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Corrective Rape of black lesbian women in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Muholi,Z. 2004, ‘Aftermath’. (Appendix 1)
The following article is a guest post by Fadi Baghdadi (contactable: here) , a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney’s Department of Sociology and Social Policy.  Baghdadi’s honours thesis explored the meanings Muslims women attribute to Islamic dress and Islamic gender relations in an Australian context. His current research is concerned with exploring how Lebanese Migrants have been effected by and negotiate space-time in regional Australia.  The article bellow is an analysis of the social imaginaries that collide in the practice of  'corrective' rape in South Africa and related issues of symbolic power and violence.

Symbolic violence and power coincide within the evolving structures of social imaginaries. This paper will explore various incidences of ‘corrective’ rape in post-apartheid South Africa. The manifestation of violence that is enacted will be shown to embody symbolic power in a homophobic form. The misappropriation of symbolic power will be investigated in order to explore how it acts to both police and protect current social orders. These orders will be shown to incorporate the imaginaries that encapsulate ideas of race, gender and sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa. The deviance from the path these orders set will be understood in terms of their connection to the colonial past of South Africa and the current identity it propagates. Variance in the forms of rape, specifically its location in a public space and the collective nature of gang rape, will be examined. Furthermore, the classification of corrective rape as an abject form of violence will be shown to have merit. This theoretical framework will be further utilised to elucidate a photographic interpretation of the consequent trauma. Concurrently, this trauma facilitates the construction of a new social imaginary. The subsequent clash of imaginaries that proceeds will be explored. Thus, the nexus that exists between imaginaries will be understood within the misappropriation of symbolic power that ensues. 

                Sexual identities within South Africa have transformed within the imaginary of the national identity. South African national identity harbours the hopes and aspirations of its constituents through the collective imaginary it produces. With the inauguration of the ANC led government of South Africa, a new identity was shaped and new imaginary created (Gunkel 2010). South Africa was one of the first countries to recognise GLBT rights, with their incorporation into the post-apartheid bill of rights in 1996 (Mkhize et. al 2010). However, the larger struggle faced by native Africans against their colonial transgressors, overawed the attempted construction of a local imaginary that included GLBT people. Race and a colonial past, was utilised by African leaders to both legitimise their homophobic standpoint and validate their own heterosexuality (Budryte 2009). Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe described homosexuality as an, “abomination, a rottenness of culture, imposed upon Africans by Britain’s gay government” (Epprecht 2004 pp. 45).  References to Mugabe’s remarks that link an anti-homosexual position, to the politics of decolonialisation, are visible within popular culture in post-apartheid South Africa (Horn 2006). Homosexuality became regarded as a white exploitation of black culture and as yet another form of cultural imperialism (Holmes 1995). This description leads to homosexuality, specifically lesbianism in this instance, to be labelled as Un-African. The proliferation and popularity of these ideas into society leads to an unequal distribution of the symbolic power that is used to ‘correct’ lesbians into their African moulds. They also are forced to conform to the imaginaries of a patriarchal subservient society, which subjugates their chance of upward social mobility (Hage 1994: 1998: 2003). Subjugation is proliferated within the unequal distribution of societal hope, which is the product of symbolic power (Hage 2003). Furthermore, the incapacity of the national identity, to incorporate lesbians within its imaginary, is a form of symbolic violence in itself (Hage 1994). Displacement within their own community’s imaginary, leaves Black lesbians of South Africa disenchanted within their own imaginaries. That is a dual attack is perpetuated onto their self, through the legitimation of heterosexuality as a symbol of post-colonial Africa and their homosexuality becoming the embodiment of the legacy of colonialism. Thus, through its exclusion of lesbians within its construction of a national identity, the creation of a collective imaginary in post-apartheid South Africa becomes a form of symbolic violence.

