By Tarryn de Kock
‘Age is nothing but mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’
When he said those words to me I resisted the urge to retch. It had been about eight years since the first time he did it; five since I’d last seen him. As a family friend, I was obliged to accept his hug – pretend that I didn’t feel the need to run – and smile and ask the usual pleasantries. I had made a grim joke in response to his comment about me being all grown-up, and he had hit back with that.
My rapist. My sister’s best friend. My best friend’s brother.
Keep your friends close, and your friends’ siblings unnaturally closer.
When I first started at Rhodes University I signed up for Silent Protest as a Something One Does. Older students I had met had impressed on me how important the event was and that my moral validity would be in question if I did not participate (sort of). I was there, I did it, and I got the T-shirt. I realised halfway through the day that I had deliberately chosen to silence myself once again by wearing the standard Sexual Violence = Silence shirt and taping my mouth closed.
I had told my family about what happened towards the end of my Grade 9 year amidst a series of events, such as an attempted break-in while I was asleep. The break-in triggered the feelings of invasion, violation and vulnerability that I remembered from that time long ago. They responded with shock, sent me to Johannesburg for a week of pampering with my aunt, and never spoke of it again. It was only when I saw womyn I knew walking past me wearing Rape Survivor shirts that I realised that for me, personally, I would never be able to heal if I didn’t follow their example. It was not because of the support that I saw them receiving, or the need for attention (which I was accused of by a family member) that I started wearing the shirt – it was because I had allowed myself to be silenced by him, and by those I loved, for the sake of keeping the peace.
It was difficult not being a part of the Protest this year because I am so far away. In many ways that day is a sacred day – not quite a death-day or birthday, but a day of commemoration, of contemplation, solace and support. I knew survivors who tailored their experience of the Protest to what they could handle – missing the morning march or the evening Cathedral session, and still being able to call one of the organisers or assistants and speak to someone who could offer comfort and words of kindness. It was sacred because, even in silence, I felt more supported and understood by strangers than I had ever felt by those who loved me more than life itself. It was a surreal thing to realise, but one that made me appreciate the community that the event created.
The poignancy of the Protest taking place in Women’s Month was not lost on me. Like many of the young, fierce, wonderful womyn I know, I am disillusioned by the idea of paying lip-service to the contribution of womyn to the great story of South Africa. Every day, womyn are brutalised in their homes and on the streets, at their places of work, on trains and taxis, in alleyways and in their beds. I wish I could have witnessed the powerful image of hundreds and hundreds of people clad in purple walking the streets of a sleepy university town, taking a stand against the scourge of sexual and gender violence that has left no community untouched. I wish I could have witnessed it because it would have sated the cynic in me, somewhat.
A question I tend to grapple with as a young South African womyn is whether I am truly able to maximise my ability to live the way my male peers do – specifically, whether I can walk into the world and claim space as easily. I did Silent Protest every year and after the night march I would go home, shower, change and head out to town with friends. For me, frivolous activity eased the heaviness of the day better than spending more time in silence did. As friends we would go to different places in town throughout the night, getting drinks and gathering more friends as we went. Within an hour one would come back to the table complaining that someone had groped her on the dancefloor, while another went home early only to send a text the next day to say someone had called her a cock tease for refusing his advances at the bar. We would be called names for shoving away men who tried to grab arms and asses, and laugh off sloppy, offensive flirtations rather than get angry and confront them. All around us men were claiming spaces, oblivious to the fact that many of the womyn around them had, only two hours ago, walked out of a Cathedral having heard horrific stories of the experiences of their peers. It was callous and cruel, but more so because it wasn’t even deliberately meant to be so – it was just boys being boys, after all.
This was the answer to my question, and the answer to my cynicism about Women’s Month in general.
Silent Protest showed me that womyn are not the problem – more than anything, womyn took the lead in arranging the Protest, in taking a stand against sexual violence, and in offering support to one another. It also showed me that even with womyn doing everything they can, raising their voices and carrying one another, nothing could be achieved without men stepping in and doing their part. Because it is men, after all, who benefit the most from heteronormative patriarchy and the structures that insidiously purport to offer a voice to womyn on the terms of the men who act as gatekeepers. It is why magazines think hashtag campaigns can make a tangible difference in womyn’s lives. It is why a government ministry can shame womyn for withdrawing charges against aggressors rather than asking why they would do so – or why womyn like me feel shamed into never reporting it in the first place.
We cannot claim space because the only space we’re allowed into is what gets carved out for us, or what little we claim by force and with a thousand dissenting voices at our backs. It isn’t right that the only safe space for a rape survivor to share her status is in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and that even there she isn’t completely safe. I was given a beautiful gift of strength and support by the Silent Protest, only to be rudely awakened by moving back home to Cape Town and facing slurs, catcalls and policing my behaviour on a daily basis just to be safe. Since being home I’ve been forced onto an empty train carriage by a stranger, only to be saved by an off-duty law enforcement officer; I’ve dealt with sexist comments by staff at my place of work and realised that my opinion still counts for less in certain spaces no matter how qualified or well-read I work to be.
I can no longer be silent; my peers have shown that they refuse to be. But until the men in this country break their silence and join the conversation on gender, violence and inequality that the rest of us are trying to have, our efforts to create change will be futile, and drowned out by the sound of he-men in Manolos.
Tarryn de Kock is doing her Masters in Education, focusing on language, inequality and curriculum at the Centre for International Teacher Education at CPUT in Cape Town. She is a contributing writer.