Pumla Gqola in a public dialogue hosted by Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) to launch her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, at Centre for the Book, Cape Town.
Shajila Patel reminds us that “when you want to understand how power works in any society, watch who is carrying the shame and who is doing the shaming.”… Shame is a function of oppression; it has everything to do with who is valued and who is invisibilised… all systems of violent oppressive power produce shame in those they brutalise.
Gqola 2015, p. 38
The construction of an impossible to attain ideal femininity and its deviant antithetic complement along with concomitant systems of reward and punishment produce notions of respect and shame about women (Gqola 2015, p. 78). Femininity, in patriarchal societies is always constructed in relation to and in service of heterosexual men and masculinity. For example, a respectable woman is expected to dress and behave with ‘modesty’ and is legitimately affiliated to one man. Conversely, a shameful woman dresses and behaves ‘immodestly’ – she is lone (single) and illegitimately affiliated to many men. According to the myriad patriarchal narratives such thinking creates, a respectable woman deserves to be rewarded and a shameful woman punished. This informs an aspect of what Pumla Gqola describes as the “female fear factory” (Gqola 2015, p. 78). She asserts, “something makes it possible for millions to be raped on a regular basis. That something is patriarchy” (Gqola 2015, p. 6). In this essay I will draw extensively from Gqola’s writing to examine the violence that is enacted upon young black women’s bodies in public urban spaces, the ways it is linked to rape culture and colonialism, and interrogate myths that characterise women as ‘sexual intimidators,’ which are commonly used to excuse multiple acts and forms of gender-based violence.
At the end of 2014 several highly publicised ‘miniskirt attacks’ occurred on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. In one of the cases a sixteen-year-old girl was attacked by four men, one of them a police officer, who attempted to forcefully undress her. In the same month one hundred men were arrested after a woman was similarly attacked at a matatu stage (minibus taxi terminal). In the second case it was reported that all the men were intoxicated. These incidents are not uncommon and the men who participate claim to be teaching women and girls a lesson or punishing them for being ‘indecently’ dressed. In response, after a social media call to march from a group called Kilimani Mums, hundreds took to the streets in a protest tagged #MyDressMyChoice condemning the men’s actions. This sparked nation wide discussion, much of which was documented on social media, about gender-based violence and the policing of women’s bodies.
While a considerable number of men marched in solidarity some were reported to have taunted women protesters asking, “Are you wearing panties?” “Why didn’t you come naked so we know you’re serious?” “If you keep talking, we will strip you to teach you a lesson!” Public commentary on the incidents and the protests ranged from condemnation of women and girls who dress ‘immodestly’ along with the #MyDressMyChoice protesters, to condemnation of men who support or participate in such attacks. The incidents and the subsequent public debate reveal an unhinged sense of entitlement that many Kenyan men have over young black women’s bodies. Nanjala Nyabola offers an insightful analysis of the attacks, asserting, “the debates about the stripping of women and a return to ‘decency’… highlight a misplaced nostalgia for a time that never was.”
Nyabola is referring to the conservative ostensibly African values that are juxtaposed against supposedly ‘loose’ so-called ‘un-African’ morals, perceived as a threat from the west. The paradox of this prevalent mentality is that the modest conservatism it purports to be traditionally African (in a troublingly over-simplified, essentialised, homogeneous sense) is a product of a ruthless European patriarchy, which was inextricably linked to the racism of its colonial projects (Oyewumi 1997, pp. 122-123). Oyewumi focusing on Nigeria aptly asserts, “(male) chiefs lost sovereignty while increasing powers over the people,” under British colonial administration, however, “we are to believe that their powers derived from ‘tradition’ even where the British created their own brand of ‘traditional chiefs’” (Oyewumi 1997, p. 125). The current prevailing patriarchy that is proclaimed ‘traditional’ by African male elites has its roots in the distorted, damaging colonial reproduction of ‘traditional’ Africa. With appreciation for the intricate heterogeneity of African peoples, I believe that current articulations of a conservative ideal ‘African-ness’ have created a violent patriarchal and heteronormative environment, in which institutions such as religion, the media and the nuclear family operate duplicitously. This places women and variously gender non-conforming individuals in precarious positions across the continent (Seale 2009, p. 88).
Gqola refers to what she terms “the female fear factory,” and poignantly articulates the stifling often life-threatening position of women in patriarchal societies. The examples she provides demonstrate the paralysing fear that informs women’s everyday choices and behaviour and the ways in which women are expected to silently endure (Gqola 2015, p. 87). I feel that a greater acknowledgment of the heteronormative dimension of this dilemma would enable a more expansive recognition of the ways in which the violence produced in the “fear factory” impacts women as well as people who do not, cannot, or choose not to fit into rigid binary constructions based on gender and sexuality (Berlant and Warner 2002, p. 309). While I think there could have been a more explicit mention of heteronormativity in the chapter, Gqola does not overlook this element of the problem.
