The shame that comes with being a woman

The shame that comes with being a woman

I got a lift with a colleague a few weeks ago. We had some time to kill, so we decided to have some coffee at a coffee shop in a nearby lifestyle village (read: rich people’s mall). While at this lifestyle village, I saw a SPAR and realised that I needed pads, so I told my colleague that I wanted to pop in at SPAR quickly and that I’d meet him at the coffee shop. He then said ‘No, it’s fine. I’ll come with you’ and my first thought was ‘ah, crap!’ because 1) how on earth was I going to hide my pads (and I don’t buy those little dainty ones – no, I’m all about extra protection and comfort) and 2) what else can I buy to make it seem as though the pads weren’t my main reason for going to the shop? Of course I caught myself thinking this and immediately realised how ridiculous I was being, so I confidently walked to the feminine hygiene products section, grabbed my packet of pads with Colleague standing next to me, and walked to the till without even attempting to hide my new purchase.

This got me thinking about the inherent and ingrained shame that comes with being women. We close our legs, we suck in our stomachs, we speak softly, we shave and wax our naturally growing hair and we don’t talk about periods, sex, masturbation or pornography.

The whole idea of being ashamed of our sexuality has always fascinated me. Women should be enjoying sex and should be open about how much we enjoy it. After all, we can have two different types of orgasms: vaginal and clitoral, whereas men really only have that one option. We are able to do so much more for our own sexual happiness because we have options galore. Hands, toys in all shapes and sizes, other human beings. It is therefore absolutely ridiculous that we are conditioned to feel ashamed of all things sexual and feminine.

We start this from a very young age. We tell two year olds to close their legs, to be quiet and ladylike, to sit still so that they don’t ruin their dresses. We don’t tell two year old boys any of those things. In fact, we encourage boys to explore, to get dirty, to speak their minds.

As time goes by, we tell girls to be flattered when a boy is mean to them ‘because that means that he likes you’ instead of telling them to stand up for themselves, to tell the boys off for being mean.

Then we proceed to make girls feel bad for having bodily hair and menstruating once every 28 days. One of the first things my friend and I discussed when becoming sexually active became a possibility in high school was ‘Now we’ll have to shave.’ Now that is uncomfortable! No one’s body is able to bend in that way – this is one of many reasons why shaving is stupid. Of course, in high school, that’s what you do. No one has money to get waxed (also, ouch!) and I doubt that any young girls from conservative and religious Vredenburg were going to ask their moms for money to wax their pubic hair. The point is that we teach girls the wrong things about sex and sexuality from a very young age.

Buying pads, at least, is okay. Buying condoms is an entirely different story. No one wants to use Choice (they’re free and all, but no), so someone has to buy the condoms. It is the most nerve-wrecking experience imaginable. Honestly, I have never been self-conscious or ashamed of my sexuality, but even I feel uncomfortable when I buy condoms. Of course you also see some other interesting sexual items while you’re trying to decide between ribbed and studded which you might want to check out. Maybe you want to splurge on some massage oil or lube, but the shame and embarrassment is often enough to make condom-buying a quick in and out (innuendo intended). Something as intimate and enjoyable as sex should never be a quick in and out.

Someone out there is going to wonder how this is a women’s issue specifically. It is. No one bats an eyelid when my male friends buy condoms or whip condoms out of their wallets, but when I do it, I have to write an essay explaining myself, or worse, I am congratulated for ‘not being like the other girls’. There’s a reason why ‘other girls’ don’t carry condoms with them wherever they go: they have been socialised and conditioned to believe that sex is something to be kept quiet, something to be ashamed of.

It is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of women to shame sexuality. Men are known to watch and enjoy porn, they are known to masturbate. Women enjoy masturbation and porn too, but we don’t acknowledge this. Worse, we shame this, which, once again, is ironic because women have a much bigger range of options available to us when it comes to sexual pleasure.

