This breast of mine: In solidarity with protesting students of Rhodes University against rape culture
By Precious Banda
"The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China's future belongs to you." Chairman Mao
The above quote are words of Chairman Mao as he addressed Chinese students and trainees in Moscow in November 1957. As I saw images of protesting students in Rhodes University, particularly female students protesting half naked against rape culture, the words of Chairman Mao echoed in my ears. The hope of this Country is placed on those young women protesting with their breasts out, they are the future and the future belongs to them. But for this future that we talk about to be theirs, we need to address the present, and I add and say they are in fact also the present because if they don't own the present and shape the present, the future will never come. Young people and young women to be precise can't just seat and wait for the future to come and deliver itself, we must struggle for the future and this can only be through the present actions and struggles we choose to wage, that is why I strongly support the students in Rhodes University protesting against rape culture.
One of the realities about rape culture is that we cannot fight it unless we see it for what it is. With the debate sparked by protesting students, I was terrified by the kind of remarks passed by males when they see the images of half -naked female protesting students. Most of the comments were a confirmation that we live in environments where rape culture is cool and passing sexist remarks at half naked angry protestors is funny, normal, and acceptable. Behaviours commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these. This is what is happening at Rhodes University and everywhere else in our communities. We therefore need to concede to this painful reality and improve our approach towards fighting rape as it is not only the act of rape we must confront but the culture that reinforce it.
Emilie Buchwald, author of Transforming a Rape Cultures writes; Rape culture is a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm... In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable... However,... much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.
There has been reports of sexual assault and rape on female students in different institutions of higher learning. We must remember that institutions of higher learning are a microcosm of society, the social ills of our society become reflective in institutions of higher learning. What is worse in our communities is that not all rape cases are brought to the attention of the public because women who report rape are viewed as emotionally unstable and bitter. The stigma that the victims face after they have spoken out is so much that it becomes safe not to speak out. Society has convinced us that there is always something wrong with a woman who claims rape. This kind of logic is taken to institutions of higher learning and our female students are expected to be secretive and to concentrate on studying after they have been raped. We need to heighten activism against rape culture in institutions of higher learning because it affects directly the academic output of victims and we must know we are losing a lot as a country if we allow this culture to continue because the fear of being raped restricts the productivity of women in general. We must stop being lenient and understanding on the perpetrators. The campaigns must go beyond Campuses to our villages and all places. We must stop to speak only much about rape but also emphasize rape culture.
Rape culture arises from patriarchal construction of gender. Men are expected to be masculine and dominating. Masculinity defines itself in opposition to women and is inherently superior. Patriarchal logic is highly intolerant of men who are victims themselves of sexual assault because they were brought up to be powerful and in charge and not the opposite. We must deconstruct the notion of masculinity because it dominates women who are seen to be weak and powerless. Men believe they are sexually dominating and women are helpless and cannot measure the strength of men. Culture and tradition are a breeding ground for masculinity where there are certain beliefs attached to manhood and womanhood. We must build a highly conscious society that interrogates behaviours that men think they derive power from. We must unlearn certain things which on a daily basis do nothing but to reproduce patriarchal stereotypes. There is a saying that there cannot be two bulls in a kraal, in gender contexts, the saying means that the only bull that can be there is the man while the woman remains subjected and cooperative to the one bull. The position of being the only bull in a kraal cannot be contested by man and woman, it is bestowed on the man for only being a man, these are attitudes we must unlearn.
We must encourage shaming of perpetrators of rape. Going to jail for a few of them who are found guilty is not enough. They go to jail for rape but remain heroes of other men who as those who really know how to treat stubborn women. Social shaming must happen to challenge those who use masculinity to advance sexual offences. There should be a national database of those accused of rape and another one of those convicted and arrested for rape. This database must be published once a year chronologically in national media and newspapers the way we publish matric results. We must look forward to buying a newspaper on a particular day knowing that we will be knowing how many perverts are listed there and their full identity. This national database apart from being published annually must exist on a site where it is easily accessible any day, anytime and anywhere in the Country by our people. This decisive action of name and shame will assist in exposing sexual offenders and sexual assault suspects. Imagine a man asking you out and you go on the database to check if his clean and has not committed sexual offenses.
