Universities, and not just South African universities, have a rape problem. The persistence and pervasiveness of this problem was what kick-started the “Yes means yes” legislation in the United States. In India, the harrowing Delhi gang rape of a student lead to widespread rage and mass student protests. It took 125 tear-gas shells and multiple water cannons to keep hundreds of students at bay, and still they returned. In South Africa, I had yet to see that kind of rage when it comes to gender violence on campus. Where were our protests, our nationwide campaigns for consent, mass uprisings for the rape and death of thousands of women? Even when individual women do make headlines for uniquely gruesome attacks, where was the national outrage?
Anger against rape, femicide and sexual assault, is indication of sanity – of political sobriety. Anger is the natural response to injustice. But we weren’t that angry. Perhaps South Africa’s acceptance of something so innately unacceptable is an indication of what we feel women deserve.
And so, watching the Rhodes protest unfold was something I had never experienced in my own student career – where we were told in response to a girl being raped, in a res bathroom, that we “should be more careful”. Powerful women at these protests brought to the forefront the very thing that they have been punished for having – their own bodies. By protesting naked, they harnessed two qualities that the world invariably hates in women, particularly black women: sexuality and agency.
Unsurprisingly, these were the two things that people felt the most enraged about on Twitter:
1. Naked women
2. Naked women who chose to be naked
We live in a society that is ready to recoil at voluntary nudity, but not rape. A world where consensual female sex is denigrated, and the non-consensual romanticised. Where individuals cannot see past the parts of a woman’s body – where the appearance of female nipples is more effective than sexual assault in drawing disgust, condemnation and middle-class disapproval.
In fact, the culmination of the reference list and the naked protest garnered more attention than the core issue underpinning it. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s not unlike the inception of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, where Chumani Maxwele’s poo stunt made bigger headlines than the historically institutionalised oppression of black students – initially sparking inane debates on the legality and morality of excrement flinging before the national conversation was distilled to the underlying problem. Many people have still not navigated past that fallacy, simply because it’s an easier issue to argue than the effects of ill-gotten privilege.
Ironically, Maxwele’s brand of protest no longer holds value for a similar reason of masculine entitlement, following his attack of a woman due to the presence of LGBT protesters. A stark indication of where black female bodies, and those that don’t conform to hegemonic masculinity, fall on the scale of importance.
The young women protesting at Rhodes are fighting for this section of equality that has never been prioritised. The list, the naked protest, the police defiance - these are outright rebellions against a university system that not just refuses to acknowledge the violent oppression of female students, but holds them accountable for their own oppression. Which is why it is crucial to think about why these women felt that their only option was to publish a list of their attackers; to stand vulnerable in the line of fire.
It is also important to understand that the reference list was not ideal for anybody. But we’ve fashioned a world in which it is more frightening, and more dangerous, to report rape than it is to commit it. A world where rape and sexual violence is a woman’s problem. And when that kind of oppression is constantly stifling students, it was a matter of time before they kicked the scale that has always been rigged in favour of male perpetrators and male entitlement. Last week, the young women at Rhodes tipped that scale. Last week, they made rape a man’s problem.