Consent: Is a Woman’s Right

As women leaders and activists from around the world gather for the 63 Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week I thought, it would be fun to share a little story with you, to get us all thinking about the current status of women around the world, particularly as it relates to sexual harassment or sexual and gender based violence.

Recently there was a near fist-fight at a local pool. The source of the conflict being my hair (pictured above). A man jumped out of the pool while I reclined on a deck chair reading a book On Beauty. My back was behind him so I didn’t see him as he slid his wet-chlorinated hand over my head while his fingers brushed through my hair.

“Nice hair,’ he said brushing past.

I looked up and about, surprised.

“Thank you”, I mumbled wondering why it was necessary for him to offer a compliment so intrusively when just his words would suffice. But I decided to let it go. The man was already standing over a barbecue he’d been preparing with his friends, far away from where I was. I did not think his actions warranted any further reaction from me.

So I turned my eyes back to the book I was reading; I was making an effort to follow the conversation about the arts, beauty and intellectual stimulation without any success, when one of my girlfriends who’d been sitting diagonally across from me asked sweetly.

Jedi, do you know that guy?

No, I said.

Oh, she exclaimed surprised.

I thought you knew him because of the way he touched your hair, she inquired.

I don’t know him, I told her. I just didn’t want to make a fuss about it. She shrugged, and continued rubbing lotion on her arms and legs. Ten minutes later the same man returned. This time he was facing directly at me and without slowing down he lunged towards me – with both hands reaching for my hair. Instinctively I raised my arms and legs to block him from going any further. What are you doing? I asked incredulously.

“Please, please, just let me touch your hair?.” He said pushing my hands to the side.

No! I screamed stretching my arms and legs even further to prevent him from reaching my head. “No, please,” he continued “I won’t do anything to you, I just want to feel it”

I was disarmed by his approach and felt defenceless as his body hovered over mine. In that moment I felt completely vulnerable and exposed with my legs and hands still up in the air. The tug of war continued for about five minutes in the company of my friends – I struggled with a stranger. His hands were trying to grab mine and mine were trying to push his away from my head or away from the vicinity of my hair.

Perhaps to a distant observer this may have looked like a playful tug of war between a “loving” couple. But it was not the case.

Please, I just want to run my hands through it, I don’t want to do anything to you! He said impatiently.

No! no! no! I screamed.

My throat let out some laughter, incredulous. Bewildered. Stammering, laughter. 

As this is taking place, the only thought running through my head was: is this man serious?

It turned out that he was because he would not give up. He was still trying to touch my hair which made me even more hysterical with laughter.

Until one of my female friends interjected, realising that I was in trouble.

“Excuse me sir, she said, ” she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, can you please leave”

“I don’t want to do anything to her, I just want to touch it” he protested.

Please sir she doesn’t want you to touch her hair, please go. My friend insisted

Reluctantly the man returned to his Barbarque. Claiming innocence;

“I didn’t want to do anything to her okay?? I just wanted to touch her hair. What is the big deal man?” he said walking away in protest.

Jedi, do you know  this guy?

My friends asked in unison.

I don’t know him, I said.

So why does he want to touch your hair?

I don’t know, I said, shrugging. 

Did you want him to? 

No. 

But why were you laughing?

You seemed to be enjoying it!

They said.

No. I repeated. No. I was not enjoying it at all, I was trying with all my might to stop him from touching my hair. But all I could manage was to laugh and say no.

When confronted by my friends, he was unapologetic. His defiance created a loud argument at the pool side drawing everyone’s attention. A woman who’d been sitting across from me tanning, saw the commotion and signalled to her friend that trouble was brewing. She packed her things and swiftly stepped out with her leaving me alone on the same chair I had been sitting on when the man approached me. I hadn’t moved since.

I watched as his hands flailed wildly as if he’d been possessed while my friends who had been poking fingers at him began flexing their muscles and clenching their fists ready for a fight which seemed both imminent and unavoidable.

From where I was sitting I couldn’t always hear what was being said by who and to whom but soon punches were flung across the air between two human shields who were trying to separate them. Security was called in.

Every now and again I heard cuss words being thrown around. “Bitch” being the most frequent. The man was now pointing in my direction.

I wondered why I had chosen to sit back while my friends were engaged in a fight which was ostensibly on my behalf. But If I did go, what would speaking to him achieve when he had previously disregarded every no I had uttered when he was ‘innocently” trying to touch my hair? What would my presence there do? Would it calm the situation or escalate it even further?

