Rekha Basu: Recognize, respond to threats against women
DES MOINES, Iowa — One was a runner, the other a golf champion.
One, age 20, attended the University of Iowa to study psychology; the other, 22, went to Iowa State University for civil engineering.
One had lived in Iowa since second grade, down the road from her college. The other made it all the way here from Spain.
Mollie Tibbetts and Celia Barquin Arozamena probably never met each other, but it was here in Iowa that the promising futures of these two ambitious, confident, independent young women were violently cut short.
Each went missing, one for weeks and the other briefly, and their bodies were discovered within a month of each other.
Tibbetts was out on a jog; her body later turned up in a cornfield. Barquin Arozamena’s body was found in a pond on the Coldwater Links golf course in Ames. Each was killed for no better reason, apparently, than the violent impulse of some man with whom she had the misfortune to cross paths.
Police say Tibbetts’ accused attacker, 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera, admitted to pursuing her while she ran, and became enraged when she threatened to call police. He led them to her body but claims to have blacked out during the events leading to her death.
Barquin Arozamena’s accused killer, 22-year-old Collin Daniel Richards, made statements beforehand about “having an urge to rape and kill women,” Ames police said. He has an extensive criminal history, including for domestic assault.
One reason these two slayings are so disturbing is we don’t think of Iowa as a dangerous state. The chance of anyone being the victim of a violent crime here is one in 344, according to the website neighborhoodscout.com.
ISU’s campus police chief offered standard safety tips to students: To not walk alone, alter their routes, alert someone else to where they’re going and stick to well-lighted and populated areas. Understanding one’s vulnerability is a fact of life for women.
Years ago, when I lived in the Boston area, I learned to act unstable while riding the subway after dark to keep people from bothering me. I’d mess up my hair, chew gum loudly, shuffle and talk to myself. I came up with that after observing how people avoided others who behaved that way. It worked.
But the truth is, such outward manifestations predict very little about a person’s propensity for violence. People with mental illness as a whole are no more prone to violence than any other group. Some might just behave in nonconforming ways, and we tend to fear what we don’t understand.
On the other hand, some of the most notorious rapists we’ve learned about lately — in Hollywood or athletics or even a doctor’s office — play the game so well, you might think they were the most charming, considerate people.
Among homicides where the victim-offender relationship is known, it’s greater than three times more likely that people are killed by someone they know than by a stranger, according to a 15-year FBI study.
About a third of women killed annually in the U.S. and half of women killed around the world in a recent year (2012) were victims of an intimate partner or relative. But less than 6 percent of men killed in the same year globally died that way, according to UN Women, which helps United Nations member states achieve gender equality through laws, policies, programs and services.
What does that tell us? Not that men are intrinsically hard-wired to commit violence. But because of the historical socialization of both sexes, men as a group are more likely to do so than women are as a group.
Some would argue it’s because men can physically overpower women more than the other way around. But if that were the reason, you’d think women would be equally prone, or more so, to commit gun violence, and even the scales. Instead, if you look at all the mass murders committed in recent years, they’re generally not by women.
Barquin Arozamena’s accused killer was apparently homeless, a fact some might seize upon to drum up fears of homeless people. But the homeless population includes a broad cross-section of society, including women and children in poverty. Likewise, the fact that Tibbetts’ accused murderer was reportedly an undocumented immigrant from Mexico caused many people to call for harsher border security.
But rather than generalize about groups of people based on their physiology or circumstances, we need to recognize, as UN Women notes, that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women.
When men are accustomed to earning more money, dominating the history books, having more say as elected officials about which laws are passed and enforced, having the sole right to the pulpit as priests, and so much more, might that not contribute to a sense of greater entitlement to take what one wants?
We all have work to do in every institution to challenge these inequities and teach people differently, beginning at the earliest ages.
Then maybe when someone speaks of having an urge to rape and kill women, someone else will recognize the danger, step in and call police.