Hate Crimes, Black Lesbians And Townships
One of the slang words for vagina is the Zulu word for cow (“inkomo”) which is also used to indicate a token in a game. It’s a transactional term that describes gains and losses, credits and debits. “When my card showed Ace and the dice rolled that way, I gained izinkomo”.
That’s important to know because when men pay cows (again, izinkomo) to the bride’s father’s family for lobola, it could be said they symbolically “win” or “buy” the female nkomo. People of pleasant temperaments will discuss this cultural* phenomena with more taste than others but it’s effectively still a transaction and women’s genitals are still men’s real estate.
I’ve asked women why the word for vaginal penetration (“ukuhlaba”) is also the word used when a cow is slaughtered during traditional ceremonies like weddings. If you’re a girl and you walk down a township street the boys will probably say, loud enough for you to hear it, “Ngizoyihlaba leyangane” which means, “I will penetrate that child”. I’ve also asked many women why they think the men gather gleefully to slaughter that sacrificial cow during that type of ceremony. Do women know it’s believed that slaughtering a cow using a sharpened blade symbolizes manhood and courage, but using their bare hands to tear a bull (inkunzi) apart is thought to harness the ancestors’ power channelled through the death of the animal, and empower the men? Men gain power and ancestral approval by first exercising power over other objects – over izinkomo and izinkunzi – and like Viagra, that power is expected not to “go to waste”. It must be used on something.
And it is the “duty” of all female someones to avail themselves to a man each.
Without exception, the women I’ve asked these questions have slumped into resigned postures. There is no other way that life could be, they reply. It’s always been like this and it’s our identity as black people.
The words nkomo and ukuhlaba, as well as their corresponding ritual symbols of a “cow” being sacrificed, cross paths at the insistence that vaginal penetrability must accompany a woman’s sexuality, and that this sexuality must be exercised in accordance with the system we’ll call heteropatriarchy.
The system awaits the woman’s submission, as though she were a sacrificial animal, to the religion of heteropatriarchy. In this religion, the husband’s phallus – the idol that is the liturgical “weapon”, the“spear” and “warhead” of conquest – is used to open up and offer her body up on the altar of heterosexual marriage to the only place her sexuality can be completed, redeemed and vindicated before society.
Husbands make “honest women” of their wives.
Now I’m often told that I have a very cynical view of society and marriage. In response I rattle off rape and domestic abuse statistics. So on one hand we have people in cultures – white and black, all heteropatriarchal to some extent or another – that insist that they’re absolutely normal and beyond critique, and on the other, we have stories of stunning violence happening in our backyards. Whose version of the truth do we accept?
In Zulu, rape is “ukudlwengula” which I imagine comes from the sound root “dlwe”. This is pure guesswork on my part but sounds formed by the “dl-” sound are often active and they’re useful onomatopoeia for the sounds of tearing and breaking. From words like “udlame”, “uyadlala,” “uyadla” (which mean “violence”, “playing” and “eating” respectively) I’ve heard many Zulu-speaking people instinctively extracting the “dli” syllable, distilling the sense of force in it, and using it as an adverb. “Wayithatha ngodli!” “He seized it with violence”.
With this particular word “ukudlwengula”, there is the sense of something being wrenched from its rightful place. That “rightful place” isn’t the woman’s consent, for in township and African cultures the locus of female consent is not only the woman’s will but the socio-cultural context it’s found in. “Ukudlwengula” is when one man illegitimately takes a woman from where she belongs on the pipeline to mother- and wifehood to another man and household that would have followed the expected steps to procure her, and rapes her. It is a violation against her but more importantly, against the community, custom and ancestry.
This sounds reassuring, how women’s rights and propriety seem to be woven into the fabric of African traditions. The problem with having her individual rights stand conditionally beside the culture is that in some instances of rape, other factors obscure justice. This is especially true in the custom of “ukuthwala” in which a woman is kidnapped, forced into a marriage with her abductor, and her family is given a choice and she is lastly given a “choice” after a long period of disorientation and “decision-making”.
More alarmingly, when individual rights are conditioned on conformance to culture, those rights may be violated to fulfil someone’s idea of cultural demands. This was the case in July 2013, when Duduzile Zozo was found murdered with a toilet brush in her vagina. That brush was her rapist’s way of asking, “Well what sort of nkomo is yours anyway?” She did not have it available for his taking on the playing board, so he violently wrenched it – wamdlwengula – not from its rightful place in the scheme of things, but into it. She’d strayed, and he was putting her back in place.
