Yesterday was Freedom Day in South Africa. Ironically, this year has been the first time in my memory when I felt it was celebrated accordingly. We challenged how much freedom actually exists in our society. We challenged the freedom people have over their own bodies.
On the 17th of April, students of Rhodes University stood up and did a courageous and necessary thing. They started actively protesting against the rape culture that thrives on campus.
STILL NOT ASKING FOR IT: no-one, but the sole owner of a body, should be allowed to dictate what happens to it. Photo cred: Nakita McFarlane.
A list of alleged rapists appeared online – though no-one knows where it came from yet – on that Sunday night. Outraged students allied and went to the residences of some of these perpetrators with the objective to get them out.
Last week, the students of Rhodes University pushed back. At the beginning of orientation week, every student is given a speech that explicitly and firmly states that our university will not tolerate the abuse (of any kind) of any student. Like the majority of institutions across the world, our university did not deliver on that promise. So the students pushed back. This protest, led by students of a small university in a small town in a corner of South Africa, made international news. Whatever journalists may have said about it in any other articles, know that this is the truth. We reacted to indifference to rape culture.
Rape culture affects us all – any of the various identities we undertake do not pardon us from the destruction this nauseating aspect of society inflicts on us. So, although initially, I was irritated that my sense of routine had been disrupted, I joined the protest. I know far too many people who have been raped not to. I have been afraid walking alone at night too many times not to. I adjust my skirt at the occurrence of a catcall too frequently not to. It is too prevalent in society for me not to.
While I was protesting, the reason why I had to became painfully clear. Upon my tweet urging people that it was time to end the sense of entitlement to others’ bodies, I was met by a particularly awful response from one outrageous man. As the protest unfolded, I saw carbon copies of his opinion. I fear that he is not the only one who thinks this way. I wanted to stop protesting. This issue went far beyond the people that walk on my campus; this is an international issue. How do you make everyone see? Why are they not seeing in the first place? Why is it that we have to strive, fight and bleed for basic compassion and empathy?
What became clear to me is that not everybody is in the same space. Not everyone understands the ideologies that nourish rape culture. Not everyone understands what consent implies. Worst of all, not everyone knows that a body belongs solely to its owner – no-one else. The protest paved the way for talks, discussions and enlightenments that many people will not have the fortune of being a part of. It often felt like these talks were falling upon the ears of believers, while those who needed them most were not present.
For rape culture to end, I believe that prevention is better than cure. I have seen that the law – for various reasons – is not adequate to deal with people who have to survive rape culture. We need to change. Before I carry on, please let me assure you that I know what victim shaming is and I have come a long way from chirping problematic discourse like, “but did she actually tell him ‘no’?”. The experience of rape is expansive, and as someone who is not a rape survivor, I cannot say what it is like to be in that situation. I know that some situations are out of ones’ hands.
I think – right now, at this vulnerable – it is important that we explicitly tell the people that feel entitled to our bodies ‘no’. Not to validate perpetrators who ‘didn’t know’, but because, sadly, people do not know what all the forms of ‘no’ look like yet. People do not realise that someone who is has many sexual partners can be harassed by unwanted advances. People do not understand that an outfit choice is not an indicator of sexual readiness. People make too many assumptions about the boundaries other people draw for themselves.
I think that we need to be bold, to make a noise and to push back until they understand what we are saying no to. I think we need to encourage people to put the people who do not understand in place until we do. I think we need to do it in unity. Because when you do it for yourself, you do it for anyone whoever has and whoever will be the victim of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence. We have the freedo