This essay is part of a larger conversation about harassment. We’ve invited different voices to join this and work towards unpacking the problem and finding solutions. You can find the rest of the essays on this index page).
This essay contains non-graphic descriptions of harassment and assault.
I uttered my first forced apology when I was eight years old. At the time, I’d accompanied an older cousin to run some errands at the local grocery store when two men walking past us started harassing her. They were about the same age as she was (late teens or early twenties) and they seemed jovial when they spoke to her but I could tell they made her uncomfortable. So I did what an ignorant eight-year-old girl would do if an annoying eight-year-old boy worried her — I told them off.
Immediately the mood changed. Where they’d been teasing her raucously, they became angry in no time and threatened to beat me. I looked up to my cousin who told me to “just say sorry.” I certainly didn’t feel sorry. Yet, I knew I was bested. If these boys/men decided to attack me then I was dead meat. I apologized but my ears were hot with rage and my fists were clenched. Tensions had been cleared, but there had been no justice. I had been intentionally silenced.
It was at this point that I first realized that in the grand scheme of things, justice didn’t matter; what mattered was staying alive, and because men often have more physical strength than women, they get to decide which women stay unharmed and which women deserve to be abused, whether their criteria is skewed or not.
As I’ve gotten older, a lot of street harassment has been aimed directly at me and not an older cousin and, although I’d like to tell them off, I remember my earlier lesson. I clench my fists and keep my head down, allowing men to say all manner of things to me even though I know that it’s not right.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve also realized that the power dynamic that skews right and wrong isn’t always about physical strength but also money and influence. For instance, in postcolonial Africa, there’s a lot of disparity when it comes to wealth, which makes it harder to go against a man who isn’t only providing for his nuclear family but also his extended family. A lot of abuses are swept under the rug and I believe we’ve swept things under the rug for so long that the truth has become awfully subjective.
In an earlier essay in this series, Andrea Phillips spoke about scripts, age old ways of addressing uncomfortable issues like harassment, rape etc. The knee-jerk reaction is always denial. Once, I had a discussion with a (different) cousin about rape culture. Her first response was, “Some women lie.” This was a strange reaction especially coming from another woman, but I think this goes to show that when we sweep rape culture under the rug to protect the men who provide for us, we begin to believe our own lies. Even though statistics indicate that only 2-10 % of women lie about being attacked, there is always that statement lurking.1
When we are believed, we are asked to forgive the perpetrators, which creates a culture of silence around the topic. Honest conversations about rape culture are not had and, when they are, men hijack the narrative to make it about themselves. So a movement like #MenAreTrash is immediately responded to by #NotAllMen. It seems it is easier for men to argue the statement that they are trash than it is for them to ask questions like why do women feel threatened or how can I make this space safer for the women around me?
When I was in high school, a man from Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe, was convicted of rape. During his trial he argued that the woman had asked for it; she’d been wearing revealing clothing. The judge still convicted him. Zimbabwean men responded by starting a wave of violence against women — any woman seen wearing a short skirt at a public transport terminal got stripped. Their argument? “You women tempt us by wearing short skirts then accuse us of raping you. If we must go to jail for touching you, then we’ll humiliate you on our way down.” Even though I lived in Harare, which is practically on the other side of the country, enough attacks were carried out in my city for me to dress modestly and avoid certain parts of the city.
The concept of women being responsible for men is not a new one. Most girls are raised from a young age to be responsible about clothing, to make sure men aren’t tempted to molest them. There is hardly any great narrative about teaching young men not to rape. Similarly, in cases of domestic violence, there is generally a tendency to appease men’s fragile egos, a tendency to ensure that no one provokes men into becoming violent. Men are not held responsible for their actions in their homes. Why then do we act surprised when they unapologetically harass us in the streets, in the workplace, on the internet?
The only way the tide of rape culture can turn is if everyone engages in conversations around consent, including men. Not in a simple capacity of regressive statements like, “If women are so sensitive about this thing then I should stop dating altogether,” but asking deeper questions.
Do I believe that rape and the rape culture that supports it will end in my lifetime? Probably not, but I do hope for a world in which men begin to listen because women are not voiceless. We know what makes us uncomfortable, we know why romantic advances in the workplace make us uncomfortable and why it’s not ethical to take a drunk girl home.
Of late, I have been encouraged by a few initiatives: the ‘consent training’ being carried out by No Means No Worldwide2 and the #ManListeningMonday hashtag, started by @FiresideFiction to boost the voices and opinions of women. My only hope is that such initiatives take place more often and in more places, that men would start learning about consent from an early age, this way the burden of explaining and fighting rape culture doesn’t keep falling on its victims.
Sandra Newman, “What kind of person makes false rape accusations?” Quartz, May 11, 2017, https://qz.com/980766/the-truth-about-false-rape-accusations/. ↩
Erin Digitale, “In Kenya, program changes male attitudes about sexual violence, study finds,”Stanford Medical News Center, June 9, 2015, https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/06/in-kenya-program-changes-male-attitudes-about-sexual-violence.html. ↩