A teenage girl is jogging in her neighbourhood. A car starts following her. The car is full of boys. This is not the beginning of some day-time movie. This is something that happened just a few days ago.
How do you suppose that scenario turned out? If it was a movie, it wouldn’t be pretty. In regular life, the girl probably got intimidated and stopped jogging, which messes her health routine, and does a lot of damage to her mind. Those boys may not have said a word, or even laid a hand on her, but can you imagine what was going through her head, and what those thoughts are still doing to her? Now, reverse the roles for a second. Imagine it was a (teenage) guy jogging, and being followed around by a car full of girls. I doubt he’d be unhappy about it, let alone traumatised …
I’m not a bra-burning feminist. I quite like my bras actually. They’re comfy and fluffy and just a tad pricey. That said, I’m the single mother of a feisty, gorgeous, pre-teenage baby girl. I also live in hoodies and jeans, and wear my hair in short purple dreadlocks, so women’s lib comes up around me a lot. Plus, I have first hand experience with rape, so it’s a big issue for me.
I discovered Everyday Sexism on Twitter recently, and followed the account for a day. Then I unfollowed it. Why? Because it was way too depressing. Reading through that timeline, you realise that quite a few men think it’s okay to demean and insult women, and they expect you to take it as a joke, which is part of the problem. When nearly half the population thinks it’s funny to deliberately hurt the other half of the population, something is very, very wrong. I got fed up of hearing it, so I switched off.
Of course, switching off is a problem in itself, and that’s what I’m debating today. After all, a few decades ago, women couldn’t vote. I can’t even begin to imagine what it took for them to stand up to that status quo so I can proudly wave my purple pinkie today. A part of me says men that make rape jokes and grope women in public are a ‘normal’ part of life, and that there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. But where would we be if pioneering women had said that about voting in the 60s?
The typical response to anti-feminist aggression is male-bashing. After all, they hit at girls all the time, so we best hit back, no? But then I thought about all the guys out there that aren’t groping and raping. The danger in being a feminist is you focus on all the guys that hamper women, while ignoring the good men.
You know the way you wear a red dress and suddenly all you see in town are red dresses? Or pregnant women, or men in skinny jeans? When you’re looking for something, you see it everywhere. So maybe as strong women, we’re so acutely aware of negative male perception that we zero in on it, forgetting all the men that have been good to us.
But … on the other hand … what if all men are secretly misogynistic? Maybe deep down, they all want to rape mini-skirted women and are just too cultured and well-educated to do so. After all, even the nicest friend-zone residents watch porn and play with palmella, so how can I be so sure they’re not all secretly undressing teenage girls just because they’re not saying it out loud?
I started to wonder why so many men think it’s normal to cat-call or yell ‘bitch’ at random women on the street. Why is it that whenever a man is upset with me – whether it’s because I got a promotion, said no to a date, or just happened to be in traffic – he automatically attacks my sexuality? How does a girl walking to school or work get attacked, shot at, or called a whore? What does prostitution have to do with books?
Why is it that as I stood with a friend next to an accident scene, the first question that the gathering crowd asked was, “Nani alikuwa anaendesha – dame ama jamaa?” Or why did a matatu ram into a Vitz from behind, and then gang up with all the other men in traffic to yell at her until she got into her car and drove off crying? For that matter, why is a woman’s first reaction to an accident: “Wait I call my husband.”?
Why is it that when my fundi runs me around for six weeks, I’m advised to sic my brother on him? After all, I earned the money on my own, walked into the shop on my own, and made the order on my own, so why does my fundi need a man’s interference to make him fulfill his professional obligation to me? What does gender have to do with any of these situations?
Well, it turns out it has everything to do with it. I mean, think about it rationally. The only reason anyone would attack someone else is because they feel threatened. Kids that are different get attacked not because their hair is weird or their clothes are funny. They get attacked because they dare to show their individuality.
The bully has ‘normal’ hair and ‘normal’ clothes and gets irritated and intimidated by this kid who has the nerve to have a mohawk and skinny jeans. He can’t force the kid to conform or change his hair or clothes, so to make himself feel better, the bully beats the kid up.
The same concept applies to bullying the smart kids, the minorities, or even the homosexual kids. They’re different from you, and you’re afraid of them, so you attack them to convince yourself that you’re bigger and better than them. It has very little to do with their race, IQ, or sexual orientation.
In more complex cases, the bully is secretly smart, secretly gay, or even secretly bi-racial, and their bullying is a way to hide their own fears. They’re angry at this person for being brave enough to expose what the bully so desperately wants to hide. And the same thing applies to the mistreatment of women. I mean, let’s be honest here. I’m the first to admit that women have strong sex drives. That said, lust at first sight is a lot less common in women than men.
