OPINION: How do we change the conversation around rape?
Three years ago, Eusebius McKaiser had a lecture titled Rape on campus: An incomplete conversation, referring to the silence which surrounded conversations about rape at higher education campuses and the exclusion of men in the conversations around rape.
In that same year, Wits University was rocked by an improper sexual conduct scandal involving two of its academics who preyed on female students. This would spark a debate on rape culture on campus, open up conversations between university staff and students. Three years on, the student protests we have witnessed across university campuses, from Stellenbosch University to University of Cape Town, and recently the Reference List campaign at Rhodes University, are the culmination of an incomplete conversation about rape on campus, for the students have unfinished business with university management and the rape culture fermenting on campuses.
In a recent rape debate on Judge for Yourself, social commentator Vuledzani Mashau, asked a student activist on the panel why women did not invite men to their conversations about rape or share their pain of rape with them. His insouciant tone, his laugh and flippancy left me aggravated because, on the one hand, here he was speaking from a position of male privilege, and on the other hand, we have men who cringe at the mention of patriarchy, sexism and misogyny as foundational to sexual violence against women. It is not us and the pain of rape that men need to understand, it is patriarchy, the male privilege that comes with this oppressive system, and the price women have to pay that needs to be understood.
Rape culture is endemic in South Africa and its reality more visible at tertiary institutions which are idealised as safe spaces for learning. Studies abound, such as Mary Koss's research, showing that higher education campuses are the prime location for rape, sexual aggression and the victimisation of women. One cannot speak about rape culture without addressing the complicity of patriarchy in sexual violence against women and the culture of silence that surrounds rape.
I have questioned my silence on the close encounters with sexual violence on campus I've had, and come to the realisation that my silence was framed within a discourse of shame, women's subordinate position in society and the traditional gender roles assigned to women. In the first encounter, not only was I ashamed but embarrassed for the perpetrator; he was after all a close friend, and my "traditional gender role" as a protector and nurturer compelled me to protect his integrity and manhood, and understand his act as a crisis of masculinity. In the second encounter, which most female students go through, I was subject to unsolicited sexual advances and inappropriate suggestive comments from a male lecturer. My silence was an affirmation of society's normalisation of misogyny and women's sexual subordination to men. In my silence, I was participating in the cult that tolerates sexism and patriarchy.
There is a myriad of reasons why women feel unsafe on campus, find it hard to open up about rape or even report a rape incident. And the overarching reason is that the judicial system, rape policies on campus, security measures and even family institutions are heteropatriarchial, operating on the dominant axis of power that privilege men at the expense of women. To explain this culture of silence and how it is produced by patriarchy, we can draw from ancient Hebrew and Babylonian history where women, both those who were married and virgins, were punished for being victims of rape.
This ancient history tells us how rape of a woman was seen not as a crime against her, but a crime against her father or husband, for women were not seen as individual beings, but property of men. The rape of women was seen as damage to men's property and had to be disposed of. They were either stoned to death or, in Babylonian law, required to be thrown into a river together with the assailant. Because of the shame attached to rape, these women chose to remain silent for they were not seen as victims of an atrocious crime, but rather as adulterers who needed to be punished. Centuries later, this legacy lives on in today's modern society as we still see the pathologisation of women who have been raped. Heteropatriarchy is visible in the stigma attached to being a rape survivor wherein women find themselves in a victim-blame situation.
Not only are campus policies heteropatriarchal, the criminal procedure itself is patriarchal. The burden to prevent a rape, to prove the occurrence of a rape, lies on the woman. A rape incident comes with disbelief, women are seen to be liars. In rape culture we find a process of rationalisation where the survivors' behaviour in 'provoking' the rape is often questioned. What was she wearing? Was she drunk? Why was she walking in the dark by herself? Did she say anything to provoke the rape? Not only do rape survivors have to endure the pain of sexual violation and live with the memory, but must further be subjected to medical violence on her body as medical doctors invade her vagina in search of DNA evidence, a humiliating experience she must endure.
I am reminded of a rape incident that not only shook my high school but the entire town when a teenage girl was raped repeatedly by several boys, including class mates and friends at a school function. After a lengthy disciplinary process, the young boys came out victorious for the victim had consumed alcohol, fell on her back while peeing, and invited all the boys to f*ck her.
As we look for answers to what prompts rape on campus it becomes imperative that we explore this pernicious crime within the context of a misogynist, sexist and patriarchal society in which higher education campuses exist. Misogyny and sexism is expressed from higher up in the state where even our President utters sexist comments like: "You can't even say Gqezu, Gqezu ntombazana, Nongenazo izinkomo uyayidla inyama" (loosely meaning that even if you can't pay lobola, you can still get married) - lambasting women who took offence to innocent compliments from men. Women in this instance are seen as "meat". Campuses exist in a society where CEOs such as Cell C chief José Dos Santos can get away with a comment such as, "We have good-looking women," and on Miss SA finalists on a year-long internship at the company: "Can you imagine you got 12 gorgeous women and you say four or five of them walk into your company - do you know what it does to the atmosphere in that company? The men dress better, they shave every morning".
Literature abounds on the power of language in denigrating women, how subtle sexist remarks reproduce women's inferiority, subordination, oppression, and justify physical rape. We can no longer undermine the power of language that dehumanises women, transforming them into mere possessions of men, rendering them inferior.
Sexual assault on women is rationalised in the language about women, the justification of sexual assaults located in name-calling. Also, in our efforts to liberate and empower women, we find ourselves in a catch 22 situation, reproducing the same images we seek to eradicate and taking part in the very same discourses which we seek to disrupt. One needs to look no further than Beyonce'sLemonade videos, with sexualised images of women that reproduce cultural misogyny.
Women in institutions of higher learning are under siege and men need not only be brought into the conversation about rape, but to see patriarchy for what it is. Drawing from Allan Johnson's work on patriarchy, guilt and shame, men need to acknowledge that this system exists and that women's oppression is real. Men's identification with patriarchy is so strong that any criticism on the system is seen as a personal attack on them. Men can understand that they can participate in misogyny and sexism without even being aware of it because the system favours men.
For Johnson, the challenge is that dominant groups will only take responsibility for what affirms their superiority, further reinforcing their privileged positions. Denying blame and guilt is in itself male privilege. For most men, according to Johnson, taking responsibility will be rejected because this comes with guilt and shame should they acknowledge patriarchy and privilege. Patriarchy has no feelings, and cannot feel shame, anger or guilt, but can be dismantled if men can recognise its culpability to sexual violence on women. We are not in any way asking that men take responsibility for sexual violence committed by somebody else, but to be conscious of their privilege and act upon the system.
Drawing further on Johnson, in a society where the status quo is in their image, serving their interests, reflecting manhood in all its glory and superiority, the question then becomes are men willing to understand patriarchy and how men and women are connected to it differently? Can men understand its consequences? What are men prepared to do about it? To what extent are men willing to give up their privilege? And it is time for universities and other higher education institutions to take a deep look at their rape policies and realise that their policies are complicit in the defence and maintenance of a phallocentric social order which perpetuate men's superiority. Andiswa Makanda is a content producer for the John Robbie Show on 702 for which she won a 2015 MTN Radio Awards. She is currently doing her MA in Media Studies at Wits University.
Andiswa Makanda is a content producer for the John Robbie Show on 702 for which she won a 2015 MTN Radio Awards. She is currently doing her MA in Media Studies at Wits University.