Male violence against women on campus

Insights for today’s universities from the story of Tamar

The #MeToo campaign saw women from across nations and ages voicing the abuse they have gone through. Women on college campuses were not exempt. Different forms of sexual abuse and violence occur among young people on campus, mostly committed by males against females, and sometimes against other males. The examples are many — for instance, Brock Turner in the United States, who sexually assaulted a semi-conscious woman,[1] and M. Akash in Chennai, India, who stalked his class-mate for years before finally setting her ablaze.[2]

In Indian campuses, men students in groups frequently indulge in ‘Eve-teasing’, commenting on the women passing, an activity some protest is harmless, but which reflects the same attitudes that lead to physical or sexual violence. Many women report inappropriate touch by the men in their colleges. This often happens at parties, or at events such as Holi, North India’s spring festival celebrated with gaiety and colour. Unfortunately, the underbelly of all the fun and frolic is the frequent sexual violence women students go through at these events. Faculty members also sometimes become harassers, touching them inappropriately and making demands on their women students. Abuse and physical violence by boyfriends is an issue here as elsewhere, the stated reason often being that the men feel ‘disrespected’, or ‘disobeyed’. The violence can also escalate into rape, brutal gang-rapes, murder, burning, or disfigurement by throwing acid. Violence by the state is also not uncommon. Female students of Banaras Hindu University in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India were recently caned by the police. They had been called to ‘control’ the women’s protests. Ironically, the protests were being held to demand an end to violence on campus, better street lighting and safety measures.[3]

Understanding men, women, and violence: the story of Tamar

This story from 2 Samuel 13 is not a comfortable story. If we read it through, we can understand how and why some societies both generate and function on attitudes to men and women that predispose people, especially men, to violence and sexism.

1 … David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her. 2 Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. 3 But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. 4 He said to him, “O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?” Amnon said to him, “I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.” 5 Jonadab said to him, “Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, ‘Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.’” 6 So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, “Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.”

7 Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, “Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.” 8 So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. 9 Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, “Send out everyone from me.” So everyone went out from him. 10 Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand.” So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. 11 But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” 12 She answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! 13 As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.” 14 But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

15 Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, “Get out!” 16 But she said to him, “No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. 17 He called the young man who served him and said, “Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her.” 18 (Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her. 19 But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went.

20 Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.” So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house. 21 When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry[4]. 22 But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar. (NRSV)

The whole episode happens in an atmosphere which is patriarchal — males and the male line claim public and private space and power. The women are adjuncts to the male story. 2 Samuel is about David, and Tamar’s story is important only in explaining David’s interactions with his sons, and heirs. Tamar is not even called the daughter of David, and her mother, Maacah, princess of Geshur, is not named. She is noted to be ‘the beautiful sister of Absalom’, a point that is vital to the story. If she was a slave girl raped by Amnon, her story would perhaps never have been told. Patriarchal societies have a way of silencing the stories of women, except as they relate to men. Stop and think: how many stories or films focus on the stories of women? How many women have been assaulted in your own campus, and may not talk openly about it, but perhaps shared a #MeToo that surprised you?

The people involved in the story have imbibed many of the same patriarchal attitudes. It is permitted that the woman should bear the disgrace of one man’s disgraceful behaviour, while all the men — the rapist, the rapist’s friend, the rapist’s servants, the king, society, and even the protector-brother — conspire together to maintain a silence about it and let him off.

Consider Amnon, the rapist prince and brother. He internally normalised and excused his lust for Tamar, encouraged by his friend. He ignored her possible feelings and probable refusal and felt entitled to claim her and rape her, the sense of entitlement being strong enough to overcome any brotherly feelings, social inhibitions, or filial dutifulness as crown prince. He probably realised the enormity of his crime after the rape was over when it was too late. As many have done before and after him, he turned his disgust, hate, and blame on her, ‘this woman’, the seductress he no longer cared to name, and got her thrown out. This is reminiscent of so many sexual harassment cases in today’s world. Film-maker Alfred Hitchcock was revealed to have sexually assaulted actress Tippi Hedren and when she rebuffed him, threatened to ruin her career. After this, he would call her only ‘the girl’.

Jonadab, David’s nephew, was the archetypal wing-man who encouraged Amnon not to play the haggard lover but suggested plans to achieve the goal of bedding Tamar. He, too, legitimised male desire while ignoring the woman’s possible response and feelings completely. A truer friend and adviser would perhaps have pointed out what Tamar does, later: such a wicked, foolish thing should never have been done in Israel. Jonadab, here and in his later talk with David, appears to be an ingratiating hanger-on, willing to overlook anything for his own advantage. This enabling is seen all too often still, in campuses, where jilted lovers have friends who egg them on to violence, or in the many men and women who consciously or unconsciously enabled people like Harvey Weinstein or Indian environmental big-wig R K Pachauri to harass a series of vulnerable young women, college interns, and rising stars.

