Sexism in the Courts

Jan 18, 12 Sexism in the Courts

On Monday in a magistrate’s Court in Cape Town, Magistrate Chumani Giyos, sexually harassed a group of 12 women facing charges under the Immigration Act, saying to them during a hearing, “You are really beautiful, hey!” and concluding the hearing with “I have never seen so many beautiful women at one time, I hope to see you all again”, sending ripples of giggles throughout the courtroom.

Times Live (sourcing the article from SAPA) seemed to find the matter as laughable as a number of those present in the courtroom when it published a report on the incident under the title “Strippers a hit in Cape court.” No doubt, many readers will find the clip amusing, picturing the antithesis of the sobriety of a courtroom in this line up of attractive women on a display to the ogling judge.

Of course this kind of behaviour is painfully unprofessional and if readers were to laugh, no doubt it would be in part in that dry ironic way South Africans typically find humour in the exasperating. We love to laugh at government officials and unelected leaders saying menacing things and bumbling through policies. When we lose the words to express our frustration, we find solace in caricatures of the public sphere in our favourite cartoons. It’s much easier to laugh off resignation in the company of impressionists and comedians than to face the gauntlet of change.

Because underlying Giyos’ glib display of unchecked chauvinism is a broader social acceptance of the way he treats these women in his court: as objects for men’s sexual gratification and as unequal in the very places they should be guaranteed respect. From a position of power, Giyos made clear that the persons before him were not human beings to him, equal in dignity to citizens and to men, but a mass of objects, disposable at his delight.

If popular media is any barometer of social reactions, this kind of discrimination will not be protested, punished and condemned as it should be, but trivialised, caricatured and dismissed. Indeed there are many ways in which the law, gender and issues of sex and migration intersect in contemporary South Africa to push women into spaces of vulnerability and exclusion. In this sense, the circumstances of these particular women, migrants facing sanctions for working without valid permits, fall within a much bigger context. In this way, a complacent magistrate’s flirtatious remarks are not simply hallmarks of his own unprofessional behaviour but an affirmation of the status quo of women in society at large. And at pains of being the wet blanket on the day’s light news piece, that is something I find rather difficult to laugh off.

Image by djnavv