In her famous essay entitled ‘We should all be feminists’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the expectation for girls to remain virgins while society almost praises the boy who manages to ‘bag a couple of girls’ before he finally settles down with a nice little virgin. In the essay she mentions how ridiculous that is mathematically, because who are we expecting these boys to have sex with if we are expecting the girls to be virgins?

These gendered expectations create an unfair society in which men are allowed to discover what they like and dislike, but women aren’t. I have heard women say that they don’t tell their partners when they don’t enjoy sex because they don’t want to hurt their partners’ feelings (fragile male ego) or because they simply don’t know what they would prefer their partner to do instead. Often this happens because the women weren’t able to get to know themselves sexually before they got sexually intimate with another person. They were never comfortable to play with and explore their own bodies because masturbation and pornography are somehow bad for women.

We should be raising our daughters like we raise our sons: allow them to get dirty, allow them to ruin their clothes, allow them to explore, to play, to ask questions. We should encourage our daughters to speak up, stand up, fight back and spend time with themselves, exploring their bodies and their sexuality.

In short, we should be eliminating the inherent and ingrained shame that comes with being a woman.

Shine, Graduand, shine.

We see you. I see you. I see you as you reflect on years of hard work. I see you as you remember crying in matric because you did not have money to go to university. I see you as you cry tears of joy when that loan finally comes through. I see you as you leave home all by yourself and head off to the big bad university with all of its glory. I see you as become disillusioned with university as soon as someone harasses a black tutor. I see you as you cry when you get that first test result back. I see you as you cry when you finally pass Stats.

I see you as the years go on and the nights get longer. I see you as the panic attacks become more frequent and the waiting list at Student Wellness becomes impossible.

I see you as things fall apart financially and at home. I see you as the pressure mounts to be “the first in our family”. I see you as you try to hide your failures from your family because they wouldn’t understand. I see you as the other kids sign up for tuts on their iPads and you have to settle for the 16:00 tut, even though you have to take three taxis to get home.

I see you as you sleep in the library and skip dinner so that you can get on par with the rest of the class.

I see you as you see those words: “Qualifies for award of degree” and you run to the nearest person to laugh and cry and dance and sing.

I see you as your family looks at you with admiration, I see you as you know that you have finally earned something so sweet that you don’t want that moment to pass in a million years.

I see you as you prepare for graduation. I see you as you have to choose which two guests you will invite into Marikana Memorial Hall with you. I see you as you look for the cheapest outfit that still looks decent, I see you as you worry about where your family is going to stay, how they’re going to travel, what they’re going to eat, and how to pay for it all. I see you as you work extra hours, as you save every cent, as you decline the invitation to celebrate with your friends because you want to make sure that your family has a good time at your graduation. After all, it is their graduation as well: it is their tears, their hard work, their double shifts, their prayers and their support that got you to that hall. Or not. Maybe it is all you. Maybe no one supported you or contributed to your degree, but you still have expectations resting on your shoulders.

I see you as you sit in that hall and take it all in. I see you as you cry tears of joy for yourself and tears of loss and grief for your comrades who didn’t make it to that hall because of exclusion, illness or circumstances.

I see you. This is your moment. Shine.

The science store room

The science store room is a place of wonder

There are robots and potions and chemicals plenty

The science store rooms holds many mysteries

with its leather-bound books, candle sticks and planetary drawings from 1856.

 

The science store room is where blood drips down my thighs

as his heavy body pushes me against the wall.

The science store room is where his clammy hands cover my mouth

as he groans and grunts in my ear before he calls

for a god who cannot hear my silent prayers.

 

The science store room is cold and unnerving

The science store room is painful and bloody

The wall is hard and the room is soundproof.

 

The science store room is my place of shame.

I failed my CTA – now what?

