These boots were made for walking: Sexual harassment and the city

TW: Discussion of sexual harassment; sexual violence

 

I haven’t had a full-fledged rant in a while and I think it’s time. We need to have a comprehensive discussion about sexual harassment. I envision it going something along the lines of “do not harass women, we are not pieces of meat and our sole purpose in life is not to be objectified by you”. Then we’ll be done. There should be absolutely no need to go into a discussion on what I was wearing, where I was, or who I was with. These things are entirely irrelevant because I have the right to put whatever I like on my body, and take said body wherever it feels like being without any form of fear or apprehension. This all seems to be really self evident to me. Unfortunately we don’t all seem to be on the same page.

 

Today my sister came into my room as I was getting dressed for work. Her first words to me, after she saw my outfit was “you’re going bare legged?” I thought about it and then I went and changed. I am instead sporting an outfit that leaves a lot to the imagination. Now before we get ahead of ourselves and accuse my sister of policing my clothes and all that good stuff, we must understand what she was really saying. When she asked me if I was going bare legged she was really enquiring whether or not I was in a place where I was willing to deal with the “feedback” such a clothing choice would definitely get. It was a question borne out of genuine concern and absolutely no judgment, with a hint of hat-taking-off action. I went and changed because upon further reflection I decided that she had a point and I was feeling just a little too mentally fragile for that kind of attention. I went and changed my clothes because despite my wanting to wear whatever I want, I had been made to feel uncomfortable and frankly – unsafe – too many times. Welcome to sexual harassment in the capital.

 

I am often in the CBD (central business district) going about my erm…business. All too often unwanted comments and remarks are made. All of these instances were harmful, but some caused me to apprehend imminent use of force and to genuinely be concerned for my safety. One such incident occurred as I was strolling along Nelson Mandela Avenue in Harare. It involved a man who felt that the best way to get a hold of my attention was to shout and inform me, in a fair amount of detail for such a short period of time, all the things he’d like to do to me, given the opportunity. For some reason it was surprising to him when I didn’t take kindly to this, and walked away as opposed to falling at his feet after such an appealing offer. He became very agitated and decided that the only thing for it was to follow me down the street, shouting all manner of obscenities and asserting that he could wipe the smugness off my face by essentially forcing himself on me. This all happened in broad daylight, and eventually stopped once it became clear that I was meeting a big, burly man i.e. my dad.

 

That incident although one of the most terrifying ones for me is one out of a few that I’ve been involved in since getting back. Now these all range from salacious whisperings to full-blown obscenities and gestures and they’re deeply unpleasant but apparently fairly tolerant. The underlying assumption that cuts across all the incidents is that said people are entitled to my time because they find me attractive. Or that by virtue of my walking past them they should be granted access to me, and be allowed to air their opinions on my person just because they feel like it. Really it’s my fault for wanting to exercise my freedom of movement. Silly me.

 

I complain about sexual harassment fairly often, eventually someone cracked and I was asked what I expected when I dressed like that. By a female police officer. No, she wasn’t even off duty. She was just a police officer running some sort of errand, living her life, who after witnessing a man harass me felt the need to inform me that one of the ways to help myself would be to cover my legs to make it seem a little less as though I were asking for it. Or open to it. Or open to being pestered into it. Now I find myself doing it. Every time a man gets aggressive with his “appreciation” I find myself alternating between indignation and wondering what it is about me on a particular day that is getting this reaction. Then I begin to inadvertently limit my wardrobe choices for the sake of the peace, depending on what areas of the city I am going to. On and on I go. I have to actively remind myself that what I wear doesn’t matter!

 

Upon further reflection, what I found particularly alarming after the above incident is that it is clear that he wasn’t in the least bit afraid of some form of social sanction. I had noticed since being back that “grit your teeth and bear it” seems to be a dominant theme when it comes to sexual harassment and even sexual violence. Granted, with regards to the latter there is currently a large national campaign being undertaken to encourage the reporting of such acts o violence, but by and large harassment is considered to be one of those things that you just have to learn to cope with. There also seems to be an element which suggests that I should be flattered that a man to some time out of his day to vocally objectify me, occasionally encouraging his peers to do the same, egging each other on.  I find it entirely unreasonable that I should be expected to live in fear of another group of people and I find it ridiculous that we all seem intent on perpetuating this idea that it’s a natural and not entirely negative thing to have happen. We are systematically condoning deeply inappropriate behaviour, and helping in the construction and perpetuation of an alarming rape culture.

 

I am also offended on behalf of those men who are respectful in their dealings with women. Why do we like to act as though men are more primal than the rest of society and simply cannot help themselves? Furthermore why should my safety be secured only by the presence of another man, as though that makes me marked territory? Basically, why am I not entitled to the same respect that men obviously muster, as I walk down the road?

 

What is also really odd is that the harassment is also sometimes used as a form of moralising. Zimbabwean society is a lot more conservative than I am used to and harassers really enjoy capitalising on this. Really, they’re telling me to put some more clothes on, as my legs are hard to resist, for the sake of the preservation of my moral fibre. It’s for my sake, a mechanism to ensure that I am not flaunting myself in a way that is unbecoming of women, the reasoning goes. Women clearly need to be kept in line. It’s sickening.

 

I am obviously not the only woman to feel this, just the other week there was a story running involving two women who had grabbed hold of a man after he called them some horrible names, and wouldn’t let go until he apologised. Also women can be heard, talking about it and mumbling about it with each other, we clearly don’t like it, and there have been growing calls to have the law intervene on sexual harassment as it only really comes up under employment law. But the single most important thing should be a full appreciation that women are worthy of respect by virtue of being people. Leave us alone.

 

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