I am always careful and wary of my surroundings, for my daily commute on foot from Noord to Bree Taxi Rank carries potential terror for my kind. But on one morning I am less vigilant; my mind is burdened with personal troubles that kept me awake the night before. Just before I reach the taxi rank a man grabs my hand, then proceeds to propose marriage; this might have been cute in another world, only he is a stranger and is old enough to be my ancestor. I am quick to give him directions to hell wherein his friend appears almost out of nowhere and helps him drag me to what seems like a tavern. I prod my teeth into his arm and they both decide that I am not worth the trouble and commence with the insults, “hamba nesishwapha”. I am still seething with anger and holding back the tears when a passing taxi driver hollers, “hello my size”, unleashing the tears. A older woman responds to my visible distress and comforts me before accompanying me to my taxi even though I am unable to tell her what the problem is or what is wrong through my tears. “Hamba kahle mntanam” she says before instructing the driver of the taxi I am in to take care of me. He agrees and enquires about my destination before we even leave the rank making sure I get to my destination safely.
This sort of verbal harassment and physical threat is part of women’s daily reality in the streets of Johannesburg. In these streets, we are like pieces of meat, the crude whispers and at times aggressive sexual advances like men grabbing your private parts speaks of the inherent entitlement that men feel they have to women’s bodies.
The streets of Jo’burg are a world where violence drips off words from men’s lips, distorting what is considered “compliments”. How much skin you are revealing will get you called all sorts of names by men who have no business to attend to but that of women passing by. However it is never about what you are wearing but your presence as a woman is enough to propel a taxi marshal to “Dudlu ntomb” as you walk past. The rotten root of this culture is misogyny which is protected by an extremely patriarchal society which has rendered what we experience as the norm. I do not enjoy being touched without permission nor do I enjoy leering grunts from strangers. I am not your size or your type and I certainly do not want to talk to you.
The anxiety that results from the chaos that accompanies walking on a congested Kerk Street is worse than the potential of a mugging or falling prey to nifty pick pockets. The reality is that you are more at risk of getting your boobs touched by a dirty handed passerby. Bree Street and its crammed passages threaten women’s safety through obscene cat calling which is a part and parcel of the country’s rape culture.
Having dealt with sexual trauma and panic attacks in the past, street harassment becomes a difficult feat. I startle easily and when walking after dark I carry either a knife or a pair scissors. I am yet to use any of these objects but each attack that threatens my safety pushes me closer to a reaction. A friend and I once drew a filmesque detailed plan where we would be snipers and take out all sexual harassers off the streets because the law has done nothing about this ongoing calamity. Being born female continues to be unfavourable from every angle.
So called “good men” are silent on this. Some deny this; maintaining that street harassment is not a sexual violation. Men need to consider that this is an ongoing problem that is maintained by them, it is not a matter of how one is dressed or how pretty they look in a long skirt. It is primed by entitlement to women’s bodies. Street harassment is not a compliment, it is an act of power. Street harassment is no more about compliments than rape is about sex. It is a gross violation that greatly diminishes your sense of safety and security.