The Chaos at Woodstock ‘99 Shows How Societies Normalize Violence Against Women

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault, violence against women, sexual exploitation, and includes imagery of rape.

If I could describe the docuseries “Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99” in one word, it would be “chaotic.” The series did an outstanding job outlining salient elements bringing the three-day festival to its absolute worst.

The terrible planning, execution, infrastructure, exploitation, and worst of all, cases of rape and sexual assault, mark Woodstock ‘99 as one of the most tragic events in concert history.

Despite the many essential themes and series of unfortunate events in the timeline of the train wreck, one of the most disturbing ones is undoubtedly the atrocious sexual assaults and rape inflicted upon the concertgoers of Woodstock. What’s saddening is that these crimes were committed in public.

A Closer Look Into the Rape and Sexual Assault Cases of Woodstock ‘99

According to MTV News in 1999, the year of the Woodstock festival, two women were allegedly raped on different nights during the three-day concert. The victims were severely assaulted in the mosh pit during chaotic musical performances. In one of the incidents, people who witnessed the crime at the time cheered the assailant on despite the vulnerability of the victim. The assault was witnessed by a rape counselor at the festival.

Not only were the concertgoers a part of the scheme, but an on-site trooper-supervisor of the New York State Police in Albany was also accused of sexual assault. He was said to urge female attendees of the event to pose for nude photos with police.

On July 29th, the police confirmed that there were in fact four rape allegations under investigation. These were alleged to have happened throughout the concert on the former Griffiss Air Force base in Rome, New York.

According to Captain John Wood of Oneida’s state police, in one of the cases, the incident occurred amidst the crowd during Limp Bizkit’s performance on Saturday and the other three at the campground.

Another rape counselor by the name of David Schneider reported that he witnessed a gang rape in the mosh pit during Korn’s performance on Friday night. 

“At one point I saw this girl, a very petite girl, maybe 100 pounds, who was body-surfing above the crowd and either fell in or was pulled into a circle in the mosh pit,” Schneider, 28, said Thursday. “These gentlemen, probably in the 25–32 age range, looked as though they were holding her down. They were holding her arms; you could see she was struggling.”

“You try to judge by the crowd right around them, and no one really seemed to be too concerned about it,” he said, explaining why he did not immediately report the incident. “I watched a little longer, and you clearly could see that one of the guys was pulling her pants down — her top was left on. You could see he was violating her.”

He continued, “Then it looked like he passed her off to his friend next to him. It looked like a clear gang rape to me, where he was just passing her on to at least one other person. At some point, it appears she gave up struggling.”

Many horrible incidents of rape and sexual assaults surfaced on top of the additional reports YWCA had to deal with, according to Utica, New York, YWCA Rape Crisis director, Rosemary Vennero.

“You hear people saying things like, ‘When we went to sleep at night in the tent, I just heard people screaming, and they weren’t screams of pleasure, they were screams of terror,’ ” she said. “I have to say I have to believe a lot of what I’m hearing.”

On top of the many tragedies, and horrible incidents victims of sexual assault and rape had to go through, the Woodstock powerhouse promoter John Scher and founder Michael Lang refuse to take any accountability for these cases and skirted around controversial questions on the allegations during the press conference on Monday.

The Cause of Sexual Assaults towards Women in Woodstock ’99

There was a lot wrong with the event compared to its pioneering counterpart, Woodstock ‘69, which advocated peace, love, and music. Its sole purpose is to gather everyone in peace regardless of ethnicity, gender, and age to celebrate music — not sparking rage and chaos.

According to the docuseries, sexual assaults that occurred during the festival were caused by the severe lack of security and absence of accountability from Woodstock higher-ups, such as founder Michael Lang and promoter John Scher. 

Michael Lang argued that working with the state police or investing in proper security was not a necessity, as he didn’t want to involve the police in an event that advocates peace. Lang argued it was against the fundamental values of the festival. Instead, he hired a group of random strangers without any background checks as the so-called “Peace Patrol.”

On top of that, the members of “Peace Patrol” were paid a sum of money and were only given T-shirts to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Some of the members took advantage by selling their T-shirts to anyone who wants to gain access backstage. 

Due to the lack of security and rules, along with a raging crowd of 200,000 famished, thirsty fans treated unfairly, it is no surprise to see animalistic and barbaric behavior emerge, turning the tide into a violent and uncontrollable mess.

However, it must be pointed out that the essential factor causing sexual assaults and rape in Woodstock ‘99 isn’t rage — but rapists — and the lack of rules established by its organizers that created opportunity and access to commit crimes. They specifically mentioned that there are no rules at this festival and everyone is free to do whatever they please, including extra-marital relations, public nudity, and the use of alcohol and drugs; the poisons potent enough to breed a morally degrading and socially-ill environment.

When you’ve established the “no-rule” rule in a 200,000-person crowd, along with the idea of anonymity and lack of consequence, would you be surprised to see a handful of people acting on their worst whims?

