I am an anti-rape activist. I was part of the first 1in9 protest at Rhodes University in 2007; a protest held annually at the university, its name originating from the statistic: “One in nine rape survivors report their rape”. The eight rape silent survivors don’t report their rape for fear of social stigma and an apparent lack of support from the legal system. To support those eight rape survivors, hundreds of Grahamstown women tape their mouths shut with black gaffer tape, and are forbidden from eating, drinking or speaking for more than 12 hours. Back then, at the first protest, I was another woman campaigning against the suffering and abuse of rape survivors. This year was different. I had decided I would not only not participate in the 1in9 protest, I would actively avoid it.
I eventually pulled myself out of bed at 7am, and sat at my computer and checked my twitter account. This morning ritual was my downfall as I checked the #1in9 and #1in9protest hashtags. The protest had started, and I wasn’t part of it. I felt relieved, and I felt guilty. I posted some of my own tweets of protest and dissent – my attempt at showing solidarity with the protesters. Eventually, I posted: “#Itisrapeif you or your partner is drunk, drugged, asleep or unconscious. #1in9,” in protest and opposition to the #Itisnotrapeif hashtag that had plagued twitter some weeks before.
About 2 minutes later, one @Adv_AJ_Nel responded to that tweet.
“That said you should never be so drunk/stoned that you act in an “involuntary” manner,” was the reply that came from @Adv_AJ_Nel, who claims to be an advocate. He went on to say it would be “acting responsibly” to avoid getting too drunk.
My heart stopped.
Surely, the honourable advocate couldn’t possibly know that I was completely drunk the night I was raped?
I was with a close male friend, and I thought I was safe. I went out drinking with said friend, and I I thought I was safe. We went to my place to “hang out”, and I thought I was safe. I only realised I was not safe when I lay naked and helpless on my bed, passing in out of consciousness, with him on top of me.
I said ‘no’. I covered my vagina with both of my hands, and I said ‘no’. The only person who acted irresponsibly the night I was raped, was my rapist. There is no ‘checklist’ for how to avoid a rape. The only person who is at fault for a rape is the rapist.
I sat in front of my computer staring at my twitter account, staring at @Adv_AJ_Nel ‘s words with complete incredulity. I felt my heart race. The blood rushed to my face and I wanted to scream with rage. A drop of water fell onto my right hand, which was hovering over my keyboard. I felt tears on my cheeks.
“I can’t do this,” I thought.
My cell phone rang. It was my lecturer, calling me to tell me I was late for class. My make-up freshly applied a few minutes before, was smudged and running. I washed my face and didn’t re-apply my make-up. I cried as I got into my car, and I cried as I drove to class.
Four hours later, I walked out of the journalism department with a friend. I berated myself for not concentrating in my seminar – I was twice caught out by my lecturer for tweeting to the #1in9 protest on my cell phone.
“Do you want to check out the die-in?” I asked my friend. We were sitting in my purple Ford Ka. If I recall correctly, it started as part of a human rights protest some years ago, and has since been appropriated by the 1in9 protest. It is traditionally held in the Rhodes University library quad over lunchtime.
I parked my car behind the library, and friend and I headed for the library quad. I was laughing at some joke she had told when we rounded the corner of the library, and we were instantly hushed into silence.
“Jesus,” I whispered.
The red brick paving of the library quad was almost entirely invisible, and bodies lay strewn all over the ground. More than three hundred 1in9 protesters lay on the paving, observing a silent vigil for those men and women that survive their rape.
I tried to cross the quad to get a better look, and walked along the left-most side wall. I had to carefully avoid stepping on any of the protesters’ arms and legs, and did not want to wake them from their silent reverie. I noticed that some of the protesters had peaceful expressions on their faces, and seemed to have drifted off to sleep. Others looked like ragdolls, haplessly thrown aside, their arms and legs lying awkwardly where they fell. Some protesters were holding hands, and made human daisy chains across the quad.
I was absorbed in the silence when I felt a hand on my back, and turned around to face another friend – also a journalist. She asked me how I was coping, but before I could answer something caught my eye.
“Rape Survivor” was printed in bold, white letters on her t-shirt.
She had told me before that she was a rape survivor. But seeing the words in the open like that, where everyone could see them, shook me. I was taught to believe rape is a private affair. “Don’t tell anyone,” I was told, “or they will never let you forget you are a rape victim.”
Clearly, my internal shame was lost on the 20-year-old, who wore “Rape Survivor” on her chest without fear. She was smiling as my resolve crumbled, and I started to cry.
“I can’t do this,” I told my friend as she hugged me.
Larissa Klazinga, one of the organisers of the 1in9 protest, walked over to where my friend and I were huddled. Larissa put her tattooed arms around me and hugged me. I told her I was a rape survivor, but was too ashamed to wear the words on my chest. “It’s okay,” she told me, “when you are ready.”