The term ‘corrective’ when referring to the rape of lesbians in post-apartheid South Africa is validated through the experiences of the women. Kekeletso Khena, classified her rape as ‘corrective’, referring to her experience as when, where men try to turn you into a real African woman" (Mufweba 2003). Kekelesto extrapolates on this description with the justification of her rape by her uncle, “as her having to be taught how to be a black woman” (Mufweba 2003). The notions of a black woman’s identity, coalescing with her sexuality becomes clear in this experience of rape. Her divergence from the collective imaginary is believed to be ‘corrected’ by the imposition of a heterosexual experience. Sexuality, within the apartheid project, was the bio-political interface between the individual body and the population body, and for this reason it became the main target of power (Abdur-Rahman 2006). As Foucault (1987) argued, ‘sexuality is the primary target of power’. The control of this power coincides with the disposition of sexuality. Therefore, the domination and forced heterosexual experience placed upon the victim, becomes the solidification of the perpetrators own identity (Foucault 1987). Kekeletso’s uncle exploits the power bestowed on him by his conformity to the African imaginary (Mufweba 2003). This exploitation manifests in the form of the corrective rape that ensues. In contrast, the violation of Kekeletso’s imaginary forces her to classify herself as the iniquitous (Mufweba 2003). Her iniquity is personified with her failure to conform to the imaginary of a ‘real’ African woman. She becomes dispossessed of the power associated with her people’s attainment of equality. Disinheritance of this power thus becomes the tool used to validate her rape as corrective, both to her ‘self’ and her uncle’s perception of a black post-apartheid South African woman.

                The homophobic identification of homosexuality as ‘Un-African’ conceals a moral and sex panic. Utilising ideas of homosociality and Kinsey’s (1948) ideas of the double fear inherit in heterosexuality, the impetus of this violence can be realised (Reddy 2007). Homosociality refers to the “social bonds between persons of the same sex” (Sedgwick 1985, pp. 1). Male homosocial structures enforce gender inequality, with the reinforcement of masculinity coinciding with male dominance over females (Sedgwick 1985: De Lauretis 1991: Maddison 2000: Storrs 2003). Women are excluded from these structures and thus become emancipated subjects. However, while operating outside the protection of these imaginaries, women become the object of desire for those within (Sedgwick 1985). Lesbianism, as an imaginary, refuses this desire and becomes a symbol of rejection. Its construction faces a struggle to find its own place within the imaginaries created by the homosocialities of both women and men.  Lesbian women’s failure to conform to their sex’s homosocial imaginary leads them to become a symbol of Kinsley’s (1948) double fear (Reddy 2007). That is, the homophobia derived from homosociality, becomes a fear of the unknown ‘other’ and the fear of oneself becoming connected to that other. Therefore, the symbolic violence that perpetuates from homophobia, acts as the conduit for the appropriation of the power derived by belonging and conforming to a specific homosocialities imaginary. It has the characteristic of being an expiation, in which the cleansing of the ‘other’ becomes that which needs to be corrected.  Corrective rape becomes the tool to control, harass and police this other (Gunkel 2010). It is the manifestation of the power harboured within homosocial imaginaries, which is propagated through the acts of violence on its dissidents.

Corrective rape develops as an abject form of violence with its existence in a place outside the victims imaginary. Abjection is constructed through the disturbance of one’s identity, system or order. Kristeva (1982) describes the abject as having, “only one quality of an object that can be given a meaning – that of being opposed to I” (pp. 1). This definition encapsulates the inability for a victim of corrective rape to understand what has befallen them. They have been violated by an ‘other‘, who exists outside their imaginary. Namely, sexual intercourse with a male is not part of their identity and something so foreign to their ‘self’, that within their reality it becomes a ‘non-object’. This disassociation from a known reality engenders the classification of corrective rape as an abject form of violence. It causes the victims to reconstruct their known realities, as to incorporate this violation of their self.  Forceful remodelling of a known reality occurs through the misappropriation of power. Namely, the power the perpetrators derive from controlling and identifying the ‘abject’ as an object of their own reality. This perception breeds the domination of the victim both physically, through the physical boundaries of the body the act of rape violates, and psychologically, through the muddling of the victims reality. The former, is only the symbol for the latter. The physical boundaries that have been transgressed become difficult to be understood subjectively by the victim (Kristeva 1982). The failure of the ‘self’ to understand its victimisation subjectively becomes a form of violence in itself.  Only conformance to the dominating heterosexual imaginary, will allow victims to reduce the disempowerment felt within the misinterpretation of the violence instilled upon them. However, this leads to a disassociation from their ‘self’ within their own imaginary. The disenchanted self, corrective rape creates, demonstrates its allegory to be an abject form of violence (Kristeva 1982). By muddling the victims own imaginary, the allegory becomes the embodied misappropriation of power derived from the colonial history of the South African imaginary.

