Defend Truth


I thought I was a feminist – until I heard their stories


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

I am a feminist but I question each day how I live that truth. And I realise how arrogant I am to believe I know what it means to be a woman in a brutal, oppressive patriarchal world. I had the honour of sharing a two-day education workshop with five remarkable women who taught me what it was to be a woman today.

I was sitting at a family celebration. I was eight years old. I remember sitting on a bench with an older man. He put his hand under my dress and his finger in my vagina. I didn’t know why this man, who was a friend of the family, was doing this. But I felt uncomfortable. I ran away. I felt ashamed. I felt guilty. I told my mother. I started to fear men,” said Lucie Pagé, my wife, my confidante and love of my life. I knew her story of course, after 27 years together, but to hear her tell her experiences one after the other, sitting on the stage with these other women, made me shiver.

I was moved. I was ashamed to be a man. In spite of sharing the raising of children, supporting my wife in her work, changing nappies, trying to be a progressive man, of fighting for women’s rights, I still could never understand a woman’s pain of living in a man’s world full of prejudice against them. Sexual abuse is often at the hand of the uncle, the cousin, the family friend, who breaches the trust and inflicts a deep physical and psychological wound that destroys self-confidence and instils fear and anger in women.

As I grew up my fear of men grew. I felt helpless. To help pay for my studies, I got a job filling petrol. But it was the night shift. I was alone and men who came to fill up felt that I was also on sale. They smothered me as if it was their birthright to grope me. When I finished university, I got a job. It was a big company. I had to stay beyond office hours to do editing of the day’s shoot. My producer would come into the editing suite. He usually rubbed his penis against my back. He put his hands on my shoulder.

Relax,’ he said, ‘You are too tense. I will massage you.’

I was terrified. He got bolder.

Do you want to report me? You will lose your job. Who will believe you?’ he taunted me.”

I feel her pain.

I lost many jobs to run away from sexual harassment. And then my fear grew. I feared all men. It was in fear of men and their penis. We talked as women. But we felt powerless. The only option was to leave. But I was a single mother and I needed these jobs to take care of my son. I started to feel useless. I became withdrawn. I felt afraid to talk. It takes weeks of preparation to be able to talk in public. I felt ridiculed, even when everyone feels the presentation or input I gave was invaluable and brilliant. Although many think I am confident and successful I do not feel that about myself. Even today when a man gropes me in a lift or at a party I want to blame myself. I’m the one that is guilty.”

August – Month of No Violence Against Women, a government-inspired programme, is a shocking indictment when those in power continue to abuse the trust of women with impunity. I am tired of platitudes. We need every day to be a day of respecting women. Women are sacred. They give us life. Where would we be as a human species if women disappeared? Extinct! It is our mothers who carry our children, who give birth to new life, who breastfeed our children and who nurture and raise our children. Women are the heart, the love, compassion, generosity and peace that we want in the world. By violating women, we as men violate ourselves. And we crush our real role – of being protectors of what is sacred.

Another insight was as revealing of my ignorance. “I grew up in a family of women,” said Jackie Zondo, a powerful woman leader. “A strong mother with girls. I felt confident. I was on top of the world, believing in myself. Growing up in the township, we ran the gauntlet of boys. We were manhandled, hurt and they would laugh — ‘we are teaching you to be a woman’. I went to school. It was the same. Daily. I learnt to use my fists. I was on my own. I dared not tell my parents because they would be threatened. I felt a deep anger. It persisted. In my marriage. In my job,” said Jackie.

It’s very hard for me to trust men. Even ones who say they are kind and enlightened. It’s not just about equality. We want respect. I was a senior executive in the corporate male world. When we had an executive meeting I always felt that decisions were made elsewhere – in some other place, in some locker room. Not in the meeting we were having. When I challenged positions, eyes would roll. You could feel the shrug of the shoulders shouting loudly – she is so feisty, angry, pushy or bitchy. My anger grew and ate away at my soul.”

We men have to learn to listen, with empathy. We have to respect sacred spaces where women can tell their stories. Just listen. Feel. Understand. Not to drown out the voices of our Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Daughters. Just shut up and change.

A third story we heard was that of my daughter, Shanti. She is 22. She has grown up in a home where we have always positively affirmed her womanhood. And shared values that gave her the confidence that she was equal to any other person. She grew up without the fear and anger that generations of women had to endure. It showed in her story, “I feel a bit guilty, listening to the stories of you, the older women. I was fortunate. I learnt from my parents to believe in myself. But I also learnt to defend myself. I know how to deal with men who show me disrespect. I know that every girl growing up should have the same right. But the majority don’t. And that is all our fight. Until men and women are equal and we destroy patriarchy, we will never have peace in the world.”

Every man should imbibe these lessons. Every man should sit down with their female co-workers, friends, family, and ask them: what is your story? What hardship did you go through in life because of your gender?

Rajeshree Gandhi, a blogger from India, uses a very interesting term that fits into this conversation: mansplaining. “It is a reaction to women’s presence in spaces traditionally dominated by men and their articulation of their own experiences. Information, trivia, anecdotes are used by mansplainers to cancel out women’s knowledge and opinions on various subjects. It is a complete dismissal of a woman’s concerns through silence, smug looks, sniggers and no-no nods.”

I have seen this time and again. I am sure that I have been guilty of this also. I do not know what it means to be a woman. I do know that our world needs desperately a rebalancing of the energy within ourselves – the yin and the yang – and between men and women. One thing us men need to ask ourselves is: what is the feminine energy inside us and how do we express it? With pride and pleasure or with guilt and shame?

As the founding father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela determinedly expounded, “The cause of women’s emancipation is part of our national struggle against outdated practices and prejudice. It is a struggle that demands equal effort from both men and women alike.” DM


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