#YesALLWomen. Because Women and Children aren’t property.

 #YesAllWomen

I don’t pay attention to the real world on the weekends; from Friday evening to Monday morning I am on a self-imposed media blackout. It keeps me sane, and sanity, for me, has been in short supply lately. So I treasure it. But occasionally the world seeps in. Last weekend I heard snatches of what I thought was a massively bad joke; ramblings about wanting sex but not being given it. I switched the radio off; I hear far too much crap on the radio to be outraged constantly. But at work, on Monday morning, I read about Elliot Rodger; and I could not stop reading. Today, I’ve spent too much time reading the #YesAllWomen hashtag at the expense of my inbox. It’s been going since last weekend. It’s still updating every few seconds. It’s being tweeted by women mostly, and some enlightened men.

And I wonder, should I tweet too? Because like almost every woman I have also had the on-street harassment, the being called a bitch for resisting an advance, the mansplaining, the fear of walking alone to my car, the keys in my fist, the drugged drink, the comments about my clothes, and level of attractiveness and the lack thereof. And I’ve known it happen to every young woman I know. Every. Last. One. So maybe on that count, my voice doesn’t need to be added. 

But these things have happened. They may happen again. It became a fact of life I simply, like all women, lived with.

But some things you can’t live beyond, because sometimes these regular “humdrum” assaults and fears go further. This isn’t about a rape, or a beating, or a sexually motivated assault. It’s about meeting a nice guy, falling love, getting married, having a baby, getting divorced.

I left. It doesn’t matter why, because we’ve seen that why does not matter. In a world where I have the choice to leave a relationship that no longer works, I did. But, I was asked, “Why did you leave him? He’s a nice guy?”

We’re told that our standards are too high as modern women. We want too much. There are so many nice guys out there if you just give them a chance and “lower” your standards. Why should we? Why is the “nice guy” the best I can hope for? Why should the companionship I want come from me lowering my standards instead of you meeting them? The “nice guys deserve it” attitude is only a step above “He doesn’t hit you.” And we now know the danger of the “I’m/He’s a nice guy.” He actually isn’t. Elliot Rodger, despite his insistence, certainly wasn’t.

He most certainly wasn’t after the divorce. My choice to leave was a result of me being “depressed”, or “my friend told me to”. Not that I had decided that I was unhappy, or that I wanted better for me. How could I possibly leave a “nice guy”? Well, I did. Because I could and I wanted to. And I moved on, and the moving on triggered a response now, in hindsight, loaded with the loathing and entitlement Rodger displayed.

After the divorce was finalised, and we’d decided our child would live with him, with us having joint custody, being equally responsible for her upbringing, he learned I was having what was then little more than a fling.

The response was: “Don’t think you can see [our daughter] while you see [my now fiancé].” 

In the wake of Rodgers’ massacre, Liz DePriest at http://feministmomstudies.com/2014/05/27/yesallwomen/ recalls an essay she assigns in a lecture;
She writes: “The things I kept seeing in the #YesAllWomen conversation reminded me immediately of a class I taught several weeks ago.  I had assigned Adrienne Rich’s 1980/3 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (full text available here) as well as a few of her poems.  In the essay, Rich includes 8 characteristics of male power that were first articulated by Kathleen Gough in “The Origin of the Family” (1975).  These are as follows:

“Characteristics of male power include the power of men (1) to deny women [their own] sexuality, (2) or to force it [male sexuality] upon them, (3) to command or exploit their labor to control their produce, (4) to control or rob them of their children, (5) to confine them physically and prevent their movement, (6) to use them as objects in male transactions, (7) to cramp their creativeness, (8) to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.”

Number four leapt out at me. Grabbed me. Shook me as his words had when I had heard them. But stayed with me as I, as have many many women and men, continued to read the now week-long #YesAllWomen tweets.

The words contain the rage we all recognise when we spurn advances; when we make choices men do not like; but this time instead of being called a bitch, which, sadly enough was expected, this was the response. The threat of robbing me of my child; of trying to control my actions through denying me legal access to my child.

The implications are there: If I can’t have you, no one can. You belong to me. You are my property and your decisions are not welcome nor taken seriously. And this child is collateral. An object with which to manipulate. To coerce. To force my unreasonable wants into your life.

The response was at best, irrational; at worst, well. At worst, a threat eventually carried out. And one expressed by a man who had once raged at the “women who take children away from their fathers”.  It was simply the ugliest in a litany of hostile behaviour meted out as punishment for my choice. Which I remained silent about. To preserve some sort of peace because we had a child to look after.  Eventually, he did something else and I got really angry. Loudly. Publically. I was castigated.