In order to become a chartered accountant (CA) in South Africa, one has to complete an accredited undergraduate degree, an accredited postgraduate degree or diploma (also referred to as CTA by Unisa) and complete three years of practical training, or articles. During these three years, aspiring CAs are to write and pass two national exams which are set by SAICA (the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants). Once all of this is done, and this takes about 7 or 8 years minimum, a new CA emerges.

I completed my undergrad degree at UCT and attempted my CTA there as well. Unfortunately I failed the CTA.

Although not unexpected, it was and is still very difficult to deal with. My CTA year was a bit of a mess. I went through a deeply depressive time during my June exams, which I have documented in detail in another blog post (Mental Health Issues in the Student-Sphere), and it showed in my results. Coming back from a situation where your highest mark is 37% is not impossible, but it is a tough ask. Still, I tried. I worked hard and I really tried, but I definitely did not believe that it was possible for me to pass. This of course stressed me out. I did not have the money to repeat my CTA full-time and I needed the CTA to take up the job I had lined up. So, of course, as MY November exams approached and the stress mounted, I once again went through a deeply depressive episode, this time landing me in a psychiatric clinic for 21 days.

I will write about my experience in this psychiatric clinic in more detail another time, but what I will say right now is that that hospitalisation was the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life. I think that was the first time in my life that I could focus on myself, just myself. My mom and boyfriend were the most amazing people during this time for me. I cannot imagine how horrible the whole experience must have been for them and how scared they must have been, but not once did they blame me and not once did they project their own fears and their own guilt onto me. They respected my boundaries and allowed me to heal and recover. If you ever have a friend who is hospitalized for a mental illness, feel free to ask them for advice on what you should do in order to provide said friend with the best possible support.

So back to CTA: because I was hospitalized for 3 weeks, I had to defer my exams to the January examination period. I then proceeded to fail two of these four exams.

This was really tough for me. Although I appreciated the opportunity to recover in a private psychiatric clinic, which itself is a privilege that very, very few people with mental illnesses are afforded, I still struggled to deal with the failure.

For as long as I can remember, I was neither artistic nor athletic, but I was intelligent. My mom managed to teach me to read in 2 weeks (she is an amazing teacher!) and then nurtured my love of books by driving me to the library every week and sometimes twice a week because I went through them very quickly.

Unsurprisingly, then, I ended up defining myself by my academics. In short, my academics became me and you don’t need a degree in psychology to know that that is an unhealthy and very narrow definition to have of oneself. Failing at anything academic-related became a major struggle, and I failed quite a bit during undergrad. The issue was that I would fail tests and pull miracles out of my ass (horrible image, I apologise) in the exam, which allowed me to pass the course overall. I had gotten through undergrad without failing a single course. Clearly that did not work for my CTA year. Some miracles are impossible, even for me.

So when I realised that that there was a very real chance of me actually failing, I spiraled completely. I became more depressed and anxious than usual and ended up being hospitalised for a suicidal episode.

In the end, it seems that the idea of failing CTA was so much worse than actually failing CTA. Failing was tough and I sometimes find myself feeling sad about it; it is something that is always there when I hear my friends talk about their upcoming graduation and when they talk about their board exam results which will be released soon. I still feel it, but I also know that if it hadn’t been for those 3 weeks in the clinic, I would not have been able to handle this failure like I am handling it now. I am immensely proud of myself for not spiraling into suicide mode immediately, but for instead understanding that my journey is just a little bit different from my friends’, and that we’ll reach the same destination in the end.

The most amazing thing about failing at something so important is that one suddenly realises how many alternative options are available. So, here is my advice to the class of 2017:

  1. Apply to Unisa’s CTA program as a backup:

Even if you are confident that you will pass, apply anyway. The program is called the Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Accounting Sciences (CTA level 2). Get this right, because you don’t want to end up applying for a bridging course by accident. Unisa is confusing like that. The closing date for applications is usually around 25 November of each year, but keep an eye on the website in case it changes.

