*Content warning: sexual violence.
It is apt that this week’s Torah portion, Parsha Vayishlach, should so often coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November) and the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (25 November – 10 December).
In recounting each week’s Torah portion, the stories of our forebears, we have the opportunity to reflect on and consider their meaning for our lives today – and Vayishlach in particular is devastatingly timeless.
In this parsha, Dinah – the daughter of Jacob and Leah – is abducted and raped.
Dinah’s story is the only explicit account of sexual abuse recorded in the Torah: “Shechem… saw her; and he abducted her, lay with her and afflicted her” (Genesis 34:1-2).
Some commentaries consider whether Dinah’s ‘encounter’ with Shechem was consensual; perhaps she seduced him? Others cite her outgoing nature – “(she) went out to visit the daughters of the land” – as a contributing factor in her rape.
These ponderings of a victim’s role in her own assault – if it indeed constitutes a “real” assault, the bar for which is too often set impossibly high – are eerily familiar today:
What was she wearing?
Had she been drinking?
Did she provoke him?
What was she doing out so late?
What did she think would happen?
Why didn’t she scream?
She was asking for it.
Dinah did not scream when she was abducted; in fact, she is entirely silent in this story. Not once do we hear her voice – and her silence echoes that of so many other victim-survivors.
Speaking out about rape or gender-based violence is enormously difficult. We see too often the cruel price that is paid by those who do: the Brittany Higgins and Grace Tames of the world, raked over the coals in courts of both law and public opinion. It is no wonder that many women never disclose.
Many victim-survivors have been effectively gagged by laws that prohibit revealing their identity – ostensibly intended to support their privacy, but in reality forcing their silence, with many having to fight for their voices and stories to be heard.
It also fuels the well-trodden myth, still hauled out in court and media today, that for a victim, anything other than active resistance implies tacit consent:
If she really didn’t want it then she would have fought harder.
If the violence is so bad, why doesn’t she just leave?
So often we scrutinise the woman’s actions: examining them from every angle to be sure she is the ‘perfect’ victim, entirely innocent of any role in her own assault. Such analysis of the perpetrator’s wrongdoing is conspicuously absent. We often hear why doesn’t she leave? – but we rarely hear why doesn’t he stop?
Like so many, Dinah’s perpetrator, Shechem, was a person of influence: a man of power, the namesake of the town. Perhaps today Shechem would appear in a newspaper headline: a “good bloke” who “snapped”; a “crime of passion” or a victim of the family court.
Dinah is eventually rescued by her brothers, who in turn slaughter Shechem and the men of the town. Justice meted out in the form of more male violence. They argue that they did this to protect the honour of their sister; but whose honour was really being upheld? Dinah’s entire story is told through the eyes of men. Her rape is their dishonour: “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?” Again such sentiments are familiar today, in the many communities where a woman’s (so-called) honour is a reflection on her family, particularly her father and brothers; a relic of women’s historic status as the property – metaphorical or actual – of her male relations.
Violence against women is a major public health and human rights issue, both in Australia and around the world. No community is immune, however tempting it may be to think so – and despite the frequent depiction of violence against women as entertainment in film and TV, meaningful conversations about the real-life impacts of gender-based violence are notoriously rare.
When it comes to violence against women, the words we use matter. Not only the ones we use when we talk about violence, falling victim to discursive strategies that minimise or obscure, or place blame where it does not belong; but the words we use in influencing others: to create a narrative in our community that supports both the prevention of violence and the safety, wellbeing and strength of those who experience it.
The 16 Days – and Parsha Vayishlach in particular – represent an ideal opportunity to talk about gender, respect, equality and the role we can play in helping to end violence.
Jewish Care is pleased to share a new conversation kit, including reflection questions and shareable social media tiles, developed especially in support of Parsha Vayishlach and the 16 Days. We hope it inspires a conversation at your Shabbat table this week – or in your classroom, on social media, or with your friends, colleagues or children. Visit https://www.jewishcare.org.au/icms_docs/328961_16-days-of-activism-parsha-vayishlach.pdf to download your copy.
Let Dinah’s story be a lesson to us all – but not the typical “cautionary tale” of a woman walking alone at night, meeting her deserved or inevitable fate for daring to exist in the world; but rather a reminder of the very real impacts of the words we use when we talk about violence against women: the impacts on those who hear them, and our power to use them for good.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, please reach out.
Jewish Care – 8517 5999
South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault – 1800 806 292
1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732
Safe Steps – 1800 015 188
With Respect – 1800 542 847