Spreading men and shrinking women


As a daily commuter and someone who considers people-watching a hobby, I have come to realise that the way people sit in public spaces, and particularly in public transport, speaks volumes about gender norms.

I try to avoid the front of a minibus taxi, unless I’m with a friend who will sit with me in the two passenger seats next to the driver. I refuse to sit in the front seat when I am alone because of many uncomfortable encounters in the past. I have lost count of the number of times I have felt violated and vulnerable in the front seat, from the taxi driver feeling me up with every gear change to the male passenger next to me who saw no fault in taking up most of the already limited leg space, despite the fact that I got into the taxi before him or that I am taller than him.

These situations force me to sit in a way that takes up as little space as possible, leaving very little room to be comfortable and, even then, the men around me will want more space.

Last year, the word “manspreading” was officially added to the online Oxford Dictionary. It is defined as “the practice whereby a man, especially one travelling on public transport, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats”.

Two weeks ago, I experienced manspreading on the Gautrain on my way to work. A man sitting on a three-seater was spreading his legs as widely as he could.

A woman and I were opposite him. Another commuter, a woman, chose to sit next to us instead of sitting next to the man.

There we were, squeezed together, while he sat comfortably occupying the space of three people.

I was annoyed. The physical and emotional discomfort of my sitting arrangements surpassed my desire to be civil. It reminded me of the many other times I have used public transport when it seemed to be expected of women to occupy as little space as possible, while men sat as they pleased.

Although manspreading is linked to public transport, it happens in other places. We women have to shrink ourselves in an effort to accommodate the men around us.

We don’t wear short dresses to avoid rape, we take longer routes home to avoid the street corners that are notorious for being littered with catcallers and harassers, we don’t breastfeed our children in public, and we don’t talk about our periods publicly to avoid contempt and disgust.

The way in which girls and boys are socialised contributes to how we eventually behave as adults – from manspreading to being expected to sit between two men in the front seat of the taxi, to having to hide sanitary towels on your way to the bathroom at work.

We learn there are things that boys can do but that girls cannot. As a child, my mother would scold me each time she found me lying on the couch with my legs spread while watching television. “Nna jaaka mosetsana!” she would shout – Sit like a girl!

In her poem Shrinking Women writer and slam poet Lily Myers uses her personal observations of her grandmother, mother and herself to describe how women have learned to become smaller, more silent and as invisible as possible while navigating their lives.

“My lineage is one of women shrinking/ Making space for the entrance of men into their lives/ Not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave./ I have been taught accommodation.”

In that moment of anger on the Gautrain, while fighting the anxiety in me, I demanded that the man should make space for me. There was a bit of resistance, but he eventually moved.

I wanted to make the point that he is not entitled to as much space as he wants when he wants it. I am not even sure that my point was made, but I sat there, slightly spreading my legs. And it felt good.

As my anger slowly faded, I watched the other two women also get more comfortable as they embraced the extra space.

Ever since that Gautrain ride, I have taken the decision to fight my urge to shrink.

Pontsho Pilane is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian

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Pontsho Pilane
Pontsho Pilane is an award-winning journalist interested in health, gender, race and how they intersect. She holds three degrees in media studies and journalism from Wits University

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