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Julian Assange's problem for feminists



For feminists, the case of Julian Assange has produced a headache that threatens to create a permanent division.

Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador in May 2017 (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)Assange is rapidly achieving superhero status, an Australian David battling the American Goliath. A Fairfax article refers to him as the digital age's Ned Kelly. Pundits such as Catherine Deveny proclaim he makes them proud to be Australian. An open letter to PM Julia Gillard asking her to ensure Assange's rights as an Australian citizen are respected has garnered more than 4000 signatures. 

He claims to be fighting for freedom of speech and government transparency. Ideals that feminists also hold dear. But Assange has been arrested on rape charges and many feminists will find it hard to reconcile their defence of him with their support of rape victims. He denies these allegations vociferously, claiming they are trumped up by his detractors.

There is no doubt that the timing of the charges is suspect. Surfacing and quickly dismissed by Swedish authorities in August, the hunt was suddenly back on in the wake of the first dump of the US diplomatic cables last week. Interpol went as far as to issue a 'Red Alert', usually reserved for cases pertaining to murder ... and terrorism, of which Assange has been wrongly accused.

This prompted many to dismiss the charges as fabricated, which means claiming the two women who made the accusations are liars. This is a common smear against rape victims, whether the man they are accusing is famous or not, and one frustrated feminists work tirelessly to overcome. By placing the shame on the alleged victim and casting doubt on the veracity of her story, such smears discourage other victims from reporting their own experiences. And thus the so-called rape-culture is perpetuated.

This is why Naomi Wolf has attracted ire for her column in the Huffington Post where she scornfully derided the accusations and hence the accusers, claiming Assange was guilty of nothing except perhaps being a jerk. She, in turn, has been slammed by other writers such as Salon's Kate Harding who say she is undermining her own feminist credentials by 'smearing ... rape accuser(s)' despite a lack of access to information in the case. 

Assange is undoubtedly the victim of a witch-hunt, with calls to charge him with terrorism, espionage and even — absurdly, given that he is not a US citizen — treason.


"To automatically dismiss the allegations because of suspicious timing could potentially undermine future cases of sexual molestation."


Ironically, even as the likes of Sarah Palin call for Assange to be hunted down like Osama bin Laden, even as WikiLeaks continues to have its access to resources shut down due to US governmental pressure, and even as the Australian government talks of cancelling his passport, the mainstream media continues to publish the documents that WikiLeaks has — legally — made public.

But to automatically dismiss the allegations because of suspicious timing could potentially undermine future cases of sexual molestation. While commentators such as Wolf claim the women simply had a case of regret, this ignores the fact that often women do reluctantly submit to unwanted sex due to intimidation and fear, only to find themselves awash with anger and shame and a very real sense of violation. This is not simple 'regret.' This is a sex crime.

If Assange did use his body weight to hold down one of the women, if he did continue the sex act after she asked him to stop, if he did refuse to wear a condom despite repeatedly been asked to, as has been alleged, then he has committed serious crimes. But according to one Reuters report the women originally approached the police not to have Assange charged, but in the hope of persuading him to undergo an STD test. 

What then led to such serious charges? If the accusations are found to be false or exaggerated, the credibility of future rape victims and the likelihood of them coming forward will be seriously undermined, particularly in high profile cases. In an ideal world, Assange's status as WikiLeaks founder and spokesperson would have no bearing on the rape case. But in reality, there is little doubt that WikiLeaks is also on trial.

It's a murky case and one in which the true details seem unlikely to emerge. But one thing is certain: it's only going to get uglier for Assange and his alleged victims.

His adoring fans are already mounting web-based personal attacks on the two women, calling their credibility and morals into question. But at the same time, the cult of personality surrounding Assange mean the likelihood of a fair trial is next to impossible. Hatred of his organisation has led to a stop-him-at-all-costs mentality.