I asked her how she felt the protest was going, and wiped my tears off on my coat sleeve. The dark bags under Larissa’s eyes betrayed her fatigue. “It’s a tough day for everyone,” Larissa said, and only then I noticed the words on her t-shirt: “Rape Survivor”.
I watched in silence as Larissa walked away and resumed her post, where she used gaffer tape to cover the mouths of the silent protesters. Over a thousand protesters had volunteered to have their mouths taped shut from six o’clock that morning to six o’clock that evening, and were not allowed to speak, eat or drink during that time. These women were showing solidarity with the eight out of nine South African sexual assault survivors that were too afraid to report their assault for fear of stigma and further victimisation.
The silence was an ode to the victims and survivors of rape, as well as a prayer for change.
My friend and I decided we needed a break from the protest, and after having lunch, we went to her house to kill a few hours before the protest’s “Break the Silence” ceremony. I walked into her room, and spotted a crumpled pile of purple fabric on her bed. I picked it up, saw it was inside-out and inverted it. I read the words on the shirt. “Rape Survivor”.
I found my friend in her living room. She was sitting on the couch and checking the photos she had taken of the protest on her Canon camera. I sat next to her, and opened the shirt on my lap. She peered at me over her camera.
“Are you going to wear it tonight?” she asked lightly, as if the words on the shirt were nothing but randomly-arranged sequins and we were going to a party.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
And then I pulled the purple shirt over my head and handed my friend my camera phone. “Take a picture of me,” I told her, and pulled the purple fabric until it was taut and the words on my chest were clearly visible. I posted the picture on twitter, and in so doing outed myself for what I am: a rape survivor.
My friend looked at me, a confused look on her face.
“I can’t do this. I can’t sit here and watch you and everyone protest for my sake, and not do anything. I can’t do that,” I told her.
“It goes against everything I believe in.”
Half an hour later we stood at Rhodes University’s administration building, in front of the clock tower, alongside more than a thousand other protesters in purple. The tension in the air was almost tangible, like slick oil dispersed in the air. I heard a grunted conversation behind me: “Mmmm-mmm-mmm,” said a tall red-headed girl to a brunette with red horn-rimmed sunglasses on her forehead.
“Mmmm-mmm-mmm-MMMM?!” responded the second girl, her eyes wide. A third girl joined the grunted conversation, and with exaggerated hand gestures seemed to tell a fantastic story of mystery and intrigue. When she finally stopped moving, I watched the faces of the first two protesters for any sign of comprehension…
Even under the layer of gaffer tape, I could see the smiles creep onto the three girls’ faces. As they succumbed to their stifled laughter, I allowed myself a quiet chuckle.
I followed my friends to a free spot in the crowd of purple, where we waited for the march to Grahamstown’s cathedral to begin. Eventually the gathering of protesters began to shuffle forward, and my photographer friends and I made our way to the front of the procession to take photos. We walked past the centenary flowerbeds in front of the clock tower, and I was suddenly self-conscious about the words on my shirt. As I adjusted my jacket in attempt to cover up the words on my chest, I heard my name, and looked up. It was a girl who had studied my undergraduate journalism degree with me. She was now the station manager for the campus radio station – a challenging job at the best of times. I remember she was our class’s “black diamond” – outgoing and going places. We exchanged pleasantries.
“What are you doing here?” she asked me. The only response I could think of was to open up my jacket. “It’s my first time,” I told her, as her eyes fell on the words on my chest.
“Me too,” she said, as she shifted her torso to face me. “Rape Survivor”.
We left the courtyard in front of the clock tower and made our way down Grahamstown’s High Street. As I passed a streetlight I saw a woman photographer scale the fixture, but not without the help of nearby car guard. She managed to secure her footing on a circular metal structure that wrapped around the street light; it was about half a metre wide. I ran to the edge of the streetlamp, ready to catch the young daredevil in case the structure collapsed. She looked down at the structure she was standing on, kicking some unseen objects out of her way as she tried to secure her footing.
“There are a lot of shoes up here,” she laughed, before bringing her camera viewfinder to her eye. I looked behind me to see what she was photographing. The protesters had completely blocked the left lane of high street for more than 500 metres back.
When the procession of purple reached the doors of the Grahamstown cathedral, I chose to wait outside the building until most of the protesters had entered. The throng of the crowd increased my anxiety, and I shoved my hands in my coat pockets to keep them from shaking. As I stood there, watching the 1 in 9 protesters slowly ooze into the cathedral, I felt a wave of exhaustion roll over me. I looked down Hill Street, which intersects with High Street at the Cathedral, and saw my house. Just as I considered abandoning the protest and walking home, my friend found me in the sea of purple and ushered me into the cathedral. As I followed her, I heard Larissa’s voice over the PA system. I couldn’t make out what she said, but my friend turned around and grabbed my hand.