This revelation of the threat to mutual friends and his family has been met with silence. One almost as deafening as the cacophony of voices shouting my anger and grief down. I only talked about it almost two years after he denied me rightful access to our daughter. Because when that happened, I broke down. I was incoherent with grief. Unable to make a single rational decision or form a single rational thought. Unable to keep the fact that my world had fallen apart secret and silent. It spilled over everywhere. The unthinkable had happened; the threat had been made and I had ignored it. But my breakdown was proof that I was crazy.

Another, later, episode, before the final blow, should have alerted me. Again, an irrational response born out of unwarranted rage.

It was his weekend with her, but I took her as he’d made plans. No big deal. He travelled often and I did the daily duties. No big deal. It is my responsibility.

My daughter and I spent the day with mutual friends, and decided that he’d pick us up later as I knew I’d be drinking. Evening came and dinner was running late at our friend’s house. He called; I didn’t hear my phone, so he arrived at the time we’d set. And on learning dinner was late, was incensed. I asked him to hold on and have a glass of wine with us and we’d leave in a bit. We could even have made another plan. He continued to rage. I was selfish, and didn’t think about anyone else. He hissed this at me in private, then left the room, picked up our daughter and stormed out of our friends’ house. I don’t know if he said goodbye to them. He probably did. But I was not allowed a goodbye to my daughter. I had made a terrible grave transgression. Unthinkable. I had let dinner run late, in someone else’s home. I ran after him, pulling him, trying to get him to stop, so I could at least just say goodbye. I pulled at him and he dragged me, kicking and begging him to stop, while holding our daughter, down the path towards the street. He weighs in excess of 100kg and tops 6ft. I am less than 50kg, and shorter than 5ft. Any attempt to stop him would be a massive, visible effort. It was hideous. I was distraught. My friends told me to see a psychiatrist.

He stormed away with our daughter, who obviously cannot stop him, without letting me say goodbye because dinner ran late. I tried to stop him.

I need to see a psychiatrist; he doesn’t.

The intersection of crazy woman, nice guy is not lost on me. 

The intersection of woman of colour, nice white guy with smart accent is not lost on me either. If I had been a white woman, and him a black, Indian, or heaven forbid, a Muslim man, the tables may have been turned. He’d be culturally backward, abusive. Treating a woman and a child like property. And we’ve seen that time and again with acts like these. Nice (white ) guys must have a reason. She must be crazy. He must be sick. Not a normal person.

Black men get the short end of that stick. They cannot even be seen as mentally ill to garner some sympathy or explain their actions. They are savages, barbarians. Nice (white) guys must have a reason; she’s crazy. The mentally ill aspect of Rodger’s actions are irrelevant. I am mentally ill. I do not think punishing my ex after a failed marriage by withholding access to our child is rational at all. I did not do that. I did not threaten to do it. I still have not threatened to do it. I do not think that a new relationship for him as an end of something for me. I left, knowing full well that adults move on beyond a divorce. It is outright irrational to not expect that, or to rage so madly against it.

I have simply tried to have my time with her. Because that time is not just with me. It’s with her maternal family; grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins; and time to learn her history through the eyes of people who have lived it. Not through the exoticising lens that many white people see things. Her heritage and family is her right; it is why South African law makes it a crime to deny access to a parent – because a family is every child’s right.

He does not see it as necessary, because there are so many cross-racial adoptions in this country. Because in the absence of a family, one of another race and culture is of course (yes I do believe this) a better option than no family at all. But our daughter is not an orphan. She has a mother, and a maternal family. But, to him, she is property.

It is a troubling pattern I’ve noticed in his family. One I am at this stage powerless to stop. I no longer see her. The final attempt to do so went beyond “look she’s crazy” right into “she’s an incompetent, uninvolved, dangerous parent”.  Unchallenged allegation that has left me unable to trust in the competence of both the social workers involved, despite them being told about the threat. You’d think it would ring bells, but I do believe that me not having my daughter live with me stood against me. I must not want her. Regardless that, as a feminist, I believe that men are as capable as competent to care for their children as women are. That it is a learned behaviour, and not innate.  Shrug.

The experience has left me broken; and, as he once threatened, without my daughter. If it had left me undisturbed, I’d probably be seen as unfeeling. You can’t really win here if you’re a woman.

The #YesAllWomen hashtag is a response to male entitlement, the dehumanising and objectifying of women and children (and yes boy children too). A response to the pervasive, dangerous belief that women and children are property and cannot make their own choices. This is psychological violence. I’d much rather be hit thank you. That way I can get my own licks in, and a bruise will garner me the sympathy the breakdown didn’t. Because a silent, bruised woman is much more deserving of help and sympathy that an angry one; I must not fight back, ever. Regardless of the circumstance, unless I am a woman constantly beaten up by her husband, unless the picture is the common one; the accepted one.  Women who have been raped by people they know know this; only strangers and rape, so you had something to do with what happened to you.

