Text: Athinangamso Esther Nkopo
If you did not see the many stories shared by women on their experiences of sexual violations under the hashtag ‘Me too’ recently, then you probably aren’t on social media. Sparked by recent disclosures of Hollywood women who experienced sexual violations at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, the ‘Me too’ campaign has impacted women world wide. The crusade was originally started by a black woman and activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago to encourage a conversation and support among women who had been victims of sexual violence, long before the time of hashtags. She was scarcely recognised for it this time round, an issue that resulted in heated conversations about appropriation and solidarity among black and white women, an issue I will later reflect on.
Thinking about this campaign in our own context is perplexing considering that South Africa leads the world in terms of sexual violence. We, of all the countries on earth that are not at war, host among the highest ratio of men who violate, in some form or the other, women.Think about that! If there were, between April 2016 and December 2016, 30 069 cases of rape reported, 3 in 4 of which are not reported, then there are conservatively, 120 276 men raping people in this country every 9 months. This statistic scarcely accounts for the gropers, ‘dirty talkers’, spikers and cat callers.
Over the past week, the many women who shared their stories of sexual violation represent only those on social media and capable of expressing their suffering through these means. But as many as did share demonstrates that not many of us, if any, are untouched by the ugly and routine reality of men to violate us at will and often with impunity. In South Africa then, the revelation of ‘Me too’ does not have the shock value it does for the many who clutched their pearls upon seeing the hashtag. There is no surprise when statistically, out of the 1 in 4 cases of rape that are reported, 1 in 5 of us will be raped in our life time. Add to this the cases of sexual harassment in the work place, on university campuses, at our schools and so very often in our own homes. We are, in Hortons Spillers’ famous formulation, marked women.
Issues of sexual violation are further compounded by the racialised disparities of sexual violation in our country. This may be how my timeline on Facebook was lit with arguments about how my ‘Me too’ and that of a white woman, do not have the same powers of communicability. If that were the case, white liberal feminism in this country would not have ‘chilled out’ once Affirmative Action had helped them exceed their quotas in the work place, for example. Many made the case that there can be no solidarity between black women and white women when considering the ways in which they are violated at the intersections of racism and patriarchy. When white women only recognise the possibilities of violation only at the point where they are able to say “MeToo”. This is reminiscent of James Baldwin’s experience in “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”.
In this essay Baldwin takes us through a friendship with a white boy and those moments when his state of blackness inspires, in the white boy, emancipatory dreams. In the end he expresses how it felt for him to suddenly realise the impossibility of these dreams emancipating him. “[T]he really ghastly thing about trying to convey… the reality of the Negro experience has nothing whatever to do with the fact of colour, but has to do with this (the white person) man’s relationship to his own life. He will face in your life (the black person) only what he is willing to face in his” (1961, 175) brackets mine. Baldwin is speaking to relations among men but what is analogous here is the racial factor that mitigates these relations of solidarity. He demonstrates that their solidarity was fruitful only to the extent that the white boy was able to say, “Me too.”. Beyond that was absence and glaring silence.
No silence is more glaring on the part of the South African feminist movement (The feminist movement as it REALLY matters, the white liberal feminist movement) than that on sexual violations enacted, amass and by the hour, on the bodies of black women. When black women, young and old are routinely raped and killed, white liberal feminists are silent, that is if they are not cashing in. When black lesbian women are brutalised, ‘correctively’ raped’ and murdered the white LGBTQ+ movements cannot even spare a moment of silence at their suburban Pride parties. When young black women are raped harassed and violated at, say, Wits Junction, Azania house(UCT), the UCKR (Rhodes), at NMMU or literally every institution of higher learning at disproportionate rates in this country, white feminist academia is mum. No #RapeMustFall marches to shut down cities, no days off work, no ‘Zuma Must Faaaaall’ grannies choreographing lit moves against the sexual violation of black domestic workers in their kitchens or the endemic rape affecting the majority of black women in this country.
Understandably, black women are skeptical of saying ‘Me too’ with white women when the champion of that very healing crusade cannot be acknowledged as Tarana Burke but credit is given to Alyssa Milano. What happens when they are no longer as affected? What happens after their research is concluded? Where is their cause without our bodies to vivify it? What refuge do we have with whiteness? What solidarity as ‘just’ women?
Sadly we have no refuge in the arms of our own self-identifying black movements either. Not only because black men are, in the main, the ones raping black women, or that black men comrades are raping black women comrades. But because black men continue to protect each other at the expense of our bodies. Yes even those black men who are suddenly ‘shook’ because it is happening to women they know on Facebook (sisters, daughters, friends and family) as though sexual violence against women they don’t know matters less. Supposedly good men and cadres laugh at the jokes made at our expense, they defend and play devils advocate when we come out and say we have been violated and they turn a blind eye at violent behaviour from other men, euphemistically calling sexually violent behaviour ‘tendencies’.
There’s nobody but ourselves to ‘Me too’ to. For us it’s not just patriarchy, it is the structural power of both Whiteness and Patriarchy that compound our experiences as denigrated forms of life. For us it is both; #MeTwo.