Mieke Bal (ASCA)

Cassandra, the young woman who emerged in antiquity and is still with us, needs to be heard, listened to. For, she sees the future, and wants to warn us, but the gift of prophecy the god Apollo gave her as a means of seduction, was cursed when she refused to sleep with him: she would know the future, but no one would listen. This was Harvey Weinstein & Co predicted; a case of #MeToo. A feminist, contemporary “human rights” issue: to be safe on the workplace, and not forced to swop jobs for sex. Indian artist Nalini Malani is currently arguing visually in several exhibitions: listen! It’s about time we listen. Nalani made a thirty-panel painting on Cassandra in 2009. The multi-panel form intimates a cinematic quality. Malani is an intermedial, and also a “quoting” artist; she engages both Eastern and Western myths and literary texts, brings them to the present world, in surprising, original forms. Cassandra speaks also in her 2012 video-shadow play IN SEARCH OF VANISHED BLOOD.

The East-German writer Christa Wolf rewrote the Cassandra story, this time with the focus on Cassandra, who, in Homer and Aeschylus, hardly came through. In Wolf’s novel, apart from a short first paragraph that gives her, literally, a place (“It was here. This is where she stood. These stone lions looked at her; now, they no longer have heads”) the novel is entirely written “in the first person”. If you read it, you cannot help listening to her. After these few short sentences I just quoted, Cassandra slowly recuperates narrative power. “This fortress – once impregnable, now a pile of stones – was the last thing she saw.” Seeing: her final act of perception, what I term focalization, casts her gloomy eye on the destructive passage of time. This is reinforced by the final short sentences of that paragraph, which enlists us all: “… no trace of blood can be seen seeping out from beneath. Point the way into the darkness. Into the slaughterhouse. And alone.” The passive voice and the negative of “can be seen” indicates that we readers as co-focalizers are as powerless as Cassandra is. That final clause foregrounds the fate of this young woman. Death, by violence (“slaughterhouse”) and loneliness.

This beginning of the novel and its succinct narratological analysis sets us up as the listeners Cassandra lacked. From the nine lines of this opening paragraph on, we are compelled to listen to the voice of the “first person”. It goes to show that art – here, literature – is not a luxurious, frivolous but basically useless way to pass your time.

Instead, I argue that we must learn, not about art but from art. About the world, time, urgent matters that need intervention. And looking at its details helps that learning. In this sense, a (fictional) novel has the two fundamental features of an essay, in Adorno’s view of that (non-) genre: the two meanings of partiality: fragmented, not whole; and subjectively passionate.

When we then enter into Cassandra’s mind, the first thing we read is a single-sentence paragraph: “Keeping step with the story, I make my way into death.” Then follows the narrative of Cassandra’s thought and memories on her final day. “… the closer you come to death, the closer and brighter are the pictures of childhood and youth.” (35) And when it, or she, says: I lived on in order to see” (4) the importance of witnessing, that special, socially relevant form of focalization, comes to the fore.

What she sees is the horror-to-come. And in the act of seeing she is aware of the force as well as the problematic of time: “For it was, it is, an experience when I ‘see, when I ‘saw’. Saw the outcome of this hour was our destruction. Time stood still, I would not wish that on anyone.” (59) This aspect of time, and the urgency to finally listen to Cassandra’s prediction of destruction, interwoven with the testimonial focalization – seeing with her – is what makes this novel relevant for the issues of human rights it obliquely invokes. To see, but not in a voyeuristic riveting, as Adorno has warned us, after the holocaust. His caution is not an iconophobic censoring but an appeal to deploy our capacity for empathy. Cassandra opposes war, and the heroism it demands, and as a result, she is rejected, cast out of her father’s house. Today we see how war and other forms of violence and the willful neglect of the ticking time-bomb of destruction – of the planet – are rampant. If only we would listen to Cassandra…

Human Rights 

Wartime Sexual Violence

Sexual violence frequently figures in retellings of the Cassandra myth, and is foregrounded in Christa Wolf’s novel. Sexual violence continues to be a devastating but often-overlooked feature of war. In the UN’s reporting on this issue, they utilize the term “conflict-related sexual violence.” This term covers “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.”

