Female: A Body At War

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Photo: eNCA/ Kyle Oberholzer

A year ago I was walking down a Jo’burg street with a fellow student when we met returnees from the Wits demonstration which had taken place in to highlight rape culture at the university, in solidarity to the then trending #RUReference list. He didn’t understand, this fellow student, why women were, “parading” is the word he used, their half-naked bodies in protest. He saw this act as defeating the purpose, “How do men stop themselves when the women are already naked,” he asked.

But what do you do as a woman, when you are so angry, so frustrated at being violated and then mocked by patriarchy? You strip down to the bareness of the very skin that has been the cause of your pain. You inscribe the words “STILL NOT ASKING FOR IT” across your chest. And you chant, for dear life, you chant. You chant because you are female. Because you are angry, you march. You do this because you have lived your entire life with patriarchy breathing down your throat.

The young woman feels that her body is getting away from her… on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to become flesh.

– Simone de Beauvior, The Second Sex

My first notable literary experience with acts against the female body came in the form of Bryce Courtenay’s historical novel, Jessica; which I read in the eleventh grade. Early on in the book, Jessica, who is her father’s daughter, is teased and attached, mainly because she is female. Her life then goes on to become a twisted web of pain and deception which sees her losing her betrothed and new born child. Her mother, in defense of her sister, is the primary cause of her misery. Jessica eventually dies, more from a broken heart, than from a snake bite.

This morning I celebrated the release of Koleka Putuma’s anthology, Collective Amnesia, by purchasing a copy. It was her work that made me aware of the things that have taught to silence my pain as a woman. I had for a long time protected my perpetrators, cut them lots of slack, and been at war with my own body over the things that other people did to it. In her poetry I saw my scars, my bruises, my broken heart, and was able to find my way back from a journey of emotional self-harm.

In my matric year I read Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. At sixteen, I already related to Angel, who was sold into prostitution after her mother died. She was her father’s illegitimate child, one who, by the mere fact of being born, made her father see less of her mother, and eventually throw her out on the streets. Love eventually finds her in Hosea, a man of God, but for as long as she is with him, in the safety of his cabin, she is unable to get over her fear of never being enough for him. Angel finds herself, in the end, in the suffering of women like her, far away from the influence of man.

After I had just left university to raise my son, I read Tsitsi Dangaremba’s Nervous Conditions, which is laces with gender and patriarchal oppression. All Tambu wants to do is go to school, and although she gets the opportunity to do just that, she is never just comfortable because of the pressure excreted on her by societal constraints. She develops a rebellious attitude to change as a result.

A masterpiece unfathomable was fashioned and formed
Beyond conventional norms of society’s
Stating-
All they were destined to be
Are
Child bearers,
Victims,
Punching bags,
Secretaries,
All things derogatory,
Burden carriers,
Wives
And a mere shadows of the xy chromosome.

– Koleka Putuma, form her Poem Woman

At the beginning of the past year I received Eleven Minutes as a gift. Having read only The Alchemist from Paulo Coelho, I took his introductory note to the book to heart. He writes about Maria, who – like many other women I have to know, is left broken by her first try at this notion of love we all have. She, unlike many women I know, takes on sex as an interest and ends up as a sex worker in a foreign country. Having given up on love, it finds her.

I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini at the end of the year, had tears in my eyes for most of it. Mariam and Laila, both after tragically losing their families, find themselves married to Rasheed, a shoemaker from Khabul. The women start off as enemies, but their collective suffering in a country at war, a society punishes women for not having a man by her side, and an abusive household, sees them come together to build a formidable mother and daughter relationship and survive the odds.

I found a copy of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing at the library some months ago, and if I ever remember anything about that beautiful work of art (I’m a fan), it will be Ness. A beautiful slave on a cotton plantation, she bears scars so ugly on her back that they deem her too ugly to ever work in the main house with the other “pretty” house slaves. After having known only the harshness of her mother, Ness uses her body as a shield to protect first her husband, and then to usher her son into freedom.

This evening I came across Taiye Selasi’s The Sex Lives of African girls, one of the most moving pieces I’ve read to date. It is about rape and relativity. So beautifully written, so delicately decorated with female pain, that I sat an entire hour without moving. I had read Daughters Who Become Lovers by Jennifer Emelife earlier in the week. Here Jennifer is raped by a man who assumed the role of a father figure and mentor to her career. I felt a need to protect myself. What from through? From men, from corporate culture? From society? From religion? From insurance rates? From black twitter?

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Photo: Palesa Mokua

In all of these I’ve found pieces of myself, in some way or another. I saw women continually reinventing themselves through their bodies to fit into a society that is constantly attacking them for being. I see it in everyday life. In my grandmother, my mother, my sister, and in my friends when we sit at the bar and share scenarios that fish for advice. I constantly ask myself, for how long? Till when? What about the girls? What about my daughter? Will she too one day feel like the only way to protect herself from the menacing pain is by stripping down, by remaining silent, by self-harming?

If one thing is clear, we are not alone. All over the wold, in different forms, women still suffer from the wrath of patriarchy. It’s there, it’s a real thing, and we cannot continue to treat it as something we just brush under carpets, or wipe away from under our feet. We cannot keep suffering from a collective amnesia, while our bodies die at war.

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Tumelo is a wolf that breathes aether…

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