Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Can we talk ourselves out of sexism?

An ATM Bomber is a girl who spends all her boyfriend’s money. A Please Call Me is a schoolgirl. A Khanyi Mbau is a gold digger. So are Abomaskebengu. Skeres, slahloms and s’chipane are loose women. A yellowbone is a light-skinned woman. Pakistan is a woman with a big bum. A sidechick is a mistress on the side.

If you’re looking for the equivalent for men in this list hosted by the Sowetan, forget it.

Kasi slang and tsotsitaal are hilariously inventive and creative, and researching them for Sunday’s featured language in the This is Home project reminded me of that. I delved into tsotsitaal for my insult books years ago, and loved the exuberance of a patois that took on the language of the oppressor, Afrikaans, and thoroughly subverted it. But this time, I’ve also been thinking about sexism. I’m involved with SlutWalk Johannesburg which takes place at Zoo Lake this Saturday and it struck me just how many words in kasi slang and tsotsitaal (which have a lot in common but aren’t quite the same) refer to women as gold diggers or judges them based on their sexual behaviour. Sexist attitudes are completely embedded in the language.

Which raises the question: Can we talk ourselves out of sexist attitudes?

SlutWalk is all about words. It started when a Toronto police officer said “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” That throwaway remark sparked a global movement. A group of women decided to embrace the word and remind the world that the victims of gender-based violence are not to blame:

The choice to use the word “slut” in the name of the walk was twofold. Firstly, it comes from the police officer’s comments. Secondly, Jarvis said it’s time women reclaimed the word.
“If ‘slut’ is thrown around at so many people day in and day out . . . fine,” Jarvis said. “We will take it and take it to mean someone who is in control of their sexuality.”

The word “slut” has put some people off, but I like the way SlutWalk has taken something intended to judge and marginalise women, and turned it into something empowering. I first participated in SlutWalk Johannesburg in 2011, and it was one of the most joyful gatherings I’ve ever been part of. Men and women, gay and straight, young and old, stilettos and takkies: everyone was there, being themselves without worrying about being judged or attacked, either verbally or physically. I try to imagine how Duduzile Zozo might have felt walking along the streets of Parkwood with us and I want to weep.

It was Duduzile’s particularly brutal rape and murder in a country in which these are everyday occurrences that led, in a way, to the crass jokes by two FHM writers who were later fired, and to this presentation I wrote about how sexism and rape culture might be tackled.

In a nutshell: I don’t think we’ll change the sexism endemic to our culture unless we get men to internalise more enlightened attitudes and pressure other men into adopting them too. If a rape joke around the braai is greeted with awkward shuffles and comments of “Dude, that’s not cool” then we’ll have made some progress.

SlutWalk isn’t going to stop rape. Those of us who are involved aren’t under any illusions about that. But we do believe that it offers a useful starting point to a conversation.

I’ll be writing about this after we’ve put our banners down and the streets of Joburg have been reclaimed by the cars, and I know that others will too. Everything from Matric Rage, to gender relations in the work place, to how men whisper to me that they’re terrified of the feminists on Twitter – all of this needs to be talked about. When so much of the problem lies in the language we use, talking about it is the first step to figuring out a solution.

SlutWalk Johannesburg happens once a year, but the conversation will go on. I hope you’ll join in.

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