Our universities must stop being sites of women abuse

On Women’s Day the body of Khensani Maseko was lowered to its resting place. This was the saddest depiction of the country South Africa has become.

It was a massive blow on the community our universities have become. Maseko took her life after posting words that should echo loud and clearly in our country – “NOBODY DESERVES TO BE RAPED”.

One should input further on that and state clearly that nobody deserves to be violated in whatever form. Some have claimed that the death of Khensani shook the nation because her rape had happened at the University currently known as Rhodes. This is because given the prestige of the place one would not expect such abnormal and dehumanising behaviour, suggesting that Rhodes should have instilled a superior intellectual enlightenment in its students that outpaces the vices of society. But this is not true.

READ MORE: Rhodes rages after suicide

The nation recently experienced a chilling moment when Zolile Khumalo, a student at the Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), was brazenly killed by her former boyfriend in one of the institution’s residences. Upon her death there was an outcry on violence, safety and security of university residences etc.

But this is not the core crisis.

One University of KwaZulu-Natal, recently speaking to The Witness — a regional newspaper, said Khensani died a lonely death. The UKZN student went on to say, “She [Khensani] was misunderstood, her cries for help fell on deaf ears. Support for her wasn’t availed with the kind of urgency that was needed.” 

This student speaks with such condition because she herself was raped by a fellow student earlier this year. As the nation was mourning Khensani, this UKZN student was recovering from hospital after yet another attempt to take her life. This recent attempt was triggered by seeing her rapist on campus in violation of his suspension conditions.

Again from an institution of higher learning, a video went viral from the University of Fort Hare where a male student was seen physically assaulting a woman student until she fell to the floor. Women students retaliated by parading the assaulter through campus as a way of shaming him for his deeds. There are numerous stories that never make it to the press about the unsafe nature of the university space for women. Clearly our universities are no welcoming safe spaces for women. Instead they have become sites of precarious, fear-filled, existence. It is almost an anxious and uncertain type of existence, where men in these institutions render women subhuman for their own benefit.

Part of this extends to the more intimate residence spaces of relationships where women are expected to cook daily for their partners, do laundry on weekends and service the needs of the partner ahead of their studies. All the while the boyfriend is studying in the library or participating in extramural activities because he is certain that his needs are being taken care of. Such is the continuing pervasive patriarchal dominance in our institutions of higher learning.

READ MORE: South Africa’s killer men, smiling and unfazed

What is behind this crisis? Is the education project failing? Should we expect more from students born from this society of intergenerational abuse and degradation of women? The university is no holy cow. Even though there seems to be agreement that the first university in the world was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, in Fez, Morocco. This was in 859 AD and the institution continues to operate as the University of Al Quaraouiyine. No doubt Fatima was a colossal pioneering intellectual of her time.

However, much of the academia that dominates the world over has borrowed much of its existence from European universities, founded as enclaves of masculinity nurturing and the creation of a racist and sexist body of knowledge.

Take the University of Bologna founded in 1088. It was not until the 1700s that the first woman would be accepted as a student. Reflecting on this Giuseppina Maltoni writing in 2013 asserted that women in Italy, just three centuries ago, had no social and cultural rights.

Oxford University, the oldest English-speaking university officially founded in 1167, passed a statute to admit women into full membership only in 1920. Yes, the ever prestigious Oxford took almost 800 years to accept women as equals to men. This paved way for some degrees to be backdated as some women had sat for exams, passed even with distinction but could not be conferred the degrees. But the backdating was not that far, it was merely to 1877. This is the true nature and foundation of the university — a place so masculinity, so butch and so slow to transform. It now seems futile to pose the question: is the education project failing? It seems the education project has generally always failed when it comes to humanising society. But we dare not let this stop us from making serious demands to our institutions. A friend of mine said to me “what I am seeing is one gender failing to accept another” in these universities. He was at pains attempting to understand what is to be done?

There are no easy answers.

But the first part is for our vice-chancellors to come out to the nation and confess that they are leading institutions that are haunted by perilous cultures that need to be dealt with soon. These cultures pierce themselves through in many ways. They are felt by female academics struggling to gain promotion. They are felt by women being paid different to their male counterparts. They are felt by women seeking to go on maternity leave being presented with impossible demands. They are felt by women who feel they cannot take advantage of working through the night because their safety is not guaranteed. 

The university councils and managements can no longer treat the cultures (overt and subliminal) that oppress women as mere incidents that troubleshoot from time to time. Our universities embody these cultures in the manner in which they react to the suffering of women.

READ MORE: Strike down rape culture

Matters are either swept under the carpet with underhanded deals worked out to secure the silence of affected women or there is great lethargy and laxity in institutional responses. This victimises women further and creates uncaring institutions.

Many men have been asking “what is rape culture?” I think I just attempted to answer. Put more explicitly rape culture in universities refers to a condition where the violation of women bodies happens in an environment that is almost disinterested and incapable of ensuring that there are consequences for such violations.

Our universities appear to be failing to transform positively the thinking of young men that walk through the corridors and imbibe education in the lecture halls. Perhaps, the bigger crisis is that our universities are refusing proposals for epistemic disruption towards more transformative and decolonial forms of education that put at their centre the humanisation of society. Some call this a need for transgressive learning. A story for another day.

But here and now we must tell our universities to stop being killing fields of women’s bodies, minds and spirits.

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Lukhona Mnguni
Guest Author

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