Social Media, Rape Culture, and How Women Fight Back

rights women Social Media GBV homophobia
Wednesday, 7 August, 2013 - 14:20

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

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.”
A 2011 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report entitled ‘We’ll Show You You’re a Woman: Violence and Discrimination against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men in South Africa’, revealed that lesbians and transgender men are exposed to widespread discrimination and violence on a daily basis, from both private individuals and government officials. Even more surprising is how these perpetrators act with almost total impunity. The wholly ignorant remarks made by African National Congress Women’s League’s (ANCWL) chairperson, Lindiwe Khonjelwayo, regarding the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community’s pursuit of equal rights, which she has termed as ‘too aggressive’, that is, the LGBTI community was ‘asking for’ the abuse it received, only further emphasise this community’s ostracism, despite laws having been implemented to guarantee their equal rights. That GBV in South Africa also extends to include LGBTI people, seems to suggest that not only does South African society have a rampant rape culture, where GBV is often blamed on the victim, and not only are parts of South African society oppressive and violent toward women, but that any gender or sexual-orientation that deviates from the patriarchal norm is subject to abuse. This damaging attitude is what French writer and philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, termed ‘Othering’, that is, an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ situation, whereby the latter are seen as less human, or somehow less worthy of respect than the former, and are treated accordingly.

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. The United Nations (UN) also joined the likes of these movements, using social media to promote its cause - in this case, #orangeday is used to promote the secretary-general’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, which started in July 2012, on the 25th of every month. 
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. South African nonprofit organisation, Women’sNet, started a local ‘Take Back the Tech’ campaign in 2009, featuring during the 16 Days of Activism (25 November to 10 December).
Social media has thus been used successfully to campaign against sexism, misogyny, and GBV. 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. Many women who campaign against GBV and related issues have experienced the full thrust of a society of men that has been raised within the confines of rape culture. 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. All this was in reaction to her Kickstarter campaign for people to, I must emphasise, - voluntarily fund -, research in the area of ‘Tropes vs Women in Videogames’. 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. This in turn prompted an online petition to introduce a ‘report abuse’ button on Twitter, which more than 66 000 people have signed to date, putting the social media platform under pressure to make its user more accountable. Examples of such appalling behaviour toward women who openly fight for their right to be treated with respect and equality are unfortunately a common occurrence these days.
Will such aggression and GBV-behaviour also be the fate of those South African women who start movements for change on social media? The banning of the movie ‘Of Good Report’ - due to be premiered at the Durban International Film Festival (Diff) in July 2013 - 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 -,  not only symbolise South Africa’s discomfort with tackling issues of a sexual nature head-on, but the country’s overall ‘let's try to pretend this is not happening’ attitude, which is anything if not detrimental in a country where child abuse and GBV need to be dealt with openly and directly. 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, as it has been done in the UK and Germany, there would most definitely be a backlash just as violent and virulent, if not more so, with rape culture raising its ugly head where women try to make a substantial difference.
Yet this is not the only problem potential South African movements looking to challenge the state of GBV or other related issues would face when campaigning on social media platforms. Despite having climbed two places in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) 2013 ‘Global Information Technology Report’, namely from 72nd to 70th out of the 144 countries surveyed, South Africa scores poorly when it comes to ICT skills (102nd), affordability (104th), and individual usage (81st). If social media movements within South Africa are to make some impact, access to, as well as the skills to use ICTs successfully, need to be in place. The communities and women who are most at risk when it comes to GBV are unfortunately 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.

-  Laura Kapelari is SANGONeT’s International Human Rights Exchange intern. 

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