Don’t shut up! TELL ME TO



‘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

Fem­i­nine user­names

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...”’

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