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Legal Issues in Legacy of Rape

December 10, 2015


by Rowan Hepps Keeney and Ayah Tahrah Eldosougi; Students of English W3775 Narrating Rape: Gender, Testimony & Violence

"To see something in the form of an image is an invitation to observe, to learn, to attend to. Photographs can’t do the moral or the intellectual work for us. But they can start us on our way.”

Upon entering the 7th floor of Schermerhorn extension, stair climbers are confronted with a warning announcement. From Dec.1st through 15th this corridor has become home to the Legacy of Rape, “a moving series of first hand accounts from women who have survived sexual violence during times of armed conflict.”  Put on display by the joint efforts of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS) and PROOF: Media for Social Justice, the exhibit runs the length of the hall the IRWGS Institute shares with the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS). Greeting elevator goers, at the center of the hall, stands the exhibit's name piece, complete with a mission statement and haunting image of a survivor's outstretched hand. Flanking the title piece to the right and left are displays complete with the photographs of survivors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal, their faces absent from the photographs, as well as more traditional portraits of survivors from both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Colombia. Alongside these images are personal testimonies provided by the women photographed. 

A discussion of the exhibit and similar projects was presented as a part of an accompanying panel entitled, Art, Law and Social Justice. Speakers included Leora Kahn, founder and Executive Director of PROOF, Patricia Cronin, the artist behind  the Venice Biennale installation Shrine for Girls and New School Professor Anna Di Lellio who presented her work, Thinking of You. IRWGS Professor Marianne Hirsch moderated the conversation, which ended with an analysis of The Legacy of Rape by Columbia Law School Professor Katherine Franke. Franke turned an analytic eye on the exhibit, drawing parallels to law and asking probing questions on the role of the exhibit for its viewers.

Speaking as a professor of law, Franke commented on the relationship between testimonies of sexual assault in legal settings, such as courts, and the testimonies within the  exhibit of photographs and testimonies. According to Franke, the “undoing” that is enacted upon the body in cases of rape and sexual assault is so visceral and raw that attempting to verbally convey such an experience, in a court of law, not only further detriments the survivor, but infringes on the legitimacy of the legal system. In her book Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self, Susan Brison discusses a similar dynamic, in which she was forced to recall the details of her assault so many times in exactly the same manner that she became so distant from her own experience that she could no longer recall which of the details were her own memories and which were shaped through regurgitation. She states that “my story was shaped by what the listener needed to know most urgently… the point was not, exactly, to get the truth unless ‘truth’ is defined purely instrumentally as that which will help accomplish a goal, in this case, the goal of getting the suspect convicted” (Brison, 106-107). Franke identifies the testimonies of the Legacy of Rape exhibit as of a similar regurgitative vain. Assuming the validity of Brison and Franke’s arguments, do exhibits such as the Legacy of Rape or even testimonies in a court of law distance both the survivor, as well as the viewer, from the gruesome details, or even the reality of such traumatic events? What is the exhibit asking from the viewer? 

Franke does not distinguish between the narrative excerpts in the Legacy of Rape exhibit and those that are recounted in court; to her, they both function as dissociations from the actual event. According to Brison, however, testimonies can help grant survivors subjectivity. She states that, “...just as one can be reduced to an object through torture, one can become a human subject again through telling one’s narrative to caring others who are able to listen” (Brison, 57). One could argue that the testimonies in the Legacy of Rape exhibit offer such an avenue, though one may ask then, what are the limitations of creating subjecthood out of narratives? Must the narratives be told verbally? Must they be told directly and personally, or can a second party quote and then distribute said narratives to a more universal audience? What is the difference between these types of testimonies and those told in courts? Does the intent and purpose of a legal system inherently disassociate and, in some ways, simplify these narratives? 

Both the exhibit and the panel grappled with the difficulty of representation and self-consciously took up the task of questioning how to present the testimony of others without appropriating their narratives or re-victimizing the victim. Yet, the issue of identity and the clear racial delineation of those heard (particularly considering the panel conversation) versus those who were merely seen, was not a point of focus. Franke drew a parallel between photographs in the exhibit that displayed women with their backs to the camera and similar work of African American artist Lorna Simpson, who implicated herself in her photography of African American women. Concerning Simpson’s work, Franke said, “The act of looking was informed by the identity of the artist and the work. Not so with The Legacy of Rape where the photographers’ identity is a marginal fact about the exhibit,” then asking, “Or is it?” Similarly, we can ask the same question concerning the identities of the speakers in relation to the identities of the photographed subjects. In her remarks, Franke discussed the unspeakability of rape and the use of testimony as a tool of law and politics. Does the erasure of identity politics, beyond that of gender solidarity, within both the Legacy of Rape and Art, Law and Social Justice, perpetuate the use of testimony as a political tool? In an effort to give voice to the unspeakable, have the victims of sexual violence also been made victims of political violence?

Narratives of sexual assault survivors deserve and demand to be spoken and heard in order to stop the ubiquitous silencing of such experiences. The Legacy of Rape exhibit certainly takes steps forward to speak about these dynamics, though there is also a presence of controversy around the best platform to do so. There will always be difficulties in the representation of such complex and politically charged issues, particularly in the forums of law and exhibition. It is crucial that in expressing the testimonies of survivors, artists, activists and legal representatives are careful to “not speak, for other survivors of trauma in order to speak with them” (Brison, 30). The Legacy of Rape, as is evident by Franke’s points, tows the line between the two. While art, activism and law seemingly reside within separate realms, Franke’s commentary demonstrates the ways in which these fields converge when called upon to make speakable that which is not, and do justice to rape.