Time for men to put themselves in the skin and minds of women

By Yanga Sibembe 4 September 2019

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

I realised that whereas my sister had an array of things to be worried about, like getting abducted, raped, trafficked or murdered, my only real worry while walking in the street was: I hope they don’t steal my phone.

My favourite book of all time is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I’ve read the book more times than I can remember, and growing up as a teen I had a massive interest in modelling myself according to the altruistic nature of the protagonist in the novel, Atticus Finch.

There is a quote by Finch which I have adopted and attempt to practice religiously: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” – he says in Chapter 3, addressing his daughter Scout.

For the longest time I pondered this quote, I tried to apply it in normal, day-to-day situations so that I wouldn’t make any hasty pre-conceived conclusions in situations I found myself in. Then I had an opportunity to really apply it.

My little sister, who is four years younger than me, had used transport that fetched her at home and took her to school, and vice versa. But when she went to high school she had to rely on public transport. And the bus that she used to take to get to school was at 5.30am. For the most part she walked alone to the bus stop, which is about a 10-minute walk.

However, when winter came, it was pitch dark around that time. And she didn’t really feel comfortable walking alone. Sometimes she’d meet up with people she took the bus with and they’d all walk together. But at other times those people wouldn’t be there; and so, she’d ask me to accompany her. I remember how that used to irritate me. I love my sleep, and I hate being woken up deep into it. And that’s why, when she used to wake me, I’d sulk and begrudgingly walk with her.

My argument was always that if people wanted to harm her, what would I, with my scrawny frame, do to protect her? If someone wanted to do something to her, they would, regardless of my presence. Of course, then I was an irrational 19-year-old.

Then one day I had an epiphany.

That epiphany had to do with the Finch quote. I realised that my presence was not about me protecting her. It was about her feeling assured due to my presence, safety in numbers if you will. I put myself in her skin and walked around in it.

I realised that whereas she had an array of things to be worried about, like getting abducted, raped, trafficked or murdered, my only real worry while walking in the street was: I hope they don’t steal my phone.

I realised the position of privilege I was in with the fact that I could leave my phone at home and walk around the street slightly more confidently. However, my sister, mother and all other women around the world couldn’t leave their vaginas at home. And it was at that point, about seven years ago, that there was shift in my mindset. I moved from indifferent to empathetic.

In 2016, I had another jolt of reality to the plight of women in South Africa when a cousin of mine was assaulted and burned with an iron during an argument with her boyfriend in Mthatha, Eastern Cape. She survived that ordeal, but is forever scarred because a man felt he owned her and her body.

The phenomenon of women suffering at the hands of men is not new. In 1996 one of my favourite musicians of all time, Ntate Caiphus Semenya, released an album titled Women Got A Right To Be. In the title track Semenya addresses men, telling them they are hurting women and pleading with them to stop this. The lyrics, which are in IsiZulu, go like this:

Bayakhala omama
Bo dade wethu bayakhala
Bayakhala nogogo
Nabafazi bethu bayakhala.
Hawu madoda, nans’ indaba
(Ilukhuni lendaba lendaba)

Bakhala kabuhlungu nje
Bakhaliswa yithi
(Ilukhuni lendaba lendaba)

However, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. And women have continued being victimised.

We’ve seen that whether a woman is covered head to toe, or is wearing a mini-skirt like Nwabisa Ngcukana, they are still likely to be harassed and cat-called. Whether they are in the comfort and supposed safety of their home, or just going out to have a drink at the local tavern like Anene Booysen, they are still likely to get raped and brutally murdered. Even going to the local post office has now proven to pose extreme risks to women, as evinced by the fate that befell Uyinene Mrwetyana.

Danger for women is everywhere. Just yesterday six-year-old Amy-Lee de Jager was snatched just after her mom dropped her off at school. Boxing champion Leigh-andre Jegels was shot and killed on Friday, allegedly by her police officer boyfriend, whom she had a protection order against. A week ago a 14-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly stabbing his mother’s boyfriend to death after he walked in on the man assaulting her. The list of cases is endless.

Of course, a man will be reading this and thinking the infamous words: “Not all of us is like this.” That may well be the case, but I have news for you, my dear brothers. That does little to alleviate the fear and inward hysteria that plagues women the minute they open their eyes every morning and think about all the men they will have to fend off that day.

There is an analogy I like to use to get my fellow brothers to try to walk in the skin of women.

I am a snake enthusiast, and I’ve tried to explain to people countless times that not all snakes are venomous and deadly, that there are harmless snakes. However, I’ve usually received the same response: “A snake is a snake. I see it, I run away or kill it. I have no time to be looking to see whether it’s a harmless one or not.”

So why is it then that when women express their fear of men, we are quick to say: “But not all us are like that”, as if we come with labelling warning them to stay away from certain men?

Ted Bundy, one of the most notorious serial killers in history, did not look like a serial rapist and murderer (whatever a serial rapist and murderer is supposed to look like). He was a good-looking, well-dressed and charismatic man. He nevertheless confessed to killing at least 30 women.

He is quoted as saying: “Society wants to believe it can identify evil people, or bad or harmful people, but it’s not practical. There are no stereotypes. We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere.”

So, gentleman (I use that term loosely), it’s time to introspect. Because women have done everything to avoid being victims. They’ve changed how they dress, changed their traveling routes, downloaded apps, walked in groups, walked during the day, stayed indoors. They’ve bought pocket knives and pepper spray, kept their locations on. Everything. But it hasn’t stopped us, men, from seeing them as game ready for the taking.

My little sister now works and doesn’t commute with that 5.30am bus any more. But as fate would have it, as of this year I now travel with it. And at the bus stop it is usually myself and three other women. This winter, each of them has told stories of encounters too close for comfort as they walked to the bus stop.

One of the women, an old lady who stopped taking the bus altogether this winter due to fear, said she’ll be back when it’s not as dark at that time. Another had to change her route and walk using a longer route due to being attacked, but managing to escape twice on the route which is quickest. The third one has her nephew walk to the bus stop, just as I used to walk my sister.

It is important to note that our sisters, mothers, aunts and friends can vent and use all the hashtags in the world. Their anger will subside, and everything will be back to the same old routine where they get picked off like fruit in trees, and live in constant fear and paranoia. The decision to change lies solely with men. That is the solution. Not the government, not the death penalty, not women. It is an inward decision to stop making the female body a constant crime scene. DM


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