It is more than likely that Assange will wind up in prison. There is even talk of his being extradited to the US from Sweden. Vindication perhaps for the supporters of his accusers, and haters of WikiLeaks, but cold comfort for those of us who not only believe in justice but who balk at women being used as pawns to settle scores between men. 



Ruby Hamad is a freelance writer and graduate from Victorian College of the Arts, where she majored in screen writing and directing. She also holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. Ruby currently lives in Sydney where she is developing several feature film scripts.

Main image: Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador in May 2017 (Jack Taylor/Getty Images) [Article updated 12 April 2019: Image added]

Topic tags: Ruby Hamad, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, rape, feminists



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Existing comments

There are two very clear issues here that I - as a female - have no problem delineating.

Certainly the women's claims must be taken seriously and be acted upon. That is their right and the duty of the Swedish authorities. Whether the claims are politically motivated or not will no doubt become clear.

What threatens us all however, are the attempts of governments to prevent the flow of information on the grounds that it is embarrassing and shows their duplicity. It might be said that the latter is to be expected in the very human nature of diplomacy.

If Julian Assange should be prosecuted as the head of Wikileaks, then perhaps we also consider whether Laurie Oakes should have been prosecuted for publishing the obviously "leaked" Federal Budget papers.

Patricia | 09 December 2010  

Irregardless of whether a crime was committed or not, what Ruby Hamad should take on board is that her article is heavily oriented to finding the accused guilty before trial. Perhaps she might have greater weight to her involvement if she let the court and legal proceedings decide on the basis of evidence, and not ideology.

Justin Moloney | 09 December 2010  

Errr... Except it wasn't rape. It was consensual sex. He is charged because the condom broke. The charge that he is under in Sweden wouldn't be an offence anywhere else. Even in Sweden it carries a max $750 fine. Plus one girl has CIA links and posted a 'how to' guide to screw with boyfriends in this way. This gives women a bad name, not men.

j | 09 December 2010  

Sexual charges are a way that people get back at political opponents - e.g. the sodomy charges in Malaysia repeatedly raised against the leader of an opposing political party. Other situations are also relevant.

One must have great suspicion against the charges against Julian in view of what his opponents are capable of.

valerie yule | 09 December 2010  

Thanks for your comments everyone. Just a couple of things to clarify:
Julian: I am not assuming Assange is guilty. But neither will my conscious allow me to assume the women are lying. I will say that it is the determination with which he is being pursued that makes me question the prosecutors motives.

J: He is been charged with rape, molestation and unlawful coercion. And the CIA links meme is bogus.

ruby hamad | 09 December 2010  

"This ignores the fact that often women do reluctantly submit to unwanted sex due to intimidation and fear"

It seems Ruby is happy for presumption on behalf of the women but not presumption on behalf of Assange. What a shamefully ambiguous and implicitly accusatory sentence.

What has been missing in this story from the start which lends very little credibility to the whole thing is: Inconsistent stories from the alleged victims.

Furthermore the population in Sweden is, in general, doubtful of the accusations and they are surely in a better position to understand the case than us.

teapot | 09 December 2010  

In attempting to provide a critical analysis of the situation, Ruby Hamad has struggled with delineating the two issues referred to by "Patricia". In so doing, she has produced an argument which as "Justin Moloney" correctly states, is heavily oriented to finding the accused guilty before trial.

The task has proven to be beyond her in this instance and the Eureka Street editors have erred in not assigning this piece to a more experienced, and legally capable, writer.

Tom Cranitch | 09 December 2010  

There should be no issue for feminists regarding Assange unless proven guilty of the rape charges. The WikiLeaks charges are NOT (legally speaking) related to the rape allegations. If Assange were found guilty on the rape charges this would affect my assessment of him as a human being, but not alter my assessment of his leaking of classified documents. Public opinion and those in power affected, or at least embarrassed by the revelations, have conflated the two issues. Lets keep them separate.

david akenson | 09 December 2010  

It seems that a fundamental change in justice is occurring. If the media decides that somebody may be guilty, then there is no need for a court, the person is and remains guilty. If a Government has people passing on the truth to the media or worse to Wikileaks then the messenger is guilty of a crime. The problem is that Governments haven’t found out what crime it is when somebody repeats the truth. It seems that the truth will remain the biggest enemy of most Governments.

