23 March, 2008

She Didn't Ask For It

Being a woman is gloriously complex. Being a woman requires embracing the contradictory. Being a woman can also be dangerous.

Remember the putrid and widely condemned assertion expressed by Sydney’s Sheik Hilali, in the wake of a gang rape trial, that women who do not dress according to conservative Islamic standards are like uncovered meat which invites wild cats to devour it?

Across the Indian Ocean, in South Africa (SA), there are echoes of the Hilali controversy in the aftermath of the rape of a woman at Johannesburg’s central taxi rank by men who purportedly told by-standers they were teaching her a lesson for wearing a mini-skirt.

25 year old Nwabisa Ngcukana was walking with her friends through the Noord St taxi rank when she was set upon by taxi drivers and hawkers. They reportedly tore at her clothes and digitally raped her while bystanders abused her, some dousing her head with alcohol. “As they stripped me they kept shouting that this is what I wanted. Some were sticking their finger in my vagina while others poured alcohol over my head and called me all sorts of names,” she told the Sowetan. "It was terrifying, I was crying while they were swearing at me," she said.

Nwabisa Ngcukana was eventually rescued by security guards whose duty it is to patrol the notorious rank where three other women were similarly assaulted on the same day and a spate of attacks was reported in in 2002. But they were hardly sympathetic to her plight. “Instead they mocked me and asked what was I thinking parading around in a miniskirt at a taxi rank. They further told me that three other women were stripped naked earlier for wearing a short skirt,” she said.

“When my friends came into my defence saying I had a right to wear whatever I liked they just laughed at me and said this is the kind of attitude that makes taxi drivers do these things."

"They even refused to call the police saying that they did it the last time and police did nothing.” Such a lax attitude to rape is probably as much symptomatic as it is causative. SA has the highest rate of rape in the world according to Interpol – along with the highest rate of AIDS infection. According to some reports, one South African is raped every 26 seconds.

But Nwabisa Ngcukana is an extraordinarily brave woman, determined, even in the face of violation, to assert her claim to human rights under the lauded SA constitution. Freedom of choice to wear what she chooses is a symbolic right she was prepared to fight for. Instead of hiding from her pain, three weeks later, she led a march of hundreds of toyi-toying (traditional African protest dance ) women – many wearing mini-skirts - on the Noord St taxi rank. "I am beautiful and I am strong,” she said as she walked back into the lair of her attackers.

The Mail & Guardian (M&G)reported that the women carried placards which read "Humiliating a woman is a sin before God" and "So gcoka izigcebhe masifuna (We will wear miniskirts when we want)"

Earlier that week another group of marchers led by the Remmoho Women's Forum was confronted by recalcitrant men at the taxi rank who were determined to try to disempower them. During that protest, hundreds of taxi drivers and by-standers burst into the anachronistic ANC call to arms song, Umshini Wami (Bring Me my Machine Gun), which has been re-popularised by the polygamist President-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, who was acquitted of raping a family friend in 2006. One of the arguments put by the defence during the trial was that the alleged victim had provoked the sexual encounter by wearing a kanga (traditional sarong) during a visit to Zuma's house. The men also vowed to continue stripping women wearing miniskirts, claiming a cultural defence, and flashed their genitals at the marchers.

A spokeswoman for the Forum, Nosipho Twala, told the M & G "They were saying, 'Nathi siyakwazi ukukhumula zifebe ndini (We know how to strip like these whores)' … they assured us that no one will enter the rank wearing mini-skirts and they even threatened to shoot us."

Female journalists attempting to cover the story reported being sexually harassed while using public transport on assignment, highlighting the widespread problem of sexual assault in SA. As Twala pointed out, it’s about power, not fashion “…this is not an isolated incident. Thousands of women travel by taxi daily. Many of us are treated badly and in many cases we are sexually harassed, abused and even raped."

Some attempts were made to defend the behaviour of the taxi-rapists on cultural grounds reminiscent of the Hilali controversy. Women should dress in a dignified manner out of respect for themselves, and to avoid provocation to rape, so went the argument. But this argument was never going to wash in a country where African cultural traditions which celebrate and parade female sexuality continue to be practised: some traditional acts require women to wear a form of mini-skirt and dance bare breasted, for example. "The National House of Traditional Leaders strongly condemns those who hide behind culture or exploit it to push their personal agendas," spokesperson Mandlenkosi Amos Linda told the M & G.

"At no point has culture dictated to young lasses to wear dresses that (go) below their knees and neither has it dictated to men to assault young women who choose to wear miniskirts," Linda said. He did, however, go on to say “it is culturally correct for married women to dress properly in respect of their husbands.” This sexist notion is presumably tied up with concepts of a man’s “ownership” of his wife and, of course, his ego. This attitude clearly needs transforming if married SA women are to be beneficiaries of the same legislative protection the Traditional Leaders claimed in defence of younger women’s right to wear a mini-skirt.

And this culturally entrenched sexism is far from exclusively African. Apart from the Hilali episode, the recent up-skirting of Maxine McKew comes to mind in the Australian setting. Apologists for the Canberra Times’ blatantly sexist coverage of McKew’s victory over John Howard were quick to resurrect the “she asked for it" defence. According to this reading, if McKew didn’t want to have a photograph taken from such an invasive angle, she should have worn pants. Such comments, along with incredibly vitriolic personal attacks launched against me by posters on this blog and Crikey!, highlighted just how far gender transformation still has to go to in Australia before equality between the sexes can be celebrated.

