Driven to questions of safety

"Is this where you live?" he asked.

I hesitated. The question was simple, many would even claim innocuous. But there is a thin line between the seemingly innocent and possible danger in this society. In that pause, a fraction of a second, my mind flashed back to a friend's story about being followed home on her run. The man who followed her asked the security guard at her building "does she live here?". I returned to the conversation with the taxi driver. "No," I lied, "I'm visiting a friend."

I navigate the Johannesburg streets using a combination of taxis, metered cabs, tuk-tuks, Gautrain buses and the Gautrain, walking and, lately, the Uber cab service. This range of choice is an immense privilege that middle income allows. Nevertheless, I continue to not feel safe in all these spaces, which raises the question about spaces of safety in the broader context of daily life. The question remains: are we ever safe as women in a violent patriarchal culture?

This week sees the launch of 16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women and Children. Today is International Day of No Violence against Women. However, one has to ask what is meant by violence and question what range of behaviour the word is meant to delimit.

The success of the campaign, which if it is to be taken seriously will have to go beyond lip service, will depend on the recognition of a wide range of behaviours as violent. To be taken seriously, it will have to in turn take the safety of women seriously, and believe women about how their daily experiences are coloured by endless encounters with misogyny and patriarchy.

The vocabulary with which we address violence needs to acknowledge what it means to be a woman. That needs to be the fundamental starting point. In navigating our lives as women, there are a plethora of behaviours that are endorsed and encouraged, drenched in the language of victim blaming.

Safety is made solely our concern, rather than the responsibility of both men and women. We are encouraged to 'stay awake' and maintain constant, tiring vigilance. We are expected to police our behaviours, our bodies and our choices through respectability politics. Living as a woman is to constantly stay in the matrix of a complex system of checks and balances that we are meant to maintain to ensure our safety.

The daily terror of living in a patriarchal society that does not check its culture of misogyny is rarely acknowledged as fact. The creation of a safer country would need to recognise all the ways in which women do not feel safe from the culture of violence that prevails. Danger seems to lurk around every corner, penetrate every space, and it seems to effortlessly slip into the every day. Women are rarely believed when they express this, however. In spite of this, there are daily reminders that we are not safe.

In one such instance, earlier this month, I was followed down several roads in the city by a stranger. The streets were sparsely populated, but I did not feel safe at all. I breathed an audible sigh of relief as I got to my destination. The man who followed me, however, waited outside for more than 10 minutes, until it became clear that I was not leaving. These are the daily reminders of what it is like to navigate the world as a woman, to be faced with daily intrusions that remind you that safety remains a paper right - visible in the Constitution, but failing to translate into the every day.

At the Joint Sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces to debate the 16 Days of Activism campaign, Minister Susan Shabangu said: "Imagine living in a society where we no longer read or hear about the abuse that women and children often suffer at the hands of heartless perpetrators." She argued that all South Africans need to participate in the establishment of such a society. However, creating that society will require hard work and not the kind of rhetoric that was espoused by the Ministry of Women earlier this month.

To go beyond imagination, it will require recognition of what it means to live life as a woman in this country and this world, because this is a global issue. We will have to confront difficult truths and harsh realities.

The question from the driver asked me could have been innocuous. It could have simply been polite conversation. But the flipside is equally true. In the patriarchal culture that we live in, it could have been dangerous to share where I live. Experience of life as a woman has taught me as much.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler