I remember changing outfits one, two, three times before leaving the house to go downtown to the city centre. “No skirts, no shorts, and definitely nothing too flashy” I would repeat to myself as I looked through my wardrobe for something to wear. My own comfort and style didn’t matter to me; these factors were subservient to the potential reactions I would receive from the hwindis (taxi drivers) once I left home. Of course, nothing I wore spared me from the whistles and constant cat-calls of “Mukaradhi!”, “Yellow bone!” and “Slender!” that I received in public transit and in town, but at least those labels were tolerable in comparison to the horrifying things I had heard and seen being done to women who dared to wear above knee-length skirts to the city centre.
There was a video that circulated sometime in 2015, of a Harare woman who took a combi into town wearing a ‘mini’ skirt – and I use the term ‘mini’ very wearily here, as it was actually a skirt the length of which I would feel comfortable wearing to a church service, or to an interview, but Zimbabwe is just exhaustingly conservative – who was attacked by a mob of countless men in the city centre. As soon as the combi arrived at its final stop, all the men in that surrounding area, including vendors, gathered around her in a loud uproar of hissing, whistling, laughter, and insults, while some of them grabbed a hold of her ankles to pull her out of the combi where she was fearfully attempting to take shelter.
In the process of pulling her out of the vehicle, they also pulled off her skirt, and she was left exposed in just her underwear, which they tore away at too as she tried to walk away and escape from their menacing presence. A few women were seen in the video passing over their zambias (wrapping cloth) to the woman to help cover herself with, while some other women were giggling and nudging one another in the background as she walked past. The video was filmed by a laughing man, his taunting voice very audible above his peers’.
I remember the subsequent discussion around that video involving all blame and shame being placed on that woman, who should have known better than to go to town wearing that skirt, knowing what kind of men reside at the city centre. Shockingly, the video did not shake my system back then as much as it does now: it mostly just reassured my wisdom in only wearing jeans and T-shirts when going into town, and keeping myself well-covered up.
So frequent were these occurrences in the CBD that it was like what all those men did was normal and acceptable; it was as if the driver of the taxi had no other alternatives but to keep the taxi parked where it was instead of driving the woman off to safety. It was essentially what I should expect if I ever tried to put myself in the compromising position of choosing to wear anything that exposed more than my ankles in town.
Fast forward to 2019. 19 year old, first year UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana disappeared for close to two weeks, causing a social media and physical uproar in CapeTown, South Africa. Just yesterday, a 42 year old man was finally charged for her rape and murder, as details of what happened to her began to unfold through investigation. She had visited her local post office one afternoon to check for a parcel, and when she returned later to pick it up, she was knocked unconscious with a scale by the 42 y/o post office employee, who proceeded to rape and dump her at an unknown location, where she was found dead. On that fatal day, she was last seen wearing “baggy brown corduroy pants”.
Do you believe us now when we say that our clothing has nothing to do with rape? Do you now believe us when we say this hateful crime had nothing to do with her, but everything to do with him?? Gentlemen, it is not us, it is YOU. It’s definitely you when you force yourself upon a woman who refuses your advances, and it’s also you when you don’t, but silently watch as your friends do. IT’S ABSOLUTELY YOU when you and your boys make jokes about these uprising issues and brush our outrage off as silly “men are trash” campaigns. It’s most definitely you when you see everything happening to women around the world and stupidly pick up your phone to type “but not all men are like this” in response. IT IS 100% YOU brother, if you are feeling attacked by these posts and feel the strong urge to defend yourself and your useless predator friends rather than acknowledge your negligence in today’s violent climate. Did I stutter? It is you.
Women in South Africa, and all around the world, are under attack. We are not safe, ever. In South Africa, one woman is murdered every four hours, and at least half of these cases are intimate-partner violence cases. If there was ever a time for us to start looking into the root cause of this behaviour, it is NOW. I argued in a research paper I submitted in my final semester of uni that fragile, toxic forms of masculinity form the bigger part of the cause for much of the violence against women.
Studies that have been done in SA show that men in lower-income brackets have begun to feel severely emasculated by poverty and the poor state of the economy, which does not allow them to be the sole breadwinners or providers for their families anymore. As “head” of the household, (as men are commonly referred to back home) provision is seen as a highly important indicator of masculinity, alongside the fact that it can create a form of dependency on the man by his woman, if he is the only one who is employed and bringing home the finances. Quite obviously, dependent women are fuel to a masculine man’s engine and to his ego.
With more and more women becoming educated, and taking higher roles within the workplace, the position of men as head becomes threatened, and thus, men tend to resort to more hyper-masculine ways of exerting their manliness – resulting in perpetually violent behaviours, mostly against women. Furthermore, the South African Constitution has started evolving, with more emphasis being placed on gender-equality and women’s rights.
Believe it or not, one participant of a study titled “Understanding Masculinity in South Africa” (must read), was quoted saying, “I feel undermined by the Constitution because it favours women and abuses men. It is better to be a prisoner than to be a free man who is not really free. Women are now more important than men. It is a women’s world! Something needs to be done. Men have no significant role to play.” Ridiculous as it is, this voice echoes the thoughts of many men who believe that women being given a piece of this cake called opportunity, and basic human rights, means less cake to go around for themselves.
Bazalwane… hanzvadzi… my brothers, the only way to rewrite this horror novel that is swiftly becoming every woman’s daily reality is to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. I know you might not have raped any women, or harassed them, or abused them, but it’s happening to millions of women, isn’t it? How is it that we all know more than just one woman who has been raped, but not one of us knows a single rapist? Blasphemy! The conclusion is that your friend, cousin, uncle, father, or brother is doing it, and yet you continue to turn a blind eye to it. You continue to cover your ears and pretend like it isn’t happening right next door to you. We must face the facts. If men refuse to acknowledge that there is a big problem with the hegemonically masculine culture in their communities, they will be unable to critically assess or make helpful contributions towards resolving this epidemic.
Us women have been crying out and using our loud voices to appeal to you, to no avail. We have tried putting the responsibility on women, and we have also tried policing everything from their clothing to their behaviour, but this has failed dismally. It’s time for a new approach. It is time for you to start showing initiative as men. Hold that friend accountable. Check your own biases. Reject normalisation of rape culture and abuse. Correct your peers’ and family’s outdated narratives or patterns of thinking.
Refuse to follow tradition blindly, because toxic behaviours are often passed down generationally in the name of ‘culture’. Stand up for your sisters even in private conversations where you will not receive any applause. Lobby with us and defend us. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to be slightly uncomfortable, and you’re going to lose some friends. But the onus is on you. Remember, this one is for your mama. This one is for all the women who have been hurt by any man, ever. This one’s for me…. and this one’s for Nene.
PS: if you are interested in reading more on my research paper, DM me, comment below, or text me and I will make it available to you by email.