Ferial Haffajee

#WTF was she thinking?

2013-02-11 10:02

Ferial Haffajee

A student I know had a horrific experience at a taxi rank last week.  Headed home, she was first in a taxi. The driver's a pest and she tries to avoid him. But it's a low density route, so trips are few.

First in the taxi queue, she climbed in, he followed her in and shut the door. Then he tried to kiss her, pulled her hand to his groin. She jumped out, shouting at him, but still needed to take the ride once the van filled up.

When she told me, I was disgusted and mad as hell. What was my immediate response? To report it? To write about an industry that rides on high-octane machismo and patriarchy; that is a law unto itself where women are abused every day and not only when they wear mini-skirts and get up the men's noses by being beautiful, free and independent?

Did I rage against the machine - point out the absence of safe public transport for young women as a driver of rape? Not really, maybe I still will. My instinct was to make her safe.

"Call me, I'll fetch you and don't ride with him again," I told her.  Is this victim-blaming? Or deflection? Or just a human first response - I'll do what it takes to keep her safe.

Fear of attack

When I read of Anene Booysen's story, I was stunned by my journalistic retardation and my instinctive identification with her passport-sized photograph. I don't know if it was the frizzy pulled back hair or her slightly sad eyes or what? But she reminded me of myself and my friends at that age.

The fear of attack was like my shadow growing up. Walks home from school were always made with an eyes sharply strained, backwards, forward, backward. The flat I grew up in often had dagga-heads downstairs. When they did a mandrax pill, they moved a couple of flights up, making getting to my front door safely a little bit hazardous.

And my experience was on the OK side of the life-scale; a fact I was reminded of forcefully when I read Anene's story. The reason it was OK was because I had a family with jobs and a support structure that drew protective lines around me, built in safety bumps and got me an education.

And, so, I wrote my story this week of how my life turned out a bit differently. I wrote it because none of the dozens of solemn editorials I've written over decades declaring patriarchy a bitch and insisting "Stop rape" or "Never Again" have made an iota of difference. It doesn't stop; it happens again and again. We need a new narrative, new ideas.

Solutions thinking

Tell me Anene Booysen's life might not have turned out differently with better safeguards?

Of course she should not have needed them; of course women should be able to walk home from sports clubs at any time of the night or early morning; of course, she should not have had her innards ripped out of her; of course she should not have died. But she did.

And my immediate response was not to blame patriarchy, or apartheid, or colonialism, misogyny though they are all to blame, but to consider the ways she might have escaped her destiny as I have dodged what felt at times to be mine.

Victim blaming? I hope it was solutions thinking. Judging by the long history of patriarchy, misogyny and oppression, nirvana is a while away.

The only time I feel truly safe in my skin is out of my country when I can stroll at night or, in one mind-blowing trip to Denmark, I got out of a bus at about 23:00 and walked down a dark country lane for about three kilometres to our host's home.

I was petrified every step of the way; my hosts alarmed that this was unusual for me. It was a Utopia and still is. I'm still scared. Now I have the middle-class accoutrement of ADT-on-tap and electric fencing. I'm not big on possessions; these things are there only to prevent me being attacked. Nowadays every time I read about a crime of property (mobile phone theft, home robbery, pension hijacking), if a woman is involved, she is likely to be raped too. That's the driving force behind my panic buttons.

Keep women safe

We must find ways to keep women safe and stronger families with better community support, more policing are baby steps. Small steps which may have given Anene the big option of being alive.

Better reporting, prosecution and conviction of rape are next steps while the big, big work of awareness raising, of mobilisation, of campaigning and building a movement against rape is the essential and long road to freedom.

But that road is not going to be led by our existing movement of violence against women. This much I know from reporting on it for 20 years and seeing how little we have managed to do but how much we talk, talk, talk.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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