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HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Femicide: Here’s what men can do

OPINION

About a month ago I was invited to a boys’ residence at Stellenbosch University to address the students. It was Women’s Month, and the topic of conversation was, of course, gender equality and what could be done to make spaces more equal, safer and accessible. I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout of the crowd. The room wasn’t very big, but it was extremely representative. There were as many male students as there were female, and there were a balanced racial turn up as well.

The members who surprised me most were the white male students who showed up. The bar is low, in a perfect world – or at least, a slightly more evolved one, I shouldn’t be surprised by white male “jocks” showing up to listen to a brown woman talk to them about gender roles and discrimination and intersectionalism, but there they were. Engaged. Curious. Excited.

At the end of the talk we had a question and answer session as one does at these things. We talked about things like the “struggle Olympics” – for example, one black student wanted to know how to progress in a world where everyone is constantly trying to “outstruggle” each other. I found this question to be extremely profound and the discussion insightful. We discussed the type of language we use when we engage in discourse about things like feminism or gender bias – especially in the home and with older generations and we dabbled a bit in “call-out’ culture.

Then, towards the end of the session, the obvious question made its eventual appearance. It poured sincerely from the mouth of an extremely well-meaning and respectful black male student: But what can we, as men do, to support these causes, to engage in conversations? What can we do without overstepping or being shut down or even speaking on behalf of women? The rest of the men in the audience nodded in anticipation for my answer.

This question is asked so many times that the answer has become generic: “Talk amongst your peers, be aware of the feelings of women. Look around the room. Realise what’s happening in terms of representation. Be careful not to “appropriate” the cause. There is no such thing as reverse sexism, just… listen”, and so on and so forth. I saw endearing eyes stare at me while I answered, but there was a colour that laced the sincerity that I couldn’t quite figure out. Was it confusion? Was it apprehension? What was this hue that glazed over them?

I went home and this question persisted. It passed in and out of me like breath. I became obsessed with not just the looks on their faces and the question marks in their eyes but also the delivery of my answer. Was I too militant? Did I polarise this issue even more? Were my words not chosen carefully enough? Why did I feel like the message hadn’t landed, or rather, why did I feel like the message landed one too many times and so now the answers to that question were just perhaps… boring?

The past few weeks in South Africa have been tumultuous and daunting for so many reasons. Of course, the one that sticks out most of all is the reckless, violent and torturous femicide epidemic. This prevalent disease that will just not go away - the agony that keeps on giving. We have run out of words to describe the terror, the fear, the shock. We have run out of emotions to express the sadness, the rage and the pain. And all the while, a lot of men just carry on. They carry on with their lives, with their safety, with their confidence. They receive no pre-emptive warnings on WhatsApp, they are hardly ever addressed by government and in many, many instances, they are protected. The invisible perpetrators of hateful crimes.

In the deafening noise of the outcry, the students in the Stellenbosch session made their appearance in my thoughts once more. What was that damn colour that washed over them when I was done answering their urgent question: What can we as men do? How can we help? And then it dawned on me, it was the colour of dissatisfaction. It was the colour of disappointment. Nothing I said to them was of any use. It made no real physical impact because it barely contained any advice that would inspire practical change. There was no real hands-on, real-world advice that they walked away with.

So, I gave it some thought, and I made a list.

1. Keep a safe following distance: When there are women around, whether they’re in a group or alone (especially if they’re alone), don’t walk about as if you’re entitled to that space around them. Imagine that they’re in a bubble and you’re part of the engineering that keeps that bubble in place. You don’t want to approach it aggressively, you don’t want to shock them, and you don’t want them to feel unsafe by your mere presence, or make them feel threatened because they can hear you walking quickly towards them from the back. Cross the street if you have to. Women do it to avoid men on the streets all the time. It’s doable. So, do it. Please keep a safe following distance.

2. Lower your gaze: Whether you’re in a public space like a park or a bar/restaurant or whether you’re in a professional environment, regardless of what the power dynamics are, (a woman could be your boss, and you could be the client, for example), lower your gaze. Do not stare from across a room, do not stalk with your eyes, do not observe and analyse her clothing, even if you’re not doing that, because our degree of awareness is so heightened, that I for one will immediately assume that you are checking out my legs and thinking awful perverse thoughts. It’s an easy way to show respect and create space – just lower your gaze.

3. Talk down to fellow men: Women in the workplace are often ignored, degraded or patronised by their male colleagues. Regardless of the dynamics of position or power. They’re taken less seriously in meetings, hardly ever asked for their opinions, and when they are, they’re swiftly spoken over by much louder men in conference rooms, or that other old gem, pointing, laughing and calling them emotional when they’re passionately trying to make a point or express their disappointment in your atrocious behaviour. I can’t tell you how not to do that, because clearly that kind of preaching is not working. But if you are on the side of the “what can we practically do?” men, then here’s some advice: Be one of the men that lets her finish. Talk down to your other male colleagues by telling them to wait their turn, and give women an equal opportunity. For example: “Haji hasn’t finished speaking yet, perhaps we could listen and then everyone else can have their say”, and that’s about all you need to do. You do not have to explain on behalf of women. You don’t have to speak for them or try and explain their point in a male voice. But you do have to talk your male colleagues down. Do not do it because you expect any woman to grovel at your feet for being a saviour. You’re not Jesus, this is just what equality looks like, so practice it.

4. Busting out on the bubble-bursters: Now, while you should never assume that a woman is a damsel in distress or unable to exert her own power in some way, or a completely helpless fairy, there are instances in which you will find yourself subject to where it is very, very, very clear that a woman is being made to feel uncomfortable by another man. Say perhaps, being harassed at a bar and constantly trying to push a predator away, or being cat-called at a party by a rowdy bunch of okes. You have one of two options here: Ask the woman if she is okay and then do something, or just walk up to the blokes and have an independent chat in bloke language or something more intellectual if the mood calls for it. Remember to do all of this without any expectation of her owing you anything. She is not obligated to have a drink with you, in fact, don’t even ask, she doesn’t owe you a drink or her time, she does not have to go on a date with you or go home with you. In fact, she shouldn’t even have to thank you for doing the right thing.

5. Having said this, you can actually ask women out on dates (even if she is a feminist): It’s simple: be a nice, kind decent human being. Do not be aggressive. Do not have any expectations. Do not vomit your toxic masculinity all over the show. Do not shame or humiliate her if she says no. Do not try and “cut her down to size” because she far surpasses your successes. And if she says yes, this does not give you permission to send her vulgar pictures, nor does it give you permission to take advantage of any part of her, physically or emotionally. Be. A. Good. Person. If you feel like you are not ready to stop yourself from bullying a woman into having dinner with you, then just stay away.

This list is not profound, by any means. But I know, as a woman, that if men did these things, I would feel a lot safer around them.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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