It’s Not Fair

Womanhood | By Zanele Mhlaba, Blogger | 31 October 2014

Any girl with brothers, older or younger, can tell you that the rules of the house were different when it came to the boys in the household. There was something about being the girl child that felt very restrictive and much of the policing was reserved for us. It seemed terribly unfair. I would often say that my mother was paranoid. She was always asking numerous questions whenever I wanted to go somewhere. It meant that I was constantly denied permission to go places or do things. But, that’s what mothers do; they worry about their children.

The older I got, the more I started to wonder if the concern was that I would get mugged or kidnapped, or if it was that I would start getting involved with boys or worse, older men. I got the feeling that it was more about the latter. It was not hard to notice that every effort is made to get girls from birth to marriage with their reputations intact. Girls are constantly monitored: who are they talking to, where are they going and with whom? These questions, which any responsible parent would likely ask, felt suffocating and annoying because boys never seemed to be vetted as much, before leaving the house. As I became older and my parents’ “protection” in the form of curfews and denials of permission to go out were no longer a factor, I quickly realised that male-female relationships are approached from the perspective that the onus is on women to modify their behaviour in order to prevent certain things from happening.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie articulated it so well when she said, “We teach girls shame. Close your legs, cover yourself, we make them feel as though by being born female they’re already guilty of something.” Recently, an explicit video involving a teenage girl and a group of teenage boys was making the rounds on Whatsapp. It became a hot topic, with allegations of sexual assault and questions about what the girl was doing alone with these boys in the first place. I felt sorry for the girl and it reminded me of something that happened to me.

A few years ago, I was out with a large mixed group of friends. It started off as a house party and later moved to a popular nightclub. We headed back to the house around 4am and shortly after I got into bed, one of the guys came into the room. He insisted that he wanted to sleep in the bed with me and wouldn’t leave. All of a sudden a fun night turned into a nightmare and I was physically fighting someone off. I was afraid and when I finally called out for help, someone came in, made an excuse for his drunken friend and took him away. I locked the door and started crying. I kept thinking how I would even begin to explain this. If something worse had happened, there would have been a firestorm of questions: why was I sleeping there in the first place, why was I drinking, had I encouraged him? I knew that the discussion would have focused on how I had gotten myself in that position.

A large expectation of respectability and chastity follows us, as women. While you are young, parents are strict to drive this point home. They discourage relationships with boys, preach against promiscuity, and generally make it difficult for girls to find themselves in compromising positions. This is mostly done in the context of consensual relations but, unfortunately, the thinking often infiltrates conversations on sexual assault and rape.

When questions arise about what a woman was wearing, or her sobriety they seem to be more about figuring out if she brought something upon herself, than anything else. 

As an adult woman, even though, I can choose which men to associate with as well as where; it is always in the back of my mind that the consequences of these choices can quickly become a heavy cross to bear. I may very well be blamed for anything that happens to me as a result of choosing to be in a man’s presence. I find that unfair.