It is International Women’s day today and I have been reading about the fascinating history behind the event. I’m not going to repeat it here today but Wikipedia has an excellent entry on how the day started in 1909 and how it came to be observed after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
What I thought I would post about is how I became a feminist. I remember not knowing quite what a feminist was when I first went to university but I certainly had an idea in my mind about bra burning feminists and radical men haters. Over time, I have come to realise that this precise image of feminists is really quite useful to the powers that be for as long as women are portrayed as emotional, unreasonable and overly demanding, they aren’t taken seriously.
I’m not sure what precise events in my life lead me to join the Wits Women’s Movement at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was certainly before I was assaulted (and thank heavens for the support I received from the Movement at that time) but I imagine that it would have been after the events of First Year.
I started university in February 1990. I moved into a mixed residence. In February 1990 this meant that not only were there men and women in the residence but also of significance to us was the fact that there were people of every racial group. Blacks, whites, coloureds and Indians were the four racial groups into which the entire population of South Africa had been divided.
Like Minded Individuals
I chose a mixed residence because I had expected to find like minded, liberal individuals. I quickly learnt that this was not really the case and the majority of the white men that I met at “Res” were from small, conservative mining towns on the outskirts of major South African cities. I could not begin to explain the shock I got and how opposed the reality was when compared to my expectations! Having been treated as somewhat of a star at school (not many children manage to go from children’s homes to university), I found myself treated alternatively like an idiot or a slut by conservative little mummy’s boys that had stepped straight off the farm. My legs, the clothes I wore, the state of my hair all became fair game and that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst part of those conservative people was their political views. While I was being carried away on a wave of euphoria as Nelson Mandela was released and the country began to change, these people treated me more like a pariah as they hanged on to their conservative, somewhat right wing views, with desperation.
Naturally, not all of the men and women that I met at Res were like that but I had chosen the worst of the residence halls if it was progressive thinking that I was looking for. My Res was located at the commerce and engineering part of the campus, far away from the liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Science departments. It wasn’t the conservative plaas japies (farm boys) that turned me on to feminism though.
The Great Cultural Divide
To understand the effect that Apartheid had on my generation, you have to understand that we were young adults who had never encountered the other racial groups on an equal setting before. We’d always had domestic servants and gardeners before but I had never been given the opportunity to interact with black, coloured or Indian people before going to university. One of the biggest lessons I learned at university is that black people are different. Immensely, radically different. White people storm up to people and state their business but that is considered to be the worst of manners when dealing with a black South African. The ultra-summarised version of the story is this: The standard greeting in Zulu “Sawubona” means “I see you”. When you see a person, you must greet them because otherwise you are essentially saying that you have not seen them which implies that they are dead to you or undead perhaps. It is an insult of the greatest degree. So I learned very soon that when speaking to any black South African (or indeed, any sub-Saharan African) you must greet the person first before stating your business and you must answer politely and patiently as they ask how you are.
A similar situation is the very white tradition of men stepping back and holding doors open for women. This is complete rubbish in black South African culture as a true warrior would never stand back and let a female enter into a dangerous situation. There has undoubtedly been a couple of centuries since there were warriors roaming the plains of South Africa but nevertheless, black men will still barge forward to enter a doorway before a woman and this is part of the cultural divide.
The last snippet I’ll give you of differences is personal space. Whatever notions you have of personal space and independence will be absolutely countered by African notions of togetherness, Ubuntu, We Are One. A white person will enter an empty lecture hall and take the seat that is the farthest away from everyone else. A black person will then enter and sit right next to them. It is not rude and the black person isn’t “coming on to you”. It is simply good manners and good community.
This was a massive learning curve and a process of getting to know, understand and respect people from different cultures. In addition to the cultural differences, there were other real concerns for women in that the black culture was more patriarchal and many black men were (literally) violently opposed to the notions of homosexuality and lesbianism. Despite all of this turmoil and the changes that I faced, this was still not the reason I joined the feminism movement.
The Master Key
There was this thing at Res. Somehow, a master key was doing the rounds which allowed people to get into any room in the building. This was super convenient for people like me who had a boyfriend (yes, I had managed to meet a “decent” man at university but I wouldn’t go so far as to say he held exactly liberal views). The benefit of the master key was that you could come and go in your friend’s or boyfriend’s rooms, helping yourself to food from their fridge or whatever it was you needed. It was a massive system of trust and all of us had a key. None of us seemed to realise the extent to which it could be abused.
Then one night we had a big party at the Res and someone let themselves into my room and stole my radio. It was a massive portable sound system and the guard stopped them on the way out, confirming that it was two men from another Res. The problem is that I had been asleep in my bed at the time and the situation could have been a lot worse if my boyfriend hadn’t also been there at the time.
This is the situation that made me become a feminist, by the way, but not directly. When this event occurred, I kicked up quite a fuss and demanded that something be done about the master key system before someone was hurt. Naturally, I was ignored. I was alternatively dismissed because I was a hysterical woman and branded a racist because the two men that broke into my room happened to be black. I couldn’t have cared less if the intruders were pink or nuns sworn to celibacy; the fact was that my room had been broken into while I was sleeping. It seemed that every destructive, divisive tool was going to be used against me to prevent the university from spending a bit of money.
So I did what I do best. I turned to writing to work through the trauma that I had experienced. I wrote a fictional account of what could have happened, of how bad it could have gotten. And then I read it through and thought it was quite powerful. It began something like “I am your sister, your friend, your neighbour” and the point was that any woman could have her room broken into and any woman could be raped.
So I submitted it anonymously to the Res newspaper and suddenly the administrators refused to believe that it was a work of fiction. A meeting was held at the university pleading with the “victim” to come forward for help. I was beyond embarrassed by now and refused to give away my identity but I did pipe up at the meeting and ask what was going to be done. I even sent another anonymous letter through to the paper stating that it was fiction. I mean for goodness sake, it was written in such a lyrical style, they couldn’t have believed it was real???
And so it was decided to put a chain lock on the door of every single room in the residence so that women could be offered a modicum of safety and security in a Res where everyone had master keys and people’s rooms were being invaded.
That was what made me become a feminist. The fact that a woman had to be raped (or so the authorities thought) before a step would be taken to ensure the safety of women. The fact that a very real threat had been posed, that two drunken men had entered a room and could easily have assaulted the woman sleeping inside if she had been alone and yet nothing was done to prevent such a thing happening again was beyond appalling to me. Nothing was done until the power of my pen convinced the authorities that a vicious and prolonged attack had indeed happened and that spurred them on to take corrective action.
I often think back to that time. The story I wrote was absolutely fictional and spoke anonymously of a random attack. No names, dates, places or specifics were mentioned and to be fair, it was submitted to a student paper. I do think that I could have done more to convince the authorities that it was a work of fiction but that would have entailed revealing my identity and I did not have the strength to do that. Not alone. When I joined the feminist movement, I didn’t have to be alone anymore and I learned that as one, we could support each other in the world.
To be a feminist is to believe in women and to ensure that everything you ever do in word and deed supports, inspires and builds a better world for all women on this planet. It means looking out for the women that are alone in this world and ensuring that they have a voice. That is how and why I became a feminist.