Often in this country, it seems our bodies are not our own. They are for others to paw, caress, titillate, abuse and even disfigure. As certain as I am when I run that my shoe will hit the tarmac with a slap or thud taking me ever further, I’m equally assured that every morning when I run on the streets of this city, a man will hurl foul and abusive language at me.
It’s like clockwork, and I’m sure many women runners can attest to this, which is why during the early morning runs you’ll hardly ever see us solo; we are likely to be in a pair or a group. I’ve observed over the past few weeks that it matters not what time of the day it is, whether it’s still inky black under a bridge or in the full glare of the winter sun – there will be a whistle, low and uncertain at first but shrieking louder and more brazen as you approach.
Sometimes when it’s still dark, I smell the whiff of dagga as the abuser walks past. Besides feeling threatened and wary, my mind often wonders where and how they hope to be productive reeking of an illegal substance, but I digress.
Back to the sneering and menacing wolf whistle. It is often accompanied by one or several of these creepy utterances. Daily.
“Hey baby, woza la – upakile [come here – you’re curvaceous].”
“That’s right – keep it up babies, that’s what I like to see.”
Or a recent one in isiZulu:
“Waze wamila sisi, ngifisa ukuba yindwangu ogeza ngayo [Aren’t you fresh sister; wish I could be your washing rag].” These are often said with a smug grin.
It is the last one that left me dismayed. It wasn’t shock really, because countless women and I have experienced this kind of harassment and taunting while walking, living and running on the streets of this country for many years. Its vulgarity and crudeness aside, the fact that it was said with such ease and nonchalance – and no fear of repercussion – made me angry. It wasn’t a whisper, uttered with contrition, but a loud and casual howl across the street.
Does he not know that he offends me and makes me feel dirty by speaking to me in such a fashion? What makes him speak to me about my body as though he is entitled to refer to it or me at all? These were just some of the thoughts on my mind as I floated away, pretending not to care.
These words are violent to me. They don’t maim or break me, but they are all part of the corrosive and extensive array of tools of abuse that leave us a little shattered each time. Like most forms of abuse and violence that we experience in this country, we simply carry on and file it in the chapter of things that are normal in this country. But they are not and shouldn’t be. The belief among some of our men, black and white, that they can touch us, talk to us, beat us, shame us, rape us and kill us makes the heart cold.
South Africa is a society in transition where many positions are contested. Eradicating the subjugation of women as a pastime is something that our laws seek to tackle. Laws, it seems, don’t always reach the hearts and minds of some, so we remain in a rut of mistrust and fear, while others carry on in ever more destructive ways trying to assert their power.
Whether it’s in the boardroom or the streets, there is always some lascivious character who behaves in a manner that conveys that he owns you and that you should behave accordingly. But I will not stop running in the streets how I choose and when I choose.
Some people have suggested that often the people with the loudest howls are the biggest cowards and are in a way hiding their own insecurity. It’s been said that I should stop and challenge the howler of the day and watch how quickly they squirm or recant. I’m not interested in this. It’s frustrating that the onus or the burden should always rest on the innocent to make things right.
Why can’t we just run free?