I'm talking about the man on the street who asked my mother, "How many cows?"
I’ve just returned from an exciting two weeks in Germany for the World Schools’ Debating Championships. Having made the mistake of booking a domestic flight in the late afternoon, I must once again meander through this maze of tiled floors, concrete pillars and metal railings which I have come to know like the back of my hand. (I’ve always thought airports should provide free sleep rooms – a small, simple space with a mattress where you can put up your feet for a bit and recharge. But apparently those are called ‘premium lounges’ and comfortable rest is reserved for the elite.) I’m feeling tired – but not the flat, empty kind of tired I usually feel after my international escapades. No, this time I feel content.
As I park my trolley outside Jacksons’, the young male waiter greets me,
I almost don’t hear the last word. Part of me wants to brush it off like I have done so many times in the past. I do a double-take and politely ask, ‘Excuse me, what did you say?’
He smiles sheepishly and innocently repeats himself, ‘I said “Hello, beautiful.”’
Okay. Time for the feminist ninja to kick in and set things straight. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve spent the last 2 weeks in one of the most progressive countries on earth – lavishing in the freedom to walk the streets back to my hotel room at 6am after a night of hard partying, without so much as a shadow of apprehension for my safety – or maybe it’s the fact that I’m just sick and tired of certain men genuinely not knowing how to treat women, but this time I am not going to let it go.
Many people (mostly males, but including women as well) don’t understand why this kind of micro-aggression grates my teeth. Like every other female, I have grown up normalized to the catcalls, names, whistles and stares cast my way by men of all ages. I must have been about 9 years old when I first became awkwardly aware that something about the fact that I am a female seems to attract very unusual behaviour from males. I am not just talking about my primary school companions who felt the need to annoy me for attention, or the guys who suddenly wanted to talk politics when I was around. Those pathetic attempts at courtship have existed since time immemorial and us females will just have to bear with it.
No, I am talking about the man on the street who asked my mother ‘how many cows?’. I am talking about the time I was followed by two drunk guys in a car on a Sunday morning while walking back from church; the time I went grocery shopping with my older brother and a bunch of men beckoned to each other in their foreign language to come and take a closer look; the guy in the bus who passed just close enough to touch my behind – the list is endless, and I can assure you that any woman will have a similar inventory.
So you see, this is not a simple case of being complimented. While I value my femininity and consider myself beautiful both inside and out, this aspect of my identity belongs to me and me alone. I choose who to share it with and this autonomy is violated when strangers – creeps, streetwalkers, and even under a more civilized disguise, friends’ fathers and my dad’s work colleagues – decide that they have the freedom to snatch that away from me.
When referring to her work Dora and the Other Woman, South African artist Penelope Siopis says of this kind of fascination and staring, ‘looking may be seen as a way of possessing with the eyes’. The artwork intertwines the narratives of two woman – Dora and Saartje Baartman – who were victims of sexism.
Dora was a young woman from the Viennese bourgeoisie who was sent by her father to Sigmund Freud for treatment of ‘hysterical unsociability’ when her suicide note was discovered. Her psychological problems were really symptoms of her miserable life at the hands of the men around her. She believed (and Freud agreed) that she was being used as a pawn in a game between her father and his mistress’s husband; where he had promised his daughter in exchange for the woman.
Saartje Baartman lived a world and a century away but was oppressed by similar man-handling. The ‘Hottentot Venus’ was discovered by the brother of her employer, a Dutch farmer in Cape Town, who suggested that Saartje travel to London and Europe to exhibit herself, promising her a share in the profits. What caught his eye was her unusual anatomy - she had protruding buttocks and a flap of skin (degradingly known as the ‘Hottentot apron’) covering her genital area. On arrival in London in 1810, Saartje immediately went on exhibition, causing a sensation. After a tour of the English provinces, she travelled to Paris where an animal trainer put her on show for fifteen months. She died of an inflammatory ailment in 1815, after which her sexual organs were dissected and can still be seen to this day in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.
I am fortunate to never have been violated like Dora or Saartje. But I am a woman, and this has made me painfully aware that dignity, privacy and respect are visceral, fragile concepts. We can never truly own them – and hence ourselves – in a world that esteems us as less important. Parts of our identity are stolen from us every second and there is nothing that we can do about it.
They say that beauty lies in the eye of the holder. This is true, but it is unfortunate that too often the beholder happens to be a man who twists that beauty so that his gaze becomes not appreciation, but objectification and belittlement – like the man who is standing in front of me right now.
I look him straight in the eye. ‘Is that how you talk to your customers? You work here and that is completely unprofessional.’
He looks at me with puzzled embarrassment. He has never been confronted with anyone who has reprimanded him for this seemingly innocent behaviour.
The poor chap is now calling me ‘Ma’am’ and enthusiastically waiting on my every need. He respectfully places the menu at my side, tells me to ‘take my time Ma’am’ and brings me my drink within lightening speed of having ordered it. Mrs Smouse, my grade 8 and 9 class teacher, always used to say, ‘People treat you the way you let them treat you.’
My waiter checks up on me twice during the course of my meal.
‘Is everything fine ma’am, anything I can get for you?’
Nothing on the menu thanks. But I do have an intense craving for equality with a bit of respect on the side…