Trying to keep track of statistics and data on this issue is not easy, and there is reason to believe that the issue is massively under-reported. That is not to say that acts of sexual violence during times of conflict have gone unnoticed. One of the more infamous instances took place between 1932 and 1945: during this time, Japan forced women and young girls from neighboring countries such as Korea and China into becoming military prostitutes, or “comfort women” as they were called. Figures vary between 200,000 and 400,000. In 2016, Tiffany Hsiung released a documentary featuring three former comfort women, which documents their struggle for recognition, and you can read a review right here.

During the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped, and during the conflict in former Yugoslavia, nearly 60,000 women were raped. In the case of the latter conflict, victims of sexual violence are still waiting for the first convictions. You can read a piece on this matter published on Balkan Insight here. The problem is ongoing. Between 2018 and June of 2019, ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project) reported almost 400 cases of sexual violence events. Most of these cases originate from The Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Burundi, India and Sudan. ACLED highlights that acts of sexual violence are usually followed up with lethal attack. As to the perpetrators, ACLED writes:

“The largest proportion of reported sexual violence events is committed by political militias or unidentified armed groups, followed by state forces. The lead perpetrators vary by region: while political militias and unidentified or anonymous armed groups are the main actors responsible for sexual violence in Africa and South Asia,  state forces carry out the most sexual violence events in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Eastern and Southeastern Europe and the Balkans”.

In 2016, Al Jazeera hosted a conversation on the issue titled “Rape as a weapon of war: The untold story of armed conflict”, and you can check it out in its entirety here.

Victim Advocacy

Many victims of crime and human rights abuses, whether in warzones or in different circumstances, are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system or do not have access to it. As such, advocacy programs assist victims through the criminal justice system, while offering emotional support, victims’ rights information, and help finding needed resources. Survivors also advocate for improved court procedures and legal assistance for victims.

There are many such organisations. Founded in 1975, the US National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), is the oldest national victim assistance organization of its type. In 2005, The International Organization for Victim Assistance (IOVA) was formed as a sister organization to NOVA. IOVA has years of experience in working on victim issues across Latin America, Asia, Africa and North America, tackling a broad spectrum of issues facing the implementation of victim rights in the 21st century. Irvin Waller, the President of IOVA, states that:

“The International Organization for Victim Assistance (IOVA) was created to continue the advance of victim rights and services across the globe…IOVA seeks to bring skilled compassion to those traumatized by acts of violence, ensure that the administration of justice always honors victims’ participatory rights and just reparations, and encourage societies to prevent violence and victimization. We want to work in alliance with champions of justice, human rights, and humanitarian relief”.

As such, IOVA’s work has positively impacted many areas, and the organization is at the forefront of efforts to aid victims, obtain reparations, and prevent future rights abuses, looking for new ways to engage a broader spectrum of those who want to make a difference to victim rights across the world. Another international group, The Advocates for Human Rights works to change systems and conditions that cause human rights abuses, fighting injustice and improving laws and lives throughout the world while representing individual victims of human rights violations, changing the lives of refugees and immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, children, and other marginalized communities. Believing that everyone has the power and responsibility to advance human rights, they rely on the help of volunteers and supporters, training groups that protect human rights and engaging the public and policy-makers in their push for reform.

In some cases, it is survivors themselves who lead advocacy for other victims. Genocide survivor Jacqueline Murekatete, has become an internationally recognized human rights activist since founding the Genocide Survivors Foundation (GSF) to raise support for fellow genocide survivors and prevent genocide in the future. Born in Rwanda, Jacqueline was nine years old when she lost her parents, all six siblings and most of her extended family to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. She was inspired to share her story of survival and hope for the first time in 2001 after listening to the story of the late Holocaust survivor David Gewirtzman, who became a dear friend and mentor. Her organization partners  with other genocide prevention organizations, education centers, genocide survivor’s associations and like-minded individuals to create a world where every person’s basic human rights are protected.