Submitted by Rumbi Goredema

“Ain’t I a woman?” — Sojourner Truth

A few weeks ago, Ncumisa Ngcukana was sexually assaulted at the Noord Street taxi rank because she was wearing a miniskirt. That’s the official version, at least.

In the days that have followed, a bitter fight has raged between women (not just feminists, or lesbians, or feminist lesbians, but women) — some who have been victims of sexual harassment at the same taxi rank, or in various other public and private spaces around the country, some who are outraged sisters, mothers, daughters — and those who fall into what I will call the “traditional” camp.

The women are angry, and hurt. We are spitting, hopping, crazy-mad, and not a little bit scared, because Ncumisa’s story is our story, or we know it could be our story, and we are tired of sitting around waiting for someone to do something for us.

In protest, Ncumisa, who I consider a brave woman — if it had been me, I probably would have been hiding, still — led a march of miniskirt-wearing, placard-wielding, freedom-song-singing women (picture it) to Noord Street to draw attention to what happens to women everywhere, regardless of what they’re wearing, regardless of where they’re walking.

The response from the “traditionalists”? Those women are “whores”, miniskirts are against “culture” (damned if I know which particular one) and decency, and women who dress like Ncumisa deserve it.

Here’s the real story, though. What happened to Ncumisa isn’t about her skirt. It isn’t about “culture”, “decency”, “moral values” or whatever else the “traditionalists” have been pulling out of their hats (or their pants, or their long skirts). At the risk of harping on old topics, or (shock, horror) sounding like a feminist, I am of the position that what happened to Ncumisa was about power, and that her rape (let’s face it, that is what it was) was an exaggerated version of what happens to women all over the world.

The responses of women who have rallied around Ncumisa, literally, and figuratively, in talk shows and letters to the media, have been about anger, but also about fear.

Some days, I walk down my street to catch the shuttle to campus, or from the shuttle stop back home. Every time I do so, this seemingly mundane task is one that causes me great anxiety and righteous rage. I cannot walk down my street without some guy saying something. What should be a leisurely 10- to 15-minute walk from A to B has become an obstacle course in which it is my task to dodge solicitations and ignore cat calls and requests (if that, usually it’s demands) for my number from men I don’t even know, men old enough to be my father, men I have grown to hate.

Because I am female, I am, it seems fair game. Anyone who’s anyone can have a go, can yell obscenities at me and can remind me every day that no matter how smart I am, no matter what I achieve, I have breasts, and that makes me a piece of meat.

I think that in addition to women rallying around Ncumisa because what happened to her was terrible and something had to be said and done about it, this feeling that women have to endure every day at work, on their streets, in supermarkets and sometimes in their homes is what has brought them out in full force.

On the one hand, we are mad because it is not right that we cannot, like other bodies (children’s bodies, men’s bodies) retreat into the invisibility that we need to get through the day: our bodies are constantly hauled out in front of us, to remind us that at the end of the day, we amount to nothing more than our hormones, our weight or whatever.

On the other hand — and I think this is the most misunderstood and imperceptible emotion involved in sexual harassment against women — we are afraid. We’re not afraid that what happened to Ncumisa might happen to us (although we probably should be) and we are not afraid that we cannot wear what we want to when we want to (the choices offered to us by popular culture and the clothing industry are pretty limited, anyway).

Here’s what being sexually harassed has told us over the years, since we ceased being “children” and became “young women”: it is possible to do everything you need to do to make sure you belong in a place — be it studying hard to make sure you belong at your university, paying taxes or joining the workforce to establish your belonging as part of your society — but when you are a woman, the minute you feel comfortable enough to stop hiding that you’re a woman (and become pregnant, or wear a miniskirt or a low-cut top), the minute you forget your place and have the audacity to feel comfortable in your own body, you can be assured that some guy will make a comment or look at you in a way that will remind you that your body is not yours to flaunt or in which to feel comfortable.

What scares me, and other women, is that our bodies will never be allowed to exist “normally” wherever we are. With these bodies, we can never be allowed to “blend in” and get on with the business of living. We will always be “marked”, and sexual harassment will always exist to mark us, and to remind us of our difference, and our status as only partial human beings.

At the root of the Noord Street march is this simple fact: women are tired of feeling that in order to gain acceptance (or, at the very least, respite from all the sexual innuendo), we have to regulate our bodies. We are afraid that in these bodies, which we want to be able to celebrate, we will never be seen as people.

A wise woman (whose name escapes me) once said that feminism is the radical notion that women are human too. That humanity ought to extend to include our bodies. Our bodies are a part of us, and when you recognise us in your workplace, in your classroom, in your taxi as people, we demand (that’s right, I said it) that you recognise our bodies as part of our status as full human beings, and act accordingly.

Rumbi Goredema is a womanist-feminist who is studying towards a master’s in diversity studies at the University of Cape Town in the hopes of one day finding a job with an NGO that will allow her to wear miniskirts to work and pay her for using all the academic reading she’s done for her degree to change some woman’s world for the better.

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