Must women be naked to be heard?

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No place for a woman? Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the women’s suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914 (Photo Imperial Warm Museum)

IN LIGHT of US President Donald Trump’s reputation for lewd remarks about women, it is fitting that a bare-breasted woman chased his motorcade on the Champs d’Elysées in Paris on Sunday, en route to events marking the centenary of the First World War Armistice. The words “Fake Peacemaker” were written on her chest.

Theatrics aside, we live in a chilling era, when the world’s most powerful man is told to rein himself in by a topless woman because his actions and language evoke the kind of foolish nationalism which led to the First World War between 1914 and 1918. Some 9.7 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died in that war. Rational people watch with alarm the drift towards aggressive nationalism today.

Women using their bodies for politics is not new. It’s a potent weapon capable of moving a male-dominated domain. English suffragettes in the First World War era demanded voting rights for women by chaining themselves to railings, storming parliament and battling police. They wore long dresses appropriate to the time. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes, leading the government to force-feed them. After the First World War parliament gave women over age 30 the vote under certain qualifications, and ten years later full electoral equality with men.

Their campaign had a Jewish thread. In November 1912, female Jewish leaders founded the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, linking feminist goals with Jewish loyalties, aiming to unite Jewish suffragettes of all shades of opinion.

South African women have used their bodies for dramatic statements, particularly about violence against women. According to the World Health Organisation, South Africa’s 2016 femicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000, almost five times higher than the global average of 2.6 per 100 000. Statistics SA reports that 138 per 100,000 women were raped in 2017, also the highest rate in the world. The number is probably higher, with a large percentage of rapes going unreported. According to a SAPS report of 2018, femicide increased by 11% over the last two years.

It’s incredible that a country which was the darling of the world two decades ago, contains such poison. People fighting back have a bitter struggle. At a Gender-based Violence and Femicide Summit in Irene at the beginning of November, attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa and more than 1000 delegates, women survivors of sex trafficking, rape, abuse, and violence recounted the horrors and demanded stronger laws.

What courage it must take for a woman to bare herself publically as a gesture about the society’s sickness. Phindile Ncube did it. Speaking from the podium, she said she was kidnapped, kept in a house in Tembisa and raped by a gang of eight men over several days. As a result, she had to undergo five surgical operations on her stomach – including one procedure to remove plastic that had been inserted in her.

She spoke emotionally of the desperate pain of seeing her attackers back on the streets after serving only four years in prison – again, an incredible indictment of the society. How did we come to this?

Then, in a shocking move, Ncube lifted her dress, wearing nothing underneath, exposing her body for all – including Ramaphosa – to see the scars. Audience members covered their eyes at the spectacle. Facing the president she said: “I was not born like this, this came as a result of my attackers, and I have to carry the scars while they walk free… Our lives can’t be paroled Mr President, the minimum sentence for sex offenders must be at least 50 years.”

Some people would say even 50 years is not enough.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

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How to paint the town in #MeToo colours

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You raped me 24 years ago! The #MeToo movement urges women to tell about past sexual abuse by men who have gone on with their lives. In the photo, former South African soccer boss and politician Danny Jordaan, and former singer and ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson, who accuses him of rape (Photo: Agencies/AP)

THE growing worldwide momentum of the #MeToo movement through which women who were sexually harrassed are speaking out after remaining silent for many years, echoes two erstwhile women’s movements of equal passion: the Suffragettes in the late-19th and early-20th centuries demanding women’s right to vote in public elections; and the 1950s feminists campaigning for equal pay for doing comparable jobs as men, and similar issues.

Social media, a key platform for #MeToo, is a powerful vehicle. But in the social media environment, #MeToo competes with numerous other movements, many of which reach thousands of people and then fade away as trending stories move on. Some are serious, others, trivial or mischievous, all clamouring for attention. Will the #MeToo movement fade like others, or have a lasting impact on men accustomed to using their power for sexual favours from women?

The growing list of accused men includes ordinary people, but also many high-profile names such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey in the United States. There too, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, star of the box office hit “Wonder Woman” refused to sign onto a sequel unless distributor Warner Bros cut financing with producer Brett Ratner, who has been accused, among other things, of masturbating in front of actress Olivia Munn.

An upsetting inclusion in the list is the late Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and icon of moral standing Elie Wiesel, who has been accused of groping the buttocks of a 19-year old woman in 1989 during a group photograph at a charity event. Important Jewish papers such as the New York Jewish Week wrote pain-filled editorials about the dilemma in how to cover the story.

In Israel, Haaretz journalist Neri Livneh has accused Alex Gilady, president of Keshet Broadcasting group and Israel’s representative on the International Olympic Committee, of sexual ‘indecency’ towards her 18 years ago. She said she chose to speak up now to support another journalist, Channel 10 anchor Oshrat Kotler, who told viewers she received an ‘indecent’ advance 25 years ago from Gilady, when he was CEO of Keshet. She said she did not speak up earlier because she worried about the possible negative impact on her career.

And so it goes, revelation after revelation, many concerning incidents purported to have happened decades ago. In South Africa, former singer and ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson has accused former national soccer boss and anti-apartheid activist Danny Jordaan of raping her 24 years ago in a hotel room. And a former freedom fighter in exile during apartheid, Sibongile “Promise” Khumalo, has accused former Pan Africanist Congress leader Potlako Leballo of raping her in the 1970s.

There are arguments among supporters and opponents of #MeToo about whether “social media vigilantism” is the appropriate way, where accused men are not given the chance to pursue formal legal processes to defend themselves, before being publically named. But in the absence of effective legal channels for redress, “vigilantism” is going to flourish. Sadly, the formal legal channels in most countries have been notoriously unsympathetic to women on this issue, leaving the field to the social media.

#MeToo should be taken seriously. Even though many accusations are about things that happened long ago, exposing them now may set a new tone for the future. To succeed, it must beware of all kinds of people jumping on the bandwagon, clouding the issues with their own agendas, and creating a witchhunt mentality. It is easier for a woman to log into facebook than call a lawyer to lodge a complaint.

It would be gratifying if #MeToo made a lasting impact, as did the Suffragettes and the feminists. To do this, the wheat must be carefully distinguished from the chaff.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )