COLUMN : A woman is still essentially the ‘v’ word
They laugh and feel good about exposing our bodies for their amusement. If their mates protest, they call them wet blankets.
This “Trumpian” phenomenon is widespread and legitimises male sexual hegemony in so many belittling ways.
Women can never escape their bodies. Rape and sexual harassment are an intrinsic part of their identities. That babies at 3 years of age and grandmothers at 80 are not immune to sexual molestation is indicative of how women are viewed in society today. They are viewed first and often solely in terms of their genitalia.
As one feminist crudely put it: a woman is a vagina. The worst swear word a man can sling at another has always been to involve his mother’s sexuality - never his father’s private parts. Essentially, as a woman, wherever you go you’re carrying with you your sexuality.
Even being a nun doesn’t exempt you from your status as a “vagina”. You are doomed by your power to give birth to your very oppressors!
That’s why we have to keep our issues on the boil constantly.
And that’ why August is a special month for us in South Africa. We have declared her to be Women’s Month, bestowing on her the animate status of a feminine disposition.
In a strange alchemy of love and hate, greatness and servility, the sisterhood is a confusing contradiction.
She can be wily, she can be sexy, she can be bitchy, she can be an angel, she can be a martyr, she can be a victim, she can be a passive recipient of social norms or she can be a street fighter in defending her rights.
She often parades as a servile traditionalist safeguarding her virginity behind a cloak in the name of tradition, culture or religion.
We can cover her up from head to foot and allow her to see the world through two slits.
Or she can flout her wares at the July horse races for all to see and cry for help when attacked.
We cut off her clitoris to keep her sexless in the name of purity.
We can even kill her before or after birth as soon as we know her gender.
We can marry her off before puberty to an old man fit to be her grandfather and we can force her on to a funeral pyre to preserve her morality.
We can take away her liberty by trumping up an extramarital relationship against her and stone her to death for a deed she did not do.
We can marry her off with a herd of other “cows” to one single bull where she will have to wait her turn for love and affection.
She can lead a nation as a powerful matriarch or she can head a financial division as the world’s richest heir. We can worship her as a goddess or label her a Jezebel.
We can dress her in swimsuits to parade in beauty pageants while whipping her for daring to wear pants in the street.
What is she, this creature called woman? And why does she cause such a schizophrenic response in man?
Throughout the ages in all societies, among all races, the status of a woman has been lower than that of man and even lower than the male child they give birth and succour to.
That’s a constant - yet finding the universality in women’s oppression is a challenge.
Divided by race, politics, ideology, class and religion, women are further victimised by their differential status in society.
In a panel discussion with Judge Navi Pillay, former UN officer of Human Rights at the 1860 heritage Centre last week, interesting questions about the unity of women were raised.
Do women feel each other’s pain? Bebe Campbell Moore raised this question in her debut novel, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, published in 1992 and still relevant. Inspired by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, it followed the aftermath of the killing of a black Chicago boy by a white man in Mississippi, US.
Campbell continued to broach issues of race in novels such as Brothers and Sisters, in which the African-American protagonist must navigate the complexities of racism and sexism in the corporate world.
Later she picks up this theme in You Owe Me, the story of a betrayed friendship between an African-American woman and a Holocaust survivor.
In my work on various gender committees I was already experiencing the seamless boundaries of class, race, education, social status, age and religion as indeterminate factors in the abuse of women.
So the picture that emerges is that abuse has no definite profile. This was confirmed when, as a guest speaker at a religious organisation in Chatsworth, I learnt that their private shelters were mainly used by wealthy women who came to spend the night as a cool-off period before they returned to their abusive husbands.
It’s significant that shelters for women are a ubiquitous feature of every nation’s landscape, yet I have never heard of shelters for men.
This is clearly a male domain and in South Africa we have horrific statistics to confirm the wanton abuse against our women.
Despite our critical situation of over 2500 women being murdered a year by their male partners and men in general, for the most part our men in South Africa are deafeningly silent.
In India, however they took to the streets and created a social movement around one incident.
What they did was to recognise that the incident was more than a bad day’s event. Instead, through the process of zero tolerance, they raised the level of awareness to mass action for gender justice. In this regard, men and women took to the streets to march in unison against this evil.
While this incident sparked a worldwide reaction to the issues of gender violence, for many Indian nationals this incident reflected poorly on their country.
As one World Bank economist lamented: “They have robbed me of my India!” This strong sense of nationalism is perhaps the one factor that differentiates them from us in South Africa.
Why did we not react in the same way when we had our India moment in the copy-cat rape and murder of a little 17-year-old in the Eastern Cape? Anene Booysen was just another little coloured waif who shouldn’t have been out alone.
These internal rationalisations keep us psychologically marooned in our racial enclaves of in-groups and the out-groups. Perhaps on account of our inherent racism we dehumanise some of our victims along a hierarchy of acceptability.
Sadly, blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds can only feel pain for their own groups.
Our racism diminishes our humanity to the extent that we will never march for Anene altogether as a united force of sisterhood.
Rajab is chairperson of the Democracy Development Programme.