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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The South African women living in fear of rape

On Good Friday 24-year-old Noxolo Nogwaza was raped, stoned and stabbed to death in the township of KwaThema, east of Johannesburg. Two years previously another young KwaThema woman, Eudy Simelane, was raped and murdered.

Rape statistics are notoriously unreliable, but there is consensus that the rate of violence against women in South Africa is extremely high. The country also has the twelfth highest homicide rate in the world. Yet the cases of Nogwaza and Simelane stood out because they were butch lesbians who appear to have been victims of homophobic hate-crime. Their murders have been ascribed to an epidemic of “corrective rape” aimed at turning lesbians straight, or at teaching them a lesson for rejecting men. What makes this all the more shocking is that South Africa is officially one of the most tolerant countries in the world: its constitution explicitly outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage is legal.

In truth the fatal violence against lesbians like Nogwaza and Simelane is an extreme illustration of a truth about all rape: it is always “corrective”. Rapists typically think they are teaching their victims a lesson, either for wanting it too much or for not wanting it enough. This has a particular resonance in South Africa, whereresearch suggests that a high number of sexually active teenage girls say their first sexual encounter was coercive. Dipika Nath is conducting research into violence against lesbians in South Africa for Human Rights Watch: “In a context where women are not allowed to say ‘no’ to sex,” she says, “butch lesbians and transgender men can be seen as presenting the ultimate defiance – by their very identity.”

One of the wonders of contemporary South Africa is the flowering of an urban black working-class lesbian subculture. Raised with a post-apartheid consciousness of human rights, many young black women have rejected the traditional roles expected of them: they have claimed the right to live independent of men and taken their sexuality on to the streets with a particular subcultural look. This is part of a broader trend in sub-Saharan Africa. Sexuality has become a matter of identity (“I am lesbian”) in the region, rather than mere practice (“I sleep with women”); an overt insistence on equality, rather than a covert satisfying of desire, accommodated by social norms and traditions. The result, inevitably, is social upheaval.

In countries such as Malawi and Uganda, the state and the church have promoted this upheaval with official homophobia. In South Africa things are different for two reasons: the social liberalism of the African National Congress, and the role that the established church has played – led by Bishop Desmond Tutu – in arguing for tolerance. Nonetheless, in a country with severe inequality, violent homophobia (like violent misogyny) has become an outlet for some members of a new “lost generation”, unemployable youths caught in a cycle of poverty, emasculation and criminality.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    May 19th, 2011 @13:34 #
     
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    Very good piece. I just wish with all my heart something would change. That men here would listen. That government would listen. Something has to shift. We cannot go on like this.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    May 19th, 2011 @14:32 #
     
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    Husband and I had a very good decision on the way back to Cape Town on the term 'corrective rape.' Yes, there needs to be a way to acknowledge that these rapes are a hate-crime. Language is very powerful. How we say something or label it is loaded. The very term 'corrective' implies, intentionally or not - that a person's sexuality can be corrected. Following that, I worry that it reinforces the idea that even if rape doesn't 'corrected' it implies that there is a greater desire to have women's sexuality fixed. It makes somebody an 'other.'

    It also seems that the label defines itself in regards to the victim rather than the a-hole who carried it out. Nor do I think putting the term in quotes helps (and yes, I just did it) because language is mostly heard, not seen.

    So then Husband and I wandered on to 'Well...what else would you call it?' Still working on that one.

    But I do worry that just as the US began mispronouncing the world 'harassment' when discussing sexual harassment in the work place in order to show ambiguity - that the very language used to discuss this very big and important problem contributes to the problem itself.

    Or am I over thinking this one? But must admit, the more I think about it, the more loaded the term seems and the more angry I become.

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    May 19th, 2011 @16:23 #
     
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    what bothers me most about articles like this one from Mark is what Tiah says:

    “Language is very powerful. How we say something … is loaded.”

    but I’d modify it to:

    “How we say/write stuff like this is cowardly/a cop-out/tiptoeing about the too-difficult-to-address real point/genuflecting to them as still holds the real power.”

    It’s those coyly incomplete passive constructs…

    - women are not allowed [[by whom?]] to say ‘no’ to sex,”

    - butch lesbians and transgender men can be seen [[by whom?]] as presenting the ultimate defiance

    What if those sentences were writ in the active voice? Why are sentences like this not written in the active voice?

    [[ ??? ]] do not allow women to say no to sex

    [[ ??? ]] see butch lesbians and transgender men as presenting the ultimate defiance

    I don’t anything will ever be really done about gender based violence in the country before until we’re all brave enough to really talk about it, to address the hard questions, to avoid hiding them behind the victims.

    I also think Mark's laying of gender violence at the (poorer) door of economic inequality is rather facile...

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    May 19th, 2011 @16:39 #
     
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    Tiah, this debate is not new. I seem to remember reading here that one preferred term is "punitive" rape, although someone, might even have been me, promptly pointed out that almost all rape in this country is punitive... but we want a word (cue all the stuff I've written on this subject) that reflects back on the PERPETRATOR not the victim (brain bursts into flames for the umpteenth time). A more accurate term would then be "bigoted rape" or "homophobic rape".

