I have been very fortunate and privileged in many areas of my life. Most times I look at my own life and think of how differently the lives of my mother and her mother would have been should they have had half the opportunities that I have today; just the chance to be able to choose from a wider range of choices.
One of the great privileges I have had has been the chance to join organisations and structures that have allowed me to be vocal and active about the issues that I still think my community and I are facing. These organisations are meant to be progressive spaces that are examples for the kind of society we want, not just a simple microcosm.
Very few things make me more upset than the entitled behaviour to women’s time, kindness and bodies that the gender status quo perpetuates. In my community, where I live daily, I have tried to reduce my exposure to the kind of violence I may experience due to entitlement by being a recluse and only surrounding myself, when I have the chance to choose, with people who I regard as “safe spaces”.
People are not born as “safe spaces”, and not everyone reaches the level of being a “safe space” at the same time. We are almost all socialised to think that women belong to anyone but themselves; that they are loving people that will return all your hellos with a smile, and that they are there to listen all the time. But women are actually (if you did not know, now you do) human beings that interact with other human beings based on different moods and desires, and have the ability to decide what to consent to.
My “safe spaces” understand and acknowledge my humanity. However, this is not the kind of behaviour I experience in public progressive spaces – in the last week I had men steal my contact details on forms and think it was the most romantic thing ever. I was almost guilt-tripped for not thinking this was sweet and my “where did you get my number” questions were met with giggles: “You are so serious, Nthabiseng. Stop overreacting.” Then I was harassed in the hope of some forgiveness and each time I told someone to leave me alone, I was told “But I am trying to fix things.”
This all happened at a leadership training camp. It was overwhelming. I considered asking to leave on the day 2 of the 8-day programme, I am currently considering never going back for the last module because I felt the environment required way more out of me as a woman than it ever will out of men that are on the programme. On day 2 I made an appeal against harassment when we got a refresher on the Code of Conduct that we all signed, this was before all of these things actually happened to me. My appeal was met with a few giggles, some nods, and my week still turned out like hell. EVEN after my presentation on gender politics.
It honestly felt, to me, that the men in the environment wanted to remind me that the leadership territory is theirs. That even if I have a voice and I express myself, they have the final say on whether I will be heard. That even if the specific training module had more women than men, they would overpower us (a woman was actually physically pushed on day 7) and make sure that women are unfamiliar with comfort. It was a sore reminder that structural inequality overpowers numbers and our will to be a change agent in our own communities.
Now I am sitting here wondering what the purpose of progressive spaces are if there is no progress from what we would experience in our communities. What kind of leaders we are breeding if this kind of violence is commonplace? Because platitudes and political correctness around women’s issues will not save me. A chance to work together was easily turned into an “us vs them” situation, just because some men refused to respect the personal space, consent and agency of women. What a shame.