Fighting against patriarchy and sexism is hard. It’s bloody exhausting. Some days you want to give up. You don’t stop noticing it or caring about what it does to women. You can see how it shuts women out of conversations and makes them question themselves. But some days I feel like it’s just me against the patriarchy and I just need a rest.
Because it never stops and you can’t escape it. It’s in politics, it’s in our homes, it’s in the goddamn water! And all I want is to call for back up and be flanked by an army of women who get it. Get what? Get that we can’t let the little things slide. Because those little sliding things fall on top of each other and they prop up the bigger things that make news headlines. They prop up domestic violence and rape and femicide. It’s a system, people.
So when I see women perpetuating this system I feel betrayed. I expect my sisters to oppose the system. I expect them to help me. I don’t expect to have to fight them. This week I witnessed a well-known woman condoning sexism and giving away some of my power.
Mbali Ntuli was elected this month as the leader of the Democratic Alliance Youth. Last week two people tweeted sexist messages at her on Twitter. The first one from ORAKHAN© read “I’d vote for DA anytime if I can go out with Mbali Ntuli,tjerrr what a beautiful woman”. The second tweet from ‘ᶜᵃˡˡ ᵐᵉ Thabang’ read “DA’s Mbali Ntuli neh.. ufck what she’s saying, she just looks downright edible right now. I’d do things to that girl.” Ntuli responded to these men in a way that condoned their behaviour and made a joke out of it.
This is an example of the little things that we can’t let slide. I wanted to know why she thought that the man’s comments were ‘funny’. I tweeted that question at her but she didn’t reply. It was then that my idea to write a blog post about the little things emerged. I went to sleep after jotting down a few ideas and intended to start writing it the next day. But when I woke up and started to write I began to question myself. Am I being too pedantic? Is this a silly thing to draw attention to? I questioned myself because other people have questioned me before. I shelved the idea.
Then this weekend a friend of mine called me. She told me about a terrible experience she had at work. I asked her if I could share her experience and she agreed. Jane (not her real name) is a lecturer at a South African university. She is incredibly successful. She is only 21 and is lecturing second year students while completing her masters. Her faculty asked its students to complete an anonymous review on all its lecturers. When she got her results back she was shocked at some of the comments. While most of the comments were positive some students had described her as ‘bitchy’, ‘controlling’, and ‘so hot it’s distracting’. “They would never say those things about a male lecturer,” Jane told me over the phone.
She was most upset by a male student that came to her office after the review. He complained that my friend was unwilling to assist learners during consultation hours if they hadn’t done the necessary preparation. Jane explained that she gets angry with students when they don’t come to her lectures and then expect her to lecture them one-on-one during her consultation hours. Without a sound argument he resorted to calling her unprofessional and mean. When she began to respond to this accusation he got aggressive and said “don’t get emotional.” She was stunned. At his point Jane’s senior lecturer intervened and booted the student out her office.
When the student told Jane not to get emotional she knew how it made her feel – she became uncertain and questioned her reaction – but she didn’t know there was a word for it. It’s called gaslighting. Gaslighting occurs when men elicit a reaction in women and then undermine their reaction by accusing them of being crazy, emotional or not having a sense of humour. It is essentially telling a woman “I don’t value how you are feeling or your reaction because you can’t control your response”.
Like the men that tweeted at Ntuli, many of Jane’s students had objectified her. They had disregarded her intellectual ability and reduced her to a sexual object. This had made her question whether she was at fault. “I don’t even wear short dresses,” she told me. When Thabang’s tweeted “… ufck what she’s saying, she just looks downright edible right now. I’d do things to that girl” he also disregarded Ntuli’s intelligence and achievements. Ntuli was just a body to him and she did nothing to show this man or her 4500 followers that his behaviour was wrong.
My friend was right when she said that her students would never call a male lecturer ‘bitchy’ or ‘controlling’. In men these qualities are described as being ‘confident’ or ‘assertive’. Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch magazine, explains why men call women bitches:
…Bitch is a word we use culturally to describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use the term for a woman on the street who doesn’t respond to men’s catcalls or smile when they say, “Cheer up, baby, it can’t be that bad.” We use it for the woman who has a better job than a man and doesn’t apologize for it. We use it for the woman who doesn’t back down from a confrontation.
Jane’s experience made me realise that I had to write about not letting the little things slide. I had to write about how damaging Ntuli’s comments were to women and the struggle for gender equality. I realised I had gaslit myself into not writing the blog post. I had told myself I was overreacting to Ntuli’s tweets. This is why fighting patriarchy and sexism is so hard. It influences even those who are ardently opposing it.
Ntuli might think that it is funny when men objectify her but it’s not. She is an influential woman in South African politics and has the attention of many people. Her responses condoned the men’s behaviour. Because she did not tell them that their comments were inappropriate and sexist they will in all likelihood continue to act this way. But the most damaging effect of her behaviour is that she might make other women question their reactions when they are a victim of sexism. Should I let this slide? Is it worth making a fuss?
Do I expect more from Ntuli because she is a public figure? Yes, I do. The ground that she concedes in the fight against sexism is my ground too. It is also Jane’s ground. When Ntuli publically condoned sexism she gave away women’s power without our permission. She does not have that right. How powerful women act in public reinforces private relations. It affects how men treat Jane and me.
We need to stop letting the little things slide. Challenge sexist tweets, comments and jokes. I know it’s hard. But when you’re tired and you hear the voice that says “just let it go” – please don’t.Follow @kateomega