Now we have a problem again. A lesbian claims individual human and sexual rights over her body. A man claims that his “right” to enforce societal and cultural expectations on her trump her individual rights. Whose right is right? Whole societies and cultures say they’re normal, but the rape and murder statistics aren’t normal. Who’s delusional and who’s in denial?
And by attacking her, her rapist has said there is no room for mere tolerance. It’s all or nothing. He forced to the surface all the dilemmas we’re too polite to address.
By putting a toilet brush in Zozo’s body, he spat at every female lover that Zozo had ever had and also told Zozo that unless it’s offered up to heteropatriarchy, her vagina is no better than a dirty toilet because she’s flushed society’s right to her penetrability down that “drain”. A similar message was sent out at the funeral when her female friends tried to take over ceremonial duties that are normally left to men: the men balked.
Female power and independence from heteropatriarchy is terrifying for it says the men’s monopoly on the meaning of women’s lives is under threat. If women can skip men and just enjoy sex without them, then the military conquest of men over women is rendered meaningless because a mere woman – that is, a lesbian without a penis, without a “sharpened blade” – can pull off the same feat men had gathered in their cow-slaughtering groups to celebrate. Tearing bulls apart with their hands was for nothing, for that power won’t be transferred on women or used anywhere meaningful (God forbid men ever sleep with men); the “Viagra” was taken for nothing because the lesbian has accomplished alone, without ever preparing for it, what whole armies of boys killing bulls, slaughtering cows and standing on the side of the street just talking about it but never getting it done have failed to do. It’s an affront to their authority as men and it must be “corrected”. The phallic gods are outraged that they have not personally overseen the sacrifice by which women’s sexual incompleteness is resolved.
Lesbianism doesn’t render the penis irrelevant but it does make it optional. Optional penises are as good as castrated ones. Lesbians couldn’t be more threatening if they walked around with butchers’ knives in hands and skull-and-penis necklaces around their throats.
South Africa statistics indicate that one in every four men has raped and that one in every three women has been the victim of sexual assault. That’s higher than our numbers for literacy. To counter this, we create slogans like, “Real Men don’t rape”. Local activist Sian Ferguson wrote: “My entire life, I’ve heard that real men don’t rape. But the man who raped me was not imaginary – he was indeed very real”. What’s a real man? I personally am desperate to know. I was listening to the radio when I heard of an email written by a listener who said that whenever he heard Scissor Sister’s Don’t Feel Like Dancing and caught himself singing along, he questioned his heterosexuality. The radio DJ laughed and remarked in agreement that liking that particular song could cause any man to question his masculinity.
That’s how easily the word “heterosexuality” was swapped for the word “masculinity”. So real men who don’t rape, but actually do, are expected to be heterosexual otherwise they’ll be symbolically castrated by society. This unspoken demand to “perform” masculinity is powerful. While there is nothing wrong with any particular expression of typical masculinity as such, there is plenty disturbing with the expectation that every biological male will conform to all that is typically associated with masculinity. When we say, “Real men don’t rape”, failure and shame are still haunt the men receiving this message; those men are provoked to protecting and proving their masculinity (read: heterosexuality) in some way or another. The Viagra needs to be used on someone.
The fight against corrective rape isn’t limited to feminists, lesbians, or to people in academia. It isn’t just for ministers and NGO-based activists.
The issue touches on everyone. The numbers say that 500 women are raped in Western Cape townships a year. That’s the physical part of it, and it’s devastating. A fellow Mr Gay South Africa finalist, Zander Barnard, is a medical doctor and he’s seen upfront the damage these crimes can inflict. He’s used his voice and position to urge government to distinguish corrective rape as a hate crime and attach harsher penalties to it.
When we speak up on human rights, we’re trying to fix problems that are connected in invisible ways to the safety of your body, your finances, your family and your country. That’s why I’ve been speaking to clergy, especially: depending on how they read their bibles and minister to people, they can shift the culture and make it more humane.
In principle, every single last person is violated by such a crime – including the perpetrator himself – because each person’s human rights are conditional on their playing the role expected of them. In principle, then, corrective rapists violate not just women’s bodies but the entire body of human rights.
Rape, for whatever reason, is everyone’s battle.
Everyone needs to speak up.
This is why the finalists of Mr GSA 2015 are stepping up to that plate.
*Disclaimer: a nuanced explanation as to why no particular factor behind corrective rape is the decisive one is beyond the scope of this piece. Culture is not necessarily evil.