Most disappointing, perhaps, is the part played by David himself, the powerful king, the man who otherwise loved and tried to please God. He loved Amnon, his first-born. When Amnon requested that Tamar come to cook for him, David immediately sent for her. When he came to know about the rape, he was furious but did nothing. He did not punish or rebuke Amnon in any way for his deception, his crime, his cruelty. He did not provide any justice or a hearing to his daughter, left desolate in Absalom’s house. David wanted to avoid the scandal of the heir to the throne being exposed as a rapist. Perhaps silence also benefitted David, as a public sexual scandal would have re-opened his own old sexual sins. How many professors, deans, hostel wardens and others in authority on campus keep silent about sexual abuse and let abusers go scot-free so that the institution, their guilty friends, or they themselves are not exposed?

Absalom is angry, but it is interesting that he, too, enjoins silence. The rapist is their brother, and the family should not be disgraced, so he temporarily joins the ranks of those protecting the rapist. Absalom is angry, yes, but it appears to be less about Tamar, and more about the insult to his own honour: that he, Tamar’s brother and protector, was unable to stop the rape. Absalom hates Amnon for what he did, not to an innocent woman, but to his sister. In other words, for Absalom, this is actually a male issue. He does not really want to participate in Tamar’s feelings. Do we react the same way to the women in our care? Are we more upset about the blow to our pride, or family honour, or institution, and not to the suffering of the victim? Do we cover up and try to handle things on our own, to save the institution?

The unnamed young man, Amnon’s servant, was also complicit in the injustice. He obviously did not have much power, and had no scope to express his humanity, his agreement or disagreement with the crime committed. He did not question or protest the decree of the king’s son. He may have felt, but demonstrated no compassion for the wronged woman, but did as he was bid: ‘the woman’ was cast out. The servant held his tongue and faded out of sight. So many in the campus are similar by-standers. They see, they do their part in the cover-up, and they refuse to be named or speak up.

What about Tamar herself? Tamar would probably have loved and looked up to Amnon as the eldest brother of the family. When Amnon asked her to sleep with him, she instantly rejected the notion, and perhaps in a desperate bid to save herself, tried to make him think that their father would allow their marriage. She tried to resist physically too, the record says, but failed to prevent Amnon from raping her. When he turned from ‘love’ to hate and told her to get out, she once again was wiser. She told him that getting her thrown out, pretending the rape didn’t happen, would only compound the harm he had already done to her. Once again, Amnon in his princely male arrogance did not listen to her, and in cowardly fashion, got his servant to put her outside.

Tamar did not keep quiet or do the ‘walk of shame’. Rather she tore her robes, put ashes on her head, and wailed loudly as she walked away, announcing to anyone who cared to listen that her virginity and honour had been violated without consent.

She made it public, and she made a noise. No one cared to listen. Her public protest was ignored. No one dared intervene. Her father was furious but let her down. He said nothing either to her or to his loved heir, Amnon. Her own brother asked her to abate her protests and let it be. Quite likely Tamar’s desolation was caused by the neglect of her cry for justice.

What does Tamar’s story tell us about male violence towards women?

All the men are involved in the hierarchy and power structure, and it suits them to keep it in place. David is king, Amnon prince, Absalom the second-in-line, Jonadab kow-tows to the ones in power, and the servant is unnamed in a lowly place in the hierarchy. They have a vested interest in preserving it, and Tamar the woman has little place or power in it. When she is violated and silenced, she has no options or method of protest. This unfortunately still holds true. Power structures in today’s universities and other spaces are still patriarchal, dominated by men (and sometimes a few women) imbued with patriarchal ideas, and victimised women are often powerless. Few universities would have strong, independent women in governance or in equal numbers on staff who would call out victim-shaming or silencing. Rules and methods disempower women. The police and judicial systems often do the same. In some places, women students may outnumber the male, but the power balance still lies unequally on the male side, both systemically and in personal relationships.

The Old Testament men involved accepted fulfilment of male desire without female consent as male entitlement (Amnon), as normal (Jonadab and the servant), as inappropriate but trivial (David, by his actions of ignoring it despite some anger), or as wrong in as much as it violated their own honour (Absalom). This stemmed from the same patriarchal idea of male privilege which still exists and which belittles and ignores today’s woman’s ‘no’ just as Amnon ignored Tamar’s ‘no’. Men and boys are rarely trained in responsible sexual behaviour, including the vital area of ensuring there is mutual consent for sex, whether one is at college or at home, whether the couple is meeting at a chance encounter, or in a relationship, or even in a marriage. Every human being has the right to refuse, and that should be respected.

