Growing up in an urban setting (mostly in flats in the CBD of East London) I learned very early in my teens that I didn’t own my space when I walked out in public. Like many women who are dependent on public transport and public areas waiting for taxis, the mail gaze has always been part of my daily bread.
When I asked my mother and older sisters about a strategy in dealing with men’s comments in public I was often told, “su’bahoya wethu, a’khonto babhetere ngayo” (Don’t worry yourself about [men], they’re not worth your attention”). This didn’t allay my frustrations because it seemed that the less vocal women were in these public spaces, the louder men became. The attack on the woman at the Noord taxi rank was a prime example of what happens to many women across South Africa. I have been fully dressed but some men have had the audacity of slapping me on the bum simply because he can, or caressing my face as though he owned it.
Apart from the physical harassment, men have the annoying habit of whistling at women to get their attention the same people do to get the attention of dogs. I noticed early in life that women didn’t do this to each other and least of all to get the attention of a man. And my highlight experience of walking in public are the obscenities men shout when I don’t respond to their “ek se baby, ngas’ske undifake kuloo mathnga akho” (hey baby, I wish you could let me in between your thighs). When I have ignored these comments, the man has proceed with “hayi suka,suziphakamisa” (Whatever! You think you’re better!). I guess he’s hoping that will offend me more than the fact that he has made a sex object of me not realising that I could be his daughter, sister etc.
Recently, I had a similar encounter while walking in New Street. When I turned the corner going into New Street a man across the road started singing a song loud enough for me to hear. I was the only woman in the street at the time (it was in the quiet hours of the day) and the words he sang had sexual innuendos. When I looked in his direction he sang louder in a sort of jest. He made the safe assumption that because I am black I speak isiXhosa so I understood the words he was singing. On any other day I would have taken my mother’s advice and ignored him as “he wasn’t worth my time”, but it was the Silent Protest on campus and I was wearing a purple solidarity t-shirt. I had been reflecting in my role in the protest especially since I didn’t tape my mouth this year.
I realised that in ignoring the comments men make directed at women in public spaces, a seed is being sowed to allowing men to get away with sexual violence towards women. So I walked across the road and he also came towards me. I asked him if he was saying something and he proceeded to greet me. I asked him if he knew me and he said no, then I asked why he was shouting across the road as though he knew me, he was quiet (the conversation didn’t seem so simple in isiXhosa) then I told him I didn’t appreciate what he was saying and neither would any woman.
I haven’t had an encounter this man again and there is no guarantee that he hasn’t continued singing the song for other women, but in speaking to him my hope is that he will think twice before he does it again. The glaring power dynamics are obvious but to me he was a man who needed to be questioned about a behaviour that has been normalised and accepted.
I had had enough of simply ignoring it.