Men, for all their strength, bravado, and intelligence, have minimal control over their penises. Those *little fellas* have a mind of their own, and have been known to stand attention at the most inappropriate moments. So let’s say a man is walking down the street, minding his own business. Suddenly, this harmless waif of a schoolgirl walks by in her little school-girl uniform, and suddenly his southward senses are alert.
Now, the man might just smile and walk away, or he might hide his embarrassment inside a newspaper, or he might find a nice quiet spot to play with palmella. But depending on what kind of a man he is, he might also feel extremely angry and emasculated. I mean, how dare this tiny little girl have so much power over him? That scenario could end one of several ways, all of which will leave that girl scarred for life.
Best case scenario, he will decide to regain his injured pride by either hurting her or shaming her. He might cat-call, which will embarrass the girl and hurt her feelings. Or he might insult her, which will leave her bewildered and insecure. She may run home or sprint to school, wondering what she ever did to make that man so mean, never once imagining she is being punished for the power that she has over him.
I’m not going to discuss the worst case scenario, because it’s painfully obvious to everyone.
Let’s take the argument into a more common situation. A woman is walking past a matatu stage, or a boys’ high school, or a construction site. She may not even be wearing anything provocative. By the simple fact that she has a vagina, breasts, and a non-masculine walk, she might attract the attention of their penises.
And her reward? The men will call her a slut or a whore, whistle, make silly sexist comments, or maybe even stretch out their hands and try to grab her. And she will either get livid or flee in terror and embarrassment while the men laugh their hearts out and feel superior again. Mission accomplished.
Rape is never about sex. It’s about power. A woman could walk naked in the street untouched because nobody would attack her while everyone is watching. Yet take a woman draped in fifteen layers of body armour, at night, in a dark alley, and she has limited chances of getting home alive and unmolested. And the reason she gets attacked isn’t because of what she is or isn’t wearing. It’s because of the weapon she wields between her legs, the weapon that has the power to turn men into gooey jelly (or more accurately – rigid poles) simply because they were thinking about it.
When men cat-call or insult a woman, they’re trying to make her react. They’re angry that their bodies are responding to her, and that they’re helpless to stop it. So they have to spread that angst to you. If they can do it physically, they will. But if they can’t, they’ll wound you with words and gestures. If you stop and yell back, they win. If you look them in the eye and tell them to think about their mothers, they win. If you run away crying, they win. If you go away and get some other man to come defend you, they win. Because in all those scenarios, they have exercised their power over you.
I could cite lots of examples to prove this. The prisons, detention camps (and even military facilities) where women are raped into submission. The makanga, or ex-boyfriend who calls you a whore just for rejecting him. The random stranger who claims you’re a cold frigid bitch because his pick-up lines didn’t work. It’s all about pulling you down so you feel as low and unworthy as he does. And sadly, it always works.
What do I teach my little girl? That she can do and be whatever she wants, and that if anyone ever attacks her, male or female, she needs to fight them with all she’s got. But I also teach her that when you’re walking down the street and men cat-call you, ignore them and walk away. Because sometimes, the greatest victory is in simply refusing to react.
When I started writing this post, I was thinking the best approach was to look the other way. After all, constantly exposing myself to dark, angry, sexist views was dragging me way, way down. But I’m looking at it a little differently now. The Everyday Sexism Project is really depressing. A lot of people look at it lightly, and assume the women sharing their experiences are being hypersensitive. But for me who lives with ish like that every day, it can be very painful, and for a while, I thought I’d better walk away.
But the more I think about it, the more I realise it’s the only way to show guys (and girls) that it’s not okay to make someone’s life miserable just because you can. And it’s definitely not okay to hurt someone else just to make yourself feel better. The reason a lot of guys think it’s acceptable to disrespect a girl and make rape jokes is because they were raised that way, and because everybody does it. They think that just because they didn’t actually rape a girl, it’s okay to talk about it, or make nasty comments, or grope a random stranger. Maybe movements like Everyday Sexism are the first step towards making this attitude stop.
It’s not about man-bashing, or topless protests. It’s about the fact that the only woman in a matatu full of men is terrified, while the only man in a matatu full of women is either oblivious or unspeakably giddy. It’s about a girl walking out of the house feeling confident, happy and attractive, and walking back home feeling dirty, broken and violated because of the words of some random man she’ll never see again. It’s about teaching every little boy that it’s not okay to call a girl a bitch, so that maybe when he grows into a man, he’ll be less likely to break some random girl’s body, mind, or heart.
♫ Lie to me ♫ 12 stones ♫