I wish she had told me her story. I wish I could retell it. But it’s no longer possible. What remains is only an untold trauma that was greater than trust, that couldn’t break through all the love, that was incommunicable. And final.
This is why every “Why did she wait till now?” or “Why did she keep silent” puts a finger in my wound, deepening it and dredging through space and time, yet unable to bring about any words. However, even though so many courageous women — supported by each other — decided to speak out about the sexual violence and rape they’ve experienced, there’s little space for silence and it’s the survivors who are solely entitled to it.
When the wall of silence falls
Earlier this year, in mid-January, one of the survivors decided to break the silence.
Belgrade-based actress Milena Radulović reported her former acting teacher Miroslav Mika Aleksić for rape that — according to her — had taken place on several different occasions nine years ago. Back then, Milena was a 17-year-old attending the “Stvar srca” [“Matter of the Heart”] acting school run by this — tentatively speaking — educator.
His school has given rise to a constellation of the most excellent Serbian actors, but at what cost? Milena’s accusations were subsequently joined by a few other former students of Aleksić’s, with their reports setting off both a scary and extraordinary domino effect throughout post-Yugoslav countries.
Women are now sharing their experiences across various regional platforms. For the first time, many of them are coming forward about different forms of sexual harassment and abuse they were or still are subject to, about the anguish of experiencing and the anguish of concealing; about the guilt and self-recrimination; and the shame trapped inside the mind and the body, unable to find its way toward words and actions.
These testimonies include those of a number of women from Montenegro. As of January 28, a local university department has launched the first ever initiative aimed at encouraging and supporting female students to report sexual harassment or abuse committed by teachers.
So, is it any clearer now “why they kept silent” and “why did they wait till now?”
Their silence has never meant there’s no violence, since testimonies have always been around. It has never said anything about the women of Montenegro. Rather, it has exclusively spoken about their surroundings. About the support they have and the trust they can count on.
It speaks about the evaporated myth of humanity that is unconcerned with “someone else’s dinner” [referring to an old Montenegrin saying: “A girl is someone else’s dinner”]. Ultimately, it tells us about the society that is more eager to question the motives behind reports than believe the rape survivor. About a society that can pity a woman, but can’t trust or support her. Such is the society that we raise our daughters in.
This is the reason why I believe there can never be too many pieces on rape and why their sound and fury — as a kind of literacy effort targeted at emotional illiterates and ever vigilant defenders of violators — ought to finally break the abysmally heavy, toxic silence so far protecting only rapists and abusers.
The ghastly silence absolved of responsibility
Turns out, higher education institutions in the region are rife with these people, which is what former and current students are talking about. It also turns out that normative acts in some of these institutions shift the responsibility for harassment and abuse onto the victim or make it “shared,” such as the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Law; its “Rules of Procedure” — available at the official website of the faculty until a few days ago — stipulates that both staff and students should wear the types of clothes that “ cannot serve as a motive or excuse for sexual harassment.”
In the institution where more than 150 generations of lawyers have been schooled, where those who legally represent us or will be legally representing us in various cases of sexual abuse or harassment, for example, have pursued education, “indecent and inappropriate” garments are considered a motive for sexual harassment. The very same institution — only days after the Centre for Women’s Studies published the screenshot of the Rules on Facebook — removes the entire document from its official site without any notice.
It’s just another part of the ghastly silence absolved of responsibility for complicity in forming and normalizing the culture of violence and fear we live in.
“In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear,” says Audre Lorde, who wrote so marvelously of silence and fear as well as them being inextricably intertwined. “Death, on the other hand, is the final silence (…) I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”
We can’t know for sure how big the tip and how massive the bottom of the iceberg is when it comes to the “gloomy figures” — unreported rape cases, that is. Underneath the tip of that iceberg lies a vast, silent army of the pained, traumatized, ashamed and murdered women whose stories no one can hear now.
Let us then listen to those women who still have a voice. Let’s hear what they are saying: What universities we’ve graduated from, what companies we’ve worked at, what families we’ve been raised in. Let’s hear how long they were silent because they thought it was the only way to survive. Let’s hear now that they’re thundering, as there has been way too much silence.
Thunder on, sisters, for we’ve had enough of their greasy hands on our bodies. Thunder on, sisters, for we didn’t ask for it.
Thunder on, sisters, for you’re not alone.
Feature image: #nisamtrazila and K2.0.