Of course, this is by no means an excuse for criminals to commit crimes, but we can see the dangers of the absence of law and order, and the potential it has to traumatize women sexually — even in public.

The Woodstock ’99 Tragedy and its Similarity to the Social Conditions of Pre-Islamic Arabia

You would think that such a tragedy this awful would only happen once in history, but that’s not the case. In fact, in instances like this, a male-dominated society with a mentality that screams toxic masculinity or misogyny is nothing new.  

Surprisingly, the unfortunate turn of events of this festival are similar to pre-Islamic Arabia, which was equally steeped in immorality and filth. Because of living in a male-dominated society, where men are afforded considerable advantages and privileges, women were objectified, oppressed, and treated unfairly.

According to Sayyid Ali Asghar Razwy in his article on “Arabia Before Islam,” he said:

“Women had no status of any kind other than as sex objects. The number of women a man could marry was not fixed. When a man died, his son ‘inherited’ all his wives except his own mother.”

“Drunkenness was a common vice of the Arabs. With drunkenness went their gambling. They were compulsive drinkers and compulsive gamblers. The relations of the sexes were extremely loose. Many women sold sex to make their living since there was little else they could do. These women flew flags on their houses and were called ‘ladies of the flags’ (dhat-er-rayyat),” he writes.

When intoxicants such as alcohol and drugs are in play along with sexual intercourse, it becomes a recipe for disaster, much like the tragedy of Woodstock ‘99. It should be clearly noted that being inebriated or under the influence does not place blame on the survivor of rape — nor does it excuse the rapist’s behavior. However, the link between alcohol and crimes like rape is statistically significant, with studies showing that alcohol is the substance most commonly associated with sexual assault.

Islam and its Emphasis on Women’s Empowerment & Protection

To help eradicate women’s oppression in pre-Islamic Arabia, Allah Almighty descends his blessings in a form of a revelation to our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.

What was a common practice of objectifying women is now a complete contradiction. Islam believes in the precious value of a woman; her mind, her soul, her character, and her faith.

It was traditionally believed that men had a much higher status than women; Islam abolished the backward ideology and promoted equality between the two genders. What was unfairly written in the laws of inheritance between men and women have been realigned in a just manner. What was a common practice of objectifying women is now a complete contradiction — Islam believes in the precious value of a woman; her mind, her soul, her character, and her faith.

With light and guidance, many reforms were made to rejuvenate the thirsty souls in the morally destitute society. People finally have an ultimate purpose in life, a drive to do good, a reason to finally leave all the immoral acts behind in the name of Allah Almighty. 

Let’s look at some of the Islamic values or teaching related to the protection of women that has been revealed to our beloved Prophet (PBUH) over 1400 years ago.

Qur’anic Verses and Hadiths related to Protection for Women

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَا يَحِلُّ لَكُمْ أَن تَرِثُوا۟ ٱلنِّسَآءَ كَرْهًا ۖ وَلَا تَعْضُلُوهُنَّ لِتَذْهَبُوا۟ بِبَعْضِ مَآ ءَاتَيْتُمُوهُنَّ إِلَّآ أَن يَأْتِينَ بِفَـٰحِشَةٍ مُّبَيِّنَةٍ ۚ وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ ۚ فَإِن كَرِهْتُمُوهُنَّ فَعَسَىٰٓ أَن تَكْرَهُوا۟ شَيْـًٔا وَيَجْعَلَ ٱللَّهُ فِيهِ خَيْرًا كَثِيرًا

“O, believers! It is not permissible for you to inherit women against their will or mistreat them to make them return some of the dowry ˹as a ransom for divorce˺—unless they are found guilty of adultery. Treat them fairly. If you happen to dislike them, you may hate something which Allah turns into a great blessing.” [Qur’an 4:19]

As mentioned in the Qur’anic verse above, the overall message indicates that women have their own rights that should be respected. Abusive behavior such as rape and sexual assault is absolutely forbidden as it contradicts either the two objectives of Islamic Jurisprudence or Maqasid Shari’ah, which are the preservation of life and reason, as well as the injunctions in the Qur’an on performing righteous acts of kindness towards not only men but also women.  

According to a narration, women were treated worse than animals before the advent of Islam.

The Prophet ﷺ wanted to put a stop to all cruelties to women. He ﷺ preached kindness towards them. He ﷺ told the Muslims: “Fear Allah in respect of women.” And: “The best of you are they who behave best to their wives.” And: “A Muslim must not hate his wife, and if he be displeased with one bad quality in her, let him be pleased with one that is good.” And: “The more civil and kind a Muslim is to his wife, the more perfect in faith he is.”

It is important to note that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, emphasized the importance of being civil to one’s wife and how it affects his faith. The way you treat others, especially with kindness, dignity, and respect will determine what kind of person you are. In this context, treat women with respect, as human beings; not sex objects just for sexual gratification.

