Recognition around the marginalisation of women and the LGBTQIA community at UCT and twitter campaigns like #YesAllWomen have given a voice to conversations that we usually would only have with our friends. Yet these issues are not confined to UCT, they speak to the broader structures that we accept and perpetuate through our daily experiences.
We are governed by rules and regulations but how often do we question the intersection of gender in these rules? How often do we recognise that these codes of operation are targeted at women specifically? Here are a few ways that we have normalised the abuse of women.
That’s too short and too tight
Bodies are political. Women are taught from a young age how to police our own bodies. We are reprimanded at school for wearing dresses and skirts that are “too short” or pants that are “too tight” because this somehow impacts on the ability of our male peers to be taught.
At a certain age we are told that our bodies are dangerous and must be covered up or else we risk receiving lustful stares. We realise our bodies are no longer ours, instead they belong to potential sexual offenders and our job is to make sure we don’t provoke them. It somehow becomes our fault that our bodies are transforming and from that point we have to avoid tempting men who have no control over their sexual desires.
He’s just being a boy
When I was 6 years old, an older relative decided to show me his penis while we were playing video games. Confused and worried by the experience I chose not to tell anyone because I thought I had done something wrong. A few years later I told someone, to which their reply was “He was just a hormonal teenager, boys are like that” followed by laughter. While the encounter cannot be likened to rape or molestation, countless girls and boys are subject to extensive sexual abuse by relatives and family friends.
The biggest injustice is that these experiences are dismissed or seen as simply a funny family story - we do not facilitate environments for children to speak out. We teach children, specifically girls that their existence is centred on their “chastity” and “purity”. When faced with the question of speaking out, this option seems unacceptable because the risk involves shattering trivial illusions of what it means to be a “good girl”.
Street harassment is a compliment
What are some of the thoughts that cross your mind during your morning routine as you put your clothes? Besides the normal “I need coffee” there is always one resounding thought for me: “When I’m standing at the bus stop, will it be okay to wear this?”
Hoots, stares and catcalling from men as they drive or walk past me are the general order of the day. But who am I to complain? I should be grateful that I get attention, because when women get unwanted attention from men we are told it’s a compliment. I should also laugh off that a man once decided to start masturbating in public, calling out for me to look at him, or that another man decided to slap my butt, because if I complained I was just making a fuss of nothing.
We operate in a world of implicit and explicit privileges and standards. A woman’s body and mind are sites of cultural, racial and gender contestations. Women are objects of simultaneous shame and sexualisation, subject to praise and desire or ridicule and distaste but never existing anywhere in between these extremes. At this point you may want to interject with the words “Men have body shame just as bad…” or “Not all men are…” but put simply, you don’t get a medal for not being misogynistic, sexist or chauvinistic.