Domestic violence that many women are subjected to is only given credence when a woman can prove that she was subjected to violence. The question ‘Did ‘s(he) hit you?’sets the table, and you already know that big servings of ‘where’s the proof’ are being served. The answer no comes with a sigh of relief, a thank goodness is muttered, and somehow, speaking about the debilitating emotional and psychological pain seems so trivial, so small in the face of what is seen as worse forms of violence. Emotional and psychological scratches, punches and bruises are a lot harder to see, and show.
The burden of proof in sexual violence, including rape is so heavy. If you can’t show it, it didn’t happen. If you first said yes, then said no, it’s your fault. But we know this. And if it was rape, if I allow myself to publicly declare that I have experienced rape in a relationship, who will believe me because I went ahead and had frequent sex with this person for nearly a year after this? And unlike bad hair, or those shoes only you like, or that experimental food place that you will never get your friends to go to, when it comes to sexual violence and rape, you have to prove it to so many people. You have to sometimes even prove to yourself, that you were subjected to that kind of violence. And somehow, you are able to function with gaping holes torn into yourself. Sometimes, we forget that we survived, or we forget altogether that we even experienced rape. It’s something we try hard to forget. But the smoke and ashes of the experience never really clear. The fire never really stops burning. We just get used to living in the flames.
One day, I finally learnt what rape is. I learnt about rape in a book. Many books. What I read, in the small library at a feminist collective and library called Sister Namibia, were books upon books on violent, non-consensual, horrible accounts told by women in war zones, women in rural and urban poor areas, black women, uneducated women. Women married to the ‘wrong men’ and women at the wrong place and time, wearing the wrong thing. Women who said the wrong thing. Women who refused to be women. And ‘men’ who refused to be ‘men’.
Moments. I read about moments.
Sometimes single occurrences of this kind of violence, many stories of such horrible repeated assaults and violations. It upset me. I cried for a pain I didn’t recognise from reading these stories. For a moment I hated men. I hated that they had so much power that seemed unursurpable. But the story of giving up and giving into incessant demands for access to my body, the story of emotional and psychological manipulation, the story of entitlement to sex from women, by men that story, wasn’t there. I realised that I was looking for a story that my body remembered, a violence I could completely understand, but I couldn’t articulate because, I didn’t have the physical scars. But it wasn’t there. But I now knew what rape is.
With this knowledge, came the realisation that, I had never been taught that my body is mine. Or that I could say no. If I was made to lie down in front of a male doctor and later to have to lie still for a week while my mother shoved big pills up my vagina and never tell me why. There was a silence in my body that even I didn’t know existed. I learnt about rape not by learning that sex was something that I could choose to not have, but by learning that sex was something could be forced onto women’s bodies, and that women would, or had to, somehow, survive this intrusion. More than the sex act itself, it is the right to choose how, when, who, why, that is taken away from women by men who rape. And, I slowly realised, this complete ignoring of what a woman wants, or doesn’t want, isn’t a singular occurrence. It is not that once-off time that a partner had too much to drink or just wasn’t ‘themselves’. There must be a consistency in someone ignoring requests and pleas from women that rapists imply as permission to proceed with sex that they are having, but the woman isn’t participating in.
This piece forms part of the #QueeringTheCloak series which is part of a larger project exploring sexual, emotional and physical violence in queer women spaces on the continent. The project seeks to essentially ‘pull back the cloak’ on shame and silence around this violence. Check out the entire series here.