Open letter to Jennifer Ferguson
Beloved sister Jenny, I have been deeply saddened by the disclosure of your rape. But I am encouraged by your brave decision to confront this painful experience with your willingness to explore and offer the process of mediation to your perpetrator as a way to healing and a means of finding closure. That this openhearted offer has been rejected speaks volumes.
You and I have journeyed for more than twenty years as friends and musical collaborators in the entertainment industry both in South Africa and abroad. Always a seeker of the truth, your political activism has played a huge role in championing this country’s liberation struggle. Your warrior spirit, artistry and ethics centered round “truth, transformational healing, human rights and justice for all are the elements that has shaped me as an artist and human being… and for this you have my deepest gratitude. This open letter to you is an affirmation of my respect and admiration for the journey of vulnerability and courage you have taken. I am here to express my support for you and the countless numbers of women, the silent ones and the ones who have lifted the veil of silence on their personal experiences of sexual abuse, knowing full well that the telling brings brutal scrutiny and disparaging judgement. Given your herstory and the sacrifices you and many others have made for this country, it is disturbing to know that there are people intent on destroying your credibility. I have chosen to speak out because remaining silent when the moral integrity of someone I love and respect is being attacked means being complicit in the act. But in spite of all this, the legacy of your work and what you stand for can and never will be destroyed because you have always navigated your personal and professional life in an ethical and authentic way. I continue to be inspired by the fact that many others see this and are rallying behind you too.
After listening to the various podcast interviews hosted by Karima Brown and Eusebius Mackaiser, reading the article by Rebecca Davis in the Daily Maverick and scanning through the negative comments on social media from both men and women in response to your disclosure, one unsettling societal demon has reared its ugly head, “slut-shaming”. It is being done to you; it was done to Khwezi and countless other women in multiple spaces across society and still this practice continues, sadly with many “sisters” joining the fray. It must come to an end.
In the court of law, a lawyer manipulates language and carefully selects words to build up or tear down a person’s moral fibre. Time has shown repeatedly with most rape cases tried in a court of law that inevitably the perpetrator’s lawyer will try to prove the woman’s culpability. It is done to apportion partial or full blame on the victim’s part for the rape and garner sympathy for the rapist, thereby surpassing the sexual predator’s responsibility for his actions. Even worse, society has taken its lead from the court of law and it has become the norm to probe the woman’s role in the act of sexual violence rather than interrogate the man’s predatory behaviour.
I have seen this happening with you. Social media’s response to your revelation has been rife with various negative speculations about your culpability. Firstly, questioning the timing of your disclosure and your readiness to speak only now. The insinuations are clear, that the lengthy time period taken by you for the processing of your abuse is seen as questionable, with a subtext intimating a hidden agenda on your part. This is where I consciously transform my dagger of rage and turn it into a fiery pen of action. What gives anyone the right to judge, what period of time is appropriate enough or not, for a woman to process her experience of violation? Each person comes to their healing differently and in their own time. Healing has no time constraints and will not be be dictated to. This is how the process of healing works.
Secondly, a direct comment about you having had a one-night stand was made. You and your ex-partner corrected this untruth. This is all good and well… but one cannot bypass the scary insinuation that the “one-night-stand” accusation carries? Are we meant to read or understand that “this perceived or real promiscuity” is a pretext for rape? The prejudice against women is alarming and the truth is we are always viewed as the guilty ones “asking for it”. These ‘fine’ examples have been used for ages as premise for sexual abuse eg. a) she was dressed provocatively b) she had a one-night-stand c) she said yes to his invitation for a drink. How can any rational person exploit these perceived biases as justification for the act of violence? And why is the investigative lens turned onto the woman and her character questioned, when it is the actions of the predatory man that should be under the glare of the spotlight?
I believe that religious dogma has played a huge role in skewering our perceptions of sexual freedom and it has perpetuated prescribed notions of permissible and appropriate roles for the different sexes. The effect of which perhaps has led directly to this unholy truth… society celebrates and encourages the sexual freedom of men while at the same time denounces and discourages the very behaviour in women. This sexist practice at play here is clear evidence of the imbalance of this sexual double standard? Perceived or real acts of promiscuity in men solicit the following indulgent response, “Oh he’s just being a man, he’s sewing his seeds”. But for women the disparaging comment is always, “she’s a slut, a whore”. Men’s actions are glorified. Women’s actions are condemned. This is how the ‘slut-shaming’ machine does its work. It destroys the reputation of the woman and rationalizes the crime. The narrative of rape-culture is such that it lays blame and shame at the woman’s door for her perceived moral culpability and subtly and insidiously solicits empathy for and absolves the man from his responsibility for the crime. So the wheels of justice turn, and men will continue to run to the patronage of the courts… for there lies their protection.
And then unbelievably, we still have the audacity to question why women hesitate or don’t speak up immediately and disclose gender-based violence.
So, how do we start to change this imbalance? How do we unlearn this pattern of victimizing women? We begin with ourselves. We begin by unlearning this biased inherited default position, accepted by many still today… that women will always wear the brunt of the blame when the violent crime of rape happens. With rape and sexual abuse against women and children in our country at epidemic proportions, it is time to question our thoughts and perceptions about sexual freedom pertaining to women and men. We must ask ourselves, “Am I biased in the way I view sexual freedom and the way I voice it in my social interactions”? “Do I view sexual freedom as a right for men only and not women”? “Do I pass judgement, with the weapon of words, on women I perceive to be sexually free or promisicuous”? Words are powerful tools used both for inspiration and destruction. At the core of every written and spoken word, is a direct arrow of intention that knows how to make its mark. We need to be mindful of the intention of the words we speak and write. We must take responsibility for the effect of the words we put out on social media and in different private and public forums, because they have the power to build or destroy real people.
And then, we need to look at direct and indirect ways we are complicit with our silence. We are complicit when we do not speak out when a friend belittles his wife in our company. We are complicit when we are confronted with domestic violence and say nothing. We are complicit when we do not challenge a friend, colleague or stranger when they slut-shame women. We are complicit when we do not challenge the principal who solicits sexual favours, from the young woman seeking permission to complete her matric exams at his night school, in exchange for admission. Complicity protects and strengthens the behavior of the perpetrator and those who protect him. Our silence and fear of rocking the boat is no longer a plausible excuse or an option. The truth is, we each have been complicit with silence, in subtle and overt ways in enabling the status quo of abuse. But now is the time to speak up for the things that matter and speak out against the things that do us and others harm. We each must take responsibility and effect change by speaking up in our homes, our schools, our places of work and places of worship, in spite of how difficult and challenging it may be. It is time to face our fears. Time to be brave and kill complicity by speaking out against the wrongs being done to us and to others…and more importantly speaking up for those who do not have a voice.
I join so many others in being here for you Jenny. We support you every step of the way. I make this vow to you that I will no longer be complicit with silence. Sending you and all warrior women love and healing as we journey this difficult road together.