Take back the mini!

South African women protest violence using their heads -- and their legs.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Take back the miniskirt! Sometimes, to fight violence against women, you have to show a little leg. Living in a land with the one of the highest incidences of rape in the world and a culture that condones random groping of women in public can’t be a walk in the park. If women turned hopeless and humorless, who could blame them?

So the way several hundred South African women decided to protest a recent case, in which a group of taxi drivers and street hawkers attacked a young woman and tore off her clothes, because she’d allegedly dressed too provocatively, struck me as particularly brave and brilliant. They held a miniskirt march. Like the Take Back the Night marches of the 1980s, this one demands that society not blame women for what they are wearing or what dark alley they happen to walk down.

Silly? A knee-jerk recourse to the mantra that sex sells even feminism? Maybe in the U.S., it would be a little over the top. But context is everything. Some of the women quoted in the article explain that they never dress up because they are afraid of ever-present attacks from gropers.

Some men quoted seem to agree that a short skirt is ample excuse for an attack. One taxi driver (apparently getting attacked by taxi drivers is far from uncommon) told Agence France-Presse that “if you are wearing a miniskirt, you give the impression you want to be raped. You respect yourself when you wear a longer skirt. We respect women who respect themselves.” Another guy watching the protest explained, “It is difficult when women are naked. That’s how some men end up raping women.”

It’s refreshing to see that even if they have to dress defensively day to day, South African women haven’t internalized this atavistic view of their bodies. Unfortunately, the problem of rape in South Africa is far deeper and more intractable than a simple matter of horny men and sexily clad women. Rapes in South Africa affect girls and women of all ages — from infants to old ladies. In the end it will take a lot more than a bunch of skirts to create a taboo around rape and offer all girls and women some modicum of safety from sexual attack. But in the meantime, it may take more than a big mouth to make a loud point. It may take a little extra leg.

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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