“We are ladies, we do not scream, we clap,” I heard when I went to the open day of a residence where young women took on a residence culture to aspire to be “trouvroens”, basically marriage material. I had wondered many things on that day: I did not ever consider myself to be a “lady”, I was a loud young Black woman that bent by their waist to pick up something I dropped, I was not typically “graceful”, I was not a flower, and I did not want to live in a residence to learn about being marriage material, whatever that meant.
In the 7 years that I have been a university student, currently pursuing my third qualification, I have lived in 3 different residences: one for students in the extended BSc programme, a “traditional” residence, and a postgraduate one.
I spent most of my time in the extended programme res studying and attending none of the residence events. I had wanted to study and stare into my then boyfriend’s eyes, maybe sweat and breathe heavily from under him regularly. But I really wanted to make up for the mess that were my matric marks by collecting distinctions in first year, and my boyfriend was my only extracurricular activity.
In my second year I moved to another residence; a traditional one on the main campus. I decided to switch my life up and participate in residence activities. I was to make friends I was to keep forever and feel safe among other young women on the degree hustle. So I decided to do orientation week with the first years.
There were long speeches from house committees about how we were to carry ourselves as a reflection of the values of the house: charisma is one of these values and I still have no understanding what valuing charisma is. We had a men’s residence we had close relations with, we even had a joint song, and apparently men from that house married women from our house.
Day 1 of orientation week a few women from my residences were assaulted by men from another residence. They assaulted us over a long tradition of theft of a hat that women from my residence wore as part of tradition. They came and “apologised”, gave the assault victims chocolate from the dining hall, and their first year guardian said he hoped we would still date/marry “his boys”.
We had a lot of “training” on how to be the ladiest lady we could be, and this performance was to mostly to men’s residence who wore the “nice guy” tag and got shitfaced for tradition, hit their chests while greeting their seniors (as tradition), and had to be the manliest men that would protect (read: physically fight) other men that would want to steal our hats. Oh, we had to be graceful, grateful, and maybe award them with a date.
All social gatherings would be started with affirmation songs were we called the men sexy, said they were they guys for us; and they commented on our great bodies and chose a girl to walk/dance with from us, which usually meant that the “unattractive” (mostly fat, dark skinned) women would be overlooked and be left standing there unless some men are being punished and have to entertain these women (the slang for this is “bus duty” in one of the men’s residences).
But we had to take this gracefully: the theft, the violence, the entitlement. We were “not like the other girls”. We had a residence identity that is referred to in the Twitter streets as a “Pick Me”. It was tradition, culture, so you can imagine being the dissenting voice when this has been accepted as tradition and you have no real social capital in the system.
Obviously, everything else is fucked when you try making a diverse group of young women prim and proper as a collective: so the mess took up all the fuckery of white supremacist cisheterocapitalist patriarchy, with a side serving of assimilation into preppy hoërskool Afrikanerdom.
Needless to say, after attempts to change things from within, and fighting to be my kind of woman in that space, my view points were relegated to dining hall conversations, and all I ever became was the Black girl people had to look out for; basically, a troublemaker. Not once had I imagined that wanting people to be women in a way they see fit would make me a “problem”, especially among other women. I was someone that needed to be dealt with.
I hate having to assert myself, but I had to, repeatedly, all the time. I even got an award for basically being ungovernable. When students speak of #AfrikaansMustFall it is a reflection, not just on language, but the exclusionary culture that accompanies it; we point our dissatisfaction of a culture of being delicate flowers in public that will be unwrapped by the instruction of a man after you play hard to get because “we are ladies”, meaning that he would need to coerce you; we show a middle finger to decisions to move homosexual students from shared rooms with heterosexual students; we exit stage left from pandering to violent masculinity.
It is a misfortune that the articulations of some of these views are in retrospect. Hopefully those still within the system can work out ways to transform residence culture.