Beat Odermatt | 09 December 2010  

Thanks for this, Ruby.

Luke Walladge is also a writer from Melbourne. This is an excellent companion piece to his contribution to ABC Unleashed ("Julian Assange is not your friend").

I look forward to contributions (from both of you) on the case of Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim.

David Arthur | 09 December 2010  

To those of you who are apparently ignoring what I have actually written and saying I am assuming he is guilty, please re-read and take note of the copious amounts of times I wrote the word "if" before discussing the allegations against him. I am not presuming anything.

ruby hamad | 09 December 2010  

Thanks Ruby. As a feminist (believing that we need to have an equal say in matters of state since we hold up half the sky) I too 'balk at women being used as pawns to settle scors between men' - and between countries I'd say. I'm told that one of the women has links with the CIA, thus negating the credibility of the US accusers.

Joyce | 09 December 2010  

Yes, the charges of molestation of women are always serious, only I heard Assange's defence lawyer say yesterday that the charge of rape was not raised until the US repeatedly stressed this word in their communiques. And why do we seem to forget that Assange had offered to collaborate with the Swedish police for forty days, only to find out the extradition request was being issued against him, barely days after the US government found itself insulted by the leaks (the Swedish government was also embarassed).
We know that the media are turning increasingly to the electronic distribution of news, Assange is a modern day journalist of the highest caliber. He will remembered as a brave champion of our often derided democratic values. We thought we were being lied to by our governments, now we know for sure.

Eveline Goy | 09 December 2010  

Miranda Devine, no leftie she, has a very good column in today's Herald Sun (9 Dec) defending Assange.

As she reports it, the allegations of rape look very shaky indeed. She also was far more sympathetic to what Assange was doing than I would ever have thought.

Patrick James | 09 December 2010  

Sorry Ruby but your words "it is more than likely that Assange will wind up in prison..." very clearly suggests to me that your article is prejudicial.

You made this comment before raising the prospect of any possible extradition of Assange from Sweden to the US, clearly then you assumed his imprisonment would be in relation to the rape matters. However, quite a number of commentators are suggesting his conviction on these matters is very unlikely.

Tom Cranitch | 09 December 2010  

My understanding may be flawed, but I have read that he had sex with a colleague after a conference, during which the condom broke. She wasn't concerned by this. He then had sex without a condom with another woman, who went along with it despite preferring that he use one.

The two women subsequently found out about each other, and the second woman became concerned that she had been potentially exposed to STD's etc and requested a health check. When Assange declined (he may or may not have left the country, I can't recall) she proceeded to report the matter to Swedish Police, as their law holds 'sex without protection' to be sexual assault if not consensual.

My reading of the situation is that it WAS consensual right up until the moment the second woman discovered she wasn't Miss Exclusive, and THEN she only wanted to report a suspicion of exposure, NOT a rape.

GaryQ | 09 December 2010  

Dear Ruby and feminists in general. Could we please have a thorough feminist analysis sometime about the recent case of Brett Stewart, a well known Sydney Rugby League player.

After some 18 months of agony, sexual assault charges against him were thrown out of court. Not unlike the case in Brisbane longer ago against a one time Channel 10 "Gladiator".

I would simply like to see a feminist analysis that recognises that sometimes the woman rather than the man should cop ALL the blame.

Julian Connelly | 09 December 2010  

Um ... Tom ... isn't Ruby suggesting that the reason Assange would end up in jail, would be because of prejudice against him related to WikiLeaks? I don't think she's assuming his guilt in the assault cases at all.

