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.

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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.

Why Women’s Day Matters

Why Women’s Day Matters

I love Women’s Day. Actually, as you might know by now, I love commemorative days in general. Firstly, because introspection and reflection is always a good thing to do and secondly (and most importantly), because it gives me something to write about and writing makes me happy.

I have a soft spot for Women’s Day, though. I like to celebrate it by doing something I enjoy, so in previous years I have gone hiking and running on Women’s Day and this year I am eating an entire pizza in bed in my most comfortable pajamas while I read, stalk my ultimate crush (Barack Obama – *swoon*) and do some minor writing.

Today I want to focus on why Women’s Day exists. I often overhear or participate in conversations about why we have Women’s Day and they usually go something like this: “Why exactly do we have Women’s Day? Why no Men’s Day? Surely now that women are equal to men, Women’s Day should no longer exist?” Well, this is why:

Globally, Womens’s Day is actually celebrated on 8 March every year. What we celebrate in South Africa on 9 August is the commemoration of the march of approximately twenty thousand women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956. This year is the 60th anniversary of that march. These women marched in protest of the ‘Pass Laws’ which required all black South Africans to carry an internal passport known as a pass with them under the Apartheid regime. The women stood silently for 30 minutes and then sang a struggle song which was composed specially for the occasion: Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (Now you have touched a woman you have struck a rock.) The song title has since become the catch phrase of Women’s Day and the embodiment of the strength of the South African woman.

It is eerily fitting and ironic, then, that four women chose to exercise their right to protest peacefully at the IEC briefing on Saturday 6 August during president Jacob Zuma’s speech, just 3 days before Women’s Day. Unfortunately, 60 years after the peaceful march to the Union Buildings, these women appeared to have been roughly removed from the venue by the president’s security and had their placards (which read “Khanga”, “Remember Khwezi”, “10 yrs later” and “I am 1 in 3”) snatched from them. It is a sad state of affairs that we are able to applaud women for protesting peacefully in 1956, but when four women protest peacefully and silently about a matter which causes disrepute to the president, they are removed roughly by said president’s security cohort.

Which brings me to why we need Women’s Day. Women’s Day is not only a commemoration of the heroic actions of women like the Union Building 20 000 who helped bring about change to how women are perceived today, it is also a reminder that as far as we have come in the last few decades, women are still not equal counterparts to men in society.

Although women are able to pursue careers in any industry and in any field and are able to enlist in every branch of the military, women are still paid less than men in the workforce (and this wage gap disparity is even worse for black women). Inherent biases and ideas about women still run rampant in society today, one of which is the perception of sexually active men as opposed to sexually active women. When a teenage boy has had numerous sexual partners he is often congratulated and praised, but when a teenage girl has had the same number of sexual partners, she is shunned and slut-shamed.

Victim blaming, therefore, is still one of the reasons why Women’s Day and other reminders of the inequalities which still exist are so important.

Then there are the issues relating to sexual violence and the treatment of sexual violence victims and survivors. The justice system, in an attempt to ensure that no one is found guilty of a crime which he/she did not commit (sensibly so), often appears to favour the accused instead of protecting the victim and many times these victims are women. The Jacob Zuma rape case comes to mind here, where his accuser, known to the media as Khwezi, had her clothing choices questioned (she wore a traditional khanga) and had her entire sexual history recounted to the court in order to acquit Jacob Zuma of the charges against him.  Victim blaming, therefore, is still one of the reasons why Women’s Day and other reminders of the inequalities which still exist are so important.

The issue of having Women’s Day and not Men’s Day is like saying ‘All lives matter’ when someone says ‘Black lives matter’.

Lastly, the issue of having Women’s Day and not Men’s Day is like saying ‘All lives matter’ when someone says ‘Black lives matter’. We know that all lives matter, just as we know that men are valuable contributors to our societies. The point of Women’s Day, like ‘Black lives matter’, is not to say that men do not matter, but to celebrate the fact that women have had to fight an uphill battle to attain the freedoms and privileges which we now enjoy, as well as to point out the fact that there is still work to be done in creating a 100% equal society.

Some of the famous women who inspire me (hover over the picture to see the name):

For two comprehensive lists of women who are worth researching and looking up to, check out African Feminist’s blog posts entitled 15 Women Worth Looking Up To and 8 African Feminists of Note.