Tuesday, January 22, 2008, 12:33 PM
Posted by Erica Rossi
“The only ritual in which we are afforded the same status as men is at our funeral. It is in death that we ultimately achieve equality. Almost every other little parade, charade or ceremony serves either overtly or, cowering under the cloak of ancient wisdom and truth, to reinforce our role as perpetual, shuffling servants to patriarchy.” – South African writer and journalist Marianne Thamm, ‘A snip away’, 11 September 2002 (Mental Floss, 2002, p112)
Walking into my homestay, I was very excited to take part in a truly cultural experience. Little did I know how cultural my experience was going to be. My homestay group was greeted by Gladys, a very nice woman with a huge smile on her face. She was incredibly friendly as she invited us into her beautiful home. As we toured Gladys’ house that she shared with only her husband we came across a fairly large party. As we walked into the room where the party was taking place, Gladys explained to us that she and all of the people there were part of the Moravian Church Choir. The Choit proceeded to sing the South African National Anthem to welcome us and we all began to feel right at home. Their gesture was very warm and well-received.
It did not take long, though, to realize that everyone at the party was quite intoxicated especially one middle-aged man who was making all of the females from the class very uncomfortable. Within twenty minutes of being in this home, this man repeatedly asked one of the girls in our group to “Stand up and show [her] body” and to “Strip!” He stated a few times that “Five American girls are here and one must leave pregnant.” In addition, this particular man made comments about the size of his penis and told us he was going to sleepwalk into our rooms while we were all sleeping. His harassment was not solely toward us, though. There were a few times where he quite literally humped another woman, slapped her ass, and screamed, “I want to touch her!” The woman who was the object of this man’s attention was not his wife although his wife was in attendance and watched as her husband made a complete fool of himself. What did all of the other guests at the party do while this was going on? They simply laughed and assured us that this man was just joking, but I did not care if it was all a joke- we were being sexually harassed.
Although my experience was not the most positive, it definitely shed some light on the gender inequities that exist in South Africa. In newspapers and on the televised news here in beautiful South Africa, we hear about the rapes and acts of sexual violence that occur all over the country. According to an article by Katharine Wood and Rachel Jewkes, “an estimated 1.3 million rapes take place each year” (42). One may ask how and why these numbers are so high. It is the kind of power dynamics that I and some of my classmates saw in our homestay that leads to sexual violence. This is not in any way to say that the man we met at our homestay is a perpetrator of sexual violence. It is just to say that it his kind of attitute toward women that leads to sexual violence. We must work to extinguish these attitudes and try and further gender equity. A society where this kind of behavior by men is excused is saying that it is OK to objectify women and treat them as less than human. It is much easier to commit sexual violence and victimize someone you don’t really see as a human being.
It is also interesting to look at this example when comsidering why HIV/AIDS is so rampant in South Africa. In the same article by Wood and Jewkes, they write, “It is these power relations which determine women’s ability – or inability – to protect themselves against sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy and unwelcome sexual acts. In the context of unequal power, it is invariably men who determine the timing of sexual intercourse and its nature, including whether a woman should try to conceive, and whether or not condoms will be used” (41).
It is unfair to say that this is only South Africa’s issue. The United States is battling similar problems as well. We, too, are living in a country where sexual harassment is often seen as a joke. Men think women are being sensitive if we ask them to stop calling us “sweety” or “honey” at work and they cannot imagine that we would be offended by such a sweet name, but those names are demeaning. When Hillary Clinton’s clothing is commented on by both the media and other candidates, there is a problem. When was the last time you heard the media or candidates comment on another man’s clothing? Most people do not see this as an issue, but it is indicative of the way women are viewed differently in the United States and how men look at women not as equals, but as sexual beings whose adornments are more important than their minds.
These male behaviors perpetuate the cycle of sexual harassment and sexual violence. When men believe they have the right to talk to a woman the way we were talked to at the homestay, men also get the sense that women are mere objects that are there to entertain and please. I noted when we visited the Domestic Violence Center for Women and Children on January 8th that they did not have any programs that worked with men on sexual harassment and violence issues, but when talking to the women who gave us the presentation afterwards, she told me that there needs to be more of a focus on educating men about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. We see a very similar trend in the States. There is much more of a focus on women than there is on men. Wood and Jewkes write that there may be a risk in doing this because we “may be unwittingly promoting the idea that violence is a ‘women’s issue'” (45). They continue by saying that their “research suggests that there is a need for NGOs to move beyond crisis of violence by engaging with men as perpetrators or potential perpetrators and recognising the contexts of sexual abuse within sexual partnerships. Not only should gender violence be made a focus of sexuality intervention programmes, but attention should be shifted towards changing the attitudes and practices of men” (45).
I truly value my homestay experience and think that it proved to be very valuable in learning about South African culture. Not only did it provide insights into South African culture, but United States culture as well. We are living in a patriarchal society and we must start putting an emphasis on educating men about how to treat women. It is so easy to ride these problems off as ‘their’ problem, but it is our problem, too, and we all must start addressing it before it worsens. My homestay experience simply showed me that gender inequities exist everywhere in many forms. I think it is also very important to note that most people had very positive experiences in their homestay and learned a lot as well. The homestay experience is definitely an integral part of The Call of South Africa trip.
“I wonder if it will prove to have been easier to fight the oppression of apartheid than it will ever be to set women free in our societies…Male domination does not ‘burn down’.” – Lauretta Ngcobo, South African writer (Bruner, African Women’s Writing, pp94-5)