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?”

Tags: , , , ,

  • Feminism isn’t for everybody, but it could be
  • A toyi-toyi for Doek Fridays
  • Should we ban boys-only schools?
  • The uncomfortable truth about white masculinity
  • 18 Responses to “SlutWalk: When feminists turn territorial”

    1. Fiona

      Thank you for your insightful article which gets to the core of the issue – I think that we the organisers, Sandy, Sam, Nadia, Gina, Akona and myself all feel that we achieved a lot from all the effort that was put in and are looking forward to the project spreading like wildfire – the latest news is the the next South African Slutwalk will be in Grahamstown.

      October 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm
    2. Kevin #

      The cause was good but I having it in the northern suburb was a waste of an opportunity. I believe it would have been more relevant if it happened in a township where rape awareness is needed much more.

      October 3, 2011 at 3:08 pm
    3. I especially feel sorry for the people with children in prams, and dogs on leashes who must have been mortified at wandering into such a crass display of poor taste.

      Poor me, am I to be tarred with the same brush? I’m not female, or gay, the only thing I can claim to be is to be against violence and abuse of anyone. My whole family was there, dog and all.

      What Redi did back in 2008 was brave. Whatever peoples motives in supporting SlutwalkJHB, the support is what mattered, not the whiny comments afterward.

      FIONA,
      This is a great piece, and for once I am in total agreement with you (falls off chair) Let the detractors say what they will, they cant take away from the spirit of #SlutwalkJHB!

      October 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm
    4. Isabella VD Westhuizen #

      I actually like this article. I did not like the slutwalk event as I felt it was too narrow and was simply as you say was simply “proclaiming our right as women to wear skimpy clothes where ever we go” But I do think your view of the event is much broader and I welcome it.

      October 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm
    5. Splitmak #

      Hmm. Some change is better than none. But, I agree with those who call the SlutWalk “suburban”. For the 7 months this year, working in Rosebank, far away from Durban which is home, I was not sexually harassed even once. It was a shock to my system because, as a black Zulu woman, I had come to know every day walking through the streets of Durban that the day would not end without some man touching/shouting at/grabbing me sexually. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen in Rosebank – I’m just saying the SlutWalks aren’t happening where they would make the most impact. Even looking at the Durban SlutWalk pics online, I see mostly white women, some in DA t-shirts. Umlazi needs SlutWalks.Especially near its hostels. With the slogans chanted in Zulu. With the support of black, Zulu men who will explain the concept to the kind of black Zulu men who strip and beat up women in pants. It is NORMAL where I come from for men to behave like this, and I can’t speak for similar areas outside KZN with conviction but I suspect it is the same.

      October 3, 2011 at 3:24 pm
    6. Here here!
      Couldnt have said it better!

      October 3, 2011 at 3:29 pm
    7. Robard #

      “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.”

      Is there actually any empirical research that shows that men are more likely than women to be in favour of conservative dress? My personal observation is that slut-shaming is practised by women, especially older women against younger ones and plain women against prettier ones.

      October 3, 2011 at 4:37 pm
    8. first of all i need to thank you for pointing out the broader focus of slutwalk jhb, but i do need to correct you fiona – i did not single-handedly organize the march. i might have initiated it, but there were a number of us, nadia, gina, walter, sam and akona who worked tirelessly for months to make it happen.
      i’m really saddened by the attempt to use race to divide all of us who firmly believe that sexual violence, slut-shaming and victim-blaming needs to end. i’ve been asked several times to comment on whether slutwalk is relevant to black women and something in me just recoils… i’m a survivor like every other survivor, regardless of the color of my skin. yes, the details of our stories and our experiences may differ, but what is essential to our stories is that we suffered violence, that we had horrible things done to us against our wills, that our choices were stolen from us. no, i don’t live in the township and i don’t presume to speak for survivors who do, but i can stand up and say that i don’t believe that what we wear makes us responsible for being assaulted, that the survivor is never at fault, that talk about black women needing to honor tradition and cover up is bogus. what about the tradition of bare-breasted maidens and loin-cloths? we all have a united vision of putting an end to sexual violence and i think that that’s what needs to be foremost in our minds, regardless of our pigmentation.

      October 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm
    9. OrangeMoon #

      Get real, the SlutWalk did NOTHING to deepen the debate around sexual violence in SA. It was an event, an excuse for people who otherwise do nothing in the fight against sexual violence to get dressed up and party. There is no long term strategy, absolutely no indication of how this ‘movement’ intends to dovetail with organisations REALLY WORKING in the field of gender-based violence. It is a typical example of parachuting in white western solutions into a context where they have little relevance and will produce negligible results. Who EXACTLY are these black feminist objectors you dismiss as not having sufficient capacity to develop their own arguments? How OFFENSIVE to suggest they simply copied the arguments emanating from N America. And to suggest that criticism of SW by black and progressive white feminists stems purely from a desire to protect their turf is even more offensive. This is not a turf war, there is no territory to protect. You’re fiddling with semantics while others are doing the REAL work in the trenches. SlutWalk is to democratic SA what Rag was to apartheid SA: an opportunity for privileged people to party with a ‘good cause’ while doing nothing to address the real political obstacles and challenges to fighting rape and ensuring justice for survivors in SA. Your SlutWalk party is over, now what? You’ve gained ‘cool global status’ for putting Jhb/CT/Dbn on the SW map, now what?

