Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

SlutWalk: When feminists turn territorial

In 2008, Talk Radio 702 host Redi Direko (as she was then known) made news headlines for leading a Miniskirt March from the Joburg Art Gallery to the Noord Street taxi rank in town. Accompanied by about 300 men and women, most of them dressed exuberantly in miniskirts and high heels, Redi was protesting against the sexual assault two weeks previously of Nwabisa Ngcukana (25) of Soweto at the rank by taxi drivers. Ngcukana was told that she was being assaulted for wearing a miniskirt.

The Miniskirt Marchers proclaimed the right of women to wear whatever they wanted and go wherever they wanted. Ngcukana was present at the march and said she felt overwhelmed by the support of South African women in the aftermath of her ordeal.

The march attracted a good deal of media attention at the time. Among the many comments made by observers, the following were notably absent:

a) That the march was a white liberal indulgence;

b) The issues it addressed were not relevant to the lives of black women; and

c) That marching in miniskirts was not a cure-all for all the challenges faced by black women in poor communities.

And yet these are precisely the criticisms that have been levelled against the SlutWalk movement — inarguably the most successful rape-awareness campaign in the world ever. I can’t be the only person who has noticed the startling similarities between Redi’s Miniskirt March of 2008, and the SlutWalk movement of 2011. The first was a spontaneous expression of anger kindled within the black community, in response to an attack on a black woman, and led by a black media personality. It played itself out in a black urban environment, and drew a great deal of media attention to its cause.

The second was equally spontaneous, but arose in the context of a police officer’s address to young women at a university in Toronto, Canada. It quickly spread to over 70 cities worldwide, including most recently, Johannesburg, where approximately 2 000 men and women from every background marched through Rosebank to get their message across. The Joburg march was widely regarded as a big success. Then, in the days that followed, social media began to grumble with accusations that the SlutWalk is a white, suburban, elitist movement that has no relevance to the lives of black women.

Considering that SlutWalk JHB was single-handedly organised by Sandi Schultz, a black rape-survivor, who gave up months of her time to put the demonstration together, this criticism seems a little ungracious, to say the least. Interestingly, it was not based on any new insights that have arisen from the African context, but rather on a recycling of certain African-American writings that had already been circulating for months.

Now it is undoubtedly true that women experience gender violence and discrimination differently according to whether they are rich or poor, and whether they are black or white. Being white and rich makes sexism easier to bear. Indeed, being white and rich makes everything easier to bear. It is a lifelong cushion that protects one from bearing the full brunt of life’s ills. This does not mean, however, that being blamed for the sexual violence perpetrated by men is something that poor, black women do not experience.

If anything, they experience this discrimination more viciously and relentlessly than their middle-class, white sisters. Only those with very literal minds understand the SlutWalk movement to be principally about a woman’s right to dress as provocatively as she chooses. It is about a woman’s right to wear WHATEVER she chooses, and to express her sexuality HOWEVER she chooses, without fear of oppression.

It is for that very reason that certain Cape Town SlutWalkers choose to march in burkas with a full face-veil, carrying placards that read, “Men rape people, not outfits”. They clearly understood that attempts to ban the burka in certain European countries is as much a symptom of patriarchal oppression as attempts to make women dress more conservatively. They are flipsides of the same coin. The former is merely a manifestation of the “white-men-saving-brown-women-from-brown-men” version of paternalism.

It also explains why the SlutWalk movement in South Africa has attracted so much support from the lesbian community. In South Africa, if you dress in a certain way you are at risk of suffering the peculiarly noxious type of assault known as corrective rape — a form of punishment for sexual expression that is sometimes viewed as an attempt to “convert” women to heterosexuality. The style of dressing that could possibly bring this rape upon you is not provocative or “sluttish”, but rather anything that could be perceived to denote lesbianism in the wearer.

South African lesbians have recognised that their right to wear whatever they like and express their sexuality however they like is under appalling threat, and that the SlutWalk fight is therefore their fight too. The “corrective rape” plague impacts far more heavily on women in the black community than it does on white lesbians. To call it a white problem would be risibly, ridiculously incorrect.

Other criticisms of the SlutWalk movement have been that it supports the “pornofication” or “hypersexualisation” of young women. Again, this is only valid if you accept the narrowest, most literal-minded interpretation of the movement, which is that it supports a woman’s right to dress in skimpy clothes. In fact, the movement is much broader than that. It is an angry protest against all the victim-blaming and slut-shaming that goes on worldwide, across all creeds and cultures, when a woman is sexually assaulted. The entire legal process, from reporting the crime to acquiring a conviction, is skewed towards an attempt to detect blame in the victim for her own rape.

There are also those who have said that any attempt to reclaim the word “slut” as a symbol of feminist power is doomed to failure because it fails to break free from either the patriarchal virgin-whore dichotomy or the insulting discourse of discrimination. But for me, the SlutWalk movement is not about that. I concede that attempts in other contexts to reclaim the N-word in African-American culture, or the K-word in African culture have not been successful. But SlutWalk is rather about robbing gendered epithets of their power to insult by campaigning for a woman’s sexuality to cease being a measure of her worth as a human being. Heterosexual men have never been judged by their sexual behaviour, and it is time for those judgements to stop applying to women too. A woman’s virginity or promiscuity must immediately cease to be a currency of any value at all.

Then, of course, there are those who have noticed with head-shaking disapproval that many of the SlutWalkers seem to be having rather a lot of fun. They are actually enjoying getting dressed up in outrageous clothes and marching around waving placards and shouting slogans. And of course we all know that feminism is not about fun. It’s a very serious business indeed. Any attempts to have fun should be reported immediately and stamped out. Furthermore, not all of the SlutWalkers are card-carrying radical feminists who are a 100% in agreement with the party line or completely on-message ideology-wise. And that’s something else that can’t be tolerated. Frivolous, fun-loving women who don’t even have master’s degrees in feminist studies daring to hijack the feminist movement and turn it into a party? Obviously we can’t have that!

If I can switch off the sarcasm-font for a moment, there is clearly an element of territorialism in much of the feminist tut-tutting against the SlutWalk movement. Some critics dislike the fact that the movement sprang up out of nowhere, was driven by ordinary women, attracted a huge amount of media attention, and caught fire worldwide with very little input from themselves. The world’s most astonishingly successful rape-awareness campaign has owed nothing to the bastions of theory-driven radical feminism, and that sticks in their craw.

So instead of celebrating the fact that the issue of sexual assault is finally receiving the attention it deserves, some feminists have attempted to drive divisions between the SlutWalkers in the name of race or creed. Calling it a white, elitist movement is one such attempt to highlight the differences between women, rather than uniting them behind their gender, and the common struggles they face.

By all means, let’s talk about the different ways that gender-based violence impacts on women from different backgrounds, but for heaven’s sake let’s do it without rancour or name-calling. As the feminist film-maker Gillian Schutte said last week, “Let’s have the conversation. SlutWalk Soweto, anyone?”

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