It was a day like any other. I woke up, and stood in front of the cupboard, thinking about what I was going to wear. A familiar debate played out in my head. I wanted to wear a simple, black dress, but as I reached for it, I started thinking about the unwelcome attention that dress would get.
An uninvited to-and-fro commenced, as I paused and pondered the loaded meaning of that dress. The loaded meaning, fundamentally, of the body that would be wearing it. I almost put it back, and agonised what appears to be a simple decision but has layers of consequence. Ultimately, I decided to wear it.
I regretted that decision, every single step of the short walk from my friend’s flat through the Cape Town CBD.
The first cat-call was sigh-inducing, the second annoying, the third tiresome, and the fourth enraging. As I stood on the sidewalk, drinking from a bottle of Tropika, a nondescript man called out ‘yes, put it in deep. That is just my size’.
An almost inexplicable, potent wave of white hot blind rage, shot through with defeat and an emboldened sadness pulsed through my body as I responded to him. I was hyper-aware that even responding was a dangerous act. I knew that women have been beaten, raped and even killed for responding to street harassment. It is part of the grammar of the daily and ubiquitous quiet violence of inhabiting a vulnerable body. Everywhere is war.
That moment echoes, in different forms, from townships to suburbs, playgrounds to boardrooms, and streets to subway stations. It is a tiny snapshot of what it is like to be a women in this world. A small fragment of this existence.
What I knew, as I thought about what to wear, is that I am attempting to own my body in a world that consistently tries to deny me this ownership. A world where agency is complicated by a system that tries, and often succeeds, to disallow it. A world where a dress is not just a dress, and a woman’s body is not just another body. A world where particular bodies have particular experiences because they are treated differently. It was not about the black dress, or any other item of clothing. But rather, about the body in that clothing.
As we approach ‘Women’s Month’, I find myself dreading the wave of campaigns, advertising and slogans that this month will bring. As Sisonke Msimang recently tweeted: …‘I guess its #WomensMonth in South Africa: open season on us.’
While it appears to be pro-women, Women’s Month and the related campaigns, branding, imaging and advertising but often contributes to the atmosphere of violence that surrounds the concept, experience and idea of womenhood.
Already we have seen Marie Claire’s ill-conceived and problematic #InHerShoes campaign and the wave of backlash it rightfully received, coupled with tweets from the Department of Women asking ‘what should be done with women who press charges, then later withdraw them’. The latter echoed the Ministry of Women’s anti-feminist statements last year, blaming women for the problems that they face.
Not only are these examples of how we do not centralise women and their voices or take their lived experiences seriously, but also how we do not consider the world we live in – failing to think about how it shapes the violence women face, or how we can all be complicit in it, when conceptualising these campaigns.
Violence is not just physical. It is more than bruises and visible wounds. It is also psychological, emotional and ideological – which is just as brutal in its effect. It can be incredibly slow, subtle and silent, which often makes it appear invisible and operate insidiously.
The trouble with many of these campaigns is that they don’t attempt to frame themselves in terms of the patriarchal environment that we live and participate in and have created as a society, which is the foundation that determines how women experience their lives, bodies and choices.
Whether they intend to or not, because impact matters more than intent, the impact of a wide variety of these campaigns regularly contributes to a world-view that is full of violent ideas about womenhood.
More often than not, they endorse single ideas about what it means to be a woman, which prescribes narrow ideas of femininity, sexuality and gender identities, and can be underscored by victim blaming and respectability politics, frequently silencing other experiences and expressions of womenhood or gender identity.
But further than this, they often deflect attention from the real issue, reduce women’s issues to easy metaphors, like shoes, or conversing about aesthetic, surface issues, rather than situating this conversation within what it means to live in a patriarchal world.
The unequal, oppressive way we think about women, speak about women and gender, and make sense of their experiences all reveal themselves in these campaigns and conversations around them – which regularly express a worldview that plays into patriarchal ideas and inequalities, and becomes complicit in the thing they are ostensibly trying to destroy.
As a result, patriarchal ideas are entrenched, rather than subverted or uprooted. The environment that acts on particular bodies in particular ways is avoided. And bodies that express gender differently are neglected, ignored and further marginalised.
Women’s Month, as a result, produces many campaigns in our name that are not really pro-women in their impact. They narrate our stories, but not in our voices.
We need to have the bigger, more difficult and broader conversations, rather than neglecting to speak about the foundations our society is built on. We have to discuss the numerous of factors that contribute to what womenhood, and masculinities and femininities, have come to signify, and what defines that experience.
Patriarchy, its effects, intersections and quiet violence cannot be ignored. We can’t simply talk about black dresses or stilettos in a vacuum. We have to locate our discussions in a commitment to unpacking what it means to be occupy these loaded, vulnerable bodies, in this society.
*Danielle Bowler holds a master’s degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler