Women can never escape their bodies. Rape and sexual harassment are an intrinsic part of their identities. That babies at three years of age and grandmothers at 80 are not spared from sexual molestation is indicative of how women are viewed.
They are viewed solely in terms of their genitalia. As one feminist crudely put it – a woman is a vagina.
The worst swear word a man can sling at another has always been to involve his mother’s sexuality… never his father’s private parts. Think about it: You can leave your car behind and take a walk without money and jewellery and be relatively safe as a man but never as a woman.
As a woman you are carrying your sexuality with you wherever you go. Even being a nun does not exempt you from being a vagina. You are doomed by your power to give birth to your very oppressors.
In a study of locker-room conversations at two US institutions as reported in the Sociology of Sport Journal, four players chatted about the mother of a recruit who was visiting on campus.
Athlete 1: “She’s too young to be his mother.” Athlete 2: “Man, I’d hurt her if I got hold of her.” Athlete 3: “I’d tear her up.” Athlete 4: “I’d tear her hips.” (All laugh)
Conversations like this provide insight into a psyche that is damaged but it also creates an atmosphere supportive of sexual assault and rape. Some US studies even indicate that higher incidences of gang-rape are committed by members of contact sports such as football and basketball.
The rising incidents of violence against women have reached global proportions. This should not make us feel comfortable in our collective shame.
It is a shocking indictment against the male species that they should treat their mothers, sisters and daughters in such a despicable manner. Yet when I look around I see little collective shame or remorse. I do not hear male conversations that awaken any sense of responsibility or accountability for this social plague. Are men not united in their recognition of who they are?
When I see how we socialise our boys to be “real” macho men, I know there is an identity based on gender. Men don’t cry, men are physically stronger, men are leaders, men rule the world, men are the conquerors and the protectors, men are the high priests and only a man can be the pope and even God is a He. I wonder about male hegemony.
Then I see a side of benevolence and love for wives, mothers, daughters and sisters in my husband and my father and many of our male friends and I wonder about what makes the difference.
When I asked my mother-in-law if the Rajab men ever beat up their wives when I was researching the topic of sexual harassment in higher education, she replied in shock: “Chee chee chee, our men never behave like that – that is low-class behaviour.”
I don’t think she meant this in class terms but that men who did this were displaying lowly behaviour.
In my work on various gender committees I was already experiencing the seamless boundaries of class, race, education, social status, age and religion as indeterminate factors in the abuse of women.
The picture that emerges is that abuse has no definite profile.
This was confirmed when, as a guest speaker at a certain religious organisation in Chatsworth, I learnt that their private shelters were mainly used by wealthy women who came to spend the night as a cool-off period before they returned home to their abusive husbands.
It is significant that shelters for women are a ubiquitous feature of every nation’s landscape, yet I have never heard of shelters for men. This is clearly a male domain and we have statistics to confirm our plight of abuse against our women.
Despite our critical situation with more than 2 500 women being murdered each year by their male partners, and men in general, our men are deafeningly silent.
In India, however, they took to the streets and created a social movement around one incident. What they did was to recognise that the incident was more than a bad day’s event. Instead, through the process of zero tolerance, they raised the level of awareness to mass action for gender justice. In this regard men and women took to the streets to march in unison against this evil.
While this incident sparked a worldwide reaction to the issues of gender violence, for many Indian nationals this incident reflected poorly on their country.
As one World Bank economist lamented: “They have robbed me of my India.”
This strong sense of nationalism is perhaps the one factor that differentiates them from us in South Africa.
Why did we not react in the same way when we had our India moment in the copycat rape and murder of a 17-year-old in the Western Cape? Anene Booysen was just another little waif who shouldn’t have been out alone. These internal rationalisations keep us psychologically marooned in our racial enclaves.
Perhaps on account of our inherent racism we dehumanise some of our victims along a hierarchy of acceptability. Sadly blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds can only feel pain for their own groups.
Our racism diminishes our humanity to the extent that we will never march for Anene together as a nation.
* Dr Devi Rajab is a psychologist, author and academic