Gender Links (Johannesburg)

South Africa: Reclaiming Control of Our Bodies This Women's Month

opinion

Johannesburg — It is Women's Month in South Africa, that time of the year when we celebrate women and recommit to empowering them as our progressive constitution stipulates. The theme for 2012 is "Addressing unemployment, poverty and inequality: together contributing towards the progressive future for women."

As I sat reflecting on this important month, what South Africans will be doing every day to the end of the month, and what inequality means to me, I pondered about my own daily routine.

One of my favourite moments in the day is when I look at my naked body in my full length mirror after a bath. I am always fascinated by the features of it and marvel at the beauty of creation. My body doesn't come close to meeting the "beauty" standards set out by today's media, but I always walk away from that mirror smiling.

I also sometimes feel like a glimpse of my "twin girlies" during the day, and on these days I make sure I wear something that will allow me to see them. I love my body for giving me pleasure - it takes me on a high level and I feel I don't want to come back to the real world. I drool over my body, in awe of the power it has. As the character Juanita Sims from the movie For Coloured Girls says, "These are my things to uhhh and ahhh about."

Standing in front of that mirror I am amazed at the ideas and thoughts my body comes up with - ideas most people would find crazy. For so many years I silenced those ideas and thoughts for fear of being viewed as different. Society taught me as a young girl to be a certain being, to do things a certain way and to love a certain way. If I did otherwise, the same society would inflict penalties because there is no tolerance for women who do not live according to that script.

Growing up I also learnt that I do not have control over my body, society does. I learnt how a female body should look, what it should do, what needs to be covered and who should touch it. Obviously, what I think and feel about my body mattered very little.

Our ongoing battle to have full control over our bodies is illustrated today by the high number of women who are groped in public spaces by men who think it is acceptable to touch a woman because she chose to wear a skirt or shorts.

Dozens of women in miniskirts marched in Johannesburg in February this year to show solidarity with other women who had reported being groped by men in the Noord taxi rank. These women called attention to South Africa's bill of rights which guarantees the right to safety and autonomy for everyone. High profile marchers presented a memorandum to the minister of justice.

Some women may feel proud that something was done to bring light to the problem of women harassed by men in public spaces. These women then go home and imagine a better and safer life for women in South Africa.

I do not think that will be possible anytime soon. We need to see the bigger picture. This issue is about more than women wearing short skirts. This harassment at the taxi rank is a public display of the power men feel they have over women; the control they feel they have over our bodies.

It is also an indication of what happens in private spaces where women do not have control over their bodies; a reflection of the broader mentality of men who think our bodies should be presented in certain ways. Men feel they can batter our bodies, determine when to have sex with our bodies, decide on whether we should use contraception, whistle or shout derogatory words at us when we pass, become enraged when other women touch our bodies, and rape or kill our bodies.

This is not acceptable. The miniskirt marchers should have clearly articulated these types of atrocities committed daily on women's bodies in both public and private spaces.

As women, we need to be aware of the power men exert over us. At times, realisation of this power and domination comes only when consciousness-raising work is done. We need to educate each other about the dominant patriarchal power which normalises abnormality, and which continues to subjugate us in sometimes subtle ways.

This Women's Month, we need to be aware that marches and public protests are not the only tools to resolve our problems. We must identify pockets of power and domination in our society and challenge them. Organisations working with women have a bigger role to play here. Service providers should raise awareness about this normalisation of domination and oppression and how we have come to accept it as way of life. Such organisations should also suggest alternatives and ways we can make them reality.

We also need to be creative and strategic in our efforts in challenging patriarchy without compromising ourselves and selling our souls. If we insist on choosing "safer" ways of challenging patriarchy, we will lose our struggle with this very old and entrenched monster. A good starting point for reclaiming control of our bodies is to learn to love ourselves and appreciate our bodies when we look in the mirror.

Kodwa Tyiso is Training and Development Manager at People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) in South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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