Women describe their rapes from behind black face scarves in videos on our site that documents sexualized violence in Syria. We have no photos of women whose faces aren’t covered. We have few photos of survivors of rape even with their faces covered. Sometimes these women hide themselves for religious reasons or for safety—for fear of retribution for speaking out—but oftentimes they cover themselves out of mortification. Rape has taken their cultural purity. And in Syria, the Middle East, and much of the world, women are supposed to hide behind the shame inflicted upon them.
In the year since we launched Women Under Siege, a project at the Women’s Media Center, I’ve struggled with how to illustrate our many stories about sexualized violence in conflict. We are a documentation project that believes in the power of the image—that it can call up emotion, invite empathy, make plain suffering that needs to be seen to be brought to an end. That women are forced to hide is why we exist. Stigma on top of rape is a crime upon a crime, and it is why we show and show and show in words and whatever images we can the horrors that will remain hidden if we don’t, with effort, put them into the light.
I’ve had photojournalists offer for publication photos and videos of rape survivors with their faces uncovered, seated on hospital beds in countries like Afghanistan, where there are multiple language and cultural barriers between a foreign journalist and local women.“Did this woman give you permission to take her image?” I always ask.
“Yes,” the journalist always says.
“But did she understand that this image might be going on the Internet on a New York-based website that has international reach? That the world will potentially see her face and understand that she has been raped?”
“No, no she didn’t,” is always the reply. How could she?
For the rest of this story, please click over to WITNESS.