Some 2 000 provocatively dressed protesters marched through Cape Town on Saturday, bringing an international campaign against the notion that a woman’s appearance can excuse attacks to a country where rape is seen as a national crisis.
Men wore miniskirts and women draped sexy lingerie over their street clothes as they walked a route where fans partied during last year’s football world cup. Some protesters pushed their children in strollers and carried signs declaring, “Rapists rape people, not outfits”, and “Weak men rape”.
“It’s very important that women should understand that their dignity should not be taken away from them,” said Tayla Orgill, who was among the Cape Town walkers.
According to the most recent police statistics, more than 55 000 cases of rape and indecent assault were reported in South Africa from 2009 to 2010. The number of sexual offences against women climbed nearly 20% from the previous year, according to police.
When Toronto policeman Michael Sanguinetti offered advice to students on how to avoid sexual assault he could not have imagined that he would spark an international movement that manifested itself in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised,” Sanguinetti told a crime safety forum meeting at a Toronto university in January this year.
His throwaway comment inspired Slutwalk, a protest movement against linking rape to what women wear.
Johannesburg will host a similar event at Zoo Lake on September 24.
It is a pertinent issue in South Africa. In 2008 taxi drivers stripped and assaulted a women at the Noord Street taxi rank in Johannesburg because she was wearing a miniskirt, while in the Eastern Cape there have been reports of women targeted in taxis because they wear pants instead of long skirts.
Two friends, Heather Jarvis and Sonya Barnett, initiated the movement in Canada, to display their outrage about the attitude of police to what women wear.
About 3 000 people joined the first Slutwalk in Toronto, wearing colourful outfits including miniskirts, ball gowns, tracksuits, tuxedoes and pyjamas. In some of the demonstrations that have followed, protesters have gone bare-breasted.
Six months later hundreds of similar marches have been held around the world, including in Mexico City, London, Orlando, Delhi and Melbourne. Commentators describe Slutwalk as the most successful feminist protest action in 20 years.
The central purpose of Slutwalk is to remove shame from the term “slut” and reclaim women’s space and right to sexual self-assertion.
Mbuyiselo Botha, of the Sonke Gender Justice Organisation, said that the campaign aimed to give a voice to the voiceless.
“You’re aware of the horrible rape statistics in South Africa. This is why it’s important to shout about this issue from the rooftops.
“We have to change the view that women’s clothing is responsible for them getting raped,” he said, pointing out that space had to be created for women to walk the streets free of fear. Though Slutwalk is an important statement it is part of a range of campaigns intended to change South African attitudes to sexual violence, he said.
But the protests have hit opposition as well. Reacting to the London Slutwalk, columnist Rob Liddle wrote in the Spectator: “Just as I have a perfect right to leave my windows open when I nip to the shops for some fags without being burgled. It doesn’t lessen the guilt of the burglar that I’ve left my window open, or even remotely suggest that I was deserving of being burgled. Just that it was more likely to happen. Why is this difficult to understand?”
Liddle’s argument drew significant support.
South Africa’s Slutwalk organisers say whether you are “a fellow slut or simply an ally, you don’t have to wear your sexual proclivities on your sleeve. We just ask that you come. Come walk or roll or strut or holler or stomp with us.” — M&G, Sapa