By Chris McCallum
Pic: Chris McCallum
Two students, of Fine Arts and Psychology respectively, were recently charged with incitement to cause violence and harm and were given 40 hours of community service. The hearing took place on 4 March 2009 after the two students attempted to sell vests marketed with the slogan ‘Wifebeater Wednesday’. The students advertised their business by displaying posters, without Student Representative Council (SRC) approval, around Rhodes campus during the course of Orientation Week.
The students were charged under Rule 15.27 of the Student Disciplinary Code, relating to the contravention of disturbing, displaying, showing, screening or projecting disparaging or derogatory remarks or innuendos based on a person’s gender. Their 40 hours of community service are to be completed before Swot Week of the first semester.
Walter Zindoga, a Law Masters student, represented the students at the disciplinary hearing, and commented, “the case was quite a difficult one. It’s unfortunate that the Procter didn’t make a finding in our favour. The persons convicted do not wish to pursue the case any further. It is paramount that students also should accept the ruling and not be dismayed from engaging in artistic creativity and expression by the ruling, but should instead be cautious when doing so.”
Larissa Klazinga, Student Services Officer for the Dean of Students Division, first received complaints about the posters from Dr Alan Kirkaldy, a lecturer from the History Department as well as Nicolene Mclean, representative of the Gender Action Project (GAP). Klazinga, along with Sarah Driver from the Law Faculty, David Charteris from the Campus Protection Unit (CPU) and a representative from GAP, approached the students at the Kaif shortly before the vests were to go on sale.
Klazinga questioned the students’ actions and whether they realised the implications of the term ‘wifebeater’. Klazinga was quoted as equating the sale of vests for ‘Wifebeater Wednesday’ with the sale of boots for ‘Ka**ir-kicking Thursdays’.
Klazinga defended her comment saying that she was using the statement as an example and that the point she was making is that hate speech is hate speech. The two students then handed over the merchandise to University officials.
Werner Böhmke, a lecturer from the Psychology Department, commented that domestic violence occurs at all levels of society. Böhmke believes that the vests could “potentially cause offence more than promulgating domestic violence”. He also added that the term in this context “detracts from the realities of domestic violence. Böhmke further differentiated between ‘Ka**ir-kicking Thursdays’ and ‘Wifebeater Wednesday’, noting that the former is “officially recognised as hate speech and that it is ridiculous that people traffic in certain terminology”.
Lindy Mullins, a third year BCom student, said that “The students selling the vests should have gone through the right channels, however, their punishment is a bit harsh.”
Klazinga doesn’t believe “that [the students’] intention was to incite violence or glorify domestic violence,” but feels it better to “err on the side of caution than inadvertently encourage domestic violence.”
Lebogang Hashatse, the Communications Manager for Rhodes, said “the University is mindful that the students concerned might not have thought their actions through,” but “the promotion of sexual violence will not be tolerated” by the University.
GAP member, Bronwyn Seaborne, said that “a lot of people think it’s just a word, but when you’re taking something that is such a big problem in our country and trying to promote it positively, aren’t you encouraging more of the same problem?” The GAP web blog reads that “It’s the name that sends the wrong message”. A further statement on the blog reads; “We can’t persecute everyone who calls it that, but when people try sell vests that loudly proclaim ‘Wifebeater Wednesday’ on it we can surely do something about it.”
Martin Rothschild, a third year BCom student, said that “The charges laid against the students are not the same as their intentions and however you interpret ‘wifebeater’, at the end of the day, it means wearing a vest on Wednesdays.”
Melissa Anderson, a third year BA student, added, “‘Wifebeater’ is a commonly used term for a sleeveless male shirt. I don’t see this term as degrading or for a second believe that it is going to make males suddenly decide to slap me and send me to the kitchen with a chain around my ankle.”
The term ‘wifebeater’ supposedly originates from the US TV show Cops, in which many of the men arrested for spousal abuse were caught on camera wearing the infamous vest. The vest has its origins with King Charles II and became associated with lay-about, larger-drinking unemployable men by Marlin Brando in the film, A Streetcar Named Desire.