Why I will not take part in a South African 'SlutWalk'

The global 'SlutWalk' campaign doesn't work as well in South Africa due to the country's more conservative values and high rape rates, writes guest blogger Zama Ndlovu.

By , Guest blogger

No one could argue that sexual harassment and sexual violence are not serious problems in South Africa. But a campaign called SlutWalk – created in that most liberal of Western countries, Canada, and soon to be copied in Cape Town and Johannesburg this week – is not the right tool to solve the problem.

Encouraging women to dress up in their most revealing clothes in order to challenge the notion that provocatively-dressed women are "asking for it," is only likely to make the problem worse in a country like South Africa.

A recent column in favor of SlutWalk, written by Nechama Brodie in the Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader blog page left me cold, fuming, and insulted, and that’s the version without the French.

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I followed her conversation with a few people on Twitter on Sunday and already expected an understandably defensive argument. I did not, however, expect her to equate disagreement with “a stranger groping my breasts in a club, because I was wearing a low-cut dress on my 30th birthday; a man pinching my bum at the airport because I was wearing a tight outfit, even though I was seven months pregnant at the time; men catcalling at me while I stood on the street corner — in my school uniform — waiting for my lift to school.”

Like many people in this country, I am fully aware of the rape epidemic in our country. When I was a young prepubescent girl living in Mamelodi, a neighbor was arrested and charged with raping his five-year-old daughter, and managed to get bail. While in university, a friend asked a group of our close friends, “who here has been raped or physically assaulted?” The number was higher than the national average. One of my best friends in university was gang-raped during a hijacking when she was 18, and these are all just a few more dramatic examples.

I also have war stories, but I do not need to share them to own my right not to walk under that banner.

Rape is a violent crime of control, a crime of power, not sex. The word “slut” on the other hand, is all about sexual behavior, and therefore to me, the “SlutWalk” campaign sexualizes a crime that isn’t about sex, when what is required is the exact opposite.

The victim’s attire has nothing to do with the crime itself. When a man (or woman) decides to rape, it has nothing to do with the victim and everything to do with the rapist. Rapist blame the victim, citing the victim’s dress or actions as the reason for their behavior, only to ensure the victim does not speak up. For this reason I don’t believe such a campaign will deter rapists, it just deters potential supporters.

I agree that it is very critical that we address the prejudice faced by victims from the police, public service health workers and our courts. But I do not agree that I must dress as a “slut” to do this. Just the idea that “sluts” dress a certain way, perpetuates the very stereotypes that the campaign is fighting against.

I used to wear short dresses and shorts, but I did not view myself as dressing like a slut. Labeling myself as such would be a personal contradiction. Traditional Zulu outfits don’t leave much to the imagination and yet wearing them does not render me a slut, nor protect me from possible abuse.

The word “slut” is the worst example of society’s double standards, a label reserved mostly in reference to women’s sexual behaviour and I refuse to march under a derogatory label that should die.

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The SlutWalk campaign imported from far more liberal Canada is not easily adapted to a more conservative South Africa. The organizers and supporters should have expected the reactions and should have the patience to explain their provocative campaign, and the thick skin to accept conservative criticism. Ours is a multicultural society with varying degrees of liberal and conservative views, all protected by our Constitution.

People have the right to disagree with the campaign without being branded “rapist sympathizers.”

When disagreement is construed as a “grope,” debate halts and nothing is achieved. People should have the right to question or disagree with a campaign without being painted as rapist sympathizers. All constructive feedback, positive or negative, especially from men, is helpful to all organizations that are fighting this beast in South Africa. If men (and women) are uncomfortable with the name, engaging them in a meaningful, non-defensive conversation would do so much more for the cause. To call people idiots for not supporting a campaign leaves your audience alienated and defensive and far less likely to support you.

The irony of burdening those who disagree with guilt and shame, symptoms of sexual abuse, is not lost on society.

I have read all the links sent on Twitter and I fully understand the campaign and what it aims to achieve, but they will not educate me into a different opinion. I fully support the cause, but supporting the cause does not mean I will support every campaign, especially one that does not resonate with my beliefs.

Nechama says “there were a surprising number of people online who appeared to believe that a) sexual abuse was a very bad thing, but that b) calling something or someone a slut was worse,”

The fact is many people believe sexual abuse is a very bad thing but don’t see how using the word slut, in any context, helps. I’m deeply disappointed at how she has let her wholehearted passion for this campaign get in the way of a meaningful and non-defensive discussion with society. The fact that people are not against the event being held, but rather, are questioning the event against their own personal references, speaks wonders to the strength of our young democracy.

I hope the supporters will stop defending their tree and look at the forest, and bury this thinking that all views are good as long as they are liberal.

Many people are doing incredible things to increase the safety of women and children in this country, but they are doing it in a way that is most meaningful to them, in line with their own personal view. Not being with you, doesn’t mean I’m against you.

--- Zama Ndlovu is a Johannesburg-based writer who blogs at the Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader page.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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