  1. Many small and medium-sized firms allow you to pursue your CTA while you do your articles:

Apply to these firms. You can write your CTA in your first year and write both ITC and APC in your second year, which means that you will still qualify in line with your initial timeline.

  1. Sometimes something goes wrong with an application:

Maybe you missed the application deadline or you applied for the wrong program or you just do not have the health and stamina to pursue your CTA in your first year. It happens. Some firms allow you to do your CTA in your second year for a valid reason. You can then do your CTA in your second year and write ITC and APC in your third year. Discuss this with your employer or prospective employer and try to figure something out.

There are so many options out there. I think that it is nice to have options. I did not think of these things, so I had a crazy amount of pressure on me to pass first time around, to the point that I became suicidal. I know how ridiculous this sounds, but when I think about where I was in November 2016 and where I am now, I am immensely grateful to be alive. I did not plan on making it past 11 November 2016, but it is now 14 March 2017 and I am still here. I have a new job, I celebrated my 7th anniversary with my boyfriend just last week and I recently got to see my ‘baby’ brother head off to university to study Astrophysics.

I got to experience all of that because of alternatives. We don’t all have to have the same journey, as long as we get to where we want to be.

I don’t think that I can ever thank my support system enough. My mother, my two brothers, my boyfriend and my three closest friends who really helped (and still help) me through rock bottom, panic attacks, depressive episodes and everything else.

I am alive because of you. I have a job because of you. I am a functioning adult with adult responsibilities and a new outlook on life because of you. Thank you.

Matric Results: No, hard work is not the key to success

This is the time of the year when we hear lots of feel-good stories: Matric results are out and Angie Motshekga tells us about the increased pass rate, the high schools brag with their A-candidates and 100% pass rates and of course the newspapers show pictures of smiling matriculants and do exclusive stories about that one black kid from rural Eastern Cape who studied by candlelight every evening to get his matric certificate, or the girl whose mother passed away a day before she wrote her Maths paper, but amazingly she still excelled.

These against-all-odds stories are what our Facebook friends share and what we discuss around the dinner table, those of us who are fortunate enough to have dinner tables.

We talk about the black kid from the Eastern Cape who worked hard, persevered and passed, we talk about the girl from the Cape Flats who is going to study medicine because she worked hard, we talk about that child whose mom passed away and still managed to get a distinction for Maths. It makes us feel good; it helps to absolve us of the blame. Who needs Fees Must Fall when you can work hard and get a bursary? Why isn’t every matriculant as diligent and committed to being ‘constructive instead of destructive’?

It’s all good and well to celebrate exceptional students, it must be done, but what about the above average person from the same rural Eastern Cape school who also studied by candlelight but did not pass? What about the person whose mother passed away and who was unable to write that Maths paper, or the person from the Cape Flats who did not get the marks or the funding to study medicine?

Hard work doesn’t always work. Yes, hard work is important. In order to be successful one has to be willing to sacrifice and to work hard, but it isn’t the answer. Claiming that success is down to hard work is invalidating to those who worked hard, but are just not good enough to obtain a bursary, but who would have been able to study at a university like Wits or UCT if they were rich enough to pay for themselves. It sets the bar much, much higher for Poor Black Kid from rural Eastern Cape than it does for Rich White Kid from Constantia.

By pretending that hard work and dedication is the answer, we also pretend that we were all born equally, and that is definitely not the case. It makes us feel better, it causes us to retreat into our little shells of privilege instead of forcing us to confront the inherent disadvantages faced by students in South Africa. Instead of trying to set up a scholarship fund for our own babies or the babies of our domestic workers, we believe that Baby will be exceptional, will get a bursary and all will be well. It makes us blind and not proactive at all. What if Baby ends up getting into university, but doesn’t get a bursary? Of course then we blame the Department of Education and we blame NSFAS, but never ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, there are major issues with the Department of Basic Education. Why can Maritzburg College achieve a 100% pass rate year after year, but Diazville High School in Saldanha Bay doesn’t? Why do students from Maritzburg College go on to excel at university while students from Diazville drop out or take more than the minimum amount of time to complete their degrees? It is definitely not because less exceptional students go to Diazville. Somehow, two schools that follow the exact same curriculum and write the same exams produce very different results. It shows that there is a correlation between privilege and success (barring those exceptional students, again). It also shows that mainly government-funded and -run schools do not prepare students well enough for university. This is not all government’s fault because government only has so much money available (ja, ja, we know about corruption and whatnot), but it does show that where one starts has a big impact on where one ends up in the end.

