To be a woman : A response to the protests at Rhodes University

This blog is not about my Phd but in response to what is happening at the University where I am doing my Phd.

1. A twelve year old girl is bullied and sexually abused by 14 year old boys for two years. They grab her breasts, vagina, spit on her and make her do their homework. Teachers see this behaviour but do nothing. She eventually moves schools and it stops.
2. A seventeen year old girl goes to a night club. A man grabs her breasts from behind. She turns round and slaps him. He pushes her down a flight of steps. Her friends have to pick her up dazed and confused and take her home.
3. A seventeen year old girl gets a job at a restaurant as a waitress. On her second day she serves a family table. As she walks past the father puts his hand up her skirt. This is one of many occasions. She tells the owner who is talking to the chef. He laughs and the chef grabs her vagina and tells her she is lucky to be so pretty to get such attention.
4. A eighteen year old women goes to a Christening overseas. Older friends ask some of their friends to take her out for the evening. She goes. She is with one other woman. The men take her to one of their houses and refuse to take her home. She ends up having to sleep with the other woman in the spare room. In the middle of the night one of the men jump into bed with them. He grabs her vagina. She screams. He curses and leaves.
5. An eighteen women gets a job during her gap year at a hardware store. A manager starts harassing her. It gets horrible and she is scared. He starts threatening her. She approaches the manager of the store. First he doesn’t believe her until another manager steps in and verifies her case. The regional PR manager is bought in. The woman stands trial and is asked “do you wear mini-skirts to work? Have you provoked him? Have you ever accepted gifts from him? Have you ever flirted with him?. The verdict. He is to keep one meter away from her at all times but it is the responsibility of the young woman to stay away from him. A few days later she is in the canteen. He comes in. She gets up immediately to go out. He blocks her and throws hot coffee in her face. She runs to the store manager whose first question to her is, why were you so close to him? Did you provoke him? She resigns.
6. A nineteen year old woman is at University. She goes out to a club. She goes out for fresh air and is suddenly surrounded by a group of men from the army base. They start taunting her, pulling at her clothing. A young man she knows walks past. She calls out to him and he comes forward. The army men move away. This is the last time she goes out to this club alone. She starts staying at home.
7. A 21 year old women works behind a bar to make money while studying at University. One night a man starts harrassing her. He won’t let up. She refuses to serve him. He threatens her grabbing her arm and twisting it. Another man in the bar steps in. She is eventually fired from her job because she doesn’t converse with the men at the bar and would rather just serve them and read. The woman owner of the bar tells her she hired her because she is pretty and she needs someone to be ‘friendly’ to the men. The women is told she is not ‘friendly’ enough.
8. A 28 year old woman asks a male colleague to come to her to a meeting because the men will not engage with her. She updates him on what needs to be said and he has to say it for her. She has no voice here.
9. A 32 year old woman runs a workshop for a woman’s group. They are exploring why it is so hard to motivate themselves to do something with their lives. The woman uses a timeline technique of a fictional character and together they plot the moments in this fictional characters life that could lead to this attitude. The fictional woman is raped three times in her fictional life. The woman running the workshops queries, is this realistic, is this your experience. Women in the room start crying. Each one of them has been raped at some point of their lives, many more than once. They fear for their daughters. They feel they are to blame if it happens to their daughters – they should have seen, they should have stopped it but how can they know? How can they know which men are bad/
10. A 35 year old woman meets a man. The start a relationship. He is aggressive so she ends the relationship six months later. The man starts to harrass her. He comes to her house and tries to force her to have sex with him. She manages to yell so hard he leaves. At advise from a friend she leaves her current house. He continually sends threatening emails, Sms messages and tries to phone. She ignores all correspondence. Then he vandalises her car. Four days later her dogs are poisoned. One dies. She goes to the police. They advise a restraining order. She goes to the courts. The woman behind the desk in an office deep in the bowels of the court room asks, why do you want a restraining order, he hasn’t hit you. The police woman accompaning the woman says ‘ It is so he doesn’t end up hitting her.” She is given a restraining order.

Ten examples of ten woman experiencing what it is like to be a woman in the world? No ten examples of ten events that happened to the same woman and that woman is me. I don’t often share this information because when I do I am treated like a person that is damaged. I am looked at differently. People react to me differently. I am treated as if my life is abnormal. But the older I have become the more I realise that my life is the normal life of a woman in the world. Every woman I know has an experience or many experiences like this spread across their life. At my current age I no longer like going out. I never go out alone. I enjoy getting older because men no longer look at me like they used to – like a piece of meat. When I meet a man my first instinct is fear. My second is distrust. There are about 7 men in my life that I trust and don’t fear. They know who they are.

South African men need to realise that South African women do not live in the same country they do, we do not live in the same world that they do. We live in a world where being a woman means you are at risk, continually, perpetually, relentlessly. If I consider one of the reasons I have not had children it is because if I had a girl I would be terrified of what might happen to her and if I had a boy I am terrified of what he may do to women.

I don’t condone mob justice but women have a right to be angry. How much longer can we take the world’s denial of the lives we live? How much longer are we going to be silenced by society seeing these experiences as shameful, as if we caused them to happen? As if we are responsible?

