Cry from the barricades
Dear Mr President
The thing is, I am tired. I am tired because every day women’s bodies are broken: thrown down stairs, set on fire, burnt with chemicals. I am tired because women’s vaginas are considered dirty and those who like sex are treated with suspicion.
I am tired because despite our Bill of Rights, (Deputy President) Jacob Zuma heads a moral regeneration campaign that supports the testing of girls’ virginity.
I am tired because it’s a man’s world, and in too many places in the world, women are considered too stupid to own land or to be trusted to make their own financial decisions. I am tired because my culture suggests that women must be inherited like chattels when their husbands die.
I am tired of the myth that African cultures are beyond reproach. I fully accept that misogyny is not an African phenomenon alone. What I don’t accept is that we become defensive and deny the links between gender inequality, sexual violence and culture, simply because everyone else disrespects women too.
I am tired of women dying at the hands of their husbands, their lovers, their sons; dying because no one thought it was their business when they heard screams; dying because a good woman doesn’t talk back.
I am tired of male leaders who find it easier to point the finger outward to distant lands than towards themselves and their brothers. I am tired of hearing diatribes against the West, the racists, the colonisers.
I am tired because what I am writing now has been written so many times in so many ways by so many articulate and respectable African women, and yet my president seems not to understand that we are, collectively, too tired to deal with this debate yet again.
I am tired because Charlene Smith, with all her good intentions, confuses the issues and is sloppy in a way that women’s rights activists cannot afford to be. But frankly, it tires me that you cannot seem to move past this—that you seem to have difficulty telling the wood from the trees when it comes to conversations about race and sex.
With all due respect, my president, I feel let down by your inability to be honest about the fact that there are elements within our cultures that hurt women. I understand your need to defend African men from racist depictions; I just don’t understand why it must be done at the expense of women.
I am tired because it is also true that some of our men kill us with absolute impunity. This does not mean that our elders do not also love and care for us, nor does it mean that our men do not hold us when we need to be held.
It means that we have to move past the over-simplifications. Life is complex: Why can’t you admit that our cultures both help and harm us?
I am tired because we cannot afford to replace racist myths with equally false romanticised notions of ourselves. When I voted for you, I expected you to stand up for me. Today, I wonder whether that is possible.
Without a serious, sustained and thoughtful critique of the ways in which our cultures permit us to be violated, women will continue to be harassed on the streets and raped in their homes.
Sisonke Msimang is the gender adviser for the UNAids regional support team. She writes this article in her personal capacity