SA women battle chauvinism to take their rightful place

South African crane operator Zoliswa Gila rises high above the pervasive chauvinistic view that her job should be reserved for members of the male sex.

“Most people think I am crazy to do the job I am doing, saying it’s only for men,” the 31-year-old said at Green Point in Cape Town where she is helping build a 68 000-seater stadium to host a 2010 Soccer World Cup semifinal.

“I tell them: ‘If men can do it, I can do it too’,” she says of her occupation 80m above the ground, which she describes as “risky”.

While Gila and other South African women make inroads into previously male-only domains, they remain the victims of violence, abuse and bigotry and bear the brunt of the country’s massive poverty backlog.

Women make up 30% of the national Parliament and nearly half of the Cabinet, are fast gaining on men in the business world and are competing in formerly “male” sports like rugby, football and golf.

More and more women are becoming bus drivers and miners.

“These days, it is not unusual to see women out on site in operational roles from female miners and tractor operators to pit superintendents and plant managers,” Anglo-American spokesperson Pranill Ramchander said.

Yet only this week hundreds of South Africans marched on central Johannesburg to defend such a basic right as that of a woman to wear miniskirts without being harassed.

The picket was held to protest an incident last month in which a young woman had her clothes torn off by taxi drivers and hawkers, allegedly for showing too much skin.

Her assailants allegedly molested the woman while pouring alcohol over her head and calling her names.

While women fought side-by-side with men in the decades-long struggle against white minority apartheid rule, about 50 000 women now report being raped in the country of 48-million people every year—giving South Africa one of the highest incidences of rape worldwide.

‘It has everything to do with patriarchal control’

A similar number seek help for domestic violence, and rights bodies contend these crimes are grossly under-reported.

Many believe progress is being reversed as men battle to come to terms with the female sex’s newfound role in society.

Much damage was done by ruling African National Congress president Jacob Zuma proclaiming from the dock in a 2006 rape trial that he had read a sexual invitation into his accuser’s choice of dress.

He claimed the intercourse was consensual and was acquitted.

“There has been a terrific backlash ... since the Zuma trial,” says Sheila Meintjes, head of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“What we are seeing is men asserting themselves to say women should not be dressed in a specific way in public places.

“It has clearly nothing to do with clothes, it has everything to do with ... patriarchal control.”

Protesters at Tuesday’s miniskirt march claimed it was not uncommon to be harassed and touched indecently while using public transport.

Said 26-year-old Mpumi Ngidi: “If you are caught between the pavement and a [vendor’s] stall and you cross a group of men, at least one in three will try to touch your boobs, your ass ...

“I don’t wear miniskirts, I don’t dress in a sexy way or dress up.
It is partly a defence mechanism.”

March leader Redi Direko (29) was herself sexually abused in a taxi as a teenager, and said a patriarchal entitlement to women’s bodies reigned supreme.

“The expression of male sexuality is often violent. Women have no ... power to negotiate their sexual relations.”

Confirming her assessment was taxi driver Thulani Nhlapho, who said women who wear short skirts “give the impression [they] want to be raped”.

Car guard Edwin Ndlovu (29) was among those who regarded the procession with great amusement.

“We laugh because they are naked,” he said of the protesters, many wearing miniskirts.

“As a person you have to control your feelings. It is difficult when women are naked. That’s how some men end up raping women.”—AFP

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