She examines the rape and murder of the late Eudy Simelane, who was a black, lesbian soccer superstar. This was one of the more high-profile cases, in which “the motivation or justification for raping and/or killing [black lesbian women]… surfaces the desire to render them heterosexual” (Gqola 2015, p. 92). Rape that is in this way characterised, has come to be known as ‘corrective’ or ‘curative’ (Gqola 2015, p. 92). The choice of Eudy Simelane’s case and what is described as “a collision of patriarchal and homophobic power,” recognises the contribution of heteronormativity to gender-based violence (Gqola 2015, p. 92). A message that Gqola (2015) robustly drives home demonstrates how rape, even when it ends in brutal murder, is persistently explained in ways that, in spectacular speculative contortions of what could or could not have happened, somehow render the victim culpable.
Speculation that incorporates “slut shaming and victim blaming” that is so readily introduced and believed in public discourse is an aspect of collusion that makes rape culture viable (Gqola 2015, p. 86). When this reversal occurs, this deranged search for excuses, perpetrators are able to escape scrutiny and ultimately escape justice. To put it bluntly, the speculation begs the question, what did she do to get herself killed? What position did she put herself in? And not, what are the conditions of the society that she lives in? Not, how has society positioned her? All those questions come down to, how did she bring it on herself and did she deserve to die? Patriarchal societies privilege men who adhere to violent masculinities at staggering costs. My suspicion, unfortunately, is that the diabolical underlying sentiment, below the questions of collusion, is ‘yes, she got what she deserved.’ Women are expected to deal with rape and rape culture “very seldom do we talk about the rapist,” which creates narratives of “rape as a perpetrator-less crime” (Gqola 2015, p. 7).
Gqola flirts with the notion of women responding to patriarchal terror with violence, she tentatively states her affiliation to non-violent feminist activism by “disavowing violence as a patriarchal weapon,” she asserts:
I have agreed to be bound by this kind of feminism. But there are times when I wonder what would happen if women fought back for ourselves in numbers and unapologetically … the suspension of disbelief that works of fiction offer readers allowed me to entertain a different feminist position: one where women kill men who violate women, where women do so for themselves and in defence of one another… I have been convinced that the only reason the patriarchal siege continues unabated is because violent men know women will not rise up, take arms and collectively defend our own
Gqola 2015, p. 11
I chose to focus on Gqola’s writing because of the bravery in her willingness to entertain such radical departures and because her approach is refreshingly forthright and unabashed, which I think mitigates the effects of stigma and shame, opening up new avenues for solutions. I believe that considering violent retaliation should be more than entertained. I believe it should be creatively considered. Gqola further maintains, “rape is a crime of power and in a patriarchal society, all men can access patriarchal power” (Gqola 2015, p. 11-12). What power can women access?
In recent protests at Rhodes University, where a list of perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment was leaked, young women sought out the accused, confronted police and bore their naked bodies, bringing their university’s operations to a halt. In disrobing the young women followed a tradition that has proven effective for other African women in the past. In 2002 in Nigeria’s South-western Niger Delta hundreds of women acted against the debilitating activities of oil companies on their communities. The women were between twenty and ninety years old and they took seven hundred men hostage for over a week by threatening to disrobe – they were unarmed.
Mungai (2016) in an article examining the legacy and efficacy of naked protests maintains, “in a society founded on women’s literal and figurative invisibility, the shock of a naked woman is jarring; as a tool of protest, deliberately so.” She gives a few relatively successful examples, the most intriguing one came at the end of the Liberian peace talks when Leymah Gbowee, heading a delegation of women, began to strip in a last-ditch effort and a moment of supreme exasperation, other women followed suit. The havoc that ensued caused some male delegates to leap out of windows. The peace talks had been deadlocked for months, after the women stripped down an agreement was reached within two weeks and Gbowee was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Another Nobel Laureate, the late Wangari Maathai, a renowned environmental activist who “deliberately broke taboos as a form of symbolic protest,” resorted to similar tactics in Kenya in the early 1990s. When authorities would arrive to take them into custody, she and other women would disrobe, refer to police officers as their sons and state that it was a curse for sons to see their mothers naked.
The reverence of motherhood and the existence of matriarchies prior to traumatic colonial encounters in Africa are explored by Cheikh Anta Diop (1989) and Ifi Amadiume (1989). Amadiume in an illustration of Diop’s concepts describes two worlds, with two sets of value systems; in the North a world with narratives characterised by “ideals of war, violence, crime and conquest… [where] guilt… original sin and pessimism pervaded its moral ethic which was based on individualism” (Amadiume 1989, p. xiv). This is the current global dominator culture. On the other hand Africa represents a “Southern cradle of matriarchy,” and produces narratives based on “social collectiveness” and “the emancipation of women” (Amadiume 1989, p. xiv).
