IN 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 The Life of Pi and were on the way home. Without warning their passage through the night suddenly dropped out of the flow of ordinary life and into hell.
The bus went off the expected route, the doors were closed and Jyoti’s friend was beaten unconscious by the six men on the bus. In what sounds like a ritual performance of absolute domination and absolute sadism Joyti was raped and attacked with such violence that most of her 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 for rape as a form of social control by, say, Indian soldiers in Kashmir or high caste men in villages. But this rape, perhaps because it so strongly evokes the idea, the ancient idea, of the rapist as a demonic figure descending on us from some other reality was the one that broke acceptance, silence and submission. Thousands of people took to the streets in an upheaval that, amongst other consequences, led to many South Africans asking why we accept rape.
And now, although we don’t have our own upheaval, we have our own Jyoti. At 17 years old, Anene Booysen is dead. She too was raped, her intestines ripped out 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 Jyoti, knew at least one of her attackers. But both women were subjected to a sort of ritual violence taken to the point of annihilation, a performance of desecration, that, like the rape and murder of lesbians in SA, evokes the horrors of war.
During a war or a pogrom the normal rules are suspended. The lines between friend and enemy are drawn with lunatic precision.
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?
We can’t answer these questions adequately when the rapist only appears as a demonic figure stepping into our ordinarily decent world from hell. And we certainly can’t answer these questions when our thinking about rape, including some of our thinking about rape by authorised experts in places like universities, is deeply distorted by assumptions about race and class, which are driven by prejudice rather than any serious investigation of reality.
We need a clear-eyed examination of our societies. And the painful reality of our societies is that a considerable part of the horror of rape, and the culture and institutions that support it, is that rape is, precisely, a normal occurrence.
The world does contain senseless forms of sadism and violence. Some people are just wired differently to others. 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. 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. This may include roles in authorised forms of state and popular violence, including violence legitimated in the name of emancipation. But 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, of course, be absolutely clear that no culture, no context and no degree of suffering and humiliation justifies rape or other forms of abuse. In every context – the drunken party; the possibility for impunity that comes with the power of the police officer, the priest, the boss, the professor or the rich man; the corrosive desperation of poverty – there are men who don’t rape and men who oppose rape. There is always a choice.
As happened in India, some people here have responded to the horrors visited on Anene Booysen 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 but there’s a real danger in the language that wants a victim who 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 very careful to hold the line on the principle that all rape is an outrage, irrespective of what the person was wearing or doing at the time, irrespective of their family circumstances, how they make their living or who and how they love and desire. 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 rapeable than anyone else.
Some of the language used by politicians at Booysen’s funeral – demanding we “make sure our women and children are safe” – is itself deeply gendered. Our outrage should not imply that the wrong men are exercising domination and that it’s time for the right men to exert their authority.
In some of newspapers the horror of rape is presented by listing older women, young girls and disabled women who have been raped. The implication here is that there are more normal forms of rape. This too needs to be resisted. Sex is a gift of self to be freely given and freely accepted. All rape is perverse.
And, as happened in India, many of the responses to the rape and murder of Booysen have taken the form of demands for more effective policing and stiffer sentences. But the reality of our society is that 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 made appalling statements and decisions about rape. And our prisons are arguably the sites where rape has been most firmly institutionalised in our society.
It is vital that, as feminist organisations have done for years, we engage 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 deluded.
If we are going to confront rape effectively we’ll have to deal, seriously, with how it is that it has come to be an everyday horror – a horror that festers within our society at all its levels, rather than being visited on it from the outside.
Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This is an edited article from the South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za).