Today is National Women’s Day in South Africa. A public holiday to celebrate women who rose to fight against the struggles under apartheid. Heroes of some 20,000 women who marched to the Union Buildings to the capital city in 1956 to petition against a passbook that people of colour were forced to carry with them. It was one of the largest demonstrations staged in the country’s history, led by women of all races (to learn more about this day, here’s a link: https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/south-africa-celebrates-first-national-womens-day).
History needs to be remembered because I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live under those circumstances and I wouldn’t want anyone, regardless of race or gender, to have to live through a similar time simply because we didn’t learn from the past. Nothing good comes from putting others down.
They always say history is written by those who are victorious…this isn’t the case for many women across the country or world. While the passbook no longer exists, females still have to fight against views that many cultures, traditions, societies or communities across the globe hold; views allowing males to have unspoken control over them.
I think about how when I was younger, just a child, my mother and I would walk down the main street of the town we lived in, every Saturday, from one shopping centre to the next. I cannot remember the exact moment this stopped and we would end up driving the 500 metres but I remember the reason. Every Saturday, without fail, as I walked, an older male would grab my hand or “jokingly” try to pull me from my mother. “It’s a compliment dear, it means you’re beautiful” is what they would say. Please explain to me how trying to pull a child away from her mother is a compliment? It’s just damn scary. And when we allow that kind of reasoning to be accepted, we’re teaching young girls:
1. It’s okay that a person violates your personal space because it’s a compliment.
2. The only way you’ll know you’re beautiful is when a person violates your personal space.
My mother, without us talking about it, altered our weekend ritual by driving the route, and people would tell me how spoilt I was because I didn’t walk that short distance. I never defended myself.
How many young girls (because really that’s what I was at that age) don’t have this escape that I was lucky enough to have?
Years later, I remember being with a group of friends in a city, ironically nicknamed, “The Mother City.” We had taken a trip to town and on two occasions, I had a young group of males violate my space and grab by breasts and carry on walking past. In the middle of the city. In broad daylight. Not once, but twice! It happened so quickly, I turned around and those group of males had carried on walking and turned to laugh at me. They were laughing. Because for some reason, that was fun for them? Wtf???
Or the time my friend and I were walking down a main road in the evening (different one to my childhood) and a vehicle stopped next to us and two males tried to pull us in. We somehow got away and at the time and for the next fifteen years, I had convinced my brain that it was a joke. It was only sometime last year, when my friend and I spoke about that incident for the first time, did I realise how lucky we were to have gotten away. That those men weren’t jokingly pulling us into a vehicle. I shudder every time I think about what atrocities we escaped.
Or the time my neighbour that I lived next to for five years, wouldn’t leave my flat when I was alone and then stalked me afterwards. It was the first time I bought pepper spray, and at the time, luckily I lived with a tough brother whose friends were my adopted brothers and just their presence somehow calmed Mr Stalker down.
Needless to say, I have so far been lucky. I still believe I lived a sheltered life, fiercely protected by my family. And that’s the scary part though. If I lived such a sheltered life and had to face these issues, what about the millions of females who aren’t as lucky? These “minor” or “mild” incidents committed by males of various ages, nationalities and races (GASP! Yes, no race, nationality or age is exempt) still left me with some form of trauma and shaped my view of ALL males over the years. Yet I say mild or minor because it’s not outright sexual assault, rape, acid throwing or physical abuse (is it?) The thing is I shouldn’t have to downplay it because there’s much worse happening out there. None of this should be happening at all. There shouldn’t be this need to determine where my experiences are on a spectrum of violations committed against women. Period.
I somehow grew up believing that to be a male must be the greatest privilege in the world. And from my point of view, it was. So I did the obvious. I embellished my already engrained tomboy-ishness. Became a dynamite in a small package and tried to subdue any feminine aspects I could to protect myself. It wasn’t until now that I’ve come to accept that this isn’t how to solve the problem.
I’ve heard different cultures and traditions being used as excuses to treat females like second class citizens and while this isn’t specific to a race or gender, this is also not a specific country problem. This happens across the world. I know because I hear my friends from across the world complain. I see the social media posts that are posted from countries across the world. And while today we celebrate the 20,000 women who stood up to an entire government, let’s accept the journey to freedom for women hasn’t ended. We have a long way to go and it doesn’t help when women in powerful positions assimilate males and treat females badly (“it’s how I was treated” should change to “Because I was treated that way, I do not want you to experience similar”) nor does it help when a male says, “Oh, I’m not like those men”.
No, you need to do more than that. You need to stop making remarks about females you wouldn’t want said about your daughter or mother or niece or aunt (please note how I didn’t include wife or girlfriend on this list. I’ll leave you to think about it). You need to hold other males accountable. Or actually step back into your cowardly ways and allow females to step up. Because as we saw 64 years ago, females aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves.