*Trigger Warning: Rape and sexual abuse*
We often speak and hear about rape but many men and women (including those in advocacy spaces) do not understand what rape actually is. Rape is defined legally as any type of unwanted sexual contact or assault carried out upon a person without their consent. Rape is not sex, it is violence manifested in sexual acts. Misinformation around rape has created echo chambers concerning the sexual autonomy of women leading to the justification of sexual violence. This normalisation of sexual violence is what is referred to as ‘rape culture’.
Rape culture is the social ill author and professor at the University of Witwatersrand, Pumla Dineo Gqola addresses in her 2015 book ‘Rape: A South African Nightmare’. There is something amiss in South African society which leads to the prevalence of rape. Gqola concludes early on that patriarchy is a clear culprit;
‘Rape is the communication of patriarchal power, reigning in, enforcing submission and punishing defiance. It is an extreme act of aggression and of power, always gendered and enacted against the feminine.’
Patriarchy is ‘…the system of gender-based hierarchy in society which assigns most power to men, and assigns higher value to men, maleness, and masculine traits.’ Rape is therefore a tool of patriarchy working to subjugate women and girls, or those considered by society to be ‘feminine’ for example gay and lesbian people who are often victims of corrective rape. Rape is a pervasive gendered violence, there is significant data and statistics to illustrate this prevalence not only in South Africa but globally. However vaguely or acutely we may be aware of sexual violence it persists at alarming rates, Gqola opines this is because rape;
‘… works to keep patriarchy intact. Those who matter [such as men] are not afraid of being raped because they have not been taught to fear sexual assault. They have been taught safety.’
The book is divided into eight chapters touching on interlinked societal challenges such as the culture of violence, racism and gender inequality which prop-up rape culture in South Africa. Gqola delves into historical abuses like that of African slaves during the Cape Colony era (present-day Cape Town) covered in Chapter 2: What’s race got to do with rape?. Historical violence against women is reflected in contemporary events in Chapter 5: Making sense of the responses to the Jacob Zuma rape trial. Gqola provides an eye-opening appraisal of the rape trial of South Africa’s future President Jacob Zuma, dissecting the preoccupation with masculinity and power. This gendered sexual violence culminates in a criminal justice system that is not accessible to victims of rape; from stigmatisation by the police known as ‘secondary rape’ to low rates of conviction in the judiciary.
‘How then was a system that would not even allow a woman to choose what to call herself be trusted to protect her and offer her the possibility of justice?’
This book includes a comprehensive bibliography which can be used to reference further (African) academic works. Gqola approaches the emotive topic with passion but maintains a clear train of thought throughout. One doesn’t have to be South African or living in the country to learn and engage with the views presented by the author. As I read this book I found myself nodding vigorously at times, and horrified by the cases cited at other points. It is difficult but necessary reading, which will force the reader to examine their views and actions.
I believe the essence of any great book is to challenge the reader. We should all be doing more to ensure that sexual violence is eradicated, this book is a powerful tool for advocacy which I highly recommend.
You can follow Pumla Gqola on twitter: @feminist_rogue.