Opinionista Genevieve Lanka 8 August 2018

Am I a Feminist – Sexual harassment, body shaming and cultural biases should not go unchallenged (Part Two)

In the second part of a discussion of feminism, Genevieve Lanka writes that we excuse sexual harassment as nothing more than a natural reaction to stimulus, as if men are incapable of resisting the urge and are therefore beyond reproach.

Part 1 can be read here

Heat instinctively rose to my cheeks as I heard that drunken drawl. “Hey you, Zulu bums, come sit here,” he slurred, unable to conceal the effects of hours of guzzling cheap whiskey. In fact, the tiny fast food outlet in the busy coastal mall reeked of alcohol and sweat, as he crudely gestured for me to sit on his lap.

I stood frozen for a few seconds, unable to digest being objectified in the smuttiest of ways, while in the company of my best friend and her teenage daughter. Even more unnerving was what felt like a hundred eyes glaring at my rounded buttocks. Nobody dared to caution the intoxicated man or break the steely silence that followed his unsettling laugh.

For a minute, even I wondered if my floral fit-and-flare summer dress hugged my hips just a little too much. Isn’t that the usual reaction of women when they face sexually harassment? Did I ask for it? Was I dressed too seductively? Am I being too sensitive? Aren’t those the usual accusations hurled at them when incidents like this happen? In spite of myself, I could not help but wonder, “Is it me?”

I am just one-point-five metres tall and well endowed. There have always been mixed reactions to my shape. I don’t look like most South African Indian girls. I have a generous bust, a small waist and what is typically referred to as an “African bum”. I grew up in a conservative Indian community, and my figure was often treated as obscene or obscure. As a child I found myself trying to hide my body in public spaces.

I was raised in a time where attractive equated to skinny. It was the era just before Jennifer Lopez. It was certainly well before the Kardashians and Nicki Minaj. I was often teased, cautioned for using dresses that clung to my body and I outright gave up on denim jeans by the time I hit my mid-twenties. I also grew up in a Christian pastoral family. Congregants habitually took it upon themselves to discuss my figure and my clothing, and usually the comments were far from encouraging. However, school-yard teasing and mean-spirited congregants were the least of my concerns.

As a young woman, I came to appreciate my own skin. This was largely due to the fact that I travelled more, made friends across racial lines and was exposed to different cultures and how they appreciated the female form. Sadly, learning to love my fuller hips and plump thighs did not shield me from crude remarks from men, or nasty comments from women. So standing in that little shop, two options became apparent.

Option one: Tell this drunken bigot where to get off. After all, I am an accomplished journalist. I take on all kinds of people every week on my talk show. So I could easily dig into this man and expose his chauvinism, right? But would he listen? He’s inebriated and illogical. Not even the most intellectual discourse or fiery retort is likely to faze him. If anything, it might spur him on and aggravate the situation. It was certainly clear that nobody else in that shop would be willing to come to my aid if he lurched towards me.

So I painfully resorted to option two: walk away. I walked out of the store and alerted a security guard to what had just transpired. He seemed more amused at my ire than eager to accost the perpetrator and I headed home in silence with my best friend and her daughter in tow.

This is in no way a unique incident. I am among many women who have been reduced to mere objects by men who feel entitled to do so. Many women are physically groped and handled in public places, and in most instances, neither men nor women interject. However, you may find the occasional, “But who told her to wear such a short dress, men will be men” comment. I am often flabbergasted by this sentiment. Men will be men.

Men; who occupy the most seats in parliaments around the world, who dominate business and academia, who are paid more than women for the same job, who negotiate peace treaties and multi-million dollar mergers… men! To me, the men will be men argument is inherently flawed. How is it that we afford men such vast degrees of respect and recognition for their roles in business, education, politics and religion… while at the same time reduce them to nothing more than testosterone when in the presence of a woman with cleavage? We excuse sexual harassment as nothing more than a natural animalistic reaction to stimulus, as if they are incapable of resisting the urge and therefore beyond reproach.

Indian culture has somehow promulgated the idea that sons are to be celebrated, while daughters are a burden. The general belief is that daughters are raised to be married and leave home, while sons stay on and carry the family name and lineage. In India for example, a government report has revealed that the ratio of young women in that country will drastically decrease by the year 2031. This is largely due to the alarming rate of female infant foeticide, as many families opt to kill their girl child because it is considered a financial and societal liability to raise her.

While female infant foeticide is not a practice within the South African Indian population, gender disparities are still widespread. However, it is in many instances veiled in subtlety. When I discovered that I was pregnant with a girl, some older members of my extended family and even associates were apologetic, as if it was consolation prize. They would say things like, “Oh that’s lovely, next one though will be a boy”. Three years later, they now say, “You need to have a son to take care of your daughter.”

It is precisely this social and cultural framework that propels the men will be men argument. And to a certain degree, I think women too need to take responsibility here. I have often witnessed the difference with which mothers treat their sons and daughters in my own community. From the small issues like curfews and household chores to the bigger decisions like inheritance, many daughters get the short end of the stick. Preference is given to the son, even if he is younger.

These differences are also clearly seen in the manner in which sons and daughters are disciplined. I have often heard mothers say, ‘Boys will be boys’ when their sons are accused of teasing (harassing) a girl. Even promiscuity is excused as seemingly natural boy behaviour. These boys grow into patriarchal and chauvinistic men who treat women as inferior. They were given no boundaries as children and therefore feel entitled as adults. By reducing sexual harassment to natural male behaviour, we make women the villain instead of the victim.

This is by no means a generalisation of all men. So before you grab the pitchfork and torch, I am well aware that not all men harass women, not all men rape and not all men abuse. However, do all men hold their brothers accountable for what they do? Do men stand up and say NO when women are objectified at parties? Do they interject when their friends grope women at clubs, make crude remarks at the braai or even spread rumours in the office? Or do men only react when a #MenAreTrash campaign bruises their egos?

This is where feminism becomes crucial. In an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show (2018), Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brilliantly explained why feminism is relevant today. Somebody once suggested that instead of feminism, she should focus on universal acceptance and equality for all. This, she explained, is much like the argument for the #AllLivesMatter movement. While legitimately we can all agree that all lives do matter, it does however underplay the atrocities against black communities. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign singles out an injustice. It blatantly and openly exposes a reality that is otherwise ignored. It is the same with feminism. Feminism casts the spotlight on the struggle women face every day in the workplace, at home and public spaces. It forces society to admit that there is a problem, and then compels them to address it.

I find myself thinking about that incident in the shop more and more these days. In that moment, my education, my accomplishments, the fact that I was a wife, a daughter and even a pastor did not matter. I was just my body. I was an object, a thing. Today, I am a mother to a little girl. I watch her as she plays with her toys, as she runs in the garden… and I cannot help but wonder if she too will face these challenges. Will she want to hide her body because a fuller figure makes men uncomfortable in church? Will she have to downplay her beauty because some find it obscene? Will all her education, her accomplishments, her dignity and her self-worth be diminish by one man who sees only a body, a thing, and object? DM


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