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Rhodes > Silent Protest > Why do we protest?

Why do we protest?

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead

The Silent Protest exists as a way to:

  1. Raise awareness around the extent of the problem of rape and sexual violence in South Africa
  2. Resist and challenge the silences around rape and sexual violence
  3. Express and enact solidarity with all victims/survivors of sexual violence
  4. Create spaces where people can talk about their own experiences of sexual violence

The Silent Protest was held for the first time in 2006 as a means to stand in solidarity with the complainant in Jacob Zuma's rape trial. On the 24th of March 2006, the One in Nine Campaign organised a national day of solidarity with women who speak out about rape and sexual violence, with a particular focus on ‘Khwezi’. In Grahamstown, activists at Rhodes University, together with local faith communities, schools and NGOs responded to the call and a march was organised from Rhodes University campus to the High Court in Grahamstown. Several gender activists and religious leaders addressed the protest. Significantly, a group of nine women stood at the front of the crowd, eight with their mouths taped shut with clear tape to visually represent the eight out of every nine women who will not report their rape (this was the accepted statistic at the time).

From the very beginning, then, the Silent Protest has been both a politically charged event--aimed at raising awareness of the pervasiveness of rape and sexual violence in hetero-patriarchal societies--and an event that fosters a sense of solidarity with all survivors of rape and sexual violence, and creates a space where healing (both individual and societal) can occur. Moreover, from the very first protest we see an emphasis placed on silence.

This focus on silence has been questioned and challenged over the years and so it is extremely important to clarify exactly why the Silent Protest is silent; why we protest silently; why the majority of protesters have their mouths taped shut... There are a number of reasons behind this focus on silence. These are:

1. Rape and sexual violence are by their very nature silencing acts:

Research on the harm of rape and sexual violence shows us how rape is, by its very nature, silencing, insofar as a perpetrator of sexual violence treats his victim as lacking in agency and as someone (something) whose feelings and experiences need not be taken into account. This treatment amounts to a denial of subjectivity (see, for instance, Martha Nussbaum's insightful article 'Objectification' (in Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol.24(4): 249-291) on the various ways in which we treat a person as a thing or object, and the deleterious consequences that follow from doing to). Susan Brison, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, and herself a survivor of rape) argues that “Victims of human-inflicted trauma are reduced to mere objects by their tormentors: their subjectivity is rendered useless and viewed as worthless" (Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of the Self 2002: 40). Similarly, Ann Cahill writes: "To derivatize is to portray, render, understand, or approach a being solely or primarily as the reflection, projection, or expression of another being’s identity, desires, fears, etc… The derivatized subject exhibits (and, I would argue, experiences) a particular kind of subjectivity—a subjectivity that is stunted, or muted... [The derivatized woman’s desires, actions and choices] are required to mirror nothing but the desires of men. Beyond those desires, a derivatized woman cannot exist, cannot speak, and cannot act" (Overcoming Objectification: A Carnal Ethics 2012: 34), and again: "The self is at once denied and, by the totality of this denial, stilled, silenced, overcome" (Rethinking Rape 2001: 132). In other words, acts of rape and sexual violence position victims (during the act) as less than human--as dehumanized--and as a result silence victims by challenging the very existence of the agency that is required to speak and act.

2. Victim-blaming and stigma - which are both pervasive in hetero-patriarchal societies - silence survivors:

Many survivors of rape and sexual violence do not speak out or report what has happened to them because they are afraid of not being believed, of being blamed and shunned, of being interrogated, retraumatised, labelled or pitied. Victim-blaming, that is, is commonplace in our societies. Often when we listen to people talking about a charge of rape or sexual violence, the focus of the conversation is placed on the victim, and not on the perpetrator, and questions like 'Was she drinking?', 'what was she doing there?, 'Did she lead him on?', 'Was she walking alone at night?', are asked. While we may ask these questions in an attempt to bolster our own sense of safety and security (and that of those we love)--since if the victim was doing something wrong, then we can avoid befalling the same harm by not engaging in similar behaviour--attitudes and beliefs in societies which judge the victim/survivor more harshly than the perpetrator are powerfully silencing.

