Monday, August 22, 2011

My experience of the Cape Town SlutWalk: “A dress is not a ‘yes’!”

It is estimated that a quarter of all South African men have raped at least one woman. Despite the fact that most rape survivors don't go to the police, over 70 000 cases are reported every year in the country, with some estimates putting the actual figure as high as half a million. In 2009, Human Rights Watch stated that South Africa had the highest rate of reported rapes in the world. Add HIV into the mix and you’ve got a terrifying reality that South African women face on a daily basis. It was against this grim backdrop that thousands of Capetonians converged on the Prestwich Memorial on a sunny Saturday morning in anticipation of the city’s first SlutWalk.

The SlutWalk was born in Toronto in protest to a police officer’s statement that women should avoid dressing like “sluts” so as not to be targeted by rapists. Since the first SlutWalk in April 2011, many similar events have been held all over the world, highlighting the problem of victim blaming. Notions such as, “Of course, she dresses like a slut! No wonder he got the wrong idea!” lay the blame squarely at the feet of the woman and absolve the rapist of any blame. After all, he is just a poor, lust-driven man who cannot control his animal urges. I hope those who believe rape is the (scantily-dressed) woman’s fault realise that they’re being incredibly sexist towards males, too.

Rape is a horrendous ordeal, and if a victim is brave enough to come forward to report the attack, her sexual history may be questioned and she may be asked what she was wearing prior to the attack (You may recall the infamous kanga from Zuma’s rape trial.). As a result of this negative treatment and stereotyping, many rape survivors may feel like they provoked their attacker in some way by dressing provocatively and choose not to report the incident.

At the march itself, it was heartening to see hundreds of men, with there being almost an equal number of males and females. In keeping with the event's spirit, some of the men even wore dresses and skirts. As for the ladies, many took the walk’s controversial name to heart, donning anything from a casual ensemble of jeans and tees to daring combinations of miniskirts, hot-pants, fishnets and lingerie. Two marchers were dressed in niqab, their posters proclaiming, “Rapists rape people, NOT outfits”. At the other end of the spectrum, a few daring protestors dispensed with fabric almost entirely, covering their nipples with crosses of masking tape instead.

In true Cape Town style, individuals of different sexual orientations were also present – a large group of women whose colourful banner loudly proclaimed “Cape Town Lesbians” also made itself heard. This group drew attention to the fact that lesbians in South Africa's townships are subjected to so-called “corrective rape”, a particularly heinous and misguided crime.

With SlutWalks having taken place in Durban and Cape Town, and another planned for Joburg, it is exciting to see civil society mobilising in the way that it is doing. Rape occurs in every country, but in South Africa the problem is particularly dire and it is up to us to highlight the plight of rape survivors and to make rape, and the way it is dealt with in the justice system, something that is discussed and ultimately changed for the better. It is rapists who should be terrified, not their victims.

As for the SlutWalk itself - it was very enjoyable and it felt great to be walking down the street without hearing cat-calls or being whistled at, especially considering that I was wearing far less than usual. Despite the way we looked (and some of us did indeed look ridiculous), no one played the fool and hundreds of voices - female, male, black, white, coloured, Indian, gay, lesbian and straight - rang out in unison: "Real men don't rape!" I hope that one day I'll feel as safe as I did in that crowd when I walk by myself.

The Johannesburg SlutWalk is scheduled for 24 September 2011.