories, there’s often an army of people eager to parrot their objections. Usually, these folks think they’re engaging in a display of sound reasoning. But, really, they are just expressing the hatred in their hearts.
One of the first things we learn in love is that it is largely made up of being a witness to another’s existence. It is to be there, listening, watching, as another human goes through motions of mundane life, without feeling the urge to judge every action, every intent. Those who find it difficult to listen to people tell their stories without raising objections are not just saying, I disagree with you. It appears to me like they are saying, I do not know how to love you.
I know it is problematic to make the kind of assertions I have made above, largely because love is a messy, hard-to-tame hard-to-understand phenomenom. But that is how it appears to me, this moment, as I see people on Twitter raise objections about rape stories.
When I read stories of systemic oppression, one of the things that stay constant, no matter the context, is that the oppressors always strive to make the oppressed voiceless. There is nothing as maddening and emasculating as knowing that whatever you say is going to be second-guessed and assumed to be false by default.
I, however, now realise that my silence, which once looked like a radical act of goodness, is also a sign of complicity. It is okay to hold the tongue when one is ignorant, but once knowledge is gained and evil identified, to stay silent is to take sides with evil.
Rape is evil. One would imagine that goes without saying, but, daily, it appears as if we humans are not agreed on that fact. That is what our collective rhetoric shows, via victim shaming, rape jokes, and excuses for the lack of control of men. We continue to claim, in spite of the body of evidence, that rape is the exclusive preserve of weak men. Lies. Weak and strong men rape. Heroes and villains rape. Religious and non-religious men rape. Young and old men rape. Men and women rape. The victims are never to blame. There’s no excuse for the perperators. To argue otherwise is to take sides with evil.
The next time you are privileged to hear someone share their rape story—for it’s a privilege to have someone bare their nakedness and let you see their scars—ask yourself why your first response is to negate their story. Ask yourself why you’re so eager to show your hatred. And, if you think you don’t hate them, shut your mouth, open your heart, and listen. It’s the least you can do.
Featured image is by Logor Olumuyiwa Adeyemi part of the report on Al Jazeera: A Day in The Life of Lagos’ Only Rape Support Centre, by Wana Udobang. You can still donate to save the Mirabel Centre via gofundme.