I had decided to stay out of the debate on the Rape Crisis blog between “Fifty Shades of Feminism” and “Burlesque”, posts by the present and former directors of Rape Crisis. Many reasons: remembering being the “angry young feminist”, feeling caught between the older and younger generations of feminists, but most of all, affection for the personalities behind the blogs. I’ve seen Carol dancing with joy in the shepherd’s cottage she calls home, goats and flowers outside. I’ve asked her how the sam hill she keeps up her tireless international advocacy for raped and abused children without losing her mind. Her response is to crank up the music and dance some more.
And then there’s Kath, with whom I go back so far, the letters she wrote me when I went travelling (which I still have) were written by hand. It was a time of boyfriends and breakups and brothers and baked potatoes. Some of the people we loved in those long-gone years are dead now, so she’s become one of my memory-bank friends. And we have the tie of Rape Crisis too, an organisation I’ve orbited since the late 1980s. I’ve never been a member, but I’ve been a researcher and consultant for the organisation on and off since 2001.
Kath is an idealistic pragmatist. Carol is a practically-minded idealist. I have more admiration than words can express for them both.
I’m writing this because Kath specifically asked me to. And because I’ve currently been entrusted with the task of compiling and editing a memoir of the past 40 years of the organisation’s history. This has offered some insights from the past into this current debate.
Two strands emerge from the timeline of the organisation’s long and impressive history. One is that “robust debate” (polite way of saying massive conflict) – between different schools of feminism, between white middle-class members and black members, older members and younger members, members who were parents and who were childless – has always run like a river through the culture of the organisation.
This makes perfect sense: Rape Crisis was founded in 1976, the year Soweto burned and the struggle against apartheid took on a new urgency and militancy. Feminism was considered irrelevant or viewed with suspicion. Sexual violence against women wasn’t seen as a priority by either the right or the left. Things got worse in the 1980s, the era of “young lions” and “jackrolling”, often in the name of the “struggle”.
In all of this, Rape Crisis members were presented with one urgent moral dilemma after another: did it affiliate with the anti-apartheid movement, and if so, which structures, given that the ANC and PAC were banned, underground organisations? What relationship could it have with state institutions, given that these were racist by definition and culture? How was it supposed to interface with the criminal justice system, which overtly legislated discrimination?
How was the organisation to survive? It needed funds, registration status, relationships with state institutions that could provide satellite support (hospitals, mental health agencies, schools) and more. Issues of language, access, training, location – which were also issues of race and class – had to be faced and dealt with. The range of debates and divides from those years is so overwhelming, I’m amazed that the organisation survived.
There’s also a great deal of pain in the Rape Crisis annals: I was horrified to find that lesbians were not officially allowed to be “out” in the organisation until six years after it was established, for reasons of “credibility” and “image”. Can you imagine it? My brain almost melted.
And the agonies around trying to arrange abortions (then illegal) for rape survivors: those were truly dark times, and the brave band of members and volunteers who kept going regardless of differences, ideological and otherwise, deserve to be saluted.
But that brings the second strand into focus: that in spite of the real and sometimes bitter divides on the ground – and it’s clear from the records that these were handled with vast helpings of humour – Rape Crisis kept achieving amazing things, fuelled by the same passion that drove the debates. A small volunteer group working out of their own homes and later, a series of dingy offices, spread like dandelion seeds all over Southern Africa, establishing sister organisations, and a stellar reputation for being the one safe go-to place for rape survivors of all ages, races and sexes.
For all the in-house divisions and differences, Rape Crisis never abandoned those who needed the support it offered – rape survivors and their families. And that’s the context in which I see this debate.
On the issue of burlesque: my impression was always that it was a form of subverting the strip-club status quo. But I’m aware that this response stems from my own intellectual feminist history: I belong to the post-colonial and postmodern generation, which argued that the oppressed are never silent, but continually fermenting with agency, subversion and creativity from the margins. I once heard a feminist scholar argue that doing “high-end” sex work to support herself as she wrote her PhD was a choice that demonstrated her power. (Interestingly, the one thing she refused to do for her clients was wear high heels: “I’m not risking bunions.”) I didn’t buy her argument, but I did see its logic. But I have no doubt that if I had explained this at a Rape Crisis meeting at many moments in its history, I would have been soundly jumped upon in the honourable tradition of the organisation.
Has Rape Crisis betrayed the radical feminism of its roots? All I know is that I call myself a radical feminist, and don’t believe it is a fixed entity, or necessarily a path to consensus and sisterhood. (Will never forget a very senior American feminist professor demanding to know if I was straight. My BRILLIANT reply – “So far” – didn’t save me from condemnation for “sleeping with the enemy”.)
Has Rape Crisis been “captured by the patriarchy”? It’s a fair question, but the truth is that we’re all immersed in a toxic mix of overlapping patriarchies and structural inequalities. There are no capitalism-free zones, especially not when there are bills to pay.
A look back through the history of Rape Crisis shows that money for the organisation has come from a whole range of individuals and entities, including banks and oil companies – two powerful global players responsible for unimaginable suffering. But we all use banks, and those of us with cars all buy petrol.
So while Rape Crisis may never have slept with the enemy, it’s done a fair amount of strategic table-hopping in its time. It’s always debated practical choices with verve and honesty, and it’s always found a way forward, in spite of legitimate concerns and even rage.
It’s a struggle, finding that balance between trying to usher in that other world Arundati Roy can hear breathing, and saving our own lives – striving for healing and contentment in our own skins.
As I was writing this, a young woman shared her identity as a rape survivor on the blog. Her courage is remarkable, but equally remarkable is that for all the turbulence of its history, Rape Crisis is a space that’s safe enough – even in the notoriously shark-infested online world – for people like her to claim the personal in the political. Having immersed myself in the organisation’s memories, I can attest that this is what it does best.
Helen is a writer, researcher, poet, recovering academic and activist. Her book on sexual violence in the post-apartheid state is awaiting publication. She has described herself as a radical feminist since the age of twenty-two, although her mother claims it started when she was about ten. She loves wearing high heels, but has reached the age where she loves taking them off even more.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to our Director, Kathleen Dey, at email@example.com for publication on this site. We hope to spark our own debate to see what feminists of today, and any other day, think and feel.