The hashtag is a call to talk about how entitlement and objectification makes women and children, and men too, unsafe. It is an opportunity to show how this affects us daily; how silence is no longer an option; that female anger, like black anger, is justified, and not the product of crazy, savagery,  runaway emotional silliness and oversensitivity. Or, my favourite, imagined slights and lies to get attention. That mental illness is not a marker of violence; that misogyny exists. It needs to be in your face now. It needs to grab you and shake you out of your complacency because lives are lost and broken by “nice” guys too; because sexism and misogyny does not need to look like a stranger assaulting you to be real; because it does not need to look like a woman battered to death before it is visible. Because it is practised in countless little almost invisible ways that cause at best, discomfort, at worse – well – we’ve seen at worst. I have. I almost lot my life. And I most certainly lost my child.

Some may want to think I am shoehorning my experience into a feminist paradigm, or that I am responsible for this somehow. Oh well.

 As we have seen on the hashtag stream, that as much as there is empathy, understanding and sympathy, and a will to listen, there is a move to silence, dismiss, deny, disown, downplay. To, within the sphere of male privilege, as with white privilege, dismiss the structural problems and pervasive attitudes as “not my problem because I don’t do this”. To walk in the safety of never being challenged on your anger or your right to speak out because you don’t have to worry about it or have it shouted down.

The #NotAll Men response is asking for women to simply be silent. To simply accept that the men who do not do this, want a cookie for just being “nice guys”. It wants women to accept their fate, in silence, because female anger is not pretty, or accommodating, or sane. And women must always be pretty, accommodating, sane.  Otherwise, nice guys get really, really angry. Because women must always be accommodating. Because even nice guys think women and children are property.

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Meena’s big date

“She’s heard enough for today ” Pata had stood up. Her sari flowed like milk around her as she ran a hand over my head; “Go on, off to work girl. There’s plenty of time to talk without us losing you your job. And be nice to Vaughn; he needs it.”

 

9am

Diva offices

“How’s that piece coming along Meena?” Deb’s dry tones scratched over my hair.  I know she was hoping to hear an excuse, another mark in her little black book of meena’s misdemeanours, but I was ready for her. Deb barely held her surprise in check.  A strangled “Excellent”  escaped her before she fled for her office and the scotch.  I sniggered. Some days you are the fly, and some days you are the windscreen. I shook my head and promised to stop thinking in other people’s irreverent platitudes.  And concentrated on making my keyboard and brain work together through the magic of my fingertips. But Strini was all I could think about.

 

I couldn’t wait to see him again tomorrow night. And on Saturday. This guy was balsamic vinegar to my olive oil, fresh vanilla pods to my crystal sugar; he made me feel like I’d mainlined saffron through my skin and was a goddess. An admittedly short goddess; but a goddess nonetheless.  I changed my Facebook status to minigoddess.

 

Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

 

From: Vaughn@Dive.co.za

To: Meena@Diva.co.za

Subject: Minigoddess?

 

You’re short; you can be pretty cavalier and capricious. But goddess? Surely it’s not megalomaniac day just yet?

 

From: Meena@Diva.co.za

To: Vaughn@Diva.co.za

Subject: Re: Minigoddess?

 

Sticks and stones little man, sticks and stones.

 

Coffee?

 

Vaughn didn’t look quite as flippant as he sounded. In fact he looked like he’d lost his truck, dog and girlfriend. If I didn’t know he didn’t have any of those, I’d have bought him a billy ray cyrus CD and sent him home.

 

“You look like shit”.

“Really, and here I was thinking this new hairdo made me look like Jean Claude Damme”

 

He got that out without stammering. He’s whiter than Hugh Grant in a London winter. Something is definitely up.

 

“Save the bravado kimosabi. What’s going on?”

 

“My dad’s in hospital.”

 

There’s no snappy comeback for that one.

 

“Shit, dude.  And it’s not good?”

 

“Nope”

 

“need something stronger than coffee? “

 

“Probably”

 

“Need a hug?” I can’t believe I’m saying this.

 

“no. Maybe. No.”

 

Sigh of relief.

 

Elachi’s rough voice commanded: “hug him Meena”

 

I hugged Vaughn, and he hugged back. I felt like a life raft.

 

“Cigarette”

 

“Yes please”.

 

We smoked our last fags for the morning quietly together, before I went back to my desk, and Vaughn retreated to his studio.

“Later Meena”

Later Nordic Boy”

“thanks”

“Don’t mention it”

 

He didn’t.