Charles Boy | 09 December 2010  

Dear Ruby and feminists in general. Could we please have a thorough feminist analysis sometime about the recent case of Brett Stewart, a well known Sydney Rugby League player.

After some 18 months of agony, sexual assault charges against him were thrown out of court. Not unlike the case in Brisbane longer ago against a one time Channel 10 "Gladiator".

I would simply like to see a feminist analysis that recognises that sometimes the woman rather than the man should cop ALL the blame.

Julian Connelly | 09 December 2010  

Hello again.

Tom Cranitch, yes as Charles Boy has discerned, I was alluding that Assange would likely be imprisoned, not necessarily because he is guilty, but because of the furor over WikiLeaks. And because there are clearly many powerful people baying for his blood. I also state that I fear he won't get a fair trial, should it come to that.

ruby hamad | 09 December 2010  

According to a story published in the Murdoch press:

"Swedish law considers unprotected sex as rape but Swedish sources have doubted the credibility of the women, who many people believe set up a "honey trap" for the Australian activist."

And so it would seem that he is being charged for having unprotected sex - not what the rest of the world would call rape.

Read more: http://www.news.com.au/world/assange-rape-charges-stem-from-two-one-night-stands-in-sweden/story-e6frfkyi-1225967407341#ixzz17bCP6sMw"

Clem Clarke | 09 December 2010  

Here we are: Citizens of the world in the age of the information super~highway. Yet there seems to be widespread acceptance of the idea we couldn't support the work someone is doing without regrading them as without flaw. Are we *really* that simple? What simpletons we would be if that were the case ~ and not just we feminists, either.

Christine Smith | 09 December 2010  

It is a US directed witch haunt against WikiLeaks ... Who cares about those women and girls who are raped and abused in muslim countries (who are friends of America or "rescuedy by US troops) who haunts UN soldiers in Africa who raped women? I am a feminist, always have been ... however this Swedish soup is too thin! It is shocking what is happening. However we can see how many of us are standing up against this way of abolishing free speach and media, against brainwash and hateful words like from Sarah Palin.

Wilma Allex | 10 December 2010  

Thanks for this excellent article Ruby.

Anne | 10 December 2010  

From Wikipedia: ...chief prosecutor Eva Finné overruled the prosecutor on call the night the report was filed, withdrawing the warrant to arrest Assange and saying "I don't think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape." Sounds pretty serious to me. Let's start those extradition proceedings from Sweden to the US already. Someone needs a waterboarding. Why did Interpol issue red notice for this relatively minor charge? Something stinks...

J | 10 December 2010  

"... if he did continue the sex act after she asked him to stop" - that is definitely a crime. But by an Australian understanding of rape, using his body weight to hold down the woman - if the sex was consensual - would not be a crime in Australia, nor is refusing to wear a condom despite being asked to. If these are crimes in Sweden, then I think Sweden is muddying the 'no means no' waters by suggesting that sometimes 'yes' can mean 'no'. Can 'no' then sometimes mean 'yes'? These charges seem to undermine the clarity of the understanding of rape as sexual intercourse that is not consensual. "If the accusations are found to be false or exaggerated, the credibility of future rape victims and the likelihood of them coming forward will be seriously undermined, particularly in high profile cases." This is the real problem. If these women are allowing themselves to be used for political motives, then they are to be condemed, particularly by feminists. (And note that I say 'if'.)

Avril | 10 December 2010  

Being a Swede myself, I must mention this: Actually it can be good for JA to be extradited to Sweden, because the sexual charges has first priority over any extradition claims from the US. Also, before Sweden can extradite him, a Swedish court not only has to approve, it also has to ask UK authorities for permission, because he came from there. This means that two countries have to approve. If the Swedish case is dropped, and JA is a free man, Sweden has to wait 2 weeks before they don’t have to ask UK for permission to extradite him. This case might actually be a good insurance for JA. If he still is in Sweden, 2 weeks after acquittal or served time, not only has a Swedish court to approve the US claims (which he of course can appeal to higher court), but even the Swedish gouverment has to approve. They can actually change the court’s decision, and in the name of humanity deside to not extradite him. But, and this is important, the gouverment can’t change the court’s decision the other way around. Also, political or military reasons are not enough to extradite him from Sweden, in contrast with UK. And if the death penalty is even mentioned, an extradition is out of question. These all issues and claims will take maybe 18 months. Time and a lot of juridically processes are Julian Assange’s best friends right now.