So we think about these issues and we don’t see answers and instead we focus on the exceptional students who worked hard. We discount those who failed because “How can you not get 30%?” like we were such amazingly bright people in high school. I am pretty sure that some of you dropped Maths as soon as you could and yet you are the ones judging the ‘20% pass mark’ without reading and understanding the stringent conditions which must be met before that pass mark can be applied.

But hey, “Maybe if students stopped burning buses and worked hard instead they’d be graduating too.” Maybe they’d even be lucky enough to snag a bursary and not have to start out their careers with Black Tax and crippling amounts of debt strangling them.

There is nothing wrong with not being exceptional (I know very few people who are) and we must stop pretending that being exceptional has to be the norm. Instead, we must celebrate exceptional achievements, but also realise that most students are above average at best and that these students deserve a fair chance too, that being poor and/or black is something that cannot be wished away by working hard and by admitting that poor and/or black people start off much, much lower on the ladder than privileged and/or white people do.

Instead of saying “Maybe they should work harder”, we should donate to less fortunate schools (why are you donating to Wynberg Boys’ High anyway – they have an entire estate to themselves), we should set up trust funds for the children of our domestic workers, we should contribute towards the medical aids of our domestic workers or buy the school uniform of a poorer child.

Ah, this school uniform thing reminds me of something that happened to me when I was younger. At the end of my grade 11 year, I was announced as the head girl of my high school. Myself and the new head boy were the first non-white head students in the school’s existence (at the time). When we went to buy our new blazers (with accompanying jerseys, pull-overs and ties) I realised that there was no way that I could afford even the blazer, let alone the whole entire ensemble. Of course I was pretty devastated because anyone who knows me knows that I like nice things, but the lovely owners of Van Zyl’s Mans Uitrustings in Vredenburg were so excited about this Coloured and Indian head girl and boy that they donated two brand new blazers and jerseys to us. I will never forget that.

No, hard work isn’t always the answer. Sometimes it is the kindness of strangers that makes all the difference.

Twenty Sixteen in 5 personally significant books

Twenty Sixteen in 5 personally significant books

I ended up reading the following 26 books in 2016 (not counting textbooks, legislation and other academic reading):

[From Goodreads – Danielle’s Year in Books]

Twenty Sixteen has been my year of reading, so to speak. I wanted to read one book a month, but I ended up finding some beautiful feminist and cultural novels and biographies which I could not put down. Most of these books have changed my way of thinking in some or other way, but in the interest of time and space, I have chosen 5 books which have truly, TRULY spoken to me.

  1. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

I don’t even know where to start when it comes to Chimamanda. A friend recommended this novel, her first one, to me and I could not put it down. I think in hindsight I prefer Half of a Yellow Sun to this one, but Purple Hibiscus definitely is a very very close second.

Having grown up in a severely restrictive and sexist religion myself for a number of years, this story really resonated with me. The overly religious father and his ideologies, the church’s treatment of women and children (especially girls), the abuse of women by their husbands, these are all things which made this novel very difficult to deal with.

My favourite books have always been the ones that made me so angry that I could hardly breathe and this was definitely one of those. It is perfect for any teenager – male or female – because ‘we should all be feminists’ (10 points to the person who knows why that quote is significant!)

2. 1984 – George Orwell:

I know that many people struggle to read the classics, but if I were to recommend one (and I have read quite a few), it would be this one.

