Martha Mukaiwa – Windhoek, Namibia
When post-apocalyptic humans emerge from the radio-active rubble and look back on this year on an iPhone they find in the Covid-speckled dirt, the blacked out social media squares and the influencers posed stonily in front of riot police will attest that 2020 was a year of protest.
From the Black Lives Matter movement to #ShutItAllDown and #EndSARS, in the last eleven months, we have seen the spirit of resistance spark across the globe, igniting movements against racism, sexual and gender based violence, for women’s sexual and reproductive health rights and decrying police brutality.
For better and worse, this year, activism and resistance have been en vogue, almost de rigueur but when it comes to the sudden influx of male allies and activists in the fight against sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in Namibia, queerfuturist, feminist writer Masiyaleti Mbewe isn’t entirely buying it.
“It’s been interesting to see the ways in which cishet men have positioned themselves in these protests,” she tweeted after the ShutItAllDown protests “demanding radical and drastic action” against Namibia’s crisis of SGBV and femicide kicked off in Windhoek on 8 October.
“There is power in controlling the ways in which you are perceived—”
Mbewe’s tweet echoes the chatter reverberating across the protest which saw extraordinary numbers of local men taking to the streets in solidarity against what is often glibly seen as a “women’s issue”. This so-called women’s problem has resulted in over 5000 cases of SGBV – 800 of them rape and 74 of them murder – being reported to the Namibian police between September 2019 and September 2020.
At first glance, and given that the overwhelming majority of Namibia’s rapes and murders are perpetrated by men, men’s atypical injection at protests must surely spell progress.
Surely, Namibian women are one step closer to not being raped at a rate of 2 cases per day. Certainly, they no longer need to fear that their rapists will walk free enabled by a society rife with victim blaming rape apologists. Bet money that they won’t continue to exist in the gruesome ‘Groundhog Day’ that is opening the day’s newspaper to read that yet another Namibian woman has been murdered by their husband, partner or ex. This, even after reporting the death threats or acquiring a futile protection order from shoulder-shrugging law enforcement.
Performative activism is a thing.
And as many women at the #ShutItAllDown protests soon find out, some men have come out, designed posters and made a point of posting photos amidst the seething throng because protesting is just what we do in 2020. We do it for “The Gram”. We do it for clout. We do it for the thin protective veneer it casts over our problematic past, present and future.
“I saw this at one of the #ShutItAllDownNamibia protests when the 25 were released. Ndiilo wasn’t present. Male allies led us. We got to Zoo Park and half the crowd started singing WAP [Wet Ass P**] again. the male allies silenced them on some “now isn’t the time,” tweets Nashya Dunaiski, underscoring how quickly some men will centre themselves in an issue disproportionately affecting women while adding a dose of respectability politics to the mix for that nice toxic flavour.
“At the protest when we were at Parliament. I stepped away from the crowd and found two men and a girl talking out loud on the grass,” Dunaiski continues. “These men shouted things like, “my male friend was also raped! My bra was also raped” then they’d start LAUGHING.”
Men showing up in solidarity to protest against SGBV isn’t inherently a bad thing. However, men pushing past women protestors to stand at the forefront and men speaking over women while centring themselves at the #ShutItAllDown protests was pervasive and easy enough to observe.
“i stopped counting the number of times i had to pull male allies at the #ShutItAllDown protests and tell them to allow women to lead their movement,” tweeted #ShutItAllDown organiser and male activist against SGBV Lebbeus Hashikutuva.
“We’ve got to know our place, lest [we] end up speaking over the voices of those directly affected by the scourge of SGBV in Namibia.”
For those who need to hear it from the male horse’s mouth for these criticisms to bear any weight, Hashikutuva has spoken and while the number of men protesting against SGBV was good to see, there is a crucial role and a place for male allies in this fight.
There is very specific work this movement needs men to do.
There are toxic, mostly male spaces that these allies and activists need to enter and focused efforts that men need to spearhead beyond the work already being done by women activists.
