On 9 August 1956 one of the most historic events in the struggle for freedom and women’s rights in South Africa, took place right here in Pretoria. It was on this day that more than 20 000 women of different races marched to the Union Buildings to deliver petitions to the then-Prime Minister, JG Strijdom, against the carrying of passes by women.
This month has been filled with inspiring events, messages and vibrant portrayals of the amazing work that women have done in transforming the country. This month is not only meant to remind of women’s courageous actions but as young women, this month is meant to ignite the same passion and capacity to dream for a better society that the women of 1956 possessed. We are motivated to be relentless in our pursuit for our own freedoms. Personally, this month has been a deeply reflective one, as I have experienced a great disconnect between how I am meant to exist in my body as a “born-free” South African and the reality of living and moving within certain spaces.
I wrote a blog post after an uncomfortable and hurtful experience of sexual harassment on my way to the bus station. The title of the piece was “No Sanctuary for Black Girls”, in it I wrote…
“In our townships we paddle in puddles of tears, blood and screams of black women and the only comfort our mothers offer is “young girl, know your place” because you were unfortunate enough to be born female. My place? Huh? Is my place on a hard cement floor with a knife held against my shivering body? Or taxi ranks that stink of urine with men who collude to rape me? Where is my place? Perhaps a cold morgue where my body seizes to feel anything”.
This month I have been reflecting on the freedoms we truly have as women in South Africa, especially those living in townships because in epidemiological terms, we are classified as a “vulnerable population”. Women between the ages of 15-24 are a high risk group for HIV infections in South Africa. I am represented in this group, I am a “born-free”, although this sets me apart from the women who took to the streets in 1956 to defy an oppressive government, the experience of poverty and crime have equally heightened my risk of violence and even death.
All these problematic realities have been highlighted by the presence of a disease, HIV/AIDS has been the festering wound that manifests from the problematic perceptions and socio-cultural dynamics that determine the fate of our bodies as women. The same problematic social realities that render our bodies sites of gender and culture wars. Our bodies become status symbols for men who want to showcase the extent of their masculinity, our bodies become the shooting ranges of foul words that reduce them to parts. Our bodies as queer women become sites for men to assert heteronormative, patriarchal and distorted histories of Africaness. As if to suggest that the confines of my thighs hold the promise of restoring his broken manhood while our womanhood reduced to nothing.
HIV has been the nagging and uncomfortable reminder that our feminism has failed, we have left our sisters behind. Violent masculinities, capitalism, sexism have on countless occasions struck the rock and broken it. The celebrated success stories make no mention of how we fail to challenge the circumstances that result in more women being affected and infected with HIV.
For me, the disease has been the harshest reminder that much of my body, freedom and experience of womanhood is a like a fragile glass. The silences around sex, cultural norms that teach men to use sex as a weapon against my body all compound my risk as a woman living in township spaces. An experience of sexual harassment during women’s month has certainly shaken me, it has forced me to re-evaluate our position as women and come to the realization that the battle goes beyond economic freedom and equality in a legal sense, the battle is for ownership. How do we live freely in our bodies as women? How do we own our bodies?
by: Ath’enkosi Sopitshi
Picture credits: nowandthan.tumblr.com