    @ Moi, see everything I've ever written about use of the active voice in reporting GBV... *heaves huge sigh*

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    May 19th, 2011 @16:44 #
     
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    To be clear, I was not trying to blame any specific person for the term, including Mark. As I said, I have yet to come up with better. I only wanted to point out why I found the term problematic in hopes that perhaps somebody could come up with a better one.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    May 19th, 2011 @16:47 #
     
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    ...and I see Helen is trying.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    May 19th, 2011 @18:18 #
     
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    Being a man and not having read enough about rape, I am always anxious writing about rape for fear of mis-stepping, but here goes:

    It is all despairing, all rape. And the statistics in this country are unthinkable. Its widespread incidence makes it a part of our culture. Yes, it's shocking to think of it this way, isn't it? That rape has become a part of our culture. Rape is not something that happens on the margins of society - it happens in all classes, races, languages, religions. It happens in poorly policed informal settlements and it happens under the guise of the 'sanctity' of Muslim marriage. It happens among friends & lovers and in plush homes where it is hushed up for the sake of the children. It happens in offices between bosses and underlings and in schools between teachers and their wards. Children are being raped; babies, for god's sake. How can we claim, by any stretch of the imagination, that we are a normal society?

    Rape is a part of our culture. Isn't it shocking that it should be rape that runs as a common thread through the exhaustingly many divisions of our country?

    Normally the phrase "a part of our culture" is used in assertions of identity, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not; but its meaning is normally positive because it's an assertion. By this I mean the user of the phrase normally means something positive and the phrase is used to justify or celebrate something. I do not mean this at all and hope that goes without saying.

    To think, though, that one can use this phrase to describe this scourge, that rape is a part of our culture, should shame us as a country and a nation. Rape is a part of our culture. It should shame us into silence every time we are moved to celebrate a South African achievement or assert a routine of our culture. When a sports team is victorious and we claim winning is a part of our culture; when we produce something and claim innovation is a part of our culture; when we slaughter a cow in sacrifice to ancestors or to Allah on Eid; when we celebrate 27 April 1994, whenever... whenever we want to celebrate something that is a part of our culture, we should be shamed to think that rape is also a part of our culture. That we have normalised rape. That we have not only grown desensitized towards rape, but that we, as a society, have normalised rape.

    As a country we should be shamed and censured for our shameful human rights record because rape has become a part of our culture.

    We think of the rapist often as an aberration of masculinity, but I would argue that that masculinity is part of a general, arrogant, masculine South African culture. A kragdadigheid that persists, intensified, in our culture. If we think of rape as men's arrogation of power over their victims - the assumption that because they are men they have the right over someone else, over their minds and their bodies - we can see how it is connected to a masculine arrogance that runs through South Africa (not exclusive to men), the strong over the weak; an arrogance towards others that flickers through in the politician's contempt for his electorate, in the obscene display of obscene wealth, in the corporation's treatment of the individual customer, in the snark comments of illiterate celebrities and columnists. A contempt towards anyone over which you have any bit of power, arrogated or earned. And drunk with that contempt. This is not human, and it is not what we struggled for.

    Rape is a part of our culture and our culture is complicit with rape. Until men unlearn this arrogance, that they don't have any right over a woman's body or mind, that they don't have any right over anyone's body and mind, that no one has any right over anybody's body and mind, the rapes won't lessen.

    We should be ashamed of our culture, of being South African.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    May 19th, 2011 @19:49 #
     
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    Rustum, I am glad you have replied.

    I'm an American. I come from a culture that is both admirable and abominable. A country that is beautiful and ugly, and everything in between. So I can understand being proud of one's country while simultaneously being ashamed.

    I think the entire world will do better to solving this when more and more men begin talking about it in a constructive manner. Because it isn't just a woman's issue, it is also about boys learning to be men - and what being a man means.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    May 19th, 2011 @21:00 #
     
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    Rustum, please publish your comment as a piece on yr blog. As a column. On the front page of every newspaper in this country, preferably. Please may I use it in my writing?

    I have been thinking about this all evening, like rubbing a sore. Re the active voice issue, I have been mulling over what/who to place as the subjects of our sentences about rape. I have always argued that perpetrators need to be syntactically located in our language in such a way as to be squarely and visibly identifiable as responsible for their actions. But you've all heard what happens when I do this in practice, as in "Men rape women/little girls/grannies/babies" -- all hell breaks loose. Besides, in the cases of Gevisser's sentences located by Moira, the correction formulations are in fact:

    Patriarchal society [does] not allow women to say no to sex.

    Patriarchal society sees butch lesbians and transgender men as presenting the ultimate defiance.

    While it is so rare as to be unheard of for women to rape, a crime 99.9999999% committed by men (and if one more person asks how a woman can perform rape, they'll be required to read ALL my writings while standing on one leg in a corner), women are tragically often enabling of the culture that Rustum speaks of. Women shouted cries of encouragement as Lorna Mlofana was gang-raped and murdered...

    Maybe those sentences should read:

    We do not allow women to say no to sex.

    We see butch lesbians and transgender men as presenting the ultimate defiance.

    You're right, Rustum, we should be ashamed.

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