Though #ShutItAllDown and similar movements need men protesting in solidarity in order to build the world in which women and girls eventually live safe and free, there is toxic masculinity and rape culture to snuff out.
Men need to do this work in their friends circles, offices, bars, gyms and communities. They need to do this work by gathering for town halls, organising foot patrols in particularly plagued communities and seeking counselling, sensitivity training and more to divest themselves from the toxic male conditioning that sees many of them growing up to be rape apologists and worse.
The photo opportunities at protests are not the work.
“Men need to hold each other accountable and call each other out when they do wrong. They need to empower and uplift the boy child without the white, male capitalist, supremacist gaze they currently use on them,” says Slut Shame Movement founder and women’s rights activist Nsozi Joy Mwazi who has a whole manifesto for improved male behaviour.
“Fathers need to be affectionate towards their sons. Men need to stop hypersexualising little boys and enforcing toxic masculinity from a young age. This is the breeding ground for entitlement and objectification over women and girls that leads to SGBV,” she says.
“Men need to decentre themselves in the movement and stop acting like victims when they are by large the perpetrators. They need to stop copying the tools women use for themselves and come up with their own tools on how to dismantle SBGV as a potential perpetrator rather than a potential victim like women.
Instead of crying at your hurt ego when we say “men are trash”, how about trying to understand why and how you can improve to make sure you do not perpetuate the ‘trashness’?
Men need to stop trying to delegitimise feminism and join in.
Feminism is for everyone. It makes ALL our lives better.”
Further considering the role of male allies in the fight against SGBV, #ShutItAllDown organiser and women and LGTBQIA+ rights activist Ndiilo Nthengwe zooms in on the male code of silence which ultimately fuels the prevalence of SGBV while protecting the perpetrators.
“Men’s work to combat SGBV should be centred around breaking the silence,” she says.
“We should look at silence as a handmaiden that enables the pernicious culture of SGBV. This violence persists largely because there is a conscious, unspoken agreement amongst perpetrators and those complicit in the violence. This agreement is premised on silence and is maintained throughout all public and private institutions because silence also gives people the conscious/unconscious permission to exploit and take advantage of others.”
The founder of I Am Not Next Namibia (IANNA) which is advocating for the creation of a public, digital sexual offenders registry Tuwilika Nafuka thinks men’s work in this movement has a fundamental first step.
“It will have to start with changed behaviour. This is really key,” she says. “The “us too” cry by men, claiming exclusion when women speak about SGBV is an indication that conversations with men about SGBV need sympathetic awareness.”
Women’s rights activist and founder of Legalize Abortion in Namibia, Beauty Boois, considering on the work of male activists and allies suggests an urgent need for self-reflection.
“Male allies need to introspect and be mindful in order to avoid centring themselves and their voices or taking up space in ways that could potentially silence or erase women’s presence, actions and voices in the movement,” they say.
“ I think it’s also important for them to stay ready and willing to learn and unlearn and to be open to criticism. Above all else, I think that calling each other out and holding each other accountable is something they should be doing regularly.”
And that’s that on that.
While men are entirely welcome to protest in solidarity against SGBV, their real work is what they do once their protest day Instagram Story fades to black.
It’s the kind of work that takes time, commitment and an all-encompassing change of behaviour. It’s the kind of work that may cost them friends and opportunities. Heck, they may even have to sacrifice chilling at their favourite bar, nightclub, restaurant or coffee shop so as not to condone and support domestic abusers, sex offenders, rapists and rape apologists.
But imagine this…
The post-apocalyptic humans emerge from the radio-active rubble and look back on this year on an iPhone they find in the Covid-speckled dirt. The blacked out social media squares and the influencers posed stonily in front of riot police attest that 2020 was a year of protest.
They scroll past 2020, all the way through to 2040 and there is little trace of sexual and gender based violence. Rape is a word nobody on earth reads in the news every single day. Women jog freely after dark. They wear whatever they hell they want and those who choose to break up with their partners all live to tell the tale…
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