I express solidarity with our young South African women but solidarity is not enough. I am ambivalent about their current actions. Some part of me doesn’t feel that violence is the way to go. Does oppression ever wipe out oppression? Another part of me feels their rage as my rage and asks, what else is there to do to stop the violence against women and children? We live in a country where young girls are raped by their teachers, their fathers, uncles and friends. What must women do, say, share, expose to make this stop? I will never forget one day in Grahamstown. I was involved in the ‘1 in 9’ production being put in at the Grahamstown festival.  I was reading the local newspaper. On the third page there were small short three sentence news clips. One of them read: “Three men rape a woman to death. The men were caught. One man admitted to being forced to rape the woman after she was dead.”  The front page story was about some ridiculous sports event. This woman died a death that is too horrific to imagine and her tragedy was worth nothing more than a three sentence news clip in a small town newspaper. I sobbed for this woman but sympathy is just not enough.  For how many centuries have women wept in silence? Every action and every word at every level needs to work towards changing what it means to be a woman in the world.

I am a normal South African woman and I don’t want any of the young South African girls of today to have to live a life like my normal South African woman’s life. I want them to have extra-ordinary lives in which they are fearless, powerful and strong.


16 thoughts on “To be a woman : A response to the protests at Rhodes University

  1. Janet van Eeden

    Brave words indeed. South Africa has an appalling history of violations against women and children and the statistics never seem to change. I despair of the human race in generally and the misogynistic SA males in particular.

  2. Tikeetha

    Incredible post. Thank you for sharing. I actually found your page because I posted about my rape today. We have to do better as a society to protect our women and girls.

  3. Johnny

    What can you expect when the man running the country states .Respect my culture. Young men see this example and say tit for tat .im glad while growing up there was respect for all female’s.

  4. suzanne price

    I was abused by the headmaster in standard five, drugged and raped by a hairdresser at the age of fourteen and date raped by a lifesaver at sixteen

  5. India Baird

    Thank you for sharing. This is the experience of every young woman who is part of Rock Girl, or every young woman and girl we have interviewed, of almost every woman I know. On Saturday, we are running from Khayelitsha to Cape Town to demand all streets be safe for women, but this is seems like a tiny effort to stop the tide that daily destroys girls and women in South Africa. Yet the first step is sharing your story, our story, and taking away the shame. We need a national forum for women and girls to share their stories, and men and others as well. We need to listen. We need to believe. Then we need to create a society of non-violence. It’s possible.

  6. Teneal

    I applaud you and your post, however, I have to correct you about one thing. I am here at this protest every single day and no one is being violent. The media portrays what they choose to but as a participant, I am telling you there is no violence on our part.

    1. Jane Burt Post author

      Hi Teneal,

      Thank you for this feedback. I saw today a clip from the vice chancellor pleading for students to be released because the protest is peaceful.

  7. Lee Jones

    Thank you Jane!
    Strength to all who survive
    R.I.P. to all those who have died at the hands of violent abusers
    Most of us have these experiences in our past and/or present – the time has come to speak out en masse
    Thank you for being one of the rising voices.

  8. Bev Bouwer

    Brave and beautiful post. I salute you.

    I have two daughters, one at Rhodes, who is part of the protest action. The behaviors you have described have gone on long enough, and it is time for change. For too long no one has listened to the victims, and I am proud to be part of a society where young women are speaking up and making themselves heard. May their valid points be noted by management and spark change at all tertiary institutions in SA.

  9. Karen Goldberg

    Dear Jane

    Thank you. For the courage to share such deeply painful and personal experiences on the most public of platforms. In the hope that other women may live “extraordinary lives”. This is an act of service of the deepest kind.

  10. Sharon

    When I first started reading the examples you gave, I was horrified, but then it dawned on me, I’ve been in the same/similar positions myself, many many times in my life and you’re right, we live under this threat for so long, it becomes normal.
    P.S. I am a mother of two girls, I am terrified for them.

    1. Jane Burt Post author

      Hi Sharon, I feel unhappy that my blog has frightened you. If you consider that we may have all had some rough experiences in our lives but we all are okay now maybe this will ease the fear for your daughters. Also (and I hope that I am right) things are changing for the better. There are so many of us considering how we can work towards a safer and kinder society for all of us.

  11. Karmilla Pillay - Siokos

    This is really well written article. That you for sharing your story. Every time one of us speaks out we empower others to do the same.
    “I am a normal South African woman and I don’t want any of the young South African girls of today to have to live a life like my normal South African woman’s life. I want them to have extra-ordinary lives in which they are fearless, powerful and strong.”
    That is why I started working on Slutwalk Johannesburg in 2011. I want my daughter to live in a better world than we do.

  12. Allan Booth

    I am saddened by what I have read here,but I know it to be true. I have given self defense classes for women for some time now, and the stories I have heard from the participants are dreadful .

    Two of my pupils have managed to defend themselves against sexual assault, and I would encourage ladies to find someone who can teach them self defense. A Dojo is a good place to seek training

  13. Eileen Shepherd

    Thank you for sharing these unpleasant and painful memories, which unfortunately resonate with so many women and girls. Maybe self-defence should be made a compulsory school subject or part of the “Life Orientation” curriculum?


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