Oscar Pistorius’ sentence was announced on the 7th of July for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. This brought a number of issues to the discussion table. The failure of the justice system and his white privilege that so insultingly allows him to get six years in prison and most probably spend less than that behind bars for murder, is at the centre of this table. And rightly so. However, little attention has been paid to the fact that this case is yet another example of how the legal system fails women who are victims of gender-based violence.
When Judge Thokozile Masipa addressed whether there was an argument between Oscar and Reeva on the night of Reeva’s murder, she said, along with stating that there was no evidence of an argument; “although this case attracted the attention of groups fighting for women’s rights‚ there is no indication at all that the deceased was in an abusive relationship.”
Let’s unpack this “no indication” shall we:
- On the 23rd of January 2013, Reeva sent Oscar a message that read; “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me.” Bearing in mind this happened about two weeks before Reeva was murdered.
- Reeva Steenkamp’s mother, June Steenkamp, said in her book Reeva: A Mother’s Story that Reeva “was scared” to take her relationship ‘to the next level’ with her boyfriend.
- Another text message read; “I get snapped at and told my accents and my voice are annoying. I touch your neck to show you I care, you tell me to stop. Stop chewing gum. Do this, don’t do that.”
- There were other text messages and witnesses that claimed Oscar Pistorius was possessive and jealous and hot-tempered.
See, but this wouldn’t be powerful evidence in court because the fact that Reeva was scared, that she was unhappy with the way she was being treated, and that she and others said that Oscar was possessive and jealous are only facts that show how Reeva felt. And whilst it seems that how Reeva felt would be an important aspect to the case given that she was the victim, how women feel is only ever that. It will only ever be unfounded, unproved, irrational feelings that will only ever be validated with unwavering evidence.
This phenomenon is not far from home for students at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR). During and after the RUReferenceList protests, all any protestor, supporter, or victim ever heard about was that we needed ‘evidence’ that XYZ was in fact guilty of rape. So what is this ‘evidence’ that every woman needs before anything they say that condemns a man is believed?
During the RUReferenceList protests, I asked a police officer this question who was trying to convince protestors that their protest was unjust and that they should remove the barricades. For those of you who go to UCKAR or have kept up with footage of the protests, this is that lovely white male who addressed a mostly black body of protestors in Afrikaans-accented English before giving the go-ahead to tear gas, pepper-spray, and shoot rubber bullets at them. He responded to me very calmly and condescendingly; “If you go to court and say that I raped you, you will be asked questions to determine whether I am guilty or whether it was consensual. And the court will ask you what you were wearing and if you were under the influence.” So essentially the court will decide whether I consented based on my clothing and my intoxication, and if it is found that I wore a short skirt and I drank too much vodka then it had to be consensual regardless of the fact that I’m saying I didn’t want it because that is only how I feel.
Women who are victims of domestic violence are as helpless as survivors of rape. The “why does she stay with him?” questions are always the focus instead of “why is he abusing her?” and the law offers no feasible protection for them.
During my Life Orientation lessons during high school, we had a perfect-looking, enthusiastic teacher who passionately outlined options for victims of domestic violence on a Powerpoint presentation. We were told to go to the police once we had evidence (evidence in this case being bruises), open an investigation, and get a restraining order. In the event that our abuser dismissed the restraining order and abused us again, we were to go to the police when a case would be opened and said abuser would ideally be locked up.
Despite the fact that the law requires me to let abuse get to the point where there is physical harm to my body before I can do anything, there are uncountable cases and psychologists that show that given the possessive, controlling nature of most abusers, a restraining order and the loss of control it establishes is what acts as most abusers’ switch. The switch that leads to the excessively violent and dangerous behaviour that lead to the murder of women, like Reeva Steenkamp.
The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ mantra and the ‘evidence’ requirement makes sense though. It’s endorsed by the South African constitution and seems the closest society can get to a fair trial. However, it’s disturbingly obvious that the legal system does not protect women who are victims of gender-based violence and maybe that’s the problem. We’ve established legal concepts and applied them to all crimes without consideration of each crime’s individual traits and what those traits entail. Specifically crimes endorsed and bred by societal mentalities.
Not everyone has the capacity to go around changing laws and the constitution right? What are you supposed to do about it? What am I supposed to do about it? Writing a two-page long rant isn’t going to stop abuse and rape. Whilst we can’t all change the law, we can change societal mentality and seeing as that is what breeds crimes like those of gender-based violence, maybe the way we think and speak can make a difference.
So, watch angry-bra-burning-intersectional feminist and her next article on how to validate all survivors of gender-based violence.
Photo sourced: WordPress