In recent months there has been a rise in sexual assault allegations against highly respected male university professors across major education institutions in both the Global North and the Global South. Examples from the Global North include a recent case of three Harvard students who “alleged that [John] Comaroff used his position to ‘exploit aspiring scholars’ by kissing and groping students without their consent”.
Similarly, in South Africa during the #Endrapeculture protests of April 2016, protesters accused “university management of perpetuating a rape culture through policies which reinforced victim-blaming and protected perpetrators of sexual assault”.
The fact that a university is a place where women and queer rights violations are still rampant yet unpunished, shows the urgency needed in addressing this matter.
I would like to explain the high rates of gender-based harm (GBH) in the university context as an outcome of both the colonial legacy that is still alive in the university and the forms of male agency that take place in Africa, a postcolonial continent.
Colonialism involves the occupation and control of a country’s territorial, political, social and economic systems by another. The colonial legacy is that which remains after colonialism and is often referred to as “coloniality” by decolonial scholars and activists. Male agency refers to the actions that men perform daily.
Decolonial scholars have been at the forefront of advocating for an overall change to the university’s structure. The coloniality of the university that these scholars look at is not only concerned with the university curriculum or fees (two dominant components of #FeesMustFall), but also with language. This is because the language of domination that still exists in the colonial university is a language of rape.
In her recent book, Female Fear Factory, Pumla Dineo Gqola suggests that institutions play a role in building a rape culture. I go further to state that rape culture has sadly become part of the day-to-day operations of the university. In the university we find numerous exchanges between men and women based on the language of rape.
The language of rape surfaces in everyday rapey talk that eventually becomes gender-based violence (GBV). The way some men in universities speak and their behaviour forms part of a rapey practice. Such rapey practice includes inappropriate advances and remarks that often take place before the actual contact or “rape”, as it is normally understood in legal spaces.
It is, however, important to ask ourselves where such language originated and how it is sustained?
The answers are to be found where our history meets and influences our present lived experience.
First, let us take a moment to reflect on the overall impacts of coloniality and all forms of exclusion that came with colonialism in all these dynamics.
Apart from being an elite institution of higher learning, the university was built in a manner that devalues queer, female and black people. This means it was designed for white, straight, masculine and male people. Further, the university was also designed for male bodies that resemble “hegemonic masculinity”. This is a type of masculinity that considers manhood as being tough, resolute and lacking in emotion. This explains why black men also fit into university ranks in comparison with black women.
Because the university is supposedly a place where knowledge is formed, the exchange between senior male academics and female colleagues who are either junior or senior, is a dynamic that is (if unchecked) mediated by violence. Violence is defined here as unequal power relations that can potentially lead to domination. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire observes how those in positions of power can treat people like objects to be possessed and how the traditional relationship between teachers and students is one in which teachers have power and knowledge, but the students do not. The hegemonic masculinity we find in the university is kept alive through rapey language and culture in private and public learning encounters between male lecturers and students.
An example is that of a male professor (from a South African university) who was accused of using an inappropriate sexual example in class. He equated the length of an academic literature review to a woman’s skirt that “should be short enough to attract attention, but long enough to cover the subject matter”. In this case, the male lecturer used the female body as an object to exemplify, resulting in little to no consequences from the institution.
The same lecturer was also accused of being unprofessional through evidence from a female student who had once told him that she was experiencing some personal difficulties, and he tried to comfort her by commenting about her beauty. Although the lecturer was later found guilty of sexual harassment by the gender committee of the university, he was reinstated.
Sadly, by language or by force, women are systematically and structurally raped in our lecture rooms.
This brings in the second issue: postcolonial male agency.
While we as black African men can blame coloniality and the colonial wound for toxic behaviour and current forms of gender-based violence, this has become an invalid scapegoat. We can excuse the curriculum, language and culture of the university as a system, but going forward we need to ask ourselves: how long can we continue explaining current events through history without removing our existing role as men?
In other words, if the university is a colonial product, how does the so-called “new man” enter and occupy such a space?
Read in Daily Maverick: “Higher education: The sexual assault scourge on South Africa’s campuses”
The answer may lie in understanding how men speak to, and about women in universities, similar to “Critical Diversity Literacy” (CDL) by Melissa Steyn, which I have found useful in understanding my complicity in the domination of women in the university through language. CDL teaches individuals to read power dynamics in any social, political or economic situation in the same way that one would read a text.
One part of Steyn’s CDL asks those in power to recognise how their position of power affects those in vulnerable positions. This means that as a man with agency over my personal decisions, the way I interact with and treat women, and my failure to act justly, influences how women will experience the university.
The National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (2020-2030) outlines a strategic framework to guide the national response to the crisis of gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) in South Africa. The plan was the outcome of movements such as #AmINext, and calls by South African women to curb GBVF under the #TotalShutDown banner.
The plan “draws from the White Paper on Safety and Security (2016) as the overarching policy framework for safety, crime and violence prevention in the country”. It invites us to understand that GBVF is not something we can simply blame on our apartheid past. Rather, it should be treated as an outcome of an active system of toxic masculinity and patriarchy that victimises women and children.
Using reflective approaches such as CDL, we men need to address GBVF through eradicating rapey language and culture on university campuses. This involves accepting our responsibility in the oppression of women and calling each other out. Collectively as men, black or white, we decide how we act within the privileges of our gender.
Any system of injustice is held together by individuals.
Those individuals are you and me. DM/MC