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Sex discourses and gender constructions in Southern Sotho: a case study of police interviews of rape/sexual assault victims

NISC Pty Ltd
Publication Date
  • Law
  • Linguistics


Gender studies in the judicial system has been a topic of much interest in recent legal and linguistic research, focusing on a wide range of issues such as power, ideology, disadvantage and domination in the legal system (e.g. Estrich, 1993; Matoesian, 1993; Lees, 1997; Ehrlich, 2001). The majority of studies of gender and the law (be they legal or linguistic) have however, focused on western societies and western cultures (e.g. Europe, North America, Australia), with very sketchy reports on research done in Africa. Based very broadly within critical discourse analysis, the present paper examines `sex discourses' — text and talk about sex — in Southern Sotho. I focus on how through such discourses, gender relations and identities are forged within social systems. I illustrate this by examining the culturally learned linguistic code of politeness for women — hlonipha in Southern Sotho. I first discuss hlonipha as a `commonsensical' cultural phenomenon, and consider how it functions in negotiating power relations in society (e.g. adults-children, men-women, etc.). Secondly, I use transcripts of recorded police interviews of rape victims, to explore the discursive functions of hlonipha in reporting rape (or sexual assault). I use the evidence from such data to suggest that the cultural differences between Basotho women and men `talk' on sexually related topics, potentially contribute to the engendered legal system. In short, the unequal access to the sex discourses illustrated by the hlonipha constraints on women's discourse during police interviews functions as a discursive strategy for constructing and maintaining dominant patriarchal hegemony in the socio-legal system. I also indicate how an understanding of such gender inequality could lead to some positive changes. (S/ern Af Linguistics and Applied Language Stud: 2002 20(3): 177-189)

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