I’ve never been on a march as festive, friendly, and good-natured as Cape Town’s SlutWalk on Saturday. A local manifestation of a global movement which began in response to a Toronto policeman’s ill-judged comments about rape and women’s ‘slutty’ choice of clothing, SlutWalk Cape Town was a resounding success.
Given the preceding week’s cold, rainy weather and also the level of vitriol directed at the SlutWalk, it may even be considered a surprising success. I was dismayed at the ill-informed and increasingly ugly debate around the event. Commentators on its Facebook page accused the organisers of being ‘sick’, irresponsible, and, in one magnificent example of irony, of ‘asking for it’.
Others wondered if there was any point in holding SlutWalks in South Africa: what would they achieve? Would the debate around the movement’s name distract from its purpose? Of course, SlutWalks will never prevent anyone from being raped, but they encourage discussion about rape and the astonishing range of misconceptions about it. If anything, the anger roused by SlutWalk in South Africa demonstrates the extent to which women are still held responsible for rape – and also how strongly they are judged for what they choose to wear.
Wonderfully, the Mail & Guardian estimates that around 2,000 people marched against the blaming of rape victims on Saturday. Under gloriously sunny skies, they came dressed in ball gowns, leotards, fairy wings, thigh-high boots, jeans and t-shirts, and (almost) nothing at all. I was impressed by the numbers of men who turned out, and also by the presence of a number of families with children. This was, in many ways, a typically Capetonian event: not only did marchers gather near a hip cafe serving artisan coffee, but it began half an hour late.
It was, though, an overwhelmingly middle-class march. For an anti-rape march really to make sense in Cape Town, it should have been in Manenberg or Khayelitsha, and not in trendy Green Point. I also wonder how many people were put off by the march’s title. The organisers could have made their task much easier by linking the protest more strongly to South African concerns and events: like Jacob Zuma’s comment at his 2006 rape trial that he believed that a woman’s decision to wear a kanga (or sarong) indicated that she was willing to have sex; or Redi Thlabi’s 2008 march against taxi drivers who harass women for wearing mini-skirts.
But I don’t want to detract from the organisers’ achievement: getting 2,000 Capetonians to march on a bright, warm day when the beaches look particularly enticing is a major success. More seriously, though, I think that this protest draws our attention to two issues which need to be addressed with some urgency.
Firstly, SlutWalk is also – inadvertently – a campaign against street harassment. It is a protest against the fact that women experience constant, low-level harassment from men in public spaces – and are usually held responsible for the catcalls, groping, and wolf-whistles they attract. If women are to feel that public spaces belong to them as well as to men, we need a zero-tolerance approach to street harassment.
Secondly, I hope that SlutWalk will form the basis for a new South African feminist movement. In a country with such high rates of gender based violence, it is astonishing that we don’t have a more vocal and better organised feminist movement. The ANC Women’s League and Lulu Xingwana’s Department of Women, Children, and Persons with Disabilities – both conspicuous by their absence from Saturday’s march – have shown that they can’t, or won’t, lead such a movement. It’s up to the rest of us. Let’s hope Slutwalk is the beginning of bigger things.