It’s time to deal with the de­nial of rape

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Rape: A South African Night­mare by Pumla Di­neo Gqola MF Books R220 rec­om­mended re­tail price 320 pages

Var­i­ous fem­i­nists have ar­gued that vi­o­lence is one of the con­sti­tu­tive el­e­ments of South African so­ci­ety. It is such an in­ti­mate core that it grounds both his­toric and con­tem­po­rary iden­tity for­ma­tion and con­tes­ta­tion. In other words, ex­pla­na­tions for the scourge of vi­o­lence in South Africa need to be con­tex­tu­alised both against this back­drop of nor­malised and in­grained vast his­to­ries of vi­o­lence and fem­i­nist un­der­stand­ings that misog­y­nist and het­eronor­ma­tive vi­o­lence are man­i­fes­ta­tions that re­flect and per­pet­u­ate the very pa­tri­ar­chal na­ture of South African so­ci­ety.

Although fem­i­nists and other gen­der pro­gres­sives would still wage crit­i­cal war against gen­der-based vi­o­lence un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, it is in­te­gral to the suc­cesses we carve to keep an eye on the myr­iad ways in which ex­pe­ri­ences and jus­ti­fi­ca­tions of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence are used to ex­cuse or jus­tify gen­der-based vi­o­lence as well.

South Africa is a coun­try in deep de­nial about the causes of var­i­ous phe­nom­ena such as gen­der-based vi­o­lence. As I put the last words down in this book, I re­alise how much the process of writ­ing this has ac­tu­ally il­lu­mi­nated for me. One of the most frus­trat­ing things in my think­ing and work on rape over the last two decades has been my in­abil­ity to re­ally un­der­stand how women who were them­selves once raped do not feel em­pa­thy for those who speak of their own rape. I knew it had some­thing to do with the way in which pa­tri­archy says that women do not mat­ter, that they/we are not fully hu­man.

In the lan­guage of Black­ness, pa­tri­archy re­ally in­cul­cates self-hate in women like all vi­o­lent op­pres­sive sys­tems do. Yet, some­how this never felt like enough of an an­swer.

I un­der­stood why sur­vivors warn oth­ers against press­ing charges or oth­er­wise go­ing public. What con­tin­ued to bother me were the ways in which some sur­vivors taunt and oth­er­wise sub­ject other sur­vivors to sec­ondary vic­tim­i­sa­tion. As I watch women ques­tion, taunt, dis­be­lieve and help per­se­cute other women who speak out against rape, the ques­tion has stayed with me. As I re-read an es­say I was very fa­mil­iar with, Yvette Abra­hams’s Was Eva raped?, a dif­fer­ent il­lu­mi­na­tion came upon me, as I read the sec­tion on how rape makes the as­saulted less than hu­man.

Abra­hams writes that be­cause rape changes a sur­vivor’s in­ter­nal world in dev­as­tat­ing ways, bring­ing about a real cri­sis in who she is and how things work, a sur­vivor has to make sense of it some­how, and this is para­mount. There­fore any mean­ing that al­lows her to make sense of it can be taken on board and used; even a mean­ing that en­gen­ders guilt in the sur­vivor is prefer­able to help­less­ness. Prefer­able is not quite an ap­pro­pri­ate word for what I mean here be­cause this is a ‘pref­er­ence’ in the ab­sence of any heal­ing, self-af­firm­ing re­source. It is harder some­times when faced with trauma to con­stantly re­visit what she could have done dif­fer­ently than to ar­rive at a con­clu­sion, even a harm­ful one.

Abra­hams writes: “Hu­man­ness is a qual­ity which is hard to live with­out. To re­act to rape by im­pli­cat­ing one­self may not be the best re­ac­tion, but it is a work­able one. Thus the de­hu­man­i­sa­tion of rape does not lie in the act alone, nor only in the mem­ory of it, but in the trauma which in­duces the rape vic­tim to deny her own sub­jec­tiv­ity. Para­dox­i­cally, her path back to full hu­man­ness be­comes blocked by the ne­ces­sity of grant­ing the rapist a hu­man face.”

We need to re­think how we move away from the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in which there is too lit­tle on hold­ing per­pe­tra­tors ac­count­able. Although we have ren­dered gen­der-based vi­o­lence ab­nor­mal in public talk and at le­gal level as suc­ces­sive fem­i­nists in the world, we have man­aged to do this with­out min­imis­ing it. It is still com­mon­place, and many vi­o­lent men can just say they dis­ap­prove and dis­tance them­selves at the same time as go­ing back to act­ing in vi­o­lent ways.

It is im­per­a­tive to cre­ate the kinds of re­al­i­ties that give sur­vivors health­ier choices to make sense of sur­viv­ing rape, to look at the ways in which our tools have not only stopped work­ing, but the many ways in which their co-op­tion en­ables them to work in an­tifem­i­nist ways. I no longer think a mi­nor­ity of men are hold­ing us hostage. It is a painful re­al­i­sa­tion and way to live, and one that I have re­sisted for most of my life, and it may be one I will move through to dis­cover joy on the other side.

In the mean­time, I think we need to re­build a mass­based fem­i­nist move­ment, a clearer sense of who our al­lies in this fight re­ally are, to re­turn to women’s spa­ces as we de­velop new strate­gies and ways to speak again in our own name, to push back against the back­lash that threat­ens to swal­low us all whole. This ex­tract is taken from Rape: A South African

Night­mare by Pumla Di­neo Gqola

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