Wave of rape weaved into our social fabric

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We need to resist idea this travesty comes from 'outside' AST December Jyoti Singh Pandey, a student on the cusp of her adult life, stepped on to a bus in Delhi. She was with a friend.

They had been to see the film version of the Life of Pi and were on their way home. And then, without warning, their passage through the night dropped out of the flow of ordinary life and into hell. The bus went off the expected route, the doors were closed and Pandey's friend was beaten unconscious by the six men.

She was raped and attacked with such violence that most of the entrails were ripped from her body. Violence, much of it gendered, is central to the regulation of the social order in India. There is often implicit state sanction of rape as a form of social control by, say, Indian soldiers in Kashmir or high-caste men in villages. But this rape was the one that broke acceptance, silence and submission.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Delhi amid an upheaval that led to many South Africans asking why it is that we accept rape. And now, although we don't have our own upheaval, we have our own Pandey. At 17, Anene Booysen is dead. She, too, was raped, her intestines ripped out of her body in a ritual performance of male power.

Most rape is committed by a neighbour; a teacher, an uncle, a boyfriend, a husband, a father or someone known to the person who is attacked, and Anene, unlike Pandey, knew at least one of her attackers. But they were subjected to a sort of ritual violence taken to the point of absolute annihilation, a performance of desecration, that, like the rape and murder of lesbians, evokes the horrors of war.

We need to ask what it is about our societies that is producing the ritual torture and murder of women, the absolute annihilation of their independent personhood? Are we, perhaps, in the midst of a social crisis that has some of the character of an undeclared war? Are women being scapegoated for our social failings?

Or are our societies simply organised in such a way that some people count for very little and can be abused with impunity? It is clear that in any situation in which a group of people are, as in a prison, a refugee centre or a transit camp, placed beneath the rules that usually govern social interaction, sadistic abuse is inevitable.

We can't answer these questions adequately when the rapist only appears as a demonic figure stepping into our ordinarily decent world from hell. The world contains senseless forms of sadism and violence. Some people are just wired differently. There are also people who have been damaged by what has been done to them in their families, or communities, or by being on either side of the dehumanisation on which all oppression is founded.

But while psychopaths or people who have been damaged in various ways may be attracted to circumstances in which their desires to wound, control and destroy can be actualised, they are not solely responsible for the creation of those conditions.

While we must investigate the nature of the conditions that enable rape to become an everyday reality we must be absolutely clear that no culture, no context and no degree of suffering and humiliation justifies rape. In every context there are men who don't rape and men who oppose rape. There is always a choice.

As happened in India, some people have responded to the horrors visited on Anene by presenting her as our collective daughter. It's not a bad thing to remember that every person who is raped is someone's son or daughter, rather than a statistic abstracted from society, but there's a real danger in the language that wants a victim that can easily be presented as virtuous - as a good girl, a family girl - in a manner that doesn't challenge our collective assumptions about gender.

We have to be careful to hold the line on the principle that all rape, irrespective of what the person was wearing or doing at the time, is an outrage. As one of the placards on the streets of Delhi declared: "I don't need to be someone's daughter or sister to move freely on the street."

Our outrage should not imply that anyone is more or less rape-able than anyone else. In some of our newspapers the horror of rape is presented by giving a list of older women, young girls and disabled women who have been raped. The implication is that there are more normal forms of rape. This needs to be resisted. Sex is a gift of self to be freely given and freely accepted.

And many of the responses to the rape and murder of Anene have taken the form of demanding more effective policing and stiffer sentences. But the reality of our society is that the police often rape - they habitually rape sex workers - and often respond to complaints of rape by gay people with contempt.

Judges, including our chief justice, have often made appalling statements and decisions about rape. Our prisons are arguably the site where rape has been most firmly institutionalised. It is vital that we engage with our criminal justice system to make it more sensitive, responsive and effective when dealing with rape.

But the comforting assumption that our criminal justice system is a virtuous set of institutions that must simply be wielded against demonic rapists with more force is dangerously delusional.

If we are going to confront rape effectively, we will have to deal with how it has come to be an everyday horror that festers within our society, at all its levels, rather than being visited on it from the outside. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

Picture Caption: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: Six men enact a mock hanging during a protest demanding the death penalty for the six men accused of a fatal gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi last month. Protesters gathered carrying placards saying: "Give us Justice, Hang the Rapists," and shouted related slogans.

Story by: Richard Pithouse

Source: Star Africa