I am sitting in a private taxi. Earlier, when I stepped into it, I noticed the cab driver’s gaze run over my body—the kind of look that makes my skin crawl and my fingers dig into the strap of my shoulder bag before I quickly tell myself that it’s fine, it’s daylight and I’m perfectly safe.
As we drive through the leafy suburbs of Cape Town, I notice a steady stream of University of Cape Town students making their way to some important rugby game or festival. At a traffic light, a cavalcade of them passes in front of our cab, dressed in comfortable summer clothes (shorts, skirts, dresses, vests, t-shirts, long dresses that skim the ankles, jeans and so on). The driver says, “Don’t they feel shame dressed like that?”
I’ve been determined to avoid conversation with him but I can’t help but ask, “Dressed like what?”
His eyelids flicker over the clump of students. “Like that—with their legs showing and arms. You can see the whole buttocks of a woman bared in the open—it’s not right.”
My hackles have not just risen, they are jumping up and down and banging on the car window—I will not let this one go. “But surely women have the right to wear what they want, however they want?” I ask. I am measuring my words, trying to keep calm and rational because there is no quicker way to get dismissed by men, I’ve found, than screaming at them and attempting to gouge their eyes out with a pen (my initial instinct).
He shakes his head adamantly, “No. No—it’s wearing clothes like that, to tempt a man, that’s what causes problems for these women.”
For the taxi driver, ‘problems’ encompass everything from getting hit on, heckled and hissed at on the street to rape and other forms of sexual violence—I’m clenching my fists. What follows is a discussion that makes my blood boil even as I turn cold.
Driver: Look, you can put in as much civilisation as you want but you can’t change the essential nature of a man—it’s a primitive thing… it’s in our DNA. You need to know how your actions will make you be seen and what your actions will provoke. And if you walk down the street dressed like that, you’re inviting men to approach you.
Me: Don’t women then have the choice to refuse? And isn’t it the responsibility of men to control their ‘urges’ and respect people, to respect women as fellow human beings?
Driver: If a woman is on the street and she is dressed alluringly, like, if you were walking down the street, wearing a bikini, wouldn’t you want men to desire you?
Me: Maybe I just enjoy wearing a bikini or a short dress for myself and I don’t give a damn what men are thinking of me when I walk down the street.
Driver: Let me tell you, I was a young man once, I walked down the street in tight-fitting clothing because you know what? I wanted the girls to look at me. And I know that I’m no different than any other man.
I lose my cool fairly quickly because I can’t argue about this rationally or coolly the way I would in a paper or a report. This is personal. It’s a fight that I and every woman in the world are waging daily: the right to our bodies. The right to choose—not just what to wear but whether we want sex, when to have it, with whom, and how. The right to walk down the street and not feel threatened and not be violated because we somehow deserve it, because our dresses are too tight and our heels too high, because we’re asking for it.
When I tell this taxi driver that he’s repeating the basic assumptions of a woman-hating rape culture—a culture that naturalises sexism and violence against women so that our jokes, the adverts we see on TV, our laws, our words and imagery, our music and films make violence and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe rape is inevitable and that, specifically, women are to blame—he gets angry. He bangs his hand on the steering wheel so hard that I flinch, and I’m back to clutching my purse-strap.
A green light pops up and he hoots impatiently at a pair of straggling pedestrians, the car jerks forward and he tells me, “That type of attire is an invitation. The image that’s been presented, I respond to that image.” I suggest that a woman can be raped whether she’s wearing a nun’s habit or a short skirt, that what she wears has nothing to do with anything. He’s not hearing any of it.
Instead, the conversation veers in a weird direction when he informs me that “all rapists should be hanged” and that, “in an open society where you have people prey on others, you need strong measures to dissuade rapists because they will not adhere to the rules.”
Across South Africa and the world, people are still reeling from the brutal gang-rape and murder of Anene Booysens. The reactions have spanned the spectrum, from President Zuma’s rather limp condemnation of the attack as “shocking, cruel and most inhumane” to South Africa’s biggest labour union, COSATU (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) calling for mass action over rape in South Africa and a UN statement strongly reproving the rape and murder. One very vocal strand of reactionary debate to the incident has had many people calling for the death penalty for rapists.
But that’s not going to solve the problem. Anene’s violation isn’t an isolated one, not in a country that by last count records 6 cases of reported rape every hour (the highest in the world)—it forms part of a larger culture of violence intersecting with ingrained sexism and misogyny and a host of other socio-economic and political factors. Embedded in what the taxi driver’s saying is a mentality we are all too familiar with—that he is not in any way a part of the problem. That there is a special group of evil rapist men and if we corral them into a room and set them on fire that will put an end to all our problems. Any attempts I make to disabuse him of this dangerous fairy tale—to even broach the idea of larger systems and structures that form the conditions for violence on multiple levels and perpetuate it; to try to talk about how hyper-violent masculinities are complex and far bigger than the individual or these ‘primordial’ urges—are roundly dismissed. Activist and writer, Jay Naidoo puts it well:
…We need to look at the root causes. Men are not born as rapists. Something happens that makes these men violent and vengeful against women. Our role as parents is the biggest influence on what our children will become. That cannot be outsourced to government. The home is the place where we learn love, compassion, tolerance and integrity. The home is where we are taught respect for each other, the ability to listen with humility and to learn from our mistakes. Gender equality needs to start in the home. Respect for the rights of girls and women begin in the home. And men have to learn that a real man’s place starts off with changing napkins, preparing the family meals and playing a role in raising their children…. What happens in our homes happens in our society.
I can see from the way he’s looking at me in his rear-view mirror that he thinks I’m an unhinged, hysterical virago—a bitch basically. When I tell him that I’m a feminist, he rolls his eyes. Really, what I should have said, is that I’m a woman, sitting in the back of his window-tinted car, wearing a short and revealing dress and he has just informed me that I’m awakening the ‘primordial urges’ of every passing male on the street including him and possibly inciting them to sexual violence. I am not really a person, I’m an object to be desired and potentially victimized. That disturbs me. Even more, this reasoning makes me angry.
As we near our destination, I ask him one last question.
Me: Okay, are your ideas based on morality or what?
Driver: Moral reasons? Well, it is partly that. But I believe that the relationship between a male and female can never be platonic because there is this essential, psychological, primordial urge that we have and that will always influence the relationships between male and female. It’s never going to be possible for a man to look at the body of a woman and not respond in a sexual manner. Unless he’s gay. And, you know, women take advantage of that, that’s why they work in these strip clubs. I think that in society, I want to respect the woman as a person. And if she dresses… scantily it’s a bit difficult for me to focus.
Me: Perhaps you need to work on your focus.
Driver: Sweetheart, I have no control over that.
When I step out of the vehicle after handing my money to him as politely as possible, I don’t ask for change. I stand and I breathe in deeply as if I’ve just stepped out of an airless box. There is the cheap comfort of crowds, so I shake my head, pull surreptitiously at the skirt of my dress and walk away.