The trauma the victims of corrective rape endure act as scars of their disempowerment within the post-apartheid South African imaginary. “Many lesbians bear the scars of their indifference, and those scars are often in places where they can’t be seen” (See Appendix 1). This statement is contained within a caption that accompanies Zanele Muholi’s image Aftermath (See Appendix 1).  Gunkel’s (2010) describes the photograph Aftermath, which shows the body of a Black woman from just above the belly button, down to her knees. The woman is only wearing underpants bearing the label ‘Jockey’, a signifier of her ‘butch’ lesbian identity within the South African landscape. Gunkel (2010) highlights that the first abnormality which captures the viewers’ attention is the scar on the thigh of the woman. Initially, this visible scar can be interpreted as Muholi’s ‘scar of indifference’ that resides in a place than ‘cannot be seen’. However, this scar is healed and only a physical manifestation of the victims violence. In the search to find the ‘real’ scar, Gunkel (2010) reveals how the viewer’s attention is captivated by the woman’s positioning of her hands. Her hands, at the centre of the picture are clasped over her genitals. With the symbolic properties of the scar being discarded, the gesture and positioning of the hands become the central feature of the image. Through the woman’s mere acceptance of posing naked in front a camera, the gesture of the hands as implying shyness can also be discarded (Godana 2006: Gunkel 2010). Instead, the gesture acts as form of protection, of where there once was a breach of the self’s boundaries. This area of the woman’s body has become fragile and in need of security from the ‘other’. So while the scar portrays a healed form of violence, the gesture of the hands implies an ongoing violation of the body and/or ‘self’.  Muholi explains, “She already has a scar from a past incident, yet received new emotional scars from her rape” (Muholi in Godana 2006, pp. 91). Thus, the woman is not just protecting her physical boundaries, but the boundaries of her identity, her imaginary. Her hands signal a need to protect her ‘self’ from a powerful outside ‘other’. This struggle becomes anthropomorphised within this image. It creates a narrative explaining how the disempowerment derived from the victim’s rape, acts as an incessant form of symbolic violence. The tenacious grip this from of violence has on the imaginary of the victim creates an ongoing connection with their moment of disempowerment. The transfigured imaginary they are left with, becomes a symbolic copulas, linking the past to the present, the former powerful ‘other’, to the current less powerful ‘self’. It becomes the connecting link, between the subject and predication that the former violence successfully imposed upon their imaginary.

The public spaces in which the collective rape of South African women occurs, represents the current dominating imaginaries repression of the lesbian imaginary. In July 2007, Zandile Mpanza was attacked and raped by four men in Durbana, as a result of her non-compliance with a ban, which stipulates that women are not allowed to wear trousers in Umlazi’s T-section (Gunkel 2010: Mhlongo 2007). She was stripped naked and forced to walk through the streets. Her assailants destroyed her home and belongings and she was forced to move out of her township (Mhlongo 2007). Her non-compliance was a symbol of her sexuality and the opposition it constituted to the townships imaginary of Black South African women. The public space in which the incident occurred, demonstrates the collective imaginary’s need to exert its power over the less powerful and classify that ‘self’ as a non-member. Ahmed (2004) sees such acts of public violence as “affectively sticking the imagined community of men together through the emotion of hate which, as a consequence, marks this violence as (culturally) legitimate” (pp. 22). This classifies emotions such as the hate propagated as not just a psychological state, but that of a social and cultural practice. The repetition of these social norms is what creates a society's social imaginary, which in its production, reinstates and protects itself from outside forces that deviate from its imagined path. Furthermore, it demonstrates the sense of impunity with which the perpetrators acted. Their use of a public space can be read as a public performance of their masculinity (Ahmed 2004: Maddison 2000). One which attempts to both restore the gender regime that accords men a dominant position within the South African imaginary and which validates their own heterosexuality within their homosocialities (De Lauretis 1991: Storr 2003). Zandile was not only targeted for being a woman, but also for existing outside the parameters of her own homosociality and that of her male aggressors (Mhlongo 2007). The dominant imaginary of the community enforced its collective symbolic power onto Zandile, through the tolerance of her public persecution.

