The following are my comments, meant to serve as a prompt, to a group of 14 international scholars invited to Oxford University March 8-12 to discuss how we teach about rape as a weapon of war and genocide. We were convened by Drs. Carol Rittner and John Roth, both esteemed and prolific scholars of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
When I considered, for the purposes of this seminar, which histories and experiences, places and contexts of sexualized violence should be taught, my first thought was, “Perhaps teach what you know best.” But when I consider what I know best, which is DR Congo, I recognize that I have privileged one location, people, and violence over others. Sharing such pedagogical dilemmas with students, in my experience, provides a platform for briefly acknowledging other global contexts, the complexities of this topic, and limitations of the classroom. Adding to this an admission of my fallibility as an instructor provides an opportunity to position myself relative to the students and communicate my expectation for bi-directional learning. I can then problematize my understanding of sexualized violence as an advantaged, white, “outsider” to the experience and the country. Modeling this reflexivity and critical humility seems to earn students’ trust and helps shape positive classroom dynamics and individual receptiveness to difficult subject matter.
Before launching into the realities of the DR Congo, I first try to meet students “where they are” by asking them how sexualized violence, real or feared, has shaped their lives. I ask students, for example, how they navigate physical spaces. Do they avoid walking alone after dark to their apartments or cars? Are there safe and unsafe places they occupy or travel through in the community? How does skin tone or sexual orientation or gender or other social classifications and markers make them more or less accepted or safe in these spaces? This is an opportunity to remind students of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979) and its utility for helping us understand the complexities of human phenomena by considering micro- to macro-level factors. At this micro-level, I might also consider the place and context of “the body” as the physical location for violence, instead of nation, for example, and pose, “Why are women’s and men’s bodies the targets of sexual assault in the US military? Why are women’s bodies the battlefield in DR Congo?”
As someone who studies human development, I am also inclined to think about stages of maturity and cognition of those we teach and what child development can tell us about 18-year-olds and what we can expect of them at this point in their young lives. As a feminist, I also think critically about individual development in a neoliberal societal and university context and wonder how this has shaped students’ attitudes toward learning. If I teach about sexualized violence, will I encounter resistance? What’s at the source of individual openness or rigidity to these gendered issues?
At the macro-level, I contextualize Congo by considering its historical context and drawing parallels between this and what’s happening in our own backyard with sexualized violence in the US military or against Native American women living on reservations. By bringing it home, I can better avoid misconstruing atrocity as something that only happens “over there” and perpetuating the stereotype of a “dark continent.” When considering which histories and experiences, places and contexts, I must also problematize conceptualizations such as “rape as a weapon of war,” and include discussion of conflicts when rape was not present. In my own teaching, I need to better connect the dots between global warming, sexualized violence, and the battle for natural resources – think firewood, conflict minerals, and water. We should probably all prioritize climate change in our work for obvious reasons.
I feel as if I’m just fantasizing now about the ideal teaching scenario but let’s keep going…..so in the spirit of Chandra Mohanty (2006), Patricia Hill Collins (1990), and Naomi Klein (2007), in the future I will include questions about sexualized violence that draw links to neoliberalism, matrices of oppression, the re-creation of empire and disaster capitalism. More than a fantasy, how about we, those of us seated around this seminar table, start asking the most radical of questions which subvert, resist, and disrupt the discourse on genocide and rape?
My version of feminism and feminist pedagogy requires an ethic of care, reflexivity, and critical humility both in and out of the classroom. When considering which histories, experiences, places and contexts of sexualized violence to teach, it will always be part of a larger anti-genocide and human rights project ultimately framed by 2 words: “Never again.”