​What it feels like for a femme

Zanele Muholi's Zinzi and Tozama II, Mowbray, Cape Town, silver gelatin print. (Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York)

Zanele Muholi's Zinzi and Tozama II, Mowbray, Cape Town, silver gelatin print. (Zanele Muholi. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York)

In my final year of university, studying history, I attended a public lecture by Yvonne Brown, a Caribbean scholar whose research on slavery, memory and the global migration of African people has shifted and deepened social justice policy around the world.

Brown closed off her lecture with a phrase that shook me profoundly, burrowing beneath my collarbone to nestle deep in my chest. “The body is an archive,” she said. “It stores, imparts and remembers everything.”

When South Africa awoke to the news of 22-year-old Karabo Mokoena’s horrific murder, like many survivors of violence, I was overwhelmed with grief, fear and rage.
A complex and relentless field of triggers unfolded itself in my body. I began to remember every encounter in which a man had made me feel unsafe.

The night before, after I had moderated a panel of incredible women speaking about patriarchy and club culture, a man approached a friend and me at the pink booth in Kitchener’s Carvery Bar.

The exchange:

“Hey. I think you’re really cute. You should come home with me.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. Also, I’m queer.”

“I don’t give a damn if you’re gay. You’re coming home with me.”

“No. I’m not. Please leave us alone.”

Grabbing the back of my neck and pulling it towards his face, he shouted: “No matter what you say, you’re ending up in my bed tonight.”

Nearby, a group of his male friends looked on, turned away and laughed.

Another encounter: Walking on a beach with my love, she lifts her camera to photograph a couple clowning around in the waves. We look up to find a man shouting and swearing at us, his stance unmistakably aggressive. We both lift up our hands in apology, averting our eyes and walking as quickly away from the scene as we can without running — making ourselves smaller than we already are.

On the way, we pass one of his friends, a large man, who keeps his eyes on me. As we pass him, he whispers something lewd, grabbing his crotch.

Yet another: At two in the afternoon, I’m walking with my earphones in my ears on Somerset Road in Cape Town. On the pavement ahead of me, I notice a man lying down and watching me. As I pass him, he jumps up and begins to follow me. I quicken my steps. So does he. After a few attempts at conversation, which I ignore, he asks: “What’s the matter? Don’t you like men?”

“I never said that. Please leave me alone,” I reply.

Instead of listening to me, he takes out a long piece of white PVC pipe and hits me repeatedly on my hip. I try to run and start to cry, passing two men walking ahead of me, who witness everything and do nothing.

I recount these experiences not to individualise them, but to spotlight the machinery of a system that facilitates our harm and eventually dictates our deaths. Within patriarchy, men refuse to listen to the voices of women and femmes, especially when these voices deny them what they believe they are entitled to.

This is a system in which men pursue women’s bodies like prey, and use physical force and its threat to exert dominance, to instil fear and to bulldoze over consent and sexual agency. It is a system in which men operate within a culture of impunity, proving their complicity through their silence and inaction in a system that ensures their safety while marking us as safe to violate.

It is a system at work in the context of a society that upholds, affirms and protects whiteness, heterosexuality and toxic masculinity — where women and femmes only exist to be either desired, manipulated, possessed, disposed of or destroyed.

This is the same system and society that even dictates which bodies are permissible to mourn.

When Disebo “Gift” Makau, a black queer woman just two years older than Mokoena, was found murdered and raped in front of her mother’s home in Ventersdorp in 2014, her murder caused tremors of grief in nongovernmental organisations’ halls but only blips in government policy.

Early last year, when a 15-year-old boy murdered Phoebe Titus, a transgender woman living in the Western Cape, we did not wake up to a storm of grief, rage and hashtags. Just this month, when three men raped and killed Lerato Tembai Moloi, a black lesbian living in Soweto, and two other women, Bongeka Phungula and Popi Qwabe, we did not hear their names memorialised on national radio stations.

It is not an exaggeration to say that we are dying. In fact, this often repeated phrase conceals and protects the power at work, frequently hidden in the use of the passive voice: “Women are being abducted and killed.”

Women are not being killed; men are killing us.

We are not disappearing; men are taking us.

And until men stop killing us, nothing will change. Until men intentionally take up the work of disrupting and destroying patriarchy, work that women and femmes have been doing for centuries, nothing will change. Until men give up their own toxic and violent manifestations and understandings of masculinity, nothing will change.

This is not our work to do. Ours is the work of survival, of loving, affirming and protecting each other. Our bodies might be archives of memory, but we are very much alive and intend to stay alive.

Don’t remember us when we are gone. Fight for us while we here.

Maneo Mohale is an editor, feminist writer and activist. Her work has appeared in various publications, most notably in Bitch Media, where she was the 2016 Global Feminism Writing Fellow.

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