Don’t shut up! TELL ME TO
THERE ARE STILL MANY SPHERES IN WHICH WOMEN ARE PREFERRED TO BE SEEN AND NOT HEARD. FORTUNATELY, A FEW OF US REFUSE TO TAKE A HINT…
‘no need to get so hysterical, dear, we’re just talking.’ If you’re a woman who musters even an occasional opinion, you’re probably already amply familiar with this sentence. It’s one of the many scripted responses to women – regardless of what they’re saying or how they’re saying it – who take a place in the cultural conversation outside of the designated, and often denigrated, women’s zones (ladies’ magazines, women’s interest blogs, chick flicks). The retort relies on one of the favourite stereotypes about the sexes: while men debate calmly and listen to the value in what’s being said, women spiral away in manic vortexes, the algebra of reason lost in a haze of oestrogen. Perhaps it’s best for everyone if they just pipe down, or talk amongst themselves about their sex lives, high heels and hot flushes.
For eons there has been something distinctly uncelebrated about a woman speaking her mind, and despite our many progressive strides, traces of this view hold firm. (What is she yapping about? Is she single or ugly or something?) Once this was just an attitude in the ether, but the internet has transcribed some of this animosity and made it concrete and quantifiable. In 2006, researchers at the University of Maryland found that feminine usernames received 25 times as many sexually explicit or malicious messages than accounts with masculine usernames. It’s this barbed, sexist online environment that saw fit to attack Caroline Criado-Perez with thousands of brutal rape and death threats, all because of her innocuous efforts to have Jane Austen appear on an English bank note. Or that was the excuse, at any rate: it’s hard to believe that passions over the visage on some currency could provoke anyone to utter:‘I will pistol whip you over and over until you lose consciousness then burn ur flesh’ [sic], ‘the police will do nothing; rape her nice ass; could I help with that lol; the things I cud do to u; dumb blond bitch’ [sic], or ‘I’d do a lot worse than rape you. I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to
received 25times as many sexually explicit or malicious messages than accounts with masculine usernames
see you berried; seriously go kill yourself!’ [sic] (Two of CriadoPerez’s many attackers, Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo, recently received jail sentences for their abusive messages. That at least some of her attackers were women shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise: judgement and hostility among women, directed to each other primarily because they are women, is a powerful form of contemporary misogyny.)
‘The vitriol isn’t about what women say, it’s about the fact that we are women saying it,’ explains Sisonke Msimang, a gender activist and a columnist at the Daily Maverick. ‘That’s what irks the public arena. When a woman argues a point strongly she is called “hysterical” or accused of being “strident” or “emotional”.’ For Msimang, it’s no reason to avoid engagement.‘My response to this has been to keep on writing in the way I want to write,’ she says. But not everyone has the temperament to tolerate the harassment and backlash. Pew Research found an 11 per cent drop in online discussion
groups and chatrooms from 2000 to 2005, fully attributed to the fall in women’s participation. And that’s just on informal online forums: women are notoriously under represented on almost every public platform – politics, news, commentary, and even TV shows.
It’s simpler, almost every time, to retreat from an inhospitable environment than to put up a fight to change it. ‘Many quickly learn to shut up,’ says researcher and feminist Nomboniso Gasa. ‘It’s easier and safer that way. I don’t blame them.’ Gasa has spent her career avoiding the safe route (encouraging debate on thorny issues like male initiation, gender-based violence and identity constructions), and has recently taken to the Twittersphere where she has become renowned for her serene and fearless takedowns. ‘I would prefer to be silent and have no need to argue or push boundaries,’ she says. ‘I do it because it has to be done.’
Other women view their belligerence as less of a duty, and more of an inevitability. ‘I am myself in spite of myself. I couldn’t not be this person,’ laughed poet and TV personality Lebo Mashile. ‘As I get older, I just make peace with it.’ It’s a peace that has been encouraged by the acknowledgement that change, even of the positive kind, is inevitably met with resistance. ‘I’m panAfrican, I’m feminist, I believe in human rights, I believe gay people should be able to love who they want to as they want to,’she says.‘In a white supremacist,homophobic,misogynistic society, being this kind of a human being is not going to be met with positive reactions by everybody, and I’ve learnt not to expect it.’ The negative reactions Mashile receives have become predictable to her. ‘People always come with the same dumb stuff,’ she says.‘It’s not as intense as it is in the US. I’ve never had death threats or physical threats, but there’s an insidious subtle violence that does happen. The desire to silence me: so I get told to shut up, or I get told how fat I am, or I get told how much of a foreigner I am, I get told how lousy my work is, I get told how I’m not married, I don’t have a man, where’s my son’s father?’
Aside from accusations of hysteria, attacking a woman’s appearance and relationship status are favourite retorts to women who publicly voice their perspectives. After criticizing Chris Brown, Daily Maverick senior journalist Rebecca Davis was called an ‘ugly hoe’ by a Breezy fan.‘That’s me,’ Davis later
Pew Research found an 11% drop in online discussion groups and chatrooms from 2000 to 2005, fully attributed to the fall in women’s participation
joked. ‘Not a looker, but indispensable for harvesting root crops.’ ‘I find that whenever you tackle the issue of sexism, in whatever context, you can depend upon a certain degree of negative response, and that some of it will be personal: comments about your appearance or sexuality, in my experience,’ she explained. But the response Davis finds the most frustrating is the recurring insistence that calling out sexism where she sees it amounts to censorship. ‘Time and time again I am told that I have to accept offensive and demeaning treatment of women in the South African public space because to object is to place unacceptable constraints on freedom of expression,’ she says. ‘The very same people who claim to uphold freedom of speech as the highest value of all seem to find no contradiction in trying to use that value to silence feminists who voice objections to sexism.’
Then,if your subject happens to concern women’s interests, there’s also a good chance you’ll be accused of overreacting, or harping on. ‘There are always the really stock-standard boring chauvinist types that go along the lines of “Who are you to be writing about this in the first place?”, which you learn to expect,’ says Jen Thorpe, the creator of the FeministsSA website.‘But I think the most frustrating and painful ones are those that discuss violence against women as though it is not really as big a problem as I make it out to be. These are so awful in a context where for many South African women violence is a dayto-day reality.’ Thorpe created FeministsSA to provide a receptive space for South African women’s voices.‘I do think that the anticipation of a negative reaction can discourage women from speaking about issues that concern them. I think that women are best placed to tell us what concerns them, and that it’s really sad that they might avoid opportunities to do so.’ Of course, women are entirely capable of holding legitimately flawed or problematic opinions,and benefit as much as anyone from sincere engagement with what they have to say. It should not be a privilege, however, to be addressed on the content of your views, rather than being dismissed for your gender, in the various noxious forms this dismissal takes: she’s not good-looking enough, she’s too good-looking, she’s frigid, she’s a slut, she’s too emotional, she’s in the wrong kind of relationship, she’s just bitter, she’s overreacting.‘Somehow there is still this tendency to expect us to speak “in whispers” if we must say anything at all,’says Gasa.‘We are called angry women, frustrated women, women who have lost contact with their identity. I take it all on the chin and go: “As I was saying...”’