An excellent blog post on the South African Thought Leader site written by Mandela Rhodes Scholar, Rumbi Goredema, about the Johannesburg taxi-rank rape elicited some similar responses. This is, in part, what Rumbi wrote:

At the root of the Noord Street march is this simple fact: women are tired of feeling that in order to gain acceptance (or, at the very least, respite from all the sexual innuendo), we have to regulate our bodies. We are afraid that in these bodies, which we want to be able to celebrate, we will never be seen as people…That humanity ought to extend to include our bodies. Our bodies are a part of us, and when you recognise us in your workplace, in your classroom, in your taxi as people, we demand (that’s right, I said it) that you recognise our bodies as part of our status as full human beings, and act accordingly.

Some days, I walk down my street to catch the shuttle to campus, or from the shuttle stop back home. Every time I do so, this seemingly mundane task is one that causes me great anxiety and righteous rage. I cannot walk down my street without some guy saying something. What should be a leisurely 10- to 15-minute walk from A to B has become an obstacle course in which it is my task to dodge solicitations and ignore cat calls and requests (if that, usually it’s demands) for my number from men I don’t even know, men old enough to be my father, men I have grown to hate.

Because I am female, I am, it seems fair game. Anyone who’s anyone can have a go, can yell obscenities at me and can remind me every day that no matter how smart I am, no matter what I achieve, I have breasts, and that makes me a piece of meat.

I wrote in reply:

The subjugation of women and acquisition of our bodies by men is indeed an international problem. I’m sitting at my desk in Australia – where the rape stats are no where near as alarming as those confronting SA – but I am also worried about walking to my car in a distant University car park now that it’s dark. …

(Your story) reminds me of the sexist premise that underpins the demand that women cover up. I was told by a church minister when I was 14 that I should dress more demurely because “men don’t have as much self control as women and women need to protect them from their sinfulness”. What a cop out! I responded: “Well if women are more responsible and powerful why is it that you only allow men to be in charge of congregations?” Suffice it to say he was stumped and I became a journalist.

There were encouraging posts in response to Rumbi's blog from men who reminded me why I continue to find their species attractive, despite the repellent activities of so many of them. Pheko wrote: “Women have a right to wear what they feel like without fear of harassment by men with low egos who feel better only after humiliating some powerless young woman”. And, Brent observed, “In the 50’s thousands of amazing wonderful women marched (unmolested) for the freedom of everyone and now one lady can’t even walk to a taxi rank, please political leaders tell us why not.”

But then came the posts from the ignorant, sexists flying the “she asked for it” flag. Lazola wrote “Wear whatever you like but you must not steal a limelight from the prostitutes because they might be angry at you thinking that you want to close their business down.” Someone calling himself "His Service" (whose service, I wonder? Delusions of Godly representation, perhaps?) “If you don’t want to be perceived as a slut you mustn’t be (sic) dress like one”

Being the baitable woman, I am, I replied:

To both of you: how would you judge someone who stole a tasty treat from the mouth of a child? Would it be the fault of the treat that you were tempted to act unethically and treacherously? Or, would it be a product of your basic indecency that you were unable to suppress desire unmatched by consent or invitation? And, what do you make of people being shot for their mobile phones or designer sneakers? The fault of the tempting accoutrements, perhaps?

“His Service” took issue with my reply and posted this comment addressed to me: “Your fantasy of walking the streets dressed almost with nothing without attention from the opposite sex is greatly unreal. Either you like it or you don’t what (sic) you wear will determine the number of dates you might get.” Ridiculous, illogical, sexist and without foundation – yes. But “His Service” did get me thinking about the perceived dichotomy of female sexual identity, and the apparent confusion still experienced by some men as they attempt to navigate modern male-female interactions.

On the one hand, women demand power over their own bodies – to determine with whom they have sex and on what terms. And bound up in this, is the freedom to choose how to dress – choice which spans the right to cover one's head with a hijab, in the context of secular laws that attempt to dictate women’s clothing, through to the right to wear clothing as scant as public decency laws allow.

But on the other hand, we acknowledge that our physical attractiveness to heterosexual men is also bound up with power. The femme fatale stereotype has its application. Yes, we want to be desired and the way we dress may reflect that yearning. We know a cinched waist, or a hint of cleavage, or the display of well toned legs is becoming…and we know it’s likely to attract the attention of interested men.

But here’s the catch, boys (lest there be any confusion about our intentions): we reserve the right to entertain or reject your advances. It is within our power to do so, and it is within your power to cop rejection without resort to assault and rape.

And, the bottom line is: women are more than meat. We are the sum total of body, soul, mind, heart, wit and many other characteristics that we want valued equally and collectively. We embrace the distinctions between the sexes, but we demand freedom of choice and freedom from fear in our interactions with men.

Cheris Kramerae, author of A Feminist Dictionary (1996), said “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings”. And we deserve and demand our human rights – it’s well past time they were recognised…all over the world.

Note: Despite multiple apologies from taxi organisations and promises to hand-deliver the assailants, along with commitments to action from government officials and police, no arrests have been made in connection with the Johannesburg taxi-rank rape.

Aside: Concurrently, as we women try to embrace our sexuality and gender specificity amidst Feminism’s Third Wave, we are accused by some members of the Sisterhood of betrayal. Last week my Facebook status read: “Julie is a feminist and she bakes. She’s also quite comfortable wearing her (ample) cleavage as an accessory: deal with it people!” Some older feminists’ suspicion of displayed female sexuality is, in effect, a form of pandering to chauvinism and it also offends me.

1 comment:

David said...

I suppose if a woman "was asking for it" she would use words rather than the way she chooses to dress. Maybe that's too obvious. Being attracted to women is part of life, mistaking attraction for permission is simply wrong.

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