“This is it,” she said, and her voice quivered; I couldn’t tell if it was from excitement or anxiety. She smiled, but I was not convinced. “What’s going on?”
“We have to go to the front,” she said. “Go to the front? What does she mean go to the front?” I thought.
She clutched my hand tighter and pulled me through the crowd. The rape survivors probably just have to sit in the front row, I consoled myself.
I realised I was mistaken when I saw the row of women standing in front of the pulpit. Some of the women were holding candles, but all of them had the words “Rape Survivor” imprinted on their chests. My friend pulled me to the end of the row of women, and took off her coat. She looked at me, and waited. In front of us the protesters had filled every pew, and more had resorted to sitting on the floor. Other protesters sat behind us in the cathedral’s pulpit. Most of the protesters were women, and had black gaffer tape covering their mouths. According to Larissa, there were over 1500 protesters sitting in the Cathedral that Friday.
My friend squeezed my hand, and I knew what she meant to say: “It’s okay.” I turned around, put my handbag on the floor next to a pillar, and took off my coat. But before I turned to face the protesters again, I folded my arms over my chest – I was terrified of the words printed there.
Larissa spoke to the gathered crowd, but I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t hear anything until she said: “The rape survivors will now lead the chant: “Stop the war on womyn’s bodies.” I looked at my friend, unsure of what to do. Someone shuffled into place on my right, and I looked to see a stranger standing next to me. I hazarded a smile in her direction, and was startled by her response. She hugged me, and clung to my shirt. I instinctively put my arms around her, only to discover her body was shaking. I realised she was crying. I didn’t know what to do; all I could think of what to just hold her tighter. All we have in common are the words “Rape Survivor”. I started to cry alongside the stranger, and looked to my right, and watched as my friend’s face fell; and her resolve crumbled. My beautiful friend, raped six years ago when she was only 15 years old, cried in front of me for the first time that day.
I pulled my friend toward me with my free arm, and the three of us stood huddled, and shaking. We were overcome by the grief of what we had lost, of what had been taken from us. But as the voices of all the other 1500 protesters rose to join the chant of the rape survivors, I was overcome by the noise. We chanted through our tears: “Stop the War! Stop the War!” and the words rose to a crescendo with the 1500 voices chanting with us in the cavernous Grahamstown cathedral.
As the chant died away, my friend moved away from me and picked up her Canon camera. “I have to go take photos,” she told me, as she wiped away her tears with her index finger. I nodded, and understood.
I looked to my left at the stranger. She was still crying; her body shaking as she clung to my shirt. As I watched her, she looked up into eyes – and the pain I saw in her eyes threatened to make me cry again. She pulled away from me, and looked down, embarrassed. She was still crying.
I pulled her towards me and hugged her again, and stroked her braids. “It’s okay. You are a hero, and you are so brave. I am here, and I support you,” I told her. The stranger pulled away from my arms for the last time, and wiped away her tears with the heel of her hand. She seemed calmed. We nodded at each other: “in solidarity”, and she disappeared into the crowd.
I don’t know the stranger’s name; the short girl with the intricate braids, and courageous soul. But we are in solidarity.
The day I was raped, my choice was taken away from me. On Friday, April 15, the 1in9 protest gave me my choice back. And I choose not to be afraid of the words “Rape Survivor”, nor will I be ashamed of them. I choose to fight back, and I choose to stand up against a culture where the victims and survivors of rape are shamed into silence by societal stigma and myths about rape.
I broke my silence, and I will never be silent again.
(Extracts of this story were published on Women24.com, here and here.)
Pictures taken by Richard Stupart. Click here to see more photos taken by Richard during the protest.
Also, thank you to Nechama Brodie (@brodiegal) for her help in editing this story, and her support. xx
I took part in Solidarity with women who speaks out last year and this year too its happening on the 23 of March..i don’t know if i should say this but i’m ashamed, angry and discomforted of people out there who call themselves ”MAN”, who keep on doing all this disgrace on our beautiful women in the world particularly South Africa. How do you Sleep at night knowing what you did?, Who gave you the right to take some’ones HUMANITY, DIGNITY AND SELF-WORTH, guys
NO!!!! MEANS NO!!!!
I am very proud to call my self a MAN
Michelle, I cried in my office while I read this. You are a hero xx
I just wanted to thank you for your story. I was wearing the same shirt that day. It was the first time I had even admitted to myself that I am a Rape Survivor, I had always ignored it as another event in life and if it ever cropped up I would think of it as “harassment” or “molester” as they were just easier to admit. Reading your story re-awakened the hope I had felt during the protest, it made me feel strong again and reminded me that I am in control, being a Rape Survivor should not control my life. Thank you for helping me break my silence.
Made me weep like a baby. Thank you for sharing your story. Unimaginably brave. I’m very impressed with your 1in9 participation.
Thank you for so very bravely sharing your story!