21 June 2009

20 June 2009

Does rape tell us something about gender?

I want to ask a question that may seem obvious, but I, for one, don’t think it has such an obvious answer:

Does the fact/act of rape, or attitudes towards it, tell us anything about ‘attitudes towards women (as category)’? Rachel Jewkes, the author of the South African Medical Council study on rape, says this tell us something about

“ … the way that South African men over the centuries have been socialised into forms of masculinity that are predicated on the idea of being strong and tough and the use of force to assert dominance and control over women …” [ http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8107039.stm ]

As you might have guessed, I don’t agree. But perhaps I should just agree since this is hardly a unique personal viewpoint of Dr. Jewkes! (Aside from the fact that there is no ‘over the centuries’ in South Africa, and if there were, we wouldn’t know anything about it; or that South African masculinity is ‘predicated on the idea of being strong and tough’. Is that unique to SA? No.)

In other words, does the act or fact of men raping women tell us something about the categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’, masculinity or femininity? If so, does it really say nothing at all about ‘femininity’ and speaks only to ‘masculinity’? does it not say more about the construction of ‘person’, ‘the body’, violence, the nature of coercion, or how humans seek (and often fail) to control one another in their own social lives? Is this simply something that can be fit into a binary classification?

Just to be really provocative (but seriously so) would women rape if they could? They (women) do, occasionally, when they can, it seems. Does it make any sense to ask “what if women had penises? (all else being equal)” Can ‘all else’ be ‘equal’ in this case? Would ‘women with penises’ be men? It seems not, though we have the studies like Foucault’s study of Herculin(e) Barbin as a worthy pondering of the subject matter, among others.

Asking question like this—rhetorical, as they are called—prejudges the answer, of course. Can someone guide me towards writing that might ask similar, peculiar (I think: anthropological!) questions like this? I mean really recent. Naturally authors like Marilyn Strathern, Herdt, Kulick, Gutman, Parker … can be assumed.

I do question the received wisdom of gender studies in particular. I just can’t seem to internalise the idea that gender is determinate, or that rape tells us much about gender. Sorry for that. I know many will disagree.

Of course, the author of this study is not an anthropologist (and sounds on the voice clip on the BBC webpage not to be South African) , and may just reflect a peculiarly English and medical perspective. Or does it? (The sociologists in South Africa certainly subscribe to the same views. )

Anthropology, sex and South Africa

As another note on South Africa and rape: (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8107039.stm )

It occurs to me as I was trying to get onto other tasks in house and garden this Saturday morning, that South and southern Africa has had an extremely disproportionate role in the history of anthropology. I am referring in particular to Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown and Max Gluckman.

[And thus not to the American tradition or the French, but to what was called 'British Social Anthropology'] And that this was particularly true of anthropology's efforts to deal with and to understand sex, kinship and conflict in particular.

Many, if not most [?] of Malinowski's most important students were South African; Malinowski had especially close relations with his South African students, too, although he did not work here. Malinowski did, however, have a long and very influential relationship with the kind of Swaziland, Sobhuza II, and helped Sobhuza formulate policy that resulted in Swaziland remaining the only relatively absolute monarchy in the world today. (Kenyatta, another of his students, was headed in the same direction in Kenya, but was diverted ...) Radcliffe-Brown began his career in South Africa and wrote one of his most influential pieces on 'The Mother's Brother' about what--it now seems to me--was the fact of the extreme fluidity and even strangeness of South African kinship systems. Max Gluckman's anthropology, and the basis of the Manchester School, came from South Africa. I think it would be fair to say, even, that Gluckman's anthropology was based precisely on his South African-ness, and that the Manchester School (including some of its most influential members from Victor Turner to John and jean Comaroff, who are, in any case, South African) was more or less South African anthropology written into global/British anthropology. This is particularly true of the his interest in the fundamental role of conflict in social functioning, and of the 'peace within the feud', among much else. One of his most influential writing, too, was about the Swazi incwala, effectively a rite of masculinity in the person of the [Swazi] king in particular and the role of women as wives, mothers, and witches in it.