      October 3, 2011 at 5:44 pm
    10. Mythos #

      And this has reduced the number of rapes by how much? For how long?

      And resulted in how many convictions?

      And to what extent have they sub-divided SA even further by bringing racial issues into it?

      All in the name of selling media…

      October 3, 2011 at 5:46 pm
    11. The trouble with the Burka is health – getting no sun on the skin and little exercise causes all kinds of deficiencies and health and hygeine issues – including vitamin D deficiencies.

      October 3, 2011 at 8:20 pm
    12. Ms Ann Thrope #

      @ Orange Moon and Mythos

      It’s a wonder that you don’t explode from the irony of claiming that Slutwalk has done nothing to stimulate discussion on sexual violence while contributing to a discussion on, oh wait, what was that, yes SLUTWALK.

      Mythos, making people aware of the fact that women are raped regardless of what they’re wearing is the first step in combatting the problem. Even people who don’t magically automatically change their minds will be forced to think about it, even for a short time, because the march makes headlines and generates publicity. Shouting that a march doesn’t achieve anything, however, does pretty much nothing to help…

      @ Author, fantastic summary of SlutWalk and its intepretation.

      October 4, 2011 at 11:47 am
    13. MLH #

      Your mention of the word ‘fun’ made a big impression. In a crowd, a bunch of (mainly) youngsters felt enough at ease to relax and enjoy themselves, despite a pile of strangers around them. They doubtless made new friends, were silly and laughed more than they usually do.
      What has this world become where anyone is nervous walking alone, let alone girls?
      I still believe that it is safer to dress sensibly and to stay in groups. I still believe that drinking too much or drugging makes people of either gender too vulnerable. I understand that someone with her own vehicle is far less at risk than those who need to wait for, and use public transport, which makes people who can afford their own cars somewhat safer than those who cannot.
      But hell, where girls are too scared to have silly inconsequential, harmless fun, is here or anywhere.
      The comment about Durban should be followed up…men here also scream at schoolgirls in uniform and make blatant offers of payment for favours; a little more basic sophistication and common decency would doubtless help the situation Durban women endure.

      October 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm
    14. Evan #

      If you need a long, analytical article to explain the correct interpretation of your protest, then your protest has failed. Sorry.

      October 5, 2011 at 7:29 am
    15. OrangeMoon #

      @ Ms Ann Thorpe. I hardly think a blog with 8 responses qualifies as robust public debate. As a feminist and activist I debate issues of sexual violence as a matter of course. SlutWalk has NOT furthered debate, it has titilated and got people talking about sluts and language, and provided a fantastic platform for the privileged to cry ‘victim’, it has done little to further the fight for justice for victims of sexual violence. And provided another fantastic opportunity for people to negate the relevance of ‘race’. As the author of this blog has so eloquently done. As a black woman, I too desire the luxury and privilege of being ‘unraced’. Interesting that NONE of the critics of black women’s objections to SlutWalk have actually BOTHERED to engage with the detail and nuance of those objections. In fact according to Fiona Snyckers we’re too stupid to formulate our own intellectual responses, we just copy with African American women do.

      October 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm
    16. Ms Ann Thrope #

      @Orange moon

      I’m not sure I believe this: “As a feminist and activist I debate issues of sexual violence as a matter of course.”

      After you write this: “provided a fantastic platform for the privileged to cry ‘victim’”

      Trivialising anybody’s experience is one of the things feminists try NOT to do, regardless of how priviliged they may be. I can just as easily say that we should not bother about corrective rape in SA since female circumcision in Ethiopia is far more horrific and deserving of attention. Yes the fight against sexual violence towards black women is far from over, but the SlutWalk did not pretend to be a once-off solution to anything.

      Also, if this is the only blog you’ve seen the SA slutwalk discussed on, then you need to read a bit more… FYI I’m a black woman too.

      October 5, 2011 at 5:43 pm
    17. Miss O #

      @ Ann Thrope: Do you really belive that female circumsision is “more horrific than (corrective) rape”? That is the most absurd thing I have ever heard. In your attempt to ‘downplay’ the different experiences of sexism among black and white woman, you have just made a fool of yourself and weakened your own argument. Get yourself educated about rape before making statements like that.

      October 7, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Trackbacks/Pingbacks

    1. Reclaiming the term ‘rape survivor’ « Michelle Solomon - June 12, 2012

      [...] is particularly unfortunate that the author of an extremely insightful piece about the value and meaning of SlutWalk would think it conscionable to attempt to lay blame on [...]

    Leave a Reply

     characters available