One Saturday Morning I went to a large retail outlet in Johannesburg to purchase an appliance that was on a special promotion. There was a young man seated at a desk promoting pens. As I looked up to ask the price, I suddenly noticed the man’s t-shirt. The word ’bitch’ was imprinted on his t-shirt in bold letters. I immediately experienced a sense of revulsion, dropped the pen and turned my back .After collecting myself I asked the man how he could wear such a t-shirt. He casually said that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with wearing such a t-shirt. I felt my blood pressure rising and my heart thumping as I pointed out to him that the word ‘bitch’ is demeaning, disrespectful and offensive to me and every other woman. Feeling violated I walked out of the store.
The second anecdote is from a case study at the Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development. A young woman client related how she was harassed walking to the bus stop on her way to work. She was followed by a stranger who got on to the bus with her. The bus was crowded and the stranger invaded her personal space and groped her behind. When she turned around she realised that he was masturbating. She elbowed him in the chest and walked to the front of the bus. Frantically she hopped off the bus at the next stop. She felt scared, vulnerable, powerless and violated against her will. She said ‘I felt dirty and worthless, I wanted to cry and felt like vomiting. He had no right to touch my body without my consent’. The young woman became quite disturbed and sought counselling as a result.
Harassment and cat calling are part of the patriarchal culture that is deeply embedded in all communities as well as in many countries across the world. It is not restricted to a particular class of people. Because it is such a common occurrence, people tend to joke about it and dismiss such incidents when in fact; street harassment is a harmful patriarchal practice.
As I sat down to write this opinion piece I received a phone call from my insurance company. The man addressed me as ‘my darling’. I was livid and told him not to address me with such language as I found it highly offensive.
Even though women and girls may be exposed to random incidents of wolf whistles, cat calls and sexual harassment, the impact of such behaviour on victims is devastating and should not be underestimated. The psychological effects of sexual harassment, cat calling and wolf whistling can have serious consequences not only on the victim’s psyche but also on her day to day living. Through harassment, the perpetrator is asserting his power and communicating to the victim that she is not in a safe space.
As I recall the above two stories I am reminded that the sixteen days of Activism against violence against women are upon us. Each year even during this period women complain about street harassment and violence against women in the home.
In South Africa women and girls experience sexual harassment and cat calls on trains, buses and taxis, in the streets and in public spaces such as Churches, restaurants and shebeens, apartment blocks, shopping malls, schools and from passing cars with men making rude gestures and shouting at women and girls.
A couple of years ago I recall a situation where a young woman who wore a mini skirt was stripped by a taxi driver in Johannesburg because he felt that she should not be wearing a mini skirt. Harassment and rape of women and girls happens due to the power and control that perpetrators want to exert over women and not because of what women wear.
It is important not to accept the status quo; it harms the very women who are victimised as well as society as a whole. It is the intention of the harasser to silence the woman and render her helpless and to assert his power. Women deserve the right to move about freely in public spaces without the fear of being accosted by strange men.
The key to stopping unwanted attention is to expose the frequency of such happenings and by sharing stories which alert women and girls about harassment.
To reduce the pervasiveness of this type of harassment we need to talk about what harassment is why it matters to us and how to change our cultural mind sets and patriarchal practices.
Ultimately, everyone needs to get involved including the perpetrators of such acts.
Dr Zubeda Dangor
Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development
Wednesday, 20 November 2013