Yes I Am Sexist
Running home today, I decided to make a t-shirt. Something simple and stark. White with red writing, or black with reverse text. Front: Yes I am Sexist. Back: All men must die.
On Samora Machel Avenue, one of Harare’s main access roads to both Mutare to the east and Bulawayo to the south west—and from the Harare suburbs into the Central Business District is a billboard. It was created for the 16 days of activism against gender violence, and is written “Real men know, a woman is not for beating.” As I approached that billboard on my left, to my right was a group of three young men, their clothes loose, their gait slow. When I passed them, the one closest to me, in a blue basketball type vest and worn green pata patas called out to me—“can I join you.” Further along, on Livingstone Ave, a hunched over man was walking in the opposite direction, towards me. As I passed him, he peered up at me, his chin down, his lips damp with saliva: “You’re what, Form Three?” Form Three would put me somewhere in High School. Maybe 15 years old or so. I’m twice that age. Turning onto Herbert Chitepo Ave, another group of men was standing outside a block of flats. One whistled as I went by, “Hey baby. Look over here.” His friend whistled long and low. It really didn’t matter whether they were heckling at me, red faced in my running clothes and cap, or at business dressed woman in her pink flared pants suit, or the woman in a track suit walking towards them. It’s all the same thing.
What will it take? Clearly standing across the road from the 16 days of activism billboard did nothing to deter the first group of men. Do billboards make a difference? On television lately there have been safer sex advertisements aimed at reducing the prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Targeted for a young audience, they advise: real men (or women) wait. They show scenes at beer halls, drunken men pressuring women into sex, drunken women dancing provocatively. The message is abstain, wait for marriage, wait until you know the person before you rush off into bed with them. Do they make any difference? Does a young man, out with his friends, a bit drunk and a bit pressured think back—My friends might be doing this, my uncles and cousins and my own father might be doing this, but the advertisement says real men wait, so let me wait.
And, really, who am I to say. You can’t always understand something if you haven’t experienced it yourself. A friend of a friend has recently been dumped by his girlfriend of a year or so. At least, he thought she was his girlfriend. He’s somewhere in his mid forties, I think. She’s in her early twenties. They had never had sex. They’d never even kissed. She’s needing space, he’s missing her desperately. My friend feels like her mate has been a bit deluded about the whole thing. Like everyone—the sort of ex- sort of girlfriend, her friends, his friends, outside observers, etc—can tell that he’s taken the whole thing much more seriously than the object of his affections ever did. But he can’t see it. He doesn’t want to admit how wrong he’s been. My friend is struggling to know what to tell him, what sort of advice to give, how to support him and help him move on without either perpetuating his delusion or making him feel bad for having been so swept away by things. But maybe if you haven’t been in his shoes, you just don’t know what to say. In which case it might be better just to listen. I’ve never been a young man who makes lewd or sexually predatory comments at female passers by. At least, I haven’t in this lifetime. So do I even know how their minds work? Would I even know what to say or what to suggest. Maybe it’s just my problem, and I need to find a way to listen more.
My workmate has just come back from a training in Amsterdam. He described the red light district—but he said he visited, but didn’t partake of. He reckons he could think of better ways to spend his 50 Euros. He said it looks a lot like old houses, or flats, women waiting in the windows and men walking past and choosing what they want for the moment. Some men bring their wives or girlfriends, just to see what’s there. Like a restaurant or a café, the busiest times are in the mornings before work starts, at lunchtime, and after work. And, as much as I resist even thinking this, maybe that’s a much more realistic approach to the whole thing. Maybe the women of Amsterdam don’t have the same frustrations when they walk down the streets of their city. But for me, the Harare reality is enough to make me consider violence. I hate that I don’t feel safe on my own at night in my own neighbourhood. I hate that I don’t enjoy going to one of my favourite local restaurants, a few blocks from my flat, on my own—the sea of testosterone that awaits inside those doors is too much to navigate alone.
And, of course, it’s not just about sex. It’s about men’s attitudes towards women. Maybe the message that a woman is not for beating already resonates with many men. But gender based violence is about much more than beatings. It’s about much more than rape or sexual assault. Surely it also includes the safety with which women move around in their own homes, their own streets, shops and neighbourhoods. Women are not for beating. They are also not for raping, heckling, objectifying or harassing. What messages do men grow up with then about what women are for. What do men think men are for? What do women think women or men are there for? Society has changed dramatically in the past 100 years. It is no longer acceptable to judge or stereotype someone on the basis of their race. Somehow gender differences feel like a harder thing to crack. But maybe in 1906 so did racism. Possibly it’s naïve to think in another 100 years, or sooner, people might also look back with a mixture of shame and amazement, that people were ever so regularly, consistently, consciously, prejudicially divided into “men” and “women,” rather than just being seen as what they are, accepted for what they are there for—people.
Zimbabwe, Sexism, Sexual Harassment