I hate when a strange man walks behind, across from me, or in front of me, especially in the dim light of evening. I hate sitting next to a man in a taxi. Once, I was the only female in a taxi that detoured to Mamelodi and I was terrified for my life. I’ve always feared men who were not my dad or younger brother. I was four years old when my mother pulled me aside and told me to not be too comfortable with the gardener. I enjoyed playing with him under the shade of a tree in the scorching sun. My innocence and ignorance of the world scared her. Inevitably, it would not be long before I found myself face to face with sexual assault; a trauma that most women in South Africa are familiar.
At nineteen, I met a boy I can thankfully describe as an anomaly. We met at a plaza, after my classes. By then I had some male friends with whom I felt safe. This was new, it was not love at first sight, we started off as friends and as these things are prone to do, I discovered I liked him. Before then, the only intense feelings I had felt towards men that were not family, were those of fear and hatred. I bore the scars of my experiences and those of other women on my body and in my psyche. I knew I was lucky to only be petrified of strange men. I knew and read of women who were victimized by their fathers and uncles and now lived in fear of them as well.
Our relationship was beautiful. I loved the time we spent together and the conversations we had. They would move from feminism, business, and school to more lighthearted subjects like cars. I was loved and respected and so was he. Imagine how beautiful our experience as women would be if we were respected in our society. Women have been fighting to experience that for decades now. I was never addressed with disrespect and my opinions mattered. It seemed that he gave easily what I was deprived of on the street. On the street, women are not just denied respect but love and safety. When a man catcalls a woman and she does not respond as he desires, she will not only be verbally assaulted, sometimes physical aggression ensues. On the street, women are prey. I have been catcalled, followed, and forced to give my number. Once, an old man drove around the block a few times to talk to me even when his attempts did not elicit a response from me. But with this special boy my consent mattered. I was not forced to do anything I did not want to do. He saw me as an equal.
I have always been a feminist at heart. Growing up in a patriarchal community, I knew that some things were fundamentally wrong. I never understood why so many girls were being prepared to be good wives at a young age. I received formal education on the politics of gender in my first year of university. Thats how I discovered my feminism. I knew that my politics demanded equality and equity for women. I demand that women receive the same salary as the men in their fields and that opportunities be created for women to occupy positions of real power. I wanted to help break the glass ceiling and not have my life revolve around the arrival of the glass slipper. The truth is I did not only fear men, I disliked them. It was not just about male privilege, but it was about assault, murder and rape. I knew he was right for me when he did not perceive the fear I carried towards men as an insult. It may sound odd, but I had come across men who thought expressing my fears and feminism was a personal attack. Men can be so loyal to their masculinity that any criticism of the brutish or inhumane way women are treated by men is deemed unacceptable. He never called himself a feminist, but his moral compass steered him towards an ideology of equality and equity. That is what I loved about him.
Feminism is not about fighting men, rather it is about challenging systems that hold women back. It is about liberating women to become the people they want to become without the fear of being condemned. This fight is not without opposition. I come from a place where feminism is stigmatized. Traditional churches perceive feminism as a false teaching. Our cultural community perceives it as a ploy to the abolishment of tradition. I have come across people who swear that they will never love feminists because they are hard headed. I am not pleading that people love feminists, but I am concerned as to why our demand for liberation has been demonized. It is appalling that institutions and people are anti-liberation.
Relationships should not stifle our uprising. Instead, like all relationships, romantic relationships should offer support for the things in which we believe. Love should be based on mutual understanding, support, respect, and compatibility. Anyone who does not understand that the world is cruel to women is incapable of fully loving us, because no one wants to see the ones they love suffer under any circumstances.
Unfortunately, a lot of women are stuck in relationships with men who actively contribute to the discrimination of women. Men who perpetuate misogyny through the conversations they have with their friends, nephews and sons. They find themselves in love with men who consider them inferior. Partners who don’t think their voices or opinions matter because they are apparently not smart enough, or it is not their role to speak or even think. Women sometimes love where they will never be appreciated as human beings. Being a future Black female, I know I am incapable of loving where I am not appreciated.
Our relationship has since ended. We, like most people, were both flawed in ways that contributed negatively to our relationship. However, love and respect were maintained throughout the relationship. So, we had a mature and respectful conversation so that we could come to a mutual understanding and break up. We knew that we loved each other, but also that our being together would frustrate us.