Bring me your miniskirts and skimpy tops

2014-07-13 11:30

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On a visit to the US, land of the little bit free, Gugulethu Mhlungu was amazed to find she could wear what she wanted without being harassed

Recently, during my first trip off the African continent, I visited New York and Miami, where I had the most peaceful time of my life since my brief visit to Harare last year.

Going to Beyoncé’s America, I was under no illusions about some of the ugly challenges the country faces. Issues such as enduring institutionalised and structural racism, violence against black people and other minority groups, escalating gun violence and, according to a piece in The Nation last month titled How did the FBI miss over 1 million rapes?, something of an underreported rape crisis.

I was also acutely aware that the New York Police Department wasn’t really there to serve and protect me because I have brown skin and am non-American, but I was hoping that because I had a uterus it would mean they would at least consider helping me if something happened.

Still, I was excited to visit ’Murica and see Beyoncé and Jay-Z in concert, find an ice cream served in a chocolate éclair, eat my way through the Dunkin’ Donuts menu, rest, and wear short and summery things.

We landed at JFK International Airport after more than 20 hours of travel (via London). Then, after nearly an hour and a half of waiting to go through immigration, we were told: “All clear. Enjoy your stay!” Yes!

We collected our bags and waited for a yellow cab (when in Rome, travel like the Romans) in the gloriously humid New York summer heat, and from years of habit, I prepared my game face for harassment. And?...?nothing.

In South Africa, I experience harassment in some way or another every day. On the bus, by the security guards around where I live, strange men in cars, random men in the street and in shops. The only time I am left alone is at work, at home and, on the odd occasion, on the bus. South Africa has a serious sexual violence problem, and street harassment is normalised.

» Talk to us: Do you experience sexual harassment daily in South Africa? Leave your comment below or join the conversation on Twitter: @City_Press.

The experience of having my body left alone, even at midnight on the subway back to Brooklyn from the theatre in Manhattan, was incredible. Walking around at 2am in South Beach and being left alone was completely amazing to me. Particularly because everything I wore, in a bid to survive the 30°C heat, was short or sleeveless.

My experience of having lived in four of the nine provinces in South Africa says this wouldn’t happen to me back home. I often make my clothing choices based on which item is less likely to be used as an excuse to harass me. For two weeks, I wore what I wanted. It was nice to feel less anxious and less scared all the time, to not have to gauge whether a guy will try to put his hand between my legs because my “thighs look nice in that dress”.

That it is a thing of wonder to be allowed to be human is indicative of how bad things are.

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