/ 23 February 2021

The threat of rape helps keep the vulnerable in line

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Who do South Africans think does the raping in this country — the level of rape that one sees in active conflict zones? The scale of rape that it gets to be called by what it is — a femicide?

“Real men don’t rape.”

“He’s as gentle as a lamb.”  

“Educated men don’t rape.”

Who do South Africans think does the raping in this country — the level of rape that one sees in active conflict zones? The scale of rape that it gets to be called by what it is — a femicide?

Imaginary men? Only aggressive men? Only the uneducated?

Women and queer people know about the threat of violence that faces us just by going out of our doors everyday — every single day. The threat of rape, molestation, harassment, verbal or physical in every shape and form. Sometimes we know this threat more intimately because we don’t even have to go out of the door — it is inside our homes.

All of it is violence. All of it comes from men. Not imaginary men, not only uneducated men, but also men who are gentle to others but brutal rapists to those whom they abuse.

The words of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga last week were a psycho-social blow to those who live in a country where rape is an unrelenting tsunami of terror. These words came from an elected official; the chief administrator of those who are most vulnerable to rape: Children. Learners at schools.

It is a sad day indeed when activists, NGOs and other organisations have to call for a minister of education to be given training on the hows and whys of gender-based violence. By no means do I expect us all to be experts on the realm of feminist politics. But certainly, we know that this is a pandemic which has been sweeping across the country, generation upon generation and continues to do so. It is so endemic that one wonders if it’s threaded through the nation’s fabric. 

Yet how is that some of us can be so oblivious to the way rape plays itself out in South Africa? Especially those of us who hold positions in educational institutions?

Feminist speaker, journalist and American-Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy often writes and makes reference to the “footsoldiers of the patriarchy” when she identifies women in powerful positions (often white women, according to Eltahawy) who engage in patriarchal apologia — a societal culture of defenses for misogyny. This is what the minister did, whether intentionally or not — no matter how conversationally and informally she spoke when she made those remarks.

The minister for basic education in South Africa spoke in defence of men who rape (let that sink in for more than a moment).

By assuming educated men are sophisticated and thus do not rape, rape becomes a class-based act — the bourgeoisie don’t rape — something we all should know is a fallacy, a notion that is bunk and destructive.

Her comments would lead us to believe that where those who are uneducated rape, we must give them a pass because they don’t know better. This is nonsense. Men do know better. This is the harmful apologia on which rape culture is further built. 

I am fortunate enough to never have been raped. I have been harassed, touched without consent, cat-called. Women think that these things are normal, but when you really grapple with the hierarchy of rape culture you realise this is abuse too. I cannot imagine what rape victims must have experienced when hearing the mInister’s words this week. My heart goes out to them, I stand with them in solidarity.

Those victims — women, queer and non-binary persons, trans folk, other men — raped by professors, molested by teachers, by members of the clergy, sports coaches, acclaimed philosophers … all are celebrated “men of letters”, each with impressive italicised qualification after their names.  

It reminded me of how Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida Derrida and Simone de Beauvoir, among many French intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, tried to argue for the lowering of the already low age of consent in France. It reminded me, as someone who worked in higher education for a good while, how universities and schools are a site of predation for rapists. Because there educated rapists can use their power, acclaim and influence to create the conditions to use rape culture for their abuses.  It reminded me how everytime I tried to raise the issue that rape is a very real matter on sites of education, I would get shut down, often by the very men who would identify as allies to feminist praxis.

Which brings me to the notion that if the minister meant men who aren’t educated about rape and specifically consent — those who believe that once a partner has said yes they can’t say no a few minutes later — that those men are the ones who rape because they’re not educated enough about sexual and gender-based violence. This could be possible, and there is a lot to be said for educating men as early as possible about how violent misogyny, gifted to society by unchecked patriarchy, allows men to keep women, queer and other vulnerable people in line.

But, boys and men are raised in patriarchal societies from a very early age to know that while they themselves may never rape, the threat of rape helps them keep women and queer people in line. Because benevolent patriarchy, in the shape of chivalry, is another structural vector to police those in fear of being raped. What can be said is this: whether educated or not, whether sophisticated or not, the threat of rape in society works to benefit all men as much as it works to destroy women and queer persons, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

This last point makes it very clear to me how rape apologia, rape culture and the norms that govern who we think does the raping (and who doesn’t) are a form of gender terrorism. In the early 2000s there was the “War on Terror” by George W. Bush’s America, a dystopian worldview carved for American hegemonic interest. In my mind, South Africa women and queer persons have been subjected to a “War by Terror” of rape and threat thereof, from men for generations, if not centuries. 

This is masculine hegemony in action. This terror stems from a conservative, patriarchal, “strong father” trope, of ultra-masculinity and authority and power above all else. It’s about a forcible oppression and suppression of women and queer persons so that we toe the line and keep our heads down, know our place in a regimented society. If this sounds familiar it should be — these are some of the very basic facets of fascism, only with a change of a few words bringing in a gendered lens.So I am but left to ask: when do we begin to confront the actual gendered fascism and its stormtroopers in South African society? For that is really what is behind the horrific femicide here.