3. Our justice system silences survivors:

Survivors of rape and sexual violence are very aware that there is little chance of achieving justice if they do report. State service providers do not always respect the rights of survivors and typically fail to comply with the norms and standards set out in national legislation and policy: well under 10% of reported rapes in South Africa are successfully prosecuted and it has been argued that less than 0.5% of perpetrators will serve any jail-time. Moreover, the very process that the victim/survivor has to go through often involves secondary-traumatisation--he or she has to testify to their experience in court, often in the presence of his or her perpetrator(s), for instance. This secondary traumatisation, coupled with the fact that it is highly unlikely that the case will be successfully prosecuted or that the perpetrator(s) will serve any jail-time, results in silence. Victims/survivors of rape and sexual violence often would rather not put themselves through this trauma, and so, as a result, remain silent. 

4. Silence results from the difficulty of constructing a narrative of experiences of rape and sexual violence:

Recent work in philosophy and the social sciences has emphasized the importance of constructing a narrative in order to recover from the harm of rape. Notably, Susan Brison argues that constructing a coherent narrative of one’s experience of rape, and telling this narrative to an empathetic audience is an essential part of recovery. However, survivors of rape and sexual violence face a number of challenges when attempting to construct a narrative of their experience of rape and sexual violence under political and epistemic conditions that are not supportive. These challenges include:

  • An absence of adequate language and concepts with which to understand, articulate and explain their experiences (see McKenzie-Mohr, S. & Lafrance, M.N. (2011) ‘Telling Stories without the words: ‘Tightrope talk’ in women’s accounts of coming to live well after rape or depression’ in Feminism and Psychology Vol.21(1))

  • Narrative disruptions at the personal, interpersonal and social levels (see Neimeyer, R.A. (2004) ‘Fostering Posttraumatic Growth: A Narrative Elaboration’ in Psychological Inquiry Vol.15(1))

  • Hermeneutical injustice (see Fricker, M., (2009) Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford University Press))

  • Canonical narratives that typically further the harms experienced by survivors and often serve to harm marginalised groups (see, for instance, Neimeyer, R.A. (2004) ‘Fostering Posttraumatic Growth: A Narrative Elaboration’ in Psychological Inquiry Vol.15(1); Fricker, M., (2009) Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford University Press); McKenzie-Mohr, S. & Lafrance, M.N. (2011) ‘Telling Stories without the words: ‘Tightrope talk’ in women’s accounts of coming to live well after rape or depression’ in Feminism and Psychology Vol.21(1) and Brison, S., (2002) Áftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self (Princeton University Press)). 

5. As a hetero-patriarchal society we are silent when it comes to talking about and understanding rape and sexual violence:

Patriarchal ideology is hegemonic and patriarchal power is systemic and structural. What this means is that we, as members of hetero-patriarchal societies, have typically come to internalise patriarchal beliefs, values and norms, and, so, are often complicit in the perpetuation and maintenance of patriarchy itself. One of the ways in which this is revealed is in our general silence surrounding issues of rape and sexual violence. We fail to notice, that is, that there is a continuum between what we take to be normal interactions in intimate relationships and sexually violent interactions, as well as between the associations we make with masculinity and femininity and the violence that is underpinned by these associations. We fail, that is, to recognise how rape and sexual violence are the seemingly inevitable result of a patriarchal system. However, when we fail to notice these things, we do ourselves and those around us a great injustice, not only because this failure means that we can never truly interrogate the mechanisms by which rape and sexual violence are (re)produced, but also because it means that we cannot properly understand the occurrence and harm of rape and sexual violence (see, for instance, Louise du Toit (2009) 'The Impossibility of Rape' in A Philosophical Investigation of Raoe: The Making and Unmaking of the Feminine Self (Routledge)). 

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