وَمِنْ ءَايَـٰتِهِۦٓ أَنْ خَلَقَ لَكُم مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَٰجًا لِّتَسْكُنُوٓا۟ إِلَيْهَا وَجَعَلَ بَيْنَكُم مَّوَدَّةً وَرَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٰلِكَ لَـَٔايَـٰتٍ لِّقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ

“And one of His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves so that you may find comfort in them. And He has placed between you compassion and mercy. Surely in this are signs for people who reflect.” [Qur’an 30:21]

In most Qur’anic verses and hadith, the relationship between men and women is often linked or referred to as a marital relationship with the sole purpose of the two genders being procreation. In the Qur’anic verses mentioned above, Allah Almighty indicates the true purpose of men and women; a place for us to seek comfort, compassion, and mercy. 

It is essential to treat sexual relations as a sacred and meaningful act between the two spouses; not just a means to fulfill whims and fancies with no strings attached with whoever we prefer. 

وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَـٰتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَـٰرِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا ۖ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ۖ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا لِبُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ ءَابَآئِهِنَّ أَوْ ءَابَآءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَآئِهِنَّ أَوْ أَبْنَآءِ بُعُولَتِهِنَّ أَوْ إِخْوَٰنِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِىٓ إِخْوَٰنِهِنَّ أَوْ بَنِىٓ أَخَوَٰتِهِنَّ أَوْ نِسَآئِهِنَّ أَوْ مَا مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَـٰنُهُنَّ أَوِ ٱلتَّـٰبِعِينَ غَيْرِ أُو۟لِى ٱلْإِرْبَةِ مِنَ ٱلرِّجَالِ أَوِ ٱلطِّفْلِ ٱلَّذِينَ لَمْ يَظْهَرُوا۟ عَلَىٰ عَوْرَٰتِ ٱلنِّسَآءِ ۖ وَلَا يَضْرِبْنَ بِأَرْجُلِهِنَّ لِيُعْلَمَ مَا يُخْفِينَ مِن زِينَتِهِنَّ ۚ وَتُوبُوٓا۟ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ جَمِيعًا أَيُّهَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنُونَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity, and not to reveal their adornments except what normally appears. Let them draw their veils over their chests, and not reveal their ˹hidden˺ adornments except to their husbands, their fathers, their fathers-in-law, their sons, their stepsons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, their fellow women, those ˹bondwomen˺ in their possession, male attendants with no desire, or children who are still unaware of women’s nakedness. Let them not stomp their feet, drawing attention to their hidden adornments. Turn to Allah in repentance all together, O  believers, so that you may be successful.” [Qur’an 24:31]

In the context of Woodstock ‘99, it can be observed in some scenes that a number of women were found topless during the festival. Does that mean that they invited rape upon them? Absolutely not — and society at large must stop victim blaming by putting responsbility on survivors because of what they were wearing or not wearing. Women who wear hijab, niqab, and even burkas experience sexual assault as well. Sexual assault is never about how someone dresses; it’s about power and control, and when we reduce survivors to their clothing, we strip them of agency and autonomy even further, while giving rapists and abusers leniency and distancing them from their abhorrent actions. The fault always lies with them and there are simply no excuses for this type of behavior.

What Can We Learn from the Tragedy? 

There’s no doubt that Woodstock ‘99 was a terrible tragedy for us to learn from. It was an undeniably a poorly orchestrated event. The lack of security, a raging crowd, power and greed of its organizers, and a culture that readily exploits, objectifies, and devalues women created the perfect storm for criminal behavior and violence against women to flourish.

However, the documentary failed to dedicate more time focusing on the main issue of the event: the enabling of sexual assaults and rape cases committed in the middle of the mosh pits and throughout the whole festival. 

It’s no surprise that anonymity, a lack of apparent consequences, and a lack of security allowed society’s bad apples to commit injustices with reckless abandon. All of the poor choices and greedy decisions by its organizers are a recipe for disaster for men to take advantage to commit atrocious crimes towards women in public.

That is why in many verses of the Qur’an, Allah Almighty has reminded men, again and again, to treat women fairly; with kindness and chivalry. Our beloved Prophet, Peace and Blessings be upon him, has also advised men to treat their wives and those who go against these injunctions will be penalized fairly, if not in this world; in the Hereafter. It is also why we we as Muslims are reminded that we must stand against injustices and focus on harm-reduction — meaning we cannot stand idly by while such things happen. Yet in our own community, abusers continue to be platformed and face little to no consequences for their actions. And it happens at large in the societies we live in, no matter where we live. Some of these abusers even continue to occupy positions of power, acting as Supreme Court justices or Quran teachers.

Many verses of the Qur’an remind men, again and again, to treat women fairly; with kindness and chivalry.

In order to live in a just and honorable society, we must all do our part to speak out against injustices when we see them and avoid allowing predators to prey on our community by platforming them. We should be careful that we do not lose our commitment to justice that is very much part of being a Muslim.

May Allah Almighty protect us all under the shade of His mercy and blessings, and may all of us learn from history and improve for the better as Muslims in this world and the final abode, InshaAllah.