At the very beginning of 2013, Republicans are demonstrating they learned nothing from the defeats handed to them by their “War on Women” in 2012. The GOP-dominated House of Representatives, at the end of the abysmal 112th Congress, failed to reauthorize the comprehensive Violence Against Women Act..
Ask Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, for example, if continuing to attack the health and safety of women is a smart political move. Women’s activism on social media helped defeat those candidates, and drove the message that there is a “war on women.” This became a national narrative in 2012, leading to defeat of many of the most extreme anti-women candidates and positions.
But the callous disregard of women’s health and safety in letting the comprehensive version of VAWA die as legislation in early 2013 shows both how little the GOP has learned, either about politics or about how to deeply care for the lives and health of women.
That was a big mistake.
As soon at the 113th Congress convened Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that passing the VAWA was “an early priority for us.” It is “doable,” said Pelosi, and it is more than doable because of what has been learned about how to do movement building regarding the health and safety of women and girls through social media.
While in 2012 we learned how to deploy the power of social media to better expose the social supports of violence against women that hide or excuse this criminal activity, the fact is that such violence is ages old, and it has always been wrong. It has always been immoral to treat women as though their health and safety were not a primary ethical concern in a society, and it should always have been treated as a crime.
Tragically, it is only recently that violence against women has begun to be seen as a crime.
Phyllis Trible’s ground-breaking work, “Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives,” documents this point from a biblical perspective. Her chapter, “Tamar: The Royal Rape of Wisdom,” is especially relevant to the failure of the GOP to reauthorize the comprehensive VAWA.
According to Trible, the biblical narrative in 2nd Samuel that surrounds the rape of Tamar reveals a power struggle where women’s voicelessness and powerlessness in a society makes them vulnerable to male violence. Tamar is the voice of wisdom in this text, but ultimately it makes no difference. She is not heard. This is why the rape of Tamar is a text of terror.
In these verses, Trible points out, the “violence against Tamar discloses hatred” (p. 46) p. 47 (13:15) of women who are victimized. Those who blame the victim and not the perpetrator of violence against women are fools according to Tamar. (13:13b) Unfortunately, as Trible points out, in this biblical story, victory belongs to the fools.” (p. 46)
Tamar is speechless for first 11 verses of this biblical passage about her rape. Women, in the 21st century, will not be Tamar any more. Through social media they are finding effective ways not only to raise their voices, but also exact a political price for this moral callousness. Those who will not recognize that women’s health and safety should be priorities are shown not only to be ethically foolish, but they are shown to be more and more politically foolish.
What changed in 2012 was that women have realized how much power they can wield through social media to raise their collective voices and make substantive change.
The effective use of social media, along with, at times, non-violent direct action, is a global not just a national phenomenon. Tragically, violence against women is also a global phenomenon.
The brutal gang-rape on a moving bus in New Delhi of a 23-year-old medical student, who died on Dec. 29 from her injuries, has produced street protests that have riveted the world.
It is crucial to recognize, however, that the original outpouring of protests in India was online and that these online protests caught the government off guard.
Reema Ganguly, 44, who posted Facebook messages, photographs and videos from a protest in New Delhi, commented, “Facebook is not just about making friends. After the gang-rape incident, we aired our grievances, shared stories of our experiences of facing sexual violence daily in this city and signed petitions. Word spreads like wildfire on social media. Does the government even understand this anger?”
The Tamars of the world, whether in the United States or in India are no longer alone, and women and male allies will use the power of social media to expose the “fools” who help create a culture where violence against women is ignored, or even worse, tacitly approved. We will use social media to expose governments and politicians who fail in their primary responsibility to protect women and girls that are their citizens. We will use this power to give voice to women who wish only to live in peace and safety.
We will do this. I promise you.
Former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.