In Israel Too, SlutWalks Expose the Culture of Rape

No one has the right to force sex on any woman under any circumstances. Awareness is improving among men, but not fast enough.

Noga Cohen
Noga Cohen
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Protesters taking part in the" SlutWalk" pass an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man (R) in Jerusalem May 29, 2015.
Protesters taking part in the" SlutWalk" pass an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man (R) in Jerusalem May 29, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Noga Cohen
Noga Cohen

A SlutWalk is set for Tel Aviv on Friday, following the one in Haifa in mid-June and in Jerusalem in May. A SlutWalk is a feminist demonstration where women and people with alternative gender identities march to protest the blaming of women for being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted.

This protest is necessary because, in both legal circles and in broader society, people justify sexual violence using claims about women’s sexual behavior (“seductive”), revealing clothing (“provocative”) or presence in the same space as the attacker (“what did she think would happen to her there?”). In other words, women are attacked because they behave like “sluts,” as the patriarchal thinking goes.

They’re the ones blamed, not the attackers. Hence the name SlutWalk, which is designed to reclaim the word “slut” as African-Americans have reclaimed slurs against them.

SlutWalks have become common around the world since 2011, after a Canadian policeman told students that women shouldn’t dress like sluts if they don’t want to be sexually assaulted. In Israel, where recent years have brought a slew of exposés on sexual violence, the discussion often focuses on the victim’s behavior – whether or not she behaved like a slut.

The April 2015 hearing on May Fattal comes to mind. She had been sexually harassed by Lt. Col. Liran Hajabi. Pictures of Fattal in a bathing suit were used to argue that she habitually displayed her femininity in an obvious way – in other words, she was a slut.

Then there was the case of suspected gang rape at a club on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street; the young woman was said to have taken part in such acts in the past. In other words, she was a slut.

In a world of gender equality, none of these claims justifies sexual assault, because no one has the right to force sex on any woman under any circumstances. And the slut tag, or even the hint of it, is used not only to justify sexual assault, but to police female sexuality.

In the Knesset last August, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg complained about gender-based contempt. She was promptly accused of failing to wear a respectable blouse, as if clothing had anything to do with human dignity. During the “X Factor Israel” finals in September, parents complained to the television watchdog that model Bar Refaeli had worn revealing clothing, as if clothing could be anything without structured cultural meaning.

For years Israeli high school girls have complained that they’re not allowed to come to school wearing shorts that “distract boys,” as if the problem were the girls’ bodies, not that boys from a young age are taught that these bodies are at their disposal. Girls and women are getting the message that revealing clothing turns them into sluts.

These examples are a drop in the ocean of the experience of women who cringe at shouts in the street, wonder how to behave so men won’t get the wrong idea, check in the mirror if their blouse isn’t too transparent, cower on the bus so as not to be touched “by mistake,” stay silent during off-color comments at work, fear their nude photos will be shared on social media, suppress memories of incidents because no one is listening anyway, forgo the police because there’s no help there anyway, blame themselves and teach their daughters to protect themselves against the wolves outside because there aren’t enough people to teach men not to rape.

In recent years, some of these women have dared to testify about sexual assault, and the discourse led by feminist women has sparked some social change. The main change is in behavior and norms. Things that were acceptable in the past are less so now, or at least there’s an awareness that they’re less acceptable. Unfortunately, institutional change is slower; for example, the anti-feminist behavior of Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich.

For some like Zohara Biton, who organized the Haifa SlutWalk, the event is a cri de coeur. But Mizrahi feminists aren’t the only ones criticizing SlutWalks; the American Susan Brownmiller, a mother of feminism, isn’t a fan either.

The disputes within feminism haven’t been resolved. But there’s no denying that the march’s political message – blame the attacker, not the victim, and expose the culture of rape – is relevant to all women. You can’t justify living in fear of the privileges awarded to others. It’s vital to join the SlutWalk and shout out this message. Each of us should be conveying it all the time everywhere.

Noga Cohen is a feminist activist, writer and blogger.

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