Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Are We Serious About Violence Against Women or Not?

Are we serious about violence against women or not?

I want to say yes.  I want to say that I fight against patriarchy every day, tooth and nail, until I’m exhausted and spent, but victorious in the little battles.

But I don’t.  I let things slide.  Patriarchy is so imbedded into South African culture that I frequently find myself lost and unable to react.

When someone is an obvious jerk, it’s easy for me to tell him to fuck off.  Although, to be honest, even that reaction took me a long time to develop.  As I transitioned into a young woman, it took years of inappropriate comments to harden me enough until I could react with anger.

Every day I walk through the streets of Hillbrow and give men the death glare, if I even bother glancing their way at all.  They grab my arms and I snap out their grip Small Circle Jujitsu style, without missing a beat in my walk.

It’s easy to be angry and aggressive to these men.  They’re a mass of faceless strangers.

But what about the men I know?  My friends?

One of my coworkers – let’s call him “J” – is a major flirt.  Almost every day he says something inappropriate to me for the workplace.

“Good morning, sthandwa sami.”

(“Sthandwa sami” means “my love.”  Even though I’ve argued against him to stop calling me that, I can’t shake him of the habit.)

“Good morning.  How are you today?”

“It’s going to be a good day!  You’re wearing my favourite shirt.  Did you put that on just for me?”
“This might come as a surprise, J, but I don’t pick my clothes with any consideration towards you.”

J walks away laughing.

Sometimes J and I walk to the taxi rank together after work.  Each time, he tries to convince me that I’m one of his “partners.”  Apparently he has a Zulu partner (his wife), a coloured partner (one of our other coworkers), and a foreign partner (me).  He’s still looking for a Khosa partner (in case anyone out there is interested).

I usually comment with something like, “That’s quite a harem you’ve got going.  Amazing that you recruited me without my knowledge.”

Once I asked him if the other interns were part of his harem.  “What about the woman I took over from?”

“No.  She and I were buddies.  But you’re a partner.”

“Lucky me.”

“Not anyone can be a partner, Beth.  You’ve got to have certain qualities.  Like you.  You’re shy but not shy.  And fun.  And –.”

“That’s enough.  I get it.  I’m still not one of your partners.”

I’ve told J over and over again that we would be friends if he wasn’t such a flirt.  I’ve even told him that in my culture his comments are very inappropriate.  “Back home, someone would’ve charged you with sexual harassment by now.”

“Guess I can’t go to Canada.”

Even though J frustrates me, however, I don’t hold any anger towards him.  We’re friends.  I don’t think he knows any other way to engage with women except flirting.

But then I found out he’s going to become a House Manager.

The directors at work can’t be so clueless to miss how flirtatious he is – not only with me, but other women too.  Everyone knows he’s inappropriate!  I’ve called him out on it, loudly, over and over since working here.

How can he be moved into a position of authority?

Don’t get me wrong – like I said, J and I are friends.  I think he’s fundamentally a good person.  Actually, I think he’s a great person.  But I would hate to have him as my boss or house manager.  The workplace should be professional and the home space should be respectful and safe.

In this country, though, his comments aren’t a problem.  His behaviour is not significant enough to hinder his career.

Moreover, despite being a strong feminist, I won’t say anything against him.  I would never bring these complaints forward.  I don’t want to ruin him.

Yet I’m still unsettled by the situation.  Is my silence going to lead to other women feeling uncomfortable?  J has a good heart – I don’t believe he would purposefully hurt someone else.  But his good intentions don’t excuse his bad behaviour.

I’m strong enough now that I can laugh with J.  When I was 20-years-old, though, I was in a similar situation in my workplace; I used to go home and cry almost every week.  I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong to make the men think they could treat me like that.  I don’t want J’s advances to ever make a woman cry like I did.

At what point does flirting become sexual harassment? 

When does joking with a friend turn into supporting a patriarchal system that accepts violence against women?

Am I serious about violence against women or not?


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