Religion whether consciously or unconsciously contributes in reproducing rape culture. Not disregarding the good work of Religion, there is however rigid fundamentalism amongst people of faith that seeks to present women as powerless subjects of men who must look beautiful on standards set by patriarchy, must be gracious, humble and just ready to be subdued by men. Religious conservatives and fundamentalists are always emphasizing that women's role is to obey and submit to men. They are however not interested in establishing what kind of a man must be obeyed and submitted to. I don't think it is in the interest of God to have women to obey and submit to rapists, women abusers, absent fathers, patriarchal chauvinists or any form of irresponsible men. Religion needs to protect women and not be a haven for men who find pleasure in undermining women and use them as sexual objects given to them by God to have sex with whether such women are willing to indulge or not.
At a time when matric results are released, the worry of any poor and working class family is about covering all costs to send their child to University or college for the first time. The pressure to give up at this stage when ends can't meet is more on the girl child than the boy child especially in our rural areas. The girl child in the rural periphery is a target for making a young wife to some man who must inherit the burden of providing for her. Sometimes families concede in our villages and give away their young daughters to marriage and it becomes economic relief. Therefore, I was highly excited to hear that there was a municipality in the KZN giving bursaries to a girl child. It meant that such a municipality understood the vulnerable state that the girl child finds herself in especially in rural areas. It was however deplorable to hear that such a bursary was reserved for those who passed virginity testing. So the girl child was supposed to pass matric and pass virginity testing!
So somewhere in our Country, we have a municipality saying a girl's worth in receiving the bursary is not how hard she worked at school in her matric exams despite the burden of servitude attached to her in the homestead but is how pure she has reserved herself for a man. They are saying girls who have dreams and want to pursue different carriers can only do so if they are pure (virgins) reserved to be indulged later by men. Those who were raped, gave in because of societal pressures and patriarchal socialisation are not good enough to study and realise their dreams. Such bullshit is an epitome of how entrenched patriarchy is in our systems, government, political organisations, and society as a whole. We need to confront cultures such as virginity testing and expose how it continues to subjugate and commodify women, declaring them worthy or unworthy using flawed patriarchal stereotypes and logic.
The protests at Rhodes have brought back the debate of rape culture in to the public discourse and we need to credit them for that. We need to appreciate their choice of protest showing half their bodies naked. Nakedness carries gendered connotations that are embedded in the history and cultural baggage of different societies and are intertwined with the ideologies of racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, homophobia, and other systems of oppression. Barbara Sutton in her offering titled naked protests explains that a naked body is a symbol of resistance and an object of repression, highlighting how the meanings of nakedness are marked by gender and connected systems of social inequality. While women bodies are seen as sexual commodities, naked bodies of resistance in protest challenge the very same logic.
Barbara Sutton further says the power and vulnerability of women 's sexualised bodies have been grounds to justify violence against women in many societies. A woman with scant clothing, a woman with clothing deemed indecent, a woman who chooses to assert her sexuality, or a woman who resorts to sexuality as a means of survival, may be judged as morally suspect and therefore deserving to be physically punished, raped, or murdered and this kind of violence occurs regardless of women 's sexual demeanour or appearance. Women are trying to reconfigure nakedness on their own terms and not when men want us to undress for their pleasure.
The naked breasts you saw from protesting female students are not the ones you are used to seeing in magazines and websites selling beauty products and sexuality, the students half naked protest do not embody prevailing patriarchal ideas of beauty and sex, theirs is to proudly and angrily convey a message, a different kind of message. Their nakedness is a critique of our socialisation and the abusive constructs that exists. Young women in Rhodes University are saying we are not going to hide our bodies anymore as a symbol to reclaim our being as women and our fight against patriarchy. They are expanding their space to be heard and to speak and challenge rape culture in their institution and everywhere else. And while the brave students are busy with this symbolic and historic action, one wonders why police are deployed to threaten them. The deployment of police is a serious attempt to silence young women and to deny them an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the system that protects rapists in institutions of higher learning and society at large.
The struggle must continue and we hope that other student activists will find means in their institutions to communicate their disgust at rape culture and make their Universities to adopt policies that protect rape victims and is harsh on the offender. Nationally we must begin to debate on castrating rapists as a form of punishment and prevention of future vagina penetration by the same perpetrator. I stand in solidarity with all rape victims and it is in their name that we will continue to fight. Malibongwe
Precious Banda is a National Committee and Political Commission member of the YCLSA
Former SASCO TG
Winner of Eskia Mphahlele creative writing award 2012 and 2013