EXTRACT: Rape: A South African Nightmare

An excerpt from the book by PUMLA DINEO GQOLA.Pumla Dineo Gqola

The manufacture of female fear uses the threat of rape and other bodily wounding but sometimes mythologises this violence as benefit. Under capitalism work is codified as respectability. Those who are without work are shamed while those who work are said to have dignity. To want to work redeems the worker from a fate of uselessness, dependency and laziness. Those who seek to take the factory apart, want to determine compensation or want to own their labour are demonised.

Like a real factory, it takes up public physical space, requires many bodies and different components. Like an assembly line, it involves movement with the addition of components as the belt moves seamlessly from post to post. It is a machine set to work in one direction and one that could injure those who get in the way. Interfering promises injury to any body parts that attempt to interfere with the process. It needs a power source and is a very effective process of production. Its products are for ready consumption and although harmful it finds such high circulation that it seems normal. Although the product is female fear, its products are generalised fear in all audiences.

The threat of rape is an effective way to remind women that they are not safe and that their bodies are not entirely theirs. It is an exercise in power that communicates that the man creating fear has power over the woman who is the target of his attention; it also teaches women who witness it about their vulnerability either through reminding them of their own previous fear or showing them that it could happen to them next. It is an effective way to keep women in check and often results in women curtailing their movement in a physical and psychological manner.

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check. It also sometimes works to remind some men and trans-people that they are like women, and therefore also rapable. It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings. This chapter, on the female fear factory explores the many sites wherein female fear is manufactured. South Africa’s public culture is infused with this phenomenon.

The manufacture of female fear requires several aspects to work: the safety of the aggressor, the vulnerability of the target, the successful communication by the aggressor that he has power to wound, rape and/or kill the target with no consequences to himself. Women are socialised to look away from the female fear factory – to pretend it is not happening and to flee when ignoring it becomes impossible. Patriarchy trains us all to be receptive to the conditions that produce – and reproduce – female fear, especially when it is not our own bodies on the assembly line.

Examples illustrate best, they can work as evidence, and it is to four examples that I now turn for recognition and illumination

In the winter of 2013, feminist Lebo Pule shared a story about being in a shop in the Johannesburg CBD where a young man harassed a young woman. It is a familiar site where violence, gender and sexuality rub up against one another. As Pule looks on, the young man tries to get the young woman’s attention by calling out to her, addressing her in increasingly direct ways. When she continues to ignore him, his aggression grows, he starts to goad her.

Although she does not utter any words, she communicates her disinterest in his attention through her body language, a language that is recognisable to Pule and the other spectators in the shop, and also one clearly understood by the young man in pursuit. She does not speak back. When he persists, she walks away, all the while refusing to return his gaze.

In various ways hers is an attempt to pretend he is not there, to wish him away and to create distance between them. This clearly communicates that his attention is unwelcome. When she realises that none of this will have the intended effect, the young woman turns around and pointedly informs him that she is not interested in talking to him and that he should leave her alone. She tells him to go away.

He says, “That is why we rape you.”

An enraged Pule intervenes, interrogates the man asking him first, “How is that why you rape women?”, and then “How many women have you raped?”

Increasingly the rest of the shop watches in slight shock at Pule’s confrontation of the young man. They find her behaviour strange, are surprised that she intervened and will not let it go, making the young man uncomfortable.

They are so accustomed to this kind of behaviour that it is not the young man’s threats that are strange, but Pule’s refusal to let him continue.

The shopkeepers keep quiet.

The harassed young woman turns around and tries to console and reassure Pule, telling her “Don’t get yourself so worked up, my sister, we’re used to these dogs speaking like this to us. They are rubbish.”

Various versions of this story play themselves out in public spaces several times a day. At the same time, there are specific special aspects to this particular incident. The first is the refusal of the young man to take ‘no’ for an answer. While the woman knows his is a refusal rather than a misunderstanding, she is determined to communicate her ‘no’ in various ways, with increasing levels of assertiveness. She is unequivocal. He cannot claim to have misunderstood. At the same time, the young woman knows that she is not safe even in this public place with several other people present. Consequently, she tries to escape first his gaze by looking away and pretending not to hear him. When this attempted symbolic escape fails, she tries to escape again by walking away, moving away from the unwanted attention.

If she is determined to reassert her refusal, he is determined to remind her of its insignificance. She cannot escape and he knows this. In case she does not know it, he will remind her. With increasing aggression, he reminds her that she cannot get away from unwanted attention, that he feels entitled to her time, her mind and her body. When she tells him to go away, he reminds her that he does not care about what she wants. She does not matter. She is not entitled to her body. He is entitled to everything: her attention, her body, and everyone’s eyes and ears in the shop.

The directness of his allusion to rape is the finishing touch. He will have her regardless of what she wants. He reminds her of his complete power and her powerlessness. The use of the plural is particularly striking here because it renders in explicit, crude language publicly what often appears only by implication: both he and she belong to types, are representative. It is the ultimate expression of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies: she can surrender to his advances or she can be made to submit. Either way, he has power over her.

Rape is published by Jacana. Read our review of the book here.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of two copies of Rape. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 November 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

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