Leave us alone, please

2008-02-29 00:00

I often say that being a woman is hard and being a black woman is a hundred times harder. Recently, I read about a young black woman who was attacked for wearing a miniskirt; this was done by black men at a taxi rank and her crime was wearing what she felt comfortable with at the time. This, of course, was interpreted as an invitation to be harassed. Which led me to wonder: where do we draw the line between disrespect and appreciation for the beauty of our black sisters?

I hate being approached on the street by a stranger proposing his undying love. It makes me angry to realise that men expect us to be grateful and flattered by the attention. We are expected to be nice and appreciate the compliments.

You are walking down the street minding your own business, when, out of nowhere and without provocation, you hear men whistling and you think it must be some sort of mistake. You come to realise that all this unwarranted attention is aimed at you. If you ignore the whistling and the remarks, it gets worse.

One of them will be brave enough to walk up to you. He will proceed to invade your personal space, will block you as you try to walk past by holding your hand insisting that he wants to speak to you. He will proceed to confess his love and his plans to marry you and make you the mother of his children. You laugh it off as you do not want to be nasty and you walk away. You continue on down the street and you notice other women being humiliated by the same type of attention.

This, of course, is street harassment. Unfortunately, in my experience the worst offenders seem to be black men harassing black women. I have never seen men of other races do this to their women, although I'm assured that it does happen. Maybe they are not so in your face about it. It came as a relief when I read that many foreign men also harass their women and that in some countries, such as Mexico, there is separate public transport for women because the problem is so bad. I was starting to think that black South African men have some sort of undiagnosed disease.

One of the things to note about street harassment is that it is part of the whole continuum of situations where some men push women's sexual boundaries in ways that a normal woman may find threatening. Men for some reason expect women to be available and receptive to their approaches, but the approach is aggressive to the point of being threatening.

Being approached on the street by a stranger can be very scary, especially if it is done many times by different men. I have yet to see a woman who enjoys and appreciates being harassed on the street.

What frightens me the most is the fact that our black brothers do not see anything wrong with what they are doing as they see it as part of 'black culture' (whatever that means). It would be interesting to hear what men think about this issue because the few who I have spoken to believe that I am being a racist by saying that only black men harass black women. If that is the case I stand corrected; I would not want to offend anyone. I can never be prejudiced against my own race. I am a black woman through and through, and could not be prouder of who I am, it is just that I have only been harassed on the street by black men.

The fact that I feel violated and disrespected is staring me straight in the face, and making me feel uncomfortable in my own black skin. I was brought up in a culture that teaches that women should be respected because 'Bayinzala Bantu' ('women are the ones who bear us').

We often blame society for a whole lot of the decay in our communities and we hide behind culture when we want to oppress and humiliate our women. I still believe that our parents instilled respect in all of us and it is up to us to morally regenerate our country.

The next time you feel like whistling at a women or shouting how beautiful she is, spare a thought for her feelings.

* Nandipha Ngomane works for the Department of Land Affairs and writes in her personal capacity.

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