 

Chapter five

Dinner with Strini!

 

After the grilling I got from the mithai mothers when I got home last night, I was looking forward to this. Elachi “hmphffed” when she saw me: “idiot girl, must we tell you to be nice?” I suppose she was right.

 

Inji grinned and Pata just offered me some tea.

 

“So who’s this Strini boy?” Inji ventured.

 

I should have known.  You can’t leave three Indian aunties alone without a grandchild to occupy their minds unless you’re extremely brave, or extremely stupid. Guess which one I was.

 

“No-one” Schoolboy error.

 

“Really?” Then why you seeing him tonight?” Elachi with her incisive intuition made the first deadly move.

 

“Yes. Really” The eye avoidance behaviour was getting me nowhere.  So was the topic avoidance behaviour. I should have known they were lying about their superpowers. Indian aunties can spot a budding romance from two provinces away while frying onions and garlic. These three where right here when it started.

 

“OkOk” what do you want to know?” knowing full well they’d want to know what he does, if he earns well, if he comes from a “good” family.

 

“What do you talk about?” Pata asked.

 

Caught off guard I stumbled; “Mm.. well… work, books, other people. He’s a copywriter, so we both love books…”

 

“And where you going tonight?” Elachi interrupted.

 

“Out for supper… to the Loft.” This was the weirdest grilling I’d ever had. Where was the “nice boy Meena” bit?

 

“And after” Inji asked smiling.

 

I had been trapped. My after dinner plans were somewhat vague but did involve me being not entirely chaste, or dressed even.

 

“Ok grilling over ladies, my prince awaits.”

 

Inji laughed me out the door.

 

By the time I’d reached my car though the cringing embarrassment had faded and my toes were tingling in my red heels. Copy boy was mine.

 

He’d booked our table and was waiting, and bless him; a bottle of red was breathing on the table. “Hello gorgeous”.

 

“Hey yourself handsome, been waiting long?

 

“Nope, just enough to order the wine and make sure the waiter knows we’re hungry”.

 

I scanned the menu; ordered the lamb, and my stomach appeased, turned my attention to my number one hottie. “So, come here often?”

 

“Funny. So, how was your day? Any more exciting office gossip?”

 

“Oh the usual; Deb’s just mad and the rest of the office just keeps their heads down. I must have a death wish for even letting her see me. And you?”

 

“Well; let’s see; I got in and thought of you, and then emailed you, and then doodled and made myself a cup of coffee and looked at your Facebook and then considered emailing you again, and didn’t. I didn’t have much to do today and I don’t know if I could have done it knowing I was going to see you tonight.”

 

“Got me on the brain then have you?” I grinned.

 

“You could say that.”

 

I’d never met a man so honest with his feelings. The first few dates, if it even got to that, had always been spent playing those ridiculous oh my god can’t let him see that I like him too much or he’ll get scared off game. Strini came to the party on day one with. “You’re great. I want to see you again.”

 

And now the “I can’t stop thinking about you” was making my head spin. He was fucking up my play it cool radar and I could tell my deprecating cynicism was fucking with his. Boys weren’t usually so keen on me, and girls weren’t usually so wary of him.

 

But nonetheless I played it cool. I’d travelled this road before and if I let it, my heart would come along for the ride. I didn’t want it to be thrown too soon.

 

Our meal arrived just before the silence got to the awkward stage; “Mmm…I’m jealous; you ordered the prawns! I bag a share”. When it comes to food, I’m shameless.

 

He speared a prawn on a fork, and held it out to me; “Come and get it.” And cocked an eyebrow.

 

My melty place  warmed, and I knew what came next. I leaned over my plate, and grabbed the prawn with a deft finger. “Oh no buddy boy; I’m saving the porn star antics for …later.”

He had the grace to blush.

 

Dinner finished at midnight; and I was tired. Happy, feeling girly, but the red shoe diary end to it was rain chequed to another time. “Walk me to my car?”

 

“How about I drive you home?”

 

“And I’ll get to work tomorrow on my magic  flying carpet I assume?”

 

“I could pick you up?”

 

“It’s alright; besides, I like my drive to work; nothing like swearing at taxi drivers to get my day started. “

 

“Ok; but if you need me…”

 

“Really. I’m a big girl darling.”

 

“Ok. But can I still kiss this big girl goodnight then?”

 

My toes didn’t curl. But my melty place still thought it wasn’t that bad.

 

“See you tomorrow?”

 

“Tomorrow” he breathed against my hair. I felt like brushing him away.

 

I can’t be PMSing already can I?

 

Nevermind. My bed seemed a million miles away.

 

That night,  I dreamed Vaughn’s dad died.

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