“If you’re pushing a woman to change her behaviour to ‘prevent’ rape, you’re really saying ‘make sure he rapes the other girl’”. I saw this phrase attached to an image of a woman cowering over. She was being pressed down by white text. Capitalised letters shouting, “DON’T” over and over again: “DON’T GO OUT ALONE/ DON’T DRINK/ DON’T LET YOU’RE GUARD DOWN/ DON’T SMILE/ DON’T MAKE EYE CONTACT/ DON’T TRUST THOSE GUYS/ DON’T GIVE HIM YOUR NUMBER/ DON’T DRAW ATTENTION TO YOURSELF/ DON’T WEAR THAT SHORT SKIRT/ DON’T OPEN THE FRONT DOOR/DON’T LIVE ALONE/DON’T FEEL SAFE. “ I am ‘the other girl’. It’s already happened to me but the chorus of “DON’TS” haven’t changed. There’s simply the added refrain of A-G-A-I-N. The compounded pressure of making sure it doesn’t happen to you for a second time.
Post-rape, self-care becomes part of survival. You have to take on your physical, emotional and psychological struggles to make every day as close to ordinary as you can manage. Physically, you often have to build an emotional and psychological bridge back to a body that feels like it betrayed you. I’ve got a gym membership I can only sort of kind of afford and yoga has been my attempt to speak to the vessel I’m trying to re-attach to mind-heart me. But in the five minute public space between the gym and where I live, I’m told to carry myself carefully. Pre-rape, my mother would tell me to always assert myself with street harassers who thought that they were entitled to me because we happened to be sharing a pavement. After the fact our conversations now sound like this:
Me: Hi mom…nothing, just got back from yoga
Mom: It’s 8 pm
Me: I know
Mom: I’d prefer if you go in the morning. You shouldn’t be walking the streets of Cape Town at night.
Me: I wish you that you didn’t feel like you need to say that.
Mom: I wished we lived in a world where I didn’t have to.
The cautions come from a place of love and helplessness – a want to protect. Shadowboxing potential sexual threat is such a norm of women’s lives that it took me a year to accept that I couldn’t have prevented a crime committed against me. The details of that night have spent so much time on the cutting room floor of my mind. I’ve spent so much time replaying the clips and editing my behaviour in hopes of a different outcome but never thought to do the same for his. My mental chorus of, “If I Hadn’t” is just a reconstruction of the “DON’TS” I’d always heard. “IF I HADN’T BEEN DRUNK”, “IF I HADN’T GONE OUT THAT NIGHT”, “IF I HADN’T LET HIM KISS ME”, “IF I HADN’T LEFT WITH HIM”, “IF I HADN’T ASKED HIM TO HELP ME FIND MY WAY HOME”. It’s a parade of shame and guilt. On some days these horns blare louder than others. It’s the reason it took me two weeks to report what had happened to me. It’s taken two counsellors to interrupt this message.
One I’ve only met on Skype and the other is a live human being I see every week. Both come from organisations that have mounted a collective challenge against victim-blaming: the Jes Foord Foundation and the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust respectively. Both provide a space where the details of your ordeal are taken as acts of survival. They gift spaces to counter the toxic narratives of, “You should have done more,” or, “You could have done better”. They provide some of the few spaces as a rape survivor where you aren’t put on trial; psychological safe havens where your story isn’t jostled around, interrogated or poked for flaws. From court rooms to police stations to sidewalks to bars to homes to classrooms, we live in a society built for the comfort of rapists; one that speaks their language and one which disseminates their excuses as truth. The safe spaces provided by these organisations are the few concrete walls that have been built against a world where 97 percent of sexual assailants walk free.
Dela Gwala is a full-time feminist and post-grad student at UCT who writes in the hours stolen from her thesis. She helps manage the South African branch of the largest intersectional feminist page on Facebook, Guerrilla Feminism.