The consequence is to blame the woman for male violence as Amnon tries to blame Tamar. Even women reared with these patriarchal ideas react to sexual harassment by asking what the woman wore, how much she drank, why she was out late. The woman being there is seen as her contribution to the situation — almost a tacit consent. Further expressed consent by the woman is not seen as necessary. A Christian I know once commented that Tamar should not have gone to Amnon’s room, implying that her going there was as good as ‘asking for it’. Women who drink or go out to the Holi celebrations in college, similarly, are in many people’s opinions asking for it. Male desire is normalised and male responsibility for their immoral actions is ignored.

Male violence against women is silenced, marginalised, and neutralised. If men violate women in some way, other men (and sometimes also other women) still get together to silence the woman’s protests. Even if the deed was morally reprehensible, whether an incident of rape or physical violence by a boyfriend or the police, there is a general agreement that there is no need and no point in making it public. Keep quiet, the women are still told, like Tamar. He is after all your boyfriend or teacher or friend. He is powerful. What can you do? Why make a scene? Don’t take this thing to heart.

An interesting way in which male privilege unconsciously plays out and the issue is marginalised and neutralised is the way rapes or sexual harassment are often reported. The male gender is rarely called out for the violence. ‘A woman was raped’ is the headline, rather than ‘A man — or group of men — raped a woman’. ‘Violence against women’ is the heading not ‘Male violence against women’. Sometimes, this results in absurd situations like the article on rape or harassment appearing in ‘Her corner’ or ‘women’s page’ or ‘CT women’. The effect is to tell women once again that it is their problem, their task to avoid harassment and rape. The effect on men is to distance them from the issue. Men do not have to read about it and do not internalise it or see it as their problem. They are let off the hook, yet again.

All agree the incident should be forgotten. In a very revealing act, Amnon’s rage turns on Tamar, and he wants to get rid of her, wanting no reminder of the event. The servant and Jonadab have completed their small but disreputable parts in the drama. David obviously wants to pretend it didn’t happen. Absalom also wants no emotional discussion with Tamar, or public airing of her feelings. All conspire to silence Tamar. This holds good today as well. Any number of women tell the same story after sexual harassment. They attempt to file a complaint, and they are persuaded against it by their teachers, their friends, the police, their parents. Everyone is more comfortable forgetting about it. Discussing these issues is too messy.

The general tendency to forget this uncomfortable incident and silence Tamar continues. Barring a few feminist theologians and groups like the Tamar Campaign, mainstream Christianity does not discuss these issues.[5] In fact, a simple Google test would reveal how few of our famous preachers, bloggers and scholars have ever written or preached about the incident. Have any of my readers ever heard a sermon preached on this passage, or had a Bible study on it? Hopefully with the currently increased focus on sexual harassment, Tamar’s relevance to the discussion should become clear.

The corollary to silence, of course, is that the abuser is let off. The conspiracy of silence leads to a conspiracy of injustice. The criminal is not punished, justice is not done. They do not all approve — certainly David did not, and perhaps the servant did not too. But punishing Amnon is another matter. David prefers not to let uncomfortable truths into the open. This injustice resulted, of course, in greater tragedy. How many abusers are roaming the streets of every city in the world because of this conspiracy of silence and injustice? The statistics tell us that in countries like South Africa three in five men agree that they have beaten, threatened a woman with violence, or forced a woman into sex. They are not locked up in jails but have gotten away with these crimes. There is a deadly spiral of more and more silence as those guilty of sexual sin, like David, are less ready to bring others’ sexual sins into the open, for by doing so they condemn themselves as well. The sins are thus driven underground, both in society and into our psyches. The rot within our souls and societies goes very deep.

Tamar herself is de-humanised; she is not the focus of concern of the significant men in the story. She is not seen as a wronged human being who has the right to ask for justice. Her body is the vehicle of family honour and the personal honour of the men around her. Tamar is incidental. Her humanity is taken from her. And this, too, is repeated in our day and age. Brock Turner’s victim was not even mentioned by the many people who wrote in letters asking for clemency for the Stanford student caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman. It was all about him, how sweet and good he was, a star swimmer, how much he was suffering. Not a single person mentioned the woman or expressed sorrow at what she had to go through because of their protégé.

Tamar’s story also tells us that it is possible to speak up and protest violence, both when it is taking place and afterwards as Tamar did. More than that, it points us to the deeper malaise, the systemic undervaluation of women, and unquestioned granting of male privilege, which both shaped Amnon’s proud rapist mindset, and enabled him through the encouragement and silence of many to get away with it. None of this is pleasing to God, and as students of the Word, the challenge to us is to confront these deeply seated gender biases in our own minds and lives. Where have we sinned and ignored a woman’s ’no’, unconsciously applying male privilege? Where have we undervalued and enabled sexual sin? Where have we gone along with patriarchal, sexist systems because it is too disturbing to stand up and speak out? We are called to present the same challenge to others in our families, churches, and society.