Sven | 10 December 2010  

Ruby, great article. I am surprised by the number of people who have commented and clearly missed the nuances you have articulated so well. To Patricia: you say that the governments' attempts to limit information flows is "what threatens us all however" This is, you say, in distinction from the importance of respecting the women's claims. Implicit in this distinction, is that the issue of the women's claims of rape is limited to a 'feminist' or 'female' scope. (Afterall, you gratuitously remind us of your gender) However, respecting the rights of these women not to be judged prior to the court case has universal significance. It too, "threatens us all." Otherwise, as Ruby has said, we are allowing for a world where victims are disinclined to come forward for fear of being persecuted and judged a liar. In this case, the victims are women. This is a complex issue. But should not just be "delineated" between the 'women's' issue and the collective issue. Both are universal.

Lizzie | 10 December 2010  

I thought it was a really good piece, at least until that last sentence!

bigvolcano | 10 December 2010  

I do not believe Julian Assange raped or assaulted anyone. It is all a political set up. Oh, and sometimes feminists go a bit over the top too. Get real, girls.

Lynne | 11 December 2010  

Naomi Wolf expresses her feminist gratitude to Interpol.


Bronwyn Lay | 12 December 2010  

This is the best article on the issue I've read yet.

I've read some from people who are insinuating guilt, I've read some from others who demand Assange is innocent. Both positions are stupid and will lead to embarrassment for some or both.

The only thing we know is that we don't know despite a single article from the daily mail and statements from the prosecutions.

If people want a hero, support Bradley Manning.

Well done Ruby.

Bryan | 12 December 2010  

Nobody can reliably make any judgment on this case until we see the actual facts. We haven't. No charges have actually been laid, and no evidence has been presented.

It would have been a great help to both the complainants and the accused if this hadn't been beaten up into a media circus. I gather that sexual assault cases in Sweden are normally kept confidential, these details are protected by law, and cases must be dealt with promptly.

None of that appears to have happened with this case, which is disturbing.

Clytie Siddall | 19 December 2010  

Just one detail that needs correction, Mr. Assange has not been charged with anything so far. The Swedes want to interview him, that is all. Given that he waited in Sweden for five weeks and they wouldn't meet with him the whole saga looks very suspect.

Phillip | 31 December 2010  

It is just as wrong for feminists to attempt to generally overcome perceptions that complainants in rape cases are liars as it is for any other group to suggest that such complainants are always liars.

I am an experienced criminal barrister. I prosecute and defend, including in sex cases. I am not sure where the truth lies in many cases. Thankfully it is not up to me to decide.

What is clear to me is that a significant proportion of allegations are at least substantially false, and that many good cases are tainted by deliberate exaggeration. In those cases which are obvious deliberate lies many of the complainants are clearly motivated by very base concerns, often financial. Sometimes they are just attention seekers craving attention.

More often, complaints are accurate and true.

My concern with the Assange issue is that Swedish sexual assault law appears to permit charges to succeed where there is no knowing wrong by the offender but which appear to give credence to complainant's subsequent regret.

Further, I am yet to hear a good reason why they can't question him outside of Sweden. If all they want him for is questioning that can happen anywhere.

Bob | 18 November 2011  

Further, it has not generally been my experience that feminists favour freedom of speech. Many of them, like other sorts of jacobin radicals of all kinds want to impose all sorts of restrictions on those they hate, including as to speech.

Bob | 18 November 2011  

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