The collective rape of South African women is an attempt of men to solidify their own identities. These identities are appropriated from the imaginary produced at a national level. The attack on Nykonyana by twenty men in Khayelitsha in 2006 (Maduna 2007) can be shown to demonstrate that undertaking the attack as a group, the men did not only discipline the woman’s sexuality, but they also disciplined one another’s homosociality (Gunkel 2010). Nedelsky (1998) sees men that partake in such gang rape as those, “whose masculine credentials are under most pressure – those who are experiencing a crisis in identity of some kind” (pp.164). This disposition of masculinity can be attributed to the low socio-economic status of the group that were thought to have carried out the attack (Burgess-Jackson 1996: Groth & Birnbaum 1979: Maduna 2007: Nedelsky 1998). The lesbian attitude of not wanting/needing men to fulfil their sexual desires acts as  a symbol of men’s inadequacy to fulfil the South African’s imaginary of a man, as the ‘breadwinner’ of the family (Bennet 2001: Groth & Birnbaum 1979). Thus, the disempowerment of men in one sphere is sought to be retained within another. This struggle finds it opposition personified within the challenge the lesbian imaginary produces. It therefore aims to contend with this opposition, with the rectification of the discordant aspect of its imaginary. Homophobic violence becomes not only about the suppression of lesbianism, but also the refortification of masculine heterosexuality and dominance (Hall et. al 2003). By contributing to the rectification of the imaginaries norms, the individually disenfranchised man aims to solidify his place within society. This man finds commiseration within a group that shares his embitterment towards the emancipated state a low socio-economic status entails. Their fears of emasculation become amalgamated within the violence that they directed towards Nykonyana (Maduna 2007). Furthermore, the agglomeration of this disempowerment within the group, finds its collective manumission from the shackles that a low socio-economic status creates. This enfranchisement is what causes men to concentrate their power and project it onto women in the act of collective rape (Burgess-Jackson 1996: Groth & Birnbaum). In the case of Nykonyana, the men solidified their place within the national imaginary with a collectivized form of violence and subsequent misuse of aggrandized power.

The incidents of corrective rape in the South African narrative encapsulate the violence that ensues from a misappropriation of power within a nexus of social imaginaries. The violence is the attempt by the perpetrating imaginaries constituents to both, solidify the existence of their own imaginaries and enact its borders. The power that is derived from this violence represents both, the members and non-members of the corresponding imaginaries. This is exemplified in the ideas of a South African national identity, conflicting with those of a lesbian imaginary. Lesbians come to exist outside the collective’s protection and act as a reminder of a repressive colonial past. Furthermore, the dual justification for their need to be ‘corrected’, is also utilised within the protection of the homosocialities own imaginary at a local level. Furthermore, at this level, lesbianism comes to represent a direct challenge to the male homosociality.  It becomes abject to the perpetrators and their need to rectify this abjection, results in the subsequent abject form of violence exercised. Corrective rape as an 'abject' form of violence therefore, comes to have a dual setting, in both the victims’ existence outside the perpetrators imaginary and within the victims’ inability to understand the violence that cannot be understood. Muholi’s (2004) image anthropomorphised this nexus with its portrayal of the incessant hidden trauma that results from this particular manifestation of violence. Furthermore, the public spaces in which the rapes transpire and their collective nature, symbolises the dominating imaginaries tolerance of symbolic violence. This tolerance demonstrates the symbolic power conformance to the dominating imaginary appropriates to its actors. Concurrently, at a national scale, the misappropriation of this power transpires through the inability of the national imaginary to incorporate Lesbianism in its vision of a Black woman of post-apartheid South Africa.

Written by Fadi Baghdadi.


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