TW: Sexual violence, rape, date rape, victim-blaming, police
Just seven days into 2019, Zinedine Gioia sparked a social media wildfire, when she went public about being drugged and raped by a former friend. Gioia reported the rape to the police the next day, but said nothing had come of it, even five months later. In a change.org petition, she lobbied for the Botswana government to take her case against the accused man – who she named on social media – to trial. Prominent figures such as Sasa Klaas and Emma Wareus were quick to show their support to Gioia, and within hours, the petition had garnered thousands of signatures.
Feminists on Twitter were especially active in pushing the hashtag #JusticeForZinedine, as they decried the widespread silence and complicity around rape culture in Botswana. As an offshoot of the campaign, several women detailed their own experiences with the accused (hence the hashtag #JusticeForThemAll), whilst many others disclosed their experiences of sexual violence perpetrated by men recognized in Gaborone’s social circles.
Reporting for Justice: The necessity of writing against the grain of rape culture
Since Zinedine’s petition was created, the #JusticeForZinedine campaign has been covered by several media outlets. Some have used the campaign’s momentum positively, opening up discussions on rape culture in Botswana, highlighting the usefulness of social media advocacy, and questioning why men rape. Other coverage, however, exemplified how media institutions fail to do justice to victims of sexual violence.
In The Midweek Sun, I was initially pleased to see coverage of an incident where a woman was raped by another woman. This, I thought, would start to push the conversation forward: bringing to light that women can also perpetrate sexual harm. Whilst this article itself seemed progressive, I was quickly led to question the editorial team’s commitment to countering rape culture, when I read a section of the paper called “Under the sun”. Here, an unknown author was given license to recklessly undo a lot of the important messaging that had surfaced during the #JusticeForZinedine campaign. In a gossipy tone, the author referred to the broad impact of Zinedine’s disclosure, reverting back to all the harmful stereotypes in the book: that men should be fearful, that women “cry rape”, that claiming to have been raped was “fashionable”, and that many who claimed to have been raped were merely regretful about consensual sex or seeking revenge after being rejected. The fact that, in the year 2019, the editor of a national newspaper approved and published this is nothing short of deplorable. It would not even qualify as edgy commentary, if that was the aim, because all of those victim-blaming stereotypes are played out. To publish such toxicity suggests to me that the people at the helm of our publications either do not understand the power of their platforms or do not take their responsibility (or their readers) seriously.
Generally, the language used by some journalists/columnists left much to be desired. For one, there was Sunday Standard’s headline, “Wave of Rape Cases Has Batswana Women’s Knickers In A Twist”, which betrayed an otherwise appropriately written article. The phrase getting your “knickers in a twist” means to be upset but is usually used mockingly, to imply the aggrieved party is unreasonable. This use of language here is especially harmful given the subject matter, as women’s reports of rape are often dismissed as overreactions or framed as hysterical misunderstandings on the victim’s part.
I also recall another article, which was in support of Gioia, where the author said Zinedine took to social media to detail “the violence and injustice she believes herself to have suffered” (emphasis mine). This use of passive language was disappointing; framing the “violence and injustice” as Zinedine’s belief, rather than as her reality. It may seem pedantic to point out such a small part of an article, but we have to remember that in our social climate, believing rape survivors is a vital part of supporting them. In that process, the language we use is part of the action we take. Language matters, so the media need to be clear and bold with their words. Editors and sub-editors, in particular, need to be more critical when it comes to this kind of reporting. In both of the examples I’ve given, quick, sharp editorial intervention could have helped to communicate a firm stance in support of the victim.
For victims who consider naming and shaming/is law enforcement enuf?
A second issue highlighted through Gioia’s case is the failure of law enforcement, which translates to a scarcity of justice in cases of sexual violence. According to Gioia, when she reported the rape to the police, she was told that, because she “was drugged and had no clear story… it was unlikely he would be charged”. On top of this, Gioia says that the forensic evidence collected when she laid her complaint went missing.
The failure of law enforcement is central to understanding the necessity of Zinedine’s decision to name and shame the accused. When rape victims are believed, which sometimes happens when certain kinds of sexual violence cases make the headlines, society seems to acknowledge that rape is a scourge, and that the rates of sexual violence are too high. Unfortunately, society struggles to keep that same energy when a woman publicly names and shames her perpetrator/abuser. In such situations, a loud chorus of “the law must take its course” emerges, followed by spirited campaigns to “protect the rights” of
the accused all.
Our collective trust in the failing/failed justice system means that victims of sexual violence are often expected to have reported their cases to the police before they can be believed. The frequent calls for victims to report rape completely ignore that there are valid reasons not to do so. Not only are rape cases difficult to prosecute, but victims are too often treated insensitively by the police. As The Botswana Gazette reported, even when successful, the whole process of seeking legal recourse can take years. For some, the cost of being re-traumatized is too high a price to pay.
Before we can insist that people report rape, we need to ensure that the police are adequately trained to handle such reports. At the moment, evidence suggests this is not the case. Recently, the Botswana Police Service noted an alarming increase in cases of rape, particularly date rape, after recording 109 cases in a matter of weeks. In a Mmegi newspaper report, the Botswana Police Service’s public relations officer, superintendent Jayson Chabota was quoted saying, “Women should know that being in the company of a stranger at night or walking alone at night puts them in danger as they are vulnerable.” What makes this sort of
victim-blaming advice even more bizarre is that in the same interview, Chabota acknowledges that in cases of date rape, perpetrators are “often casual friends or an individual that victims are familiar with.” Despite this, Chabota still calls on women “to take precautions on how they entertain themselves”.
Chabota, it appears, is not alone in espousing such views. According to another Mmegi report, following the arrest of several men who publicly sexually assaulted a woman at the Gaborone Bus Rank in 2017, Borakanelo Police station commander, superintendent Mothusi Phadi “called on women to consider wearing clothes that will appear appropriate in other people’s eyes, despite having the right to wear what they want” in order to help curb instances of sexual violence. If such views are widely held within the police service, it is unsurprising that Zinedine was told that nothing could be done about her case. These utterances suggest that the Botswana Police are not adequately prepared to assist victims who are assaulted whilst intoxicated/drugged, or scantily dressed, given that they place so much emphasis on the behaviour of victims, rather than the actions of perpetrators.
It must be understood that it was in this context that Zinedine, as a last resort, outed the accused. While it remains a controversial tactic, when a victim/survivor publicly names a perpetrator, it could provide some protection to others who may encounter that individual. Perpetrators who have powerful families, wealth, social capital, or other forms of privilege, are easily able to wield their power to silence their victims. In some cases, they may use tools supposedly created to ensure justice – such as defamation law and interdicts – in order to clear their names.
I don’t know how this will help or what it will change, but I pray that this will protect someone in the ways I wasn’t.— TheRealZinedine (@ZinedineGioia) January 7, 2019
In of itself, naming and shaming cannot prevent sexual violence. However, it may create a dent in the perpetrator’s reputation, taking away some of the social power which allows them to harm others without facing consequences. As Annalise Keating (the lead character in How To Get Away With Murder), says,
“When a woman says she was raped, the law rarely takes our side…so we take other actions, protect ourselves in a way we know the system never will.”