OPINION | Gender-based violence is all of our problem

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Demonstrators against gender-based violence protest outside Parliament on 30 June 2020. (Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/AP)
Demonstrators against gender-based violence protest outside Parliament on 30 June 2020. (Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/AP)

The tales of the violence committed against women narrated in stories like The Rape of Dinah and Milkman draw our attention in these 16 Days of Activism to the barrage of gender-based violence which is so widespread in our country, writes Juliana Claassens.

Towards the end of each year, we are asked during the annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign (25 November to 10 December) to pause for a moment and consider the ongoing violation experienced by women and children that remains a dark stain on this beautiful country of ours.

Despite legislative and policy measures put in place to protect women and children, there seems to be no end to the countless acts of violence that seem to be growing more horrific by the day.

For those of us who make a living out of reading and writing, literature is a natural source for trying to come up with strategies that could help us to address this never-ending scourge that cross our radars each November.

In my recent book, Writing and Reading to Survive: Biblical and Contemporary Trauma Narratives In Conversation (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2020), I reflect on the role of trauma narratives that employ symbolic language to reframe painful memories of rape and abuse in such a way that the characters, and their readers, may escape being held hostage by the past.

Voice for survivors

In one of the chapters, I bring into conversation the biblical account of the Rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) and the novel Milkman by Anna Burns, which, against all odds, and to the great surprise of literary critics, won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. By reading these two stories that narrate the sexual violation of two young women together some interesting perspectives emerge that may help guide our thoughts during these 16 Days of Activism.

Over the years, feminist scholars have created a space in which the voice of Dinah and other victims of sexual violence may be heard. In a #MeToo world, it has become even more pressing to be concerned about the woman’s experience, to speak to and not about the victim. To supplement Dinah’s lost voice, I propose that the very vocal narrator of Milkman, who shares her recollection of falling victim to a sexual predator, offers a creative means of bringing Dinah’s experience as a victim of sexual violence into sharper relief.

READ | Opinion: SA police neither serving nor protecting GBV victims

One such aspect concerns how, both in the Rape of Dinah as well as in Milkman, it is unclear who the real perpetrator is. Milkman tells the story of an unnamed young woman, known as middle sister, who looks back to the time when she, as an 18-year-old, was being stalked by a character, called milkman, or later Milkman. The story of her own experience of being sexually threatened occurs in the context of what she describes as "the Troubles" of, presumably, Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The narrator, twenty years later, is looking back to her younger self, finally being able to put her traumatic memories of constantly being threatened, which are intertwined with that of her community, into narrative form.

Most interesting is the ambiguity created by Burns in terms of characterisation as evident in the confusion surrounding the identity of the perpetrator who is responsible for threatening the narrator. Throughout the novel, in meticulous detail, milkman is portrayed stalking the narrator, following her on the way home from French class in his ominous white van, running with her at the reservoir, threatening to kill maybe-boyfriend.

The stalker milkman, who early on is said not to be delivering milk, is confused with real milkman, who actually delivers milk and turns out to be her mother’s boyfriend. In a surprising twist at the end of the novel, it emerges, according to news reports of his violent death by the paramilitary, that the stalker’s last name really was Milkman! Thus, in a book without any proper names, the title of the book offers the only proper name – that of a sexual predator, so underscoring the theme of sexual violation that is central to this intriguing novel.

Somebody, the son of somebody

The confusion regarding who the real perpetrator is extended much further, as is evident in the first sentence of the novel: "The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died" (p1). Somebody McSomebody, who on more than one occasion seeks to go out with the narrator, and is considered by her mother to be a suitable marriage partner, in the end, proves to be a real threat to the narrator, almost raping her in the bathroom of the Club she attended, were it not for a group of women who in an act of female solidarity draws him off her.

Somebody McSomebody’s name is significant. A typical Keltic prefix, "Mc" or "Mac" merely means "son of" which as Claire Hutton notes makes "this character… simply somebody the son of somebody." ("The Moment and Technique of Milkman," p. 360). By confusing the identity of the stalker, and by removing the name of the almost rapist, Milkman succeeds in showing just how prevalent sexual violence is in this particular society, as also elsewhere. It is not just Milkman, but also the Somebody McSomebodies of the world who pose a threat to women’s wellbeing.

Also in the narrative account known as The Rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, it is not always clear who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. Dinah’s brothers, Levi and Simeon, violated by the violation of their sister, turn into the perpetrators as they violently kill all the men in the community, looting the town and taking captive the women of Shechem, presumably also forcing them into sexual relations.

READ | Opinion: Women and children will continue to die until we dismantle toxic masculinity

In all of this carnage, Dinah gets lost. In contrast to the very vocal narrator in Milkman, Dinah is utterly silent. Moreover, her experience is co-opted as the very personal story of what happened on that afternoon when she went out to see the daughters of the land, on a symbolic level seems to point beyond her own violation, serving the function of capturing a community’s descent into chaos and disintegration.

The stories of the violence committed against women narrated in stories like The Rape of Dinah and Milkman draw our attention in these 16 Days of Activism to the barrage of gender-based violence documented in the media, which sadly are more widespread than we would like to believe.

The fact that these trauma narratives with all their ambiguities and complexities represent the violence done to so many women and children around the world, in times past and present, ask us to recognize that gender-based violence is all of our problem.

Prof Juliana Claassens is Professor of Old Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

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