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Alessandra Negline

Unravelling the knot

By Alessandra Negline, Loreto Mandeville Hall


‘Five of them held her down and took turns raping and sodomising her. They spilled alcohol on her. They laughed. They said they’d kill her. She didn’t yet have breasts for the dogs to attack.’

Where do you think this might have happened? The back of a factory in a third-world country? The lair of a group like Boko Haram to one of their captives? Or even, a regular suburban home?

In fact, this happened in the past. To a girl, like me.

This was the reality for over 314,000 women incarcerated in concentration camps during WWII at the hands of Nazi SS soldiers.

In 2013 Myrna Goldenberg published a series of essays titled Different Horrors, Same Hell. Right from the title choice, Ms Goldenberg brings the conversation outside the typical Anne Frank and gas chamber narratives.

The essays revealed the rape and sexual harassment committed within the walls of Auschwitz and other camps. They not only highlighted how the misconception of a ‘universal’ Holocaust experience masked over these narratives, but also exposed severe impacts from these stories remaining untold.
It’s 2018. Decades after the war. There’s still more stories to fully uncover.

Would you be surprised to learn that women were the main victims of this gender violence? For majority here, probably not.

Even among my own generation who have inconceivable access to information, we aren’t aware of the missing narratives nor do we realise its significance.
But doesn’t that say something? That its stark prevalence in society has left people desensitized to violence against women? Or that this aspect of history has been left out because men weren’t the routine victims?

Gender violence in society today does not restrict itself to the last few years or decades. History raves with it. This isn’t widely acknowledged because such events have fallen out of the history books, creating partial stories.

But why has this happened? And why does this matter?

The Holocaust isn’t the only event where sexual violence was used and, sadly, remained unheard of.

Even in liberation, the Russians were seen as good guys fighting alongside the Allies to end the Nazi regime. But the rape of 100,000 German women in Berlin alone was left out of the narrative and banned from public knowledge for roughly 50 years.

Empires such as the Mongols, Romans, and many colonialists are remembered for their scope of conquering. But the sexual violence and demeanour of women used to assert masculine and ethnic superiority? Not much so.

In every case throughout history, most women were left defenceless. Their stories and pain never left their mouths for it to be documented. The taboo of female perspectives intertwines with the constructs of women to be submissive and subservient, moulding a toxic feedback loop of silenced female narratives. Over time, this created diverse reasons why survivors never speak out – especially when it matters most.

They span from cultural reasons such as ‘shanda’, a Jewish term meaning pity and shame, around talk of sexual violence and relations outside of marriage causing fear of ostracisation; to social reasons such as in, never being empowered, they couldn’t shed the guilt of surviving events many others died in. Therefore, to quote: ‘what right would a raped survivor have to complain?’

Some of you may be thinking: why would a schoolgirl care so much about something so long ago, to people she wouldn’t know?

As a young woman, I feel passionately about the need to find lost female narratives because it does far more than complete history. It holds much relevance in today’s world that is all about unravelling the unjust knots that tangle the rug of society. One of those broader knots is gender inequality. There is much activism out there striving to reach complete parity between the genders.

For example, the recent #MeToo movement, where millions of digitally connected women found the courage to speak about their sexual assault experiences, showing the world that they weren’t going to remain silent. The hashtag became an international icon of combing out notions fostering gender violence.
Despite receiving such significant attention, not enough political, social, and economic improvement has taken place since. This places MeToo at the risk of being just another viral sensation.

If a movement as compelling as MeToo can’t receive sufficient support, then there must be something intrinsic in our nature impeding change.
Through learning about forgotten female narratives, one can discover how ingrained gender violence is today. More so, how little that is acknowledged. It also shows that we’re unravelling a knot accumulated over millennia, meaning it requires more than just a simple restitch.

Unravelling this amassed knot is undeniably challenging. However, I believe that by linking historical contexts to contemporary issues like gender violence, we can make the detangling process easier and more comprehensive.

This connection can make movements like MeToo become much stronger, because we’ll come to realise that the issue runs deeper than feminist causes. Gender violence as a point in question affects far more than just women, it affects the whole society. This is proven by the recent justification by a man accused of vandalism of Eurydice Dixon’s memorial at Princes Park.

To quote that man: ‘The mainstream media is running a brainwashing program designed to make everyone think that males are bad.’ This was all a month shy of Eurydice’s tragic death, which jolted us out of the complacency that enough has been done to address the topic.

Responses like this show that due a lack of historical contexts that can explain the purposes of these movements, activism, as such, is often misinterpreted to be political rather than humane. This is wrong because its true essence seeks justice for inequalities that target specific groups.

Historical narratives can enforce that these movements are indeed the combs for the knot inhibiting equality. But it becomes impossible for it to be so when the histories are incomplete. Should we fail to have a complete narrative, we risk losing more lives to pointless arguments caused by a lack of understanding and context.

Author Beverly Chalmers once said: ‘At a Jewish literary award event, a woman came up to me. She pulled back her sleeve and showed me the number tattooed on her arm. Then she said, “I can die in comfort now. My story has been told”.’

Finding the naked truth of the past will unravel the knot and bring justice for today’s stories. Significant events cannot be a human story if only half it is told. A humane society cannot progress forward if we only know half of who we are.