Toufah Jallow

PoliticsSex & Gender

when do we get to live in a world without presidents accused of sexual assault?

June 28, 2019

TW: This article contains mentions of rape and sexual assault.

When a 10-year-old Black girl grows up in a country where the president is accused of rape, there are stages skipped in the process of growing up. Depending on her upbringing, we fast-forward through understanding sex and perhaps an opportunity to build a foundation on consent. There is an innocence lost about expectation and safety. If the “first citizen” could be capable of such a crime, is it then something all women should come to expect? Ten-year-old me was already grappling with such ennui when the case of then Deputy South African president Jacob Zuma’s rape allegations and subsequent trial. The victim in question was AIDS activist Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo (known as Khwezi to protect her identity at the time), and her coming forward would unleash a national conversation about rape culture, sexual health and consent that would truly unveil the extent of the rot in the public psyche caused by toxic masculinity.

Khwezi claimed that Zuma had raped her in 2005 but the politician claimed that the encounter was consensual. Zuma was acquitted in 2006, forcing Khwezi and her mother to flee to Holland after their house was burnt down and death threats circulated with the tagline “Burn The Bitch.”

Khwezi was the child of the struggle, with a life defined by upheaval as her family was banished to exile in Zimbabwe (where she met Zuma as a child) while also watching her comrades die in the anti-apartheid fight as an ANC Youth fighter. Khwezi was HIV-positive and had claimed to be raped numerous times by men throughout her life. During the case, Zuma said that he took a shower after the encounter with his accuser because he “knew the type of person” he was sleeping with.” That comment still follows him to this day as the image of the shower became but one punchline of his presidency.

To witness at such a young age, the denigration of victimhood and the humorization of a violent crime through the admission of the accused and the careless candor of the media was an odd reality to walk through and I can’t help feeling overtaken by a sense of deja-vu. The “She’s not my type” that is beloved by Donald Trump every time his list of abusers grows seems like the exact nonchalance that toxic masculinity and rape culture encourage to belittle the terrifying experience of coming forward.

We joke about the dark timeline as a manner of coping but the vindictive dismissal of rape allegations is a trend that is as old as time and now a new generation of young girls have to wonder whether such violence is inevitable when the most powerful men in the world treat it like, well, a nuisance.

It’s a dark reality to navigate, simply because it’s a reminder that the statistics on rape accusations only account for those that have been reported. Take, for instance, the former president of Gambia Yahya Jammeh, who is under investigation for the sexual assault and systemic harassment of young women, most notably the winner of beauty and scholarship pageant Toufah Jallow. The assault allegedly took place at a religious event on the eve of Ramadan when Jallow was a teenager and she had to flee Gambia afterwards in fear for her life, according to the Guardian. Jallow is the only person to disclose her real name but two other women have come forward and 8 former officials in Jammeh’s old government can attest to the behavior. Each woman was a pageant winner, which was supposed to come with a scholarship, but the entire program was created to lure, extort and force women to engage in sexual relations with him.

Rape and rape culture are about power. We write about. We speak about it. We tweet about it. We debate about it. Fight about it. We have dissected it and re-dissected to the point that even the assholes are learning the feminist language just to pass. The top-down pervasiveness of tyranny power and the feeling of ownership over women is ubiquitous to our entire understanding of the relationship between masculinity and femininity. Men worked methodically for generations to ingrain it into the neural pathways of human interaction and women are still suffering. To fight an ideology is one thing but to defy what most perceive as nature is the main event. What does it look like to approach change with care and rehabilitation without centering men and ensuring women, queers and all marginalized groups are given the freedom and security that we all deserve.

I know — the world is ending. No one is coveting that asteroid that might hit us in September more than I. No one. But, say we survive and perhaps meet our end in some other gruesome manner, we’ll have done it doing what humans do — striving for a version of ourselves that will not only outlive us but propel us. Call me fanciful and daydreamy but I believe that the treatment of women on this planet plays a crucial role in the future of our planet. Leading nations has become about power and not governance and the fact that we live in a world where whole presidents can be accused of rape and face little to no consequences is a choice of power, not a symptom of it. To choose to use power to control the bodies, votes and lives of marginalized communities is a choice of power. That’s why power corrupts — it convinces you that you have earned the right to do what you want.