Trigger Warning: This article contains accounts of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.
There is such violence in the demands to be okay, to live.
I wish to return to something for a bit.
Just over two weeks ago, a friend of mine shared this video (re: anti-rape wear, or AR wear) with me and asked me what I thought about it. I was busy writing exams so I quickly looked at it and promised to return to it later, but I did share it with some friends.
The response to it was very much like my immediate one, with questions like the ones asked here – many of which are very valid – and there were very many adjectives thrown about re: these people and their crowd-funding. And it’s true: AR wear as a concept in itself is dubious at best—yet another way women and not rapists are the point of focus— and the video is rather problematic. Within whose reach is AR wear? Why are there no women of colour in the ad? What would a rapist do to his victim if he finds he cannot rape her? What if my rapist is a trusted friend or relative? How difficult is it to take off during sex?
I, however, find it very troubling how quick and easy it is to dismiss this as stupid or ignorant, lumping these definitions in with all the others that are accurate about it without looking into it further. Yes, the ad and the product is yet another one telling us what women can do to lessen the chances of being raped – but this isn’t an ad telling us to stop drinking, or to stop going out at night, or to stop having male friends, or to have enough male friends to protect us, or to stop wearing tiny clothes.
When I watched it a second time later, I saw it telling us that we need to live.
Rape is never, under any circumstances, the victim’s fault. We know this already. We know how important it is in our work, and in our everyday conversation, to dispel victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and any other derogatory discourse that places men in a position of no fault. We know this. I have learnt a lot about this.
But, as hard as we are constantly working to turn this around, very many times it seems like we are fighting a losing battle – and we get exhausted. We know that this change that will one day happen, will happen one day. Not tomorrow, or next week, or next year – probably never in our lifetimes.
But the fact remains that we have to live.
This is not working. Let me try again.
South Africa is infamous for many, many things, one of which is being the go to example for rape prevalence. We know this is nonsense, that rape anywhere is just as bad as it is in Mzansi, that Western discourse and affect disavows rape in the USA and across Europe.
Having lived here only about ten months, I cannot pretend to be an authority on anything. I however cannot ignore the differences in the way rape is talked about here compared to the way it’s talked about back in Kenya. Here, rape is a constant feature in everyday conversation, and I don’t mean that in a good let’s-think-of-ways-to-get-rid-of-it way. I mean that it is used carelessly, as if suggesting going to town to get drunk, or watching an episode of a local soap.
When one of my colleagues asked my boss if low-cut shirts were permitted at work, my boss said, ‘Yes, but this is how you get raped.’
Pumla Gqola, in a public lecture on South Africa’s rape crisis earlier this year shared a story: a friend was shopping in Johannesburg when a young woman rebuffed the advances of a man who was clearly interested in her. He had followed her into the shop and watched her for a minute or two before asking her out. After she reiterated her ‘no’, the exasperated man said, ‘You see, this is why we rape you.’
A couple of weeks ago, a student here posted a request on the Student Representative Council Facebook page: that the gym remove Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” from its playlist because of the rape culture it promotes. The story was told at the dinner table that night by an annoyed third year law student. Her sentiments were that ‘Rape survivors should just sit down, and realise that it’s not always about them.’ This was followed shortly afterwards with ‘I think this school caters too much for the minority.’
Walking in the city centre in Cape Town in September, a young man ran up to me and a friend. His voice was urgent and angry and he turned and pointed to a woman he had left behind: ‘Don’t touch her, hey – whatever you do – don’t touch her. She doesn’t want to be touched, she thinks she’s too good for anyone. She wouldn’t even let me touch her.’ The woman wouldn’t look at us when we walked past her.
South Africa’s pro-twerkers put on a performance in town this semester, and there was excitement abound. One young lady, however, was expressly disapproving of ‘women shaking their half-naked asses in men’s faces, and then we blame then when they rape women.’
It goes on and on.
All this, coupled with all the warnings any woman receives before coming down to Mzansi, are enough to cripple anyone. When I got here, I was told that Grahamstown is safe. That campus is the safest part of this town. My fears were quelled, a little bit – I got a job.
Earlier this year, I went out with my friends and kissed a man. He began to text me constantly, asking if we could take things further.
I said no.
He didn’t stop. I bumped into him in town on two different occasions. Both times, he tried to get me to talk to him alone and when I said no, he grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. The first time, I hardly fought back. The second time, I told him I would scream if he didn’t let go. Later, I found out he had been this way with at least three other women who had initially been interested in him. He had sexually assaulted one.
After my very first shift, he stopped me as I crossed the road to get back on campus. It was 3 or 4 a.m., quiet except for a small group of men laughing much further down the road behind me. I told him to move. He wouldn’t. He said he wanted a hug first, I said no. There was a panic button behind where he was standing, but there was no way I’d get to it should he have tried anything. The men behind me were getting closer. I told him again to move. He didn’t. Eventually, I stepped round him as calmly as I could, and I believe he didn’t do anything because by this time, he would have been seen.
It took some convincing, but I finally went to report him to campus security. I remember thinking about the kiss, wondering if I should include that – I can’t remember if I did.
Since then, I’ve been followed home three times. I took to waiting until the sun came up to walk home, even if my shift had ended. I bought pepper spray. Still, I was terrified.
Watching the ad (again), I cannot say that I would put all my feminist thinking, all my anger and principles and refusal to let patriarchy control what I do with my life above my fear. If someone were to offer me AR wear right now, so I could go back to work (I finally quit), so I could walk to the ATM five minutes from my room when I can’t pay for take-out with my card, so I could stop looking over my shoulder even when I’m walking through town with a group of friends after dark, I know I would not say no.
I don’t want this to come across as anything generalizing. I can only speak of my experience, I can only speak of my fear, which has grown to the point I sometimes find myself waiting for it to happen. It’s a sick thought, one I am afraid even to voice for fear of it seeming that I want it to happen, that I take it for granted that it hasn’t happened. So I cannot speak for all women, of course, but I speak for my fear, which is realer than I have ever known.
Women will always talk about rape differently.
Which is why, as a friend said, even as the video is on a public platform, it could well be intended for an audience of women. It could be two sisters talking. It could be your mother telling you not to take your eyes off your drink, or not to jog down a certain road after a certain time. Except, it could be your mother, sister, aunt, cousin, telling you that you can do all those things, and feel safer. Not definitively safe, of course not, but safer.
I may have lost coherence.
One issue with the AR wear its inaccessibility, its unaffordability. Of course this is a matter of concern, but I would like to borrow from the idea behind Shailja Patel’s work:
An eight-year old is an eight-year old is an eight-year old
Wagalla is Waziristan is Westgate
A pregnant woman is a pregnant woman is a pregnant woman
Garissa is Kismayo is Nairobi
Yes, it is worrying when we think about non-white, non-middle-class women not being able to afford what reassurance AR wear would offer. And I realize, even as I write this, that I come from a class that would probably get me a pair of AR drawers without thinking about the financial implications it would have. But thinking of Daisy Coleman, we also know not to dismiss her rape story because she is a white, middle-class girl. We know this because women anywhere and everywhere are targets.
And so, would it be right if we were to stand against the manufacture of AR wear just because it may protect some women and not all women? Is the answer really to refuse AR wear, or to perhaps think of ways it could be made more accessible for those unable to afford it? More so, by taking such a definite stand against AR wear because it only protects a certain demographic, don’t we lend credibility to the ‘fact’ that there is less rape in white, middle-class societies?
The police was set up to protect capital from the people, to guard property rights of those with property. It was not set up to protect poor, weak people… Hoping in these institutions is really futile.
Friends remind me in different ways that with #justiceforliz’s campaign to stick the young men in jail came the erasure of Liz herself. The story is no longer about Liz, or about the countless women living a similar experience. And, as Basil pointed out, we know there is little chance of anything coming out from the investigations carried out (see Kimaiyo), and we will continue to be raped, and they will continue to do nothing but tell us to accept and move on.
And so (again from Basil), our imagination must find justice in other ways. Is it really justice for Liz when she has to pay for her own counselling (assuming she gets any) and medical bills? Is it justice for any woman that rape in itself is not recognized as a horrible crime, without having murder and pit latrines happen to push it to the bottom of the list of horrible things that could happen to a rape victim?
This is not to say that the state’s part should be dismissed entirely. But how much justice work is being done if we’re constantly addressing the issue from the top downwards, when the foundations of violence against women and patriarchy at large are still so well rooted?
Yes, it is very important that we deconstruct the belief that women are to blame. But it is also very important that we protect ourselves, AR wear and all. Why can’t we do both?
I would like to thank the kind and brilliant Basil, who listened to me and thought with me through this.
Nduta is a feminist, piano lover and a clueless student at Rhodes Univeristy, South Africa. She blogs at ku[to]starehe.