While South Africa celebrates Women’s Month the country should also take this time to open a dialogue on how gender-based violence has invaded not only the public and intimate spheres of South African’s lives, but manifested itself on social media, which has become rape culture’s new stomping ground.
Gender-Based Violence and Rape Culture
The recent suspension and dismissal of FHM editor, Max Barashenkov, and editorial assistant, Montle Moorosi, for having made a joke out of ‘corrective rape’ on the former’s Facebook page, come at a point at which the border between our public and private lives is not only blurred by our participation in social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), but in an age where violence against women has run rampant. The public was particularly sensitive to the above remarks in light of the recent corrective rape of a Thokoza lesbian, Duduzile Zozo, who was found murdered, with a toilet brush lodged in her vagina. At least 31 lesbian women have been brutally murdered in the last 10 years and a reported 10 lesbians are raped or gang-raped a week in Cape Town alone.
Yet these are not isolated incidents of gender-based violence (GBV). South Africa is infamously known as the ‘rape capital’ of the world – not an unfounded title for a country in which women are more likely to be raped than able to read and there are an estimated 500 000 rapes annually. In a country where young women are sexually assaulted at a taxi rank for wearing miniskirts, politicians are routinely implicated in rape cases and alleged victims are slut-shamed, businessmen eat sushi off of practically naked women, lesbians are victims of ‘corrective rape’, and the opposition’s female parliamentarians are attacked in a sexist and misogynist manner for their ‘fashion sense’, rape culture seems to have become part of South Africa’s everyday.
According to Lynn Phillips, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Communication Department, rape culture may be defined as “a culture in which dominant cultural ideologies, media images, social practices, and societal institutions support and condone sexual abuse by normalising, trivialising and eroticising male violence against women and blaming victims for their own abuse.”
Feminist Movements on Social Media
In an age of rapidly advancing technology, rape culture has adapted itself, now readily found on social media, which appears to have become its new playground, a trend most recently exemplified in South Africa by the FHM writers, Barashenkov and Moorosi, who made a joke out of corrective rape on Facebook. However, this rampant rape culture has also received well-deserved backlash via these same channels in which its netizens seem to revile women these days: be it via Twitter, Facebook or websites and blogs, women have begun firing back at a culture in which they are oppressed, violated and abused, simply as a result of their gender.
The Everyday Sexism Project, launched in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2012, is on Twitter (#everydaysexism) as well as Facebook, and provides ordinary women with a space to share their daily experiences with sexism. This particular social media movement has grown to include 15 countries, including South Africa. Nicole, a 17-year-old from South Africa, writes, “Walked past a church building in Stellenbosch, SA. A man behind the gate wags his exposed penis at me as I pass”, representing only a fraction of those stories shared globally, but all with the same origin: sexism and misogyny toward women.
There are also social media movements targeting the platforms themselves, attempting to make these spaces safer for women. The Twitter campaign #FBRape, also started by The Everyday Sexism Project, highlights Facebook’s flawed guidelines, which banned hate speech but not offensive remarks about sexual assault. After several companies pulled their advertisements from the social network site after being informed by the campaign that their ads appeared on pages promoting GBV, Facebook announced it would change its lop-sided policies. There is also a global movement called Take Back the Tech, which seeks to show how information communications technologies (ICTs) are used to oppress women, but more importantly, focuses on empowering women on these very same platforms.
However, it is Germaine Greer who famously said: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them”, that is, until social media came along. Anita Sarkeesian, whose video webseries ‘Feminist Frequency’ explores and deconstructs the representations, stereotypes, and tropes associated with women in pop culture narratives, was viciously abused and sexually harassed online, with Internet users creating a game entitled ‘Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian’, as well as disseminating photoshopped images of Sarkeesian in sexually demeaning positions. Caroline Criado-Perez, who in July 2013 successfully campaigned for women to be included on English banknotes, was subjected to a bombardment of abusive tweets in response to her win, including rape and death threats.
Will such aggression and GBV-behaviour also be the fate of those South African women who start movements for change on social media? If the ‘turn a blind eye’ attitude of South African society is anything to go by, then the answer is yes. The banning of the movie ‘Of Good Report’ by the Film and Publication Board (FPB), by reason of its supposed portrayal of ‘child pornography’, as well as the fact that President Jacob Zuma only in February 2013 made more than a passing reference to the rape crisis in his State of the Nation speech – the first time since coming into power in 2009 -symbolise a country in denial. It seems to me that if feminist movements were to attempt to make fundamental changes to the societal fabric of South Africa through social media, the backlash would be just as violent and virulent, if not more so, and nothing would be done about to punish the perpetrators.
Bridging the Digital (Gender) Divide
Yet this is not all. Unfortunately, the communities and women who are most at risk when it comes to GBV are also the ones with the least amount of ICT access and expertise. Bridging the digital (gender) divide in South Africa is therefore not only instrumental to engendering much-needed social change, but also increasingly critical to the impact a social media movement will make, especially in the day and age of ever advancing technology, where global civil society, and most importantly, the ordinary person looking for a way to make a difference, are just a mouse click away.