Thus the anthropology of rape in southern Africa is a peculiarly anthropological problem, but one that has not been adequately theorised in South African anthropology, even though so much of the anthropological study of conflict and sex/uality owe so much to the southern African experience, ethnography and people.

Interesting? Well it seemed so to me. Where does this take us with rape?

Rape in south Africa: what does it tell us?

The following is a response to a BBC report on a study concerning rape in South Africa. It can be found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8107039.stm

There are a number of things that might be worth saying.

I think one of the keys is what I call the 'flat' structure of South African social relations. (I say 'social relations' since using terms like 'society' or 'social structure' is not quite right in this context.) South Africa is one of the youngest and most mobile societies in the world. No social 'structure' that still functions today has a history of more than a couple hundred years and the same is true for its social identities, ethic categories, racial categories and so on. I think this is even true of its system of gender. Along with this, is an extremely fluid and 'loose' system of kinship, marriage and family property transmission.

There is almost no property passed from generation to generation in families through inheritance (except for a few elite 'oligarchs'--White, Indian, & Black), and very little heritable property of any kind. Outside of the 'canonical' large business enterprises (e.g mining such as Anglo-Ashanti Gold, etc.) and parastatals, there is very little political hierarchy of any kind (that is, hierarchies in which the 'higher' exercise effective control over the real actions of those 'beneath' them, although there are status hierarchies in 'traditional', religious, class and racial terms.) This is true of kinship as well.

This results in almost no control being exercised by the elders over juniors. Although few would accept it (!), in my ethnographic and personal experience of marriage and gender relations in South Africa, there is even very little actual control exercised by men over women. It is the case, however, that there is a universal and powerful ideology that men should and do exercise control over women (This is called 'patriarchy', after early European kinship theorists such as Bachofen, Engels, Freud and many others.) The outcome of this is that men cannot, in fact, exercise the control over women that they believe they should do. Violence results not from excess of control, but rather from an effective lack of it, and the consequent frustration felt by many men who cannot realise their own sense of self.

I know of many cases, too, in which people do not know who their father is. In many cases, they are not even certain who their mother is, since wide-spread fostering, early teen pregnancies, and pervasive mobility often disrupt bonds between mothers and their children. Where mothers die young, or at childbirth, their relation to their children is obviously disrupted, and this is more common that it should be. (SA has one of the worst records of maternal mortality, and this has become steadily worse since 1994.)

The power of ideology also obscure the sociological vision of this society since it is believed by all, including the researcher (Rachel Jewkes of the Medical Research Council, in this case) that only men are implicated in this system, in which 'South African masculinity' and 'patriarchy' become cover categories to explain everything. In my experience, women are also likely to be violent in 'domestic' cases of conflict. They also express the view that men should exercise control and that they should provide; when they don't, or can't, women can become exceptionally abusive and violent. I have seen this is countless court cases in the traditional courts where I work, and in virtually every domestic relationship that I am familiar with in the course of my work. Men always and absolutely deny that they have been attacked violently by girlfriends, wives and lovers, but many men in the town where I work can show scars (usually on their faces) where they have been attacked and deeply injured in domestic 'quarrels'.

Incidentally, my ethnographic work over 10 years in a small South African town in eastern Mpumalanga Province is one of the least violent in the region, and one of the oldest and most established.

It seems to me, even, that the extent and pervasiveness of sexual networks functioning as social structure, that it is almost the case that the South African sexual network amounts to a vast and strangely integrated system of kinship, a sort of national system of 'kinship' in which sex (sexual relations) functions as a primary form of social relation.

All of this has a strong bearing the pervasiveness of rape in southern Africa (NB not just South Africa, although only SA is actually studied in depth in this respect; very little is known about Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe or Namibia with respect to sex and sexuality; Swaziland and Botswana, however, are better studied.)