Like Amadiume I have misgivings about the notion of an “irreducible” binary construction of world systems (Amadiume 1989 p. xv). However, I find “the sacredness of the mother,” central to Diop’s matriarchal Southern cradle, useful in understanding naked protest as activism, in the current patriarchy and why it is so impactful when older women, assumed to be mothers participate. I do not believe that it is female power that is being drawn from when women disrobe in protest, in some cases winning hard battles because of it, but male guilt, shock and confusion, which older women, who are perceived to be mothers and therefore asexual, can more easily invoke. Older black women complicate notions of ‘public indecency,’ and ‘sexual intimidation’ because they present bodies that cannot be categorically sexualised, for mass heterosexual male consumption, and shamed. They perhaps even summon remnants of respect for the authority of the mother and in this way disrupt the continuum of male violence and patriarchy. This also serves as a reminder of just how under valued and at risk young black women and their bodies are in contrast.
When the young women at Rhodes University stripped to call attention to the plight of women in a rape culture that colludes with rapists and blames victims, protecting men while stigmatising and shaming young women, the predictable moralising response of condemnation, claimed ‘indecency’. This is similar to responses to the #MyDressMyChoice campaign in Nairobi, where many women donned the ‘miniskirts’ and other garments that supposedly lead to ‘sexual intimidation.’ Gqola examines the “compulsory literal and symbolic availability of all women to male heterosexual pleasure” or the “taken for granted assumption that all women should literally and theoretically be available for the pleasure of heterosexual men” (Gqola 2015, p. 8). She effectively interrogates the notion that some rapes are more brutal than others, specifically that the rape of the elderly and babies are “the worst kinds of rape” (Gqola 2015, p. 8). Both the idea that some rape is “understandable” based on the bodies they are acted upon and the notion that some women’s bodies are more deserving of respect, operate to keep young women hostage.
Young black women are especially stripped of power and their bodies frequently become the site of contestation. In the ‘miniskirt attacks,’ what the women are wearing, how they present themselves, is not the catalyst of the attack. One of the women was a street vendor demanding money from a client who owed her. To escape payment he called her a ‘whore’ and began to rip her clothes off, at which point other men flocked to participate (Nyabola, 2016). These public attacks on women, which date back to the early 1990s, are another facet of gender-based violence that young black women, in particular are taught they can avoid by dressing and behaving modestly and monitoring when and where they go. However, what makes a person vulnerable to attack is not what they are wearing or where they happen to be, but the position that rigidly heteronormative, patriarchal society place them in.
A young black woman relayed a harrowing personal story to me that occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Cape Town South Africa. She had gone to meet a friend at a hotel where she was dragged out by security and hauled into the back of a police van, distraught and in tears, with no warning or explanation. I was reminded of my own experiences as a young black woman in spaces that automatically eroticise my body, regardless of the way it is presented and regardless of my conduct. In these spaces I am shameful by virtue of my blackness, youthful appearance and womanhood and I am faced with an exaggerated hostility, which must make me aware that I am unwelcome.
Yvette Abrahams quotes Lorraine Hansberry who declared, “…they look at me and they think of sex. They look at me and that’s all they think… you could be Jesus in drag – but if you’re brown they’re sure you’re selling.” Chimamanda Adichie tells a similar story of what it’s like “to be young and female in Lagos.” She maintains, “I cannot go alone to many ‘reputable’ bars and clubs. They just don’t let you in.” In my conversation with the young black woman, mentioned earlier, years after the incident, she told me that it took her a long time to share her experience because of the shame and humiliation she had felt.
Gqola maintains, “the manufacture of female fear uses the threat of rape and other bodily wounding but sometimes mythologises this violence as benefit” (Gqola 2015, p. 79). In this way large groups of men can isolate and attack women and girls in broad daylight on the street under the pretence of ‘teaching them a lesson’ about dressing ‘immodestly.’ These women and girls are characterised as shameful ‘sexual intimidators,’ ‘asking for it,’ ‘fair game’ and so forth. The notion that modesty and careful movement in public can protect women from sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender-based violence is false. Patriarchy and heteronormativity place women and variously gender non-conforming individuals in positions of high risk. Young women are surrounded with constant reminders that their bodies do not belong to them but to heterosexual men and function in service of masculine desire. In my view, all women, and young black women in particular, in patriarchal societies, by virtue of their womanhood, can very easily be characterised as shameful, regardless of how correctly they present and conduct themselves. The naked bodies of women in protest action have been used to disrupt the flow of masculine power in the “female fear factory” (Gqola 2015, p. 78). The response to them indicates the differential treatment of older women, assumed to be mothers, who are afforded greater respect and less likely to be sexualised for consumption; and younger women, automatically perceived as ‘sexually available,’ and given no respect. Ideal femininity is created only to be aspired towards and, along with rigid heteronormative structures and socially condoned violent masculinities, maintains patriarchy by engendering shame.
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