So — what can Christians do?

In this violent, patriarchal, and sexist world, what can Christians do to bring change?

We can teach and live out equality and harmony between men and women. We can recognise women as full human beings, with choice, emotion, minds, that need to be respected. We can demonstrate in our living that men and women can be friends and partners at home, work and in society.

Men and boys from a young age need to be taught to un-learn what they learn from the world, that men are superior, women are to be subordinate, women exist to fulfil male desires, women are the ‘other’, and womanhood is to be feared and disliked. They need to learn to treat women as their own master did; Jesus was comfortable, friendly, and accepting of women.

Christian men and boys need to discuss the issue of force and violence, to unlearn other lessons the world constantly teaches them, like the normalisation and glorification of violence through media and role models. Initiating violence must be questioned and debate and persuasion internalised as the preferred Christ-like options in all situations. They in turn need to model and teach this to other men on campus.

Women need to learn to be more assertive. Like Tamar, they need to call out for justice, perhaps to persevere, even in the face of opposition, to not give way to desolation or anger, and to continue to work for peace, justice, and equality.

Rape and harassment should be clearly seen as the responsibility only of the man who did it. Both men and women must stop victim-blaming and shaming. What the woman wore, where she went, who she was with, or how much she drank still do not give any man permission to touch her without her consent. Call this out firmly and place the responsibility squarely where it rests.

We need to walk alongside the victims of sexual abuse and violence, encourage them to process their confused and mixed feelings, offer comfort, help them with physical details, give them the choice of taking action against their harasser, and helping them if they do choose to take action, whether through a college committee, or through police or legal action. These are complicated issues and training more people to help these women is important.

We also need to work with the perpetrators of rape and violence. Such men, also, need to be told about the transforming love of Christ. They need to process their psyches, attempting to understand what made them treat women the way they did, and what they need to change and perhaps even make restitution. This is a largely untouched area of huge need all over the globe.

May we as Christian men and women be salt and light in our broken, sexist, and violent societies and campuses, breaking the silence that prevails on these issues. May we call men to repentance and change and women to assertiveness and trust and together show others what equality, friendship, and fellowship between the genders can be like in the kingdom of God.

Questions for discussion

Read 2 Samuel 13:1–22.

  1. What parallels do you see between this story and your college or university? If you are not at a university, are there parallels to your professional setting or your society?
  2. Discuss how misogyny, male privilege, patriarchy, and male violence in general are linked to violence towards women.
  3. How do men and women on campus respond to sexual harassment or rape on campus?
  4. In what ways are women still silenced and men let off when it comes to violence and sexual harassment?
  5. Are there any positive examples you know of change, reconciliation, and the seeking of forgiveness on this issue? The examples could be either individual or social.
  6. What can we as Christian students do to stop male violence and privilege on campus?
  7. How can we as Christian students walk alongside those who have gone through this kind of abuse?
  8. Are there any means of identifying and reaching out to perpetrators?

Further reading

  • Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
  • West, Gerald, and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela. “The Bible Story That Became a Campaign: The Tamar Campaign in South Africa (and Beyond).” Ministerial Formation, July 2004, 4–12. http://ujamaa.ukzn.ac.za/Files/the%20bible%20story.pdf.
  • Muneja, Mussa. “Cakes, Rape and Power Games: A Feminist Reading of Story of Tamar (1 Samuel 13:1–19).” BOLESWA Journal of Theology, Religion and Philosophy 1, no. 2 (2006). https://works.bepress.com/mussa_muneja/4/.
  • Ridout, George. “The Rape of Tamar: A Rhetorical Analysis of 2 Sam 13:1–22.” In Rhetorical Criticism: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg, edited by Jared Judd Jackson and Martin Kessler, 75–84. Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1974.

Footnotes

[1] Liam Stack, “Light Sentence for Brock Turner in Stanford Rape Case Draws Outrage,” The New York Times, June 6, 2016, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/206/06/07/us/outrage-in-stanford-rape-case-over-dueling-statements-of-victim-and-attackers-father.html.

[2] “She Refused to Talk to Me, Says Killer,” The Times of India, November 16, 2017, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/she-refused-to-talk-to-me-says-killer/articleshow/61666776.cms.

[3] Namitai Bajpai, “Banaras Hindu University Wardens Recall Horror of Saturday Night: Girl Students Booted to the Ground,” The New Indian Express, September 26, 2017, http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2017/sep/26/banaras-hindu-university-wardens-recall-horror-of-saturday-night-girl-students-booted-to-the-ground-1662640–1.html.

[4] The Dead Sea Scrolls add, ‘but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn’, a phrase the NRSV normally includes.

[5] Gerald West and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela, “The Bible Story That Became a Campaign: The Tamar Campaign in South Africa (and Beyond),” Ministerial Formation, July 2004, 4–12.

Biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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