Corrective rape – religion and masculinity at the expense of lesbian women

By Olivia Bliss

The high rates of corrective rape (lesbians raped to ‘correct’ them of their homosexuality) in South Africa have recently caught the attention of the international media. Last year, Clare Carter, an American journalist travelled to South Africa to meet victims of corrective rape and published an article for the New York Times and an award-winning film and photography project detailing her experiences. The stories Carter tells are nothing short of horrific. Most of the attacks that the victims recount were accompanied by further acts of extreme violence; one woman, Noxolo Nogwaza, had her eyes pulled out. Many were killed after being raped. The photographs of survivors depict scarred and stoical women.

The phenomenon of corrective rape is not a new one. Nor is it exclusive to South Africa: cases have been reported in countries as diverse as Thailand and Ecuador. But, as Carter points out, corrective rape is on the rise. South Africa’s already high rates of gender-based violence and the influence of fundamental Christianity combine to create a uniquely ripe culture for corrective rape. Another theory is that corrective rape culture in South Africa is a response to emasculation, an ‘extreme performance of masculinity by men who feel the need to reassert their masculinity when it is called into question’ by unemployment and female emancipation. But perhaps most pernicious is the simple, but widely held belief of many that homosexuality is just not African. Whatever the cause of the hostility, many parts of South Africa are dangerous for lesbians who wish to live openly.

But the homophobia that is apparently felt by many South Africans is curiously out of sync with the legislative framework governing LGBTI rights. The South African Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world: co-authored by radical lawyers including Nelson Mandela and Albie Sachs, it was the first of its kind to expressly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. In the case of Louw, the Women’s Legal Centre fought to ensure that the assault of a lesbian woman would be considered unfair discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexual orientation in addition to being a crime. South Africa was also one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage following the case of Fourie v Minister of Home Affairs in 2005. So-called liberal countries such as the United Kingdom have only just caught up: gay marriage was legalized there as late as last year, and the first ceremonies will not take place until mid-2014.

Many gay women are beneficiaries of the progressive stance taken by the South African state in this respect. Since 2006 (when Parliament amended the Marriage Act to conform to the ruling in Fourie) over 3000 same-sex weddings have taken place. Last week at Beaulah, a popular gay bar in Cape Town, I asked young, predominantly white women about their experiences as lesbians in South Africa. Many told me that they felt comfortable telling their parents about their sexuality and about their relationships with other women, and that in Cape Town at least, they were able to walk down the street holding hands with their girlfriends. However, most were also aware that their lifestyles would not be possible in other rural and/or deprived parts of South Africa.

It would be wrong to reduce the complexity of the South African lesbian experience by dividing it into white and black, rich and poor. But as Clare Carter’s article shows, life for gay women in rural South Africa and in the townships (where eighty per cent of the country’s population reside) is dramatically different to the lives of the women I spoke to in Beaulah. The corrective rapes that Carter writes about took place without exception in these places, and all of the women in her photographs are black. The traditional Zulu monarch, whose people account for roughly one-fifth of South Africa’s population has reiterated his belief that homosexuality is morally wrong. At a recent black lesbian poetry reading hosted by Free Gender, an organization dedicated to securing LGBTI rights, women from Khayelitsha (the third largest township in South Africa) talked of the extreme joy but also of the deep pain present in their lives. A dominant theme in Rivers of Life, the excellent, published collection of the women’s poetry, is a refusal to be silenced.

The troubling increase in rates of corrective rape in South Africa once again raises difficult questions about the value of the Constitution, or more precisely, its value to gay women living outside of South Africa’s wealthy metropolises. Justice Edwin Cameron, the Constitutional Court judge and gay rights activist has conceded that ‘Constitutional equality and legal protection are not enough’ but also added that ‘they are an indispensable beginning’. In last month’s edition of the Big Issue, he wrote that ‘gay and lesbian youngsters from the rural areas…all not only accept the legitimacy of the values the Constitution sets out – they claim them loudly for themselves.’ But Funeka Soldaat, who established Free Gender after being correctively raped herself, is scathing of the so-called rights granted to lesbians by the Constitution. Soldaat has said that ‘the Constitution is there but it doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Even if you know how the Constitution works, you don’t know how to use it to protect yourself.’

Soldaat’s despair is understandable. Free Gender recently worked in collaboration with the Women’s Legal Centre to secure the conviction of Andile Ngcoza for correctively raping Millicent Gaika, a black woman from Gugulethu. Harrowing photographs of Gaika, taken just after her attack show a woman severely bruised and beaten. Outside of Wynberg court, Soldaat told reporters that Gaika had suffered deep psychological trauma and had attempted suicide as a result of the rape.

Soldaat has also (rightly) pointed out the way that poverty restricts access to legal remedies against injustice. Her contention that the Constitution is meaningless for many black and impoverished South African lesbians seems difficult to deny at times. But two things ought to be remembered. Firstly, Biblical inspired venom against homosexuals from the mouths of religious leaders serves to actively negate the good work of the Constitution, and the tolerant, progressive attitudes that its precedents seek to usher in. In a 2011 report on corrective rape in South Africa by Human Rights Watch, organized religion was identified as one of the root causes of corrective rape, and the church as one of the most important spaces in which ‘social attitudes and ethical responses form’ for South Africans, and where ‘significant discrimination occurs’. In the townships especially, researchers found that ‘pastors and other church leaders wield immense influence on moral and social matters, influence that can directly impact lesbian members of the congregation, often in a negative way’. Elsewhere in the report, victims recount incidents of homophobia based on Christian precepts. Just before being correctively raped, one woman in Johannesburg was told that ‘this thing [homosexuality] doesn’t make sense. This is a sin, God doesn’t like this’. Another victim recalls men shouting out to her, ‘God didn’t make women and women, he made Adam and Eve’.

Religious opposition to homosexuality is not limited by geography or by class. In England too, Catholic priests in expensive parts of London frequently voice their distaste towards homosexuality and their objections to gay marriage legislation. Nor should it be forgotten that religion offers hope to millions worldwide or that religious leaders very often preach love and acceptance. But anti-gay religious leaders in South Africa ought to remember the context of their words. Here, it is estimated that a woman is raped every 15 seconds, and incidents of corrective rape are increasing year on year. The authors of the Human Rights Watch report go as far as to recommend state action to address situations where the actions of private persons, such as pastors, risk creating violations of the rights of others.

Finally, before dismissing the Constitution, critics should consider very recent events in other African countries. Just last week, an Islamic court in Nigeria subjected a man to 20 lashes for engaging in homosexual activities. In Uganda, new laws are being contemplated which would allow for life-sentences to be passed on those convicted of committing homosexual acts. Social attitudes are taking a long time to catch up with progressive legislation in South Africa. This is lamentable, but the prospect of a government and judiciary condoning hatred and violence towards gay men and women must be a far worse reality.

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