I am sexually harassed on a daily basis. So are many other Zimbabwean women and it amounts to violence. It is violent in the way that it causes us to feel unsafe, to feel as though we shouldn’t be in public spaces, as though our bodies are a commodity to be dealt with according to a patriarchal (male) consensus.
It makes me angry.
What makes it worse, is that as a society we seem content to shrug and make it seem as though sexual harassment is inherently tied to woman (and girl) hood and there’s simply nothing to be done. Surviving the continuous onslaught requires a lot of thought and a lot of energy, which is especially draining if you’re hyper-vigilant due to past experiences of sexual assault or rape. You may be wondering what’s that like – being constantly sexually harassed? I give you a day in the land of constant sexual harassment:
Picking Out Clothes
I stand before my wardrobe and contemplate where my day will take me. I map out the roads in my mind and try to remember where groups of people are likely to loiter. That is where the danger lies. That is when a whisper or a comment can easily extend into an outstretched arm groping at any part of my body, hinting at the possibility of further sexual assault if I fail to be ‘flattered’ or play along. If I’m perceived to be too haughty in my response to harassment, I could be in danger. I must be careful. I must be careful, but I must also feel like myself so I don’t feel disembodied in a sea of norms that feel so far removed from my values.
For me, my clothing, my make up, all the facets of my adornment, are about my identity’s performativity. I must balance this with my desire for safety and anonymity. I need clothes that permit me to be me, and to be left aloneish. Ish because I am after all entering the CBD, and I have never gone into town and not been harassed. It’s awful that my safety in public spaces can be compromised by people choosing to ignore my right to bodily autonomy.
Leaving the House/Surviving Public Spaces
Public spaces are not safe spaces for women. Feminist geographers say that it’s because the public space has been gendered male. This means that when you leave the house as or presenting as any other gender, you’re supposed to be willing to take on the risk of harm that comes with patriarchy’s construction of masculinity. This includes (but is not limited to) all manner of harm and violence, whether physical or verbal, because you have ventured out of the private (feminised) sphere.
How often are complaints of sexual assault shouted down with the assertion that we had left home looking like that knowing men are out there? Exactly. Men are constantly constructed by patriarchy as sexually voracious beasts, with no sense of control or boundaries. They must own and sex you at all times – it’s in their nature.
You must deal with it.
How safe a woman is in a public space also seems to be tied to what class she is perceived to be from, and how affluent the public space is. I say this because there seem to be different dress codes depending on the perceived class of the area, which extends to the perceived values of said class of people. You could walk around at Sam Levy wearing a belt as a skirt and be pretty safe from harassment. You wear that same outfit in middle-income or poorer areas or on public transportation, and the slurs will come out of the woodwork, at best. At worst, you will be assaulted by the ‘moral highbred’ of Harare.
When venturing out, I must have a pair of earphones. Even when I’m not listening to anything, these enable me to sometimes miss parts of a cat call/ vulgar insinuation/ moralising slur or to act like I missed it or failed to hear some guy hit on me. Nope, I heard you, it’s just quicker to ignore you. Also necessary: a mean look. I learnt the hard way that wearing your face in neutral seems to indicate that you’re open to continuous conversation even when the words ‘leave me alone’ have passed your lips. I’ve also come to not so secretly hope that the grim look on my face, the fast pace I walk with and the fact that I’m built like a rugby player will buy me some peace and quiet. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I have to shout down a harasser and remind them that my clothes are about me. Not them.
Harassment Stemming from a Sexualised Body and Public Religiosity
I’ve encountered a new form of sexual harassment in Harare that I have never really experienced anywhere else. It’s the sexual harassment that’s laced with self-righteous moral undertones. I’ve been harassed by men who claim that that stretch of legs from my knees to my ankles is causing them to sin (No sir, your lust is your problem not mine). I’ve also been harassed by women who have claimed that firstly, I’m the kind to steal husbands (apparently there’s a ‘kind’and husbands can be stolen), secondly, my morality is somehow tied to my adornment and thirdly, that old favourite of respectability politics – that I’m letting the (female) side down.
It’s astonishing to me that the fact of exercising my bodily autonomy could be a threat to the freedoms and salvation of all of humankind. But some street harassers are clearly tied to this perception. My body can apparently derail all of Jesus’ good works, wreck the institution of marriage and really tear the moral fibre of society to shreds. All because I treat my body as my own, to be dressed as I see fit.
Not only are women apparently not welcome in public spaces, but they are forcibly sexualised once they enter this space which means that no matter what you do or what you wear, you are fair game for sexual harassment and the interrogation of your capacity to dress your own body. Women are always deemed to be for the consumption of the patriarchal gaze, by people of all genders. If women must enter the public space, they must do so respectfully, or at least with a willingness to smile and flirt with men who’ve found as attractive. Failing that, we must make ourselves as small as possible and rush through whatever has brought us out until we can find sanctuary in our cars (if we’re lucky) or in our homes.
It’s all very tiring. It should be unnecessary. But that’s how it is.
Main image from www.dailymail.co.uk