As I stood in front of the crowd of 1500 and more, my friend squeezed my hand. I knew she meant to say: “It’s okay.” I turned around, put my handbag on the floor next to a pillar, and took off my coat. But before I turned to face the crowd again, I folded my arms over my chest – I was terrified of the words on the front of my shirt.
The 1in9 protest organiser spoke to the gathered crowd, but I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t hear anything until she said: “The rape survivors will now lead the chant: ‘Stop the war on womyn’s bodies’.”
Someone moved next to me on my left, and I looked to see a stranger standing there. I hazarded a smile in her direction, and was startled by her response: she hugged me, and clung to my shirt. I instinctively put my arm around her, only to discover her body was shaking. I realised she was crying. I didn’t know what to do; all I could think of was to just hold her tighter.
I started to cry alongside the stranger, and looked to my right, and watched as my friend’s face fell; and her resolve crumbled. She started to cry.
I pulled my friend toward me with my free arm, and the three of us stood huddled, shaking and crying. I stood there, a stranger on my left and my best friend on my right, and realised the words on my chest were exposed. More than 1500 people could read those words, but I wasn’t afraid anymore - I wasn’t alone.
There were more than twenty strangers standing beside me, facing the crowd. All we had in common were the words “Rape Survivor”, printed in bold white writing on our chests. We chanted through our tears: “Stop the War! Stop the War!” and the words rose to a crescendo with the 1500 voices chanting with us in the cavernous Grahamstown cathedral.
As the chant died away, my friend stepped back and picked up her Canon camera. “I have to go take photos,” she told me, as she delicately wiped away her tears with her index finger. I nodded.
I looked to my left at the stranger. She was still crying; her body shaking as she clung to my shirt. As I watched her, she looked up – and the pain I saw in her eyes threatened to make me cry again. She took a step away from me and looked down, embarrassed.
I pulled her towards me and hugged her again, and stroked her braids. “It’s okay. You are a hero, and you are so brave. I support you,” I told her. The stranger moved away for the last time, and wiped away her tears with the heel of her hand. We nodded at each other: “in solidarity”, and she disappeared into the crowd.
I don’t know the stranger’s name; the short girl with the intricate braids, and courageous soul. But we are in solidarity. We are both rape survivors.
The day I was raped, my choice was taken away from me. On Friday, April 15, the 1in9 protest gave me my choice back. And I choose not to be afraid of the words “Rape Survivor”, nor will I be ashamed of them. I choose to fight back, and I choose to stand up against a rape culture, where the victims and survivors of rape are shamed into silence by societal stigma and rape myths.
I broke my silence, and I will never be silent again.
Women24 applauds Michelle for speaking out, and for helping other women realise that rape is ONLY the fault of the rapist. We invite any other brave readers who want to share their stories to write in. (Please indicate whether or not you would like it published on the website.)