The recent highly publicised spate of kidnappings, sexual assaults and murders of women across the country has not only instilled fear but also highlighted the many problematic thoughts and feelings that we have about rape.
The case that stood out recently is that of Karabo Mokoena, who was allegedly brutally murdered by her boyfriend after suffering physical abuse. There was a striking unanimity in public comments about how beautiful she was and it seemed difficult for people to grasp why anyone would think to kill “someone so beautiful”.
The fact that her case received more attention than the other daily occurrences of violence against women can easily be attributed to how attractive she was and therefore seen to be better than other women who were not as beautiful, although they suffered the same fate.
It cannot be denied that we live in a society that places more value on those who are conventionally attractive than those who are not. So, naturally, the story elicited more sympathy from the public.
Three false assumptions are created about violence against women: beautiful women are at lower risk, “ugly” people deserve to be violated and violence against women rests on themselves. It skews the discussion about acts of violence against women and leaves no room to discuss the important issue of why men rape and how we make it stop.
It also distracts us from another point, that of analysing how beauty is constructed in patriarchy and, as a function of patriarchy, creates different dynamics in the objectification of women.
In an article on the catapult.co website, writer Jess Zimmerman directs us to something important: “Women’s beauty is seen as something separate from us, something we owe but never own. We are its stewards, not its beneficiaries. We tend it like a garden where we do not live.”
As women, we are required to be beautiful, not for ourselves but to be afforded value. It is our continual duty to maintain our looks. We are led to believe it is in our own best interests. But there’s a catch.
In this patriarchal system, it is men who decide what is beautiful and what is not. It is not based on one specific standard, but is a “gift” given to women to show they are worthy of specific attention.
It is not something you own, it is a privilege you are given that only lasts as long as it serves the giver. As women, we do not own our bodies, let alone our beauty.
The narrative about why Mokoena stayed with an abusive partner rested not only on the difficulty of leaving the relationship but also on the fact that, as a beautiful woman, she could have found a “better man” — once again feeding the violent beast that her beauty should have protected her from.
This is the reigning narrative when we speak of the MenAreTrash hashtag, that perhaps you just need to find a “better man”. That it is your fault, when bestowed this thing of beauty, to be so reckless as to find yourself with someone who is willing to abuse you.
Then the beauty you have been given has gone to waste.
The value placed on Karabo’s beauty can be seen as something separate from herself, her being. It did not humanise her; it further objectified her.
The ire in men’s responses to the violence enacted upon her were responses that centred on themselves. It was not that as a beautiful person she was taken, but that as a beautiful object she was no longer available for them to admire and own.
Police Minister Fikile Mbalula spoke at a recent event about Mokoena’s murder, ranting against her murderer for killing “such a beautiful girl, a yellow bone”.
Making men central to the narrative — focusing on losing a beautiful object rather than the brutality of the act — implies that perhaps the killer should have destroyed someone less valuable. But a thing nonetheless.
Lebo Mojapelo is an academic editor with Post Script and a literary scholar. She has a keen passion for feminist writing