Orwell was years ahead of his time when he wrote this dystopian novel about a world in which Big Brother is always watching. Where one’s every move, every facial expression, every action is watched and analysed, where free thought is not permitted and any dissenting views are immediately squashed. This novel reminded me of religion, the CIA and The Taliban all in one.

Again, I was both infuriated and fascinated by this novel. If I were to choose a favourite classic, it would definitely be this one, with To Kill a Mockingbird in second place.

3. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe:

I have been trying to read more writers whose stories show different perspectives, with a specific focus on African writers. Chinua Achebe, being the master of African writing, thus had to be read.

This was a significant read because it shows the many different facets of colonisation. Most stories either depict colonists as savages or as saints, with no in between. Regardless of what one’s views on colonisation are, this novel shows more than one side to it. Where colonists brought war and racism, they also brought with them the knowledge to know that twins are not cursed and therefore should not be murdered upon birth and that girls and boys should both be allowed to go to school.

This was indeed a thought-provoking read, with my allegiances shifting often between the protagonist (or antagonist, I still cannot decide) and the other people in the village. Every African should read this. If you can read Shakespeare, you can make the effort to read Achebe.

4. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini:

I genuinely believed that Khaled Hosseini would never be able to top The Kite Runner, but he did. (By the way, The Kite Runner is another must-read, or at least watch the movie).

Set in Afghanistan across two different generations, two women face their own battles until they are eventually thrust into a situation together by a cruel twist of fate. Facing sexism, abuse, grief and the loss of dreams and hope, these women show the strength of women who have had to endure such pain for years and sometimes even lifetimes.

At times I was angry enough to put the book down and take a walk to chill out. It upset me that many women are still oppressed in this way because of extreme religious ideologies. It also gave me hope. It gave me hope that there are open-minded people in the world, it gave me hope that I have freedoms which my mother and her mother before her did not have (just being able to write a blog post is one of those freedoms), it gave me hope for the future of women around the world.

5. Dreams From My Father – Barack Obama:

I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiography. It chronicles the life of Barack Obama up until his entry into Law School. The writing is beautiful! I found the imagery and the symbolism fascinating and what made it even more amazing is the fact that it was written by a lawyer, not a poet.

Obama chronicles his early childhood, teenage years, young adult years and finally his visit to Nigeria like a novelist would write a novel. I tend to struggle to read biographies (although I still love them) because they aren’t as riveting as novels, but this one was different. It reads like a novel and the beauty of its prose had me hooked from the word ‘go’. Of the books I managed to read this year, this was the best written one in terms of language, punctuation and prose.

I found Obama’s identity struggles as a black man somewhat disconcerting – I think I had always just known that he is a remarkable black man without really realising that as a child and a young adult he too struggled with his identity, with belonging. I found this odd, but also very comforting. For anyone who has struggled with their identity, this is definitely worth reading.

I am looking forward to more reading during 2017. I am especially excited to read the following five books:

  • And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini (in progress)
  • The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo – Amy Schumer (it is supposed to be very funny)
  • The Princess Diarist – Carrie Fisher
  • Hard Choices – Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service – Laura Kaplan

Here’s to another year of books and expanded horizons in 2017!

A Woman

A Woman

I am a daughter
I am a sister
I am a woman.

I am not a wife
I am not a mother
Yet still I am a woman.

I choose never to be a wife
I choose never to be a mother
Still, I will be a woman.

No, I will not be sad
No, I will not be lonely
I will be a woman.

I will study
I will put my career before all else
I will travel the world
and I will try different cuisines

I will publish books
I will run marathons
and I will protest for gender equality

I will be defined by my intelligence, kindness and empathy
not by my physical appearance

I will laugh with friends
talk to strangers
hug animals

I will be a woman
a woman unlike what your little mind can comprehend
a woman who will not be pigeon-holed by your archaic and patriarchal ideas

A Woman
A Woman
A Woman.