Eleanor du Plooy

Our silence emboldens the sexists

2017-09-20 13:29
PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images

PHOTO: Gallo Images/Getty Images

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It is a cold Wednesday morning and I hurriedly step onto the 5 am train. The train fills up quickly and I decide to forfeit my sleep and take out a book to read. Taking it out, I make sure to have the cover facing down so that the people in the carriage can’t see what I’m reading: Pumla Dineo Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare.

The cover is stark. Against a black background the word RAPE, printed in large, bold capital letters is dramatic and shocking. A deliberate choice by the publisher, I suppose, as its effect is both unsettling and intriguing.

Not wanting to invite conversation or draw unnecessary attention to myself in a space known by its occupants to be violent, I deliberately hold the book and its provocative cover shielded from curious looks.  

When the train gets to my station at the end of the day some of us run to get a minibus taxi home. Today there is a gaatjie – someone who collects the fare and who calls out to people looking to catch a taxi. His manner is brash bordering on rude as he squeezes more passengers into the already full taxi.   

We’re all used to it and wait. Every woman he speaks to in the taxi he calls various versions of baby, babes, love, girl or baby-girl. Hanging out of the window of the moving taxi he punctuates our ride with cat calls directed at women pedestrians. None of us say anything in the face of this street harassment. Our silence seems to only further embolden him.

Until one of the women in the taxi says what many of us were thinking. Speaking to the man sitting next to her but loud enough for everyone to hear she says, “We are paying customers deserving of better treatment. Taxis play an important role in our community because not all of us can afford a car of our own. He is intimidating us by showing us his power and uses our fear to silence us. It’s usually men who are most insecure who behave like this”.

The man she is speaking to remains quiet but her target hears her. In silence I agree with everything she says and yet I still cringe for fear of violence or vitriol that may be directed at the woman. I sense the discomfort of my fellow passengers. This discomfort I quickly realise is caused not by the actions of the gaatjie or even by what the woman had said but rather by the fact that she dared to say anything at all.

The gaatjie slides the door of the taxi closed after the woman gets out and says, “Does anyone know that mad woman? I don’t know that mad woman”. This elicits laughter from some passengers.

This interaction illustrates perfectly what Gqola refers to as the manufacture of female fear or the working of the female fear factory. And follows a similar pattern to the stories she shares in her book.

The manufacture of female fear, she writes, requires many components and takes up public physical space and is repeatedly manufactured through various interactions. The taxi became such a space and everyone in the taxi, bar one, was a cog in the reproduction of this fear factory. The ways in which this fear is reproduced can be subtle or overt.

In Rape: A South African Nightmare, she writes, “It is an exercise in power that communicates that the man creating fear has the 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”.

I remained silent because I have to take a taxi home almost every day. What happens should I end up alone in the taxi? The horror of recent accounts of women who have been raped in taxis is a heinous reminder that very few spaces of safety exist for women living in South Africa.

Because this fear is manufactured through our performances, scripted by patriarchy and rape culture, we create and perpetuate the conditions that sustain it. This fear is so normalised that I irrationally feared that should a man see the word RAPE on the cover of the book that I was reading that it would somehow register as an invitation.

It’s the very same fear that silenced us into not speaking out against the gaatjie and which spurred him on to ridicule the woman who dared to challenge his exercise of power.

When I get home that evening I tell my husband about my experience to which he responds, “That’s why I haven’t taken that book to read in the taxi. What will the people think?”   

- Eleanor du Plooy runs the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    gender based violence  |  sexism  |  rape culture
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