Ultimately I decided that my presence there would not make the situation any better – so I sat back.

“I don’t even know this bloody woman, I have never seen her in my entire life before!” said the man.

“Exactly!” one of my friends responded. You don’t even know her – why do you think you have a right to touch her hair, when she clearly told you no?!! They screamed back.

Because a woman’s no, does not matter, I thought to myself.

After a while management was called in. It became apparent that the man had threatened and grossly offended someone very important during the arguments and if he didn’t apologise soon the consequences of his actions could be dire.

The man eventually succumbed and offered an apology to my friends which I did not hear but they were well pleased with it.

Consent Without Consent

I have been thinking a lot about this incident in the past few weeks trying to process my thoughts around it; from wondering why this particular hairstyle made men and some women who had never attempted to touch my hair before in all the 11 months I had known them suddenly became unable to “help it” because my hair is simply “asking to be touched”. I wondered where I had gone in the discussion.

One of my male friends offered an explanation ” it’s all about the objectification of black women” which I agreed with in part. But what stood out for me in all of this was I had to defend my decision not to allow anyone to touch my hair. My friends, sadly, were no different from this audacious stranger who insisted on touching my hair even when I said no. They were also of the opinion that I should allow them to touch my hair simply because they were friends, people I was familiar or close with. Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? they demanded. I was made to feel wrong for refusing them permission to touch my hair. And in fact who was I to refuse?

The idea that their persistent requests to touch my hair was making me uncomfortable or that it indicated their total disregard for my personal boundaries was something which never crossed their mind. To such an extent that at times I have found myself consenting to my friends especially, allowing them to touch my hair so that I am not labelled a self-entitled, “bitch”.

So even though I may have given my “consent” it was still an unwanted capitulation induced by a level of coercion and verbal harassment from friends and strangers alike. While none of these incidents can be defined as criminal in any sense, they do shed some light into the sometimes polarising nature of debates or discussions around Sexual and Gender Based Violence as seen through the #Metoo movement and other SGBV testimonies in the media recently.

They behaved as if I owed them. As if touching my hair would validate me in some way; their touch would be a sign of “approval” or “disapproval” depending on what their fingers found.

In her 2008 paper on Law, Sex and Consent paper, Professor at Law at Georgia University Robin West explains that the “historical reliance on consent as a demarcation between rape and sex are misguided as they falsify the degree of coercion imposed upon women by men in their ordinary sexual lives”. She goes further to suggest that while she is not advocating for new forms of non-violent sexual crimes to be re-defined and included in law, it is nevertheless important for “law makers, scholars and feminist theorists to focus more on harms caused by consensual sex and their relation to the law, in the intimate sphere no less than we do in our political and economic lives”.

Her ideas are not far from that of Prof Noam Chomsky and his long time critique of the different forms of “consent” which continue to be imposed on people in the public, political and economic spheres. In his 1999 book on, “Profit over People” which is a critique of the global political and economic system Chomsky notes that politicians often use a concept named “consent without consent” by imposing their authority on the people who are being governed because the imposition is for the highest good. Just like a parent stoping a child from crossing a busy road, or forcing the child to comb their hair, or eat – the child may not agree at first but ultimately these interventions are good for them. The idea here is: you may not consent now because you don’t know what is good for you, but once you know what is good for you, you will consent to it.

I think this theory applies well to this pool side “can I touch your hair, by force if necessary please story”, because embedded in the question itself is the tacit implication that it would be beneficial for me and the person who is asking, if I called them touch my hair. Touching my hair then, in this context would be good for humanity. Since it is a “harmless” request, the assumption is I must consent to it. The fact that I may not want my hair touched (for whatever reason) was discounted as a mask to “hide” something or to lie.

My friends and I continue to laugh about this hair story today. It has moved from being a source of conflict to a source of humour with many of them continuously asking me; “But Jedi, Why don’t you want us to touch your hair? Don’t you know that by refusing you will invariably cause us to want to touch it more, even by force? Who do you think you are not to be touched? What are you hiding?

All things considered it would have been so much easier for me to allow this guy to simply just touch my hair in an attempt to avoid conflict. If had been alone by the pool side this man could have easily overpowered me in broad day light. Everybody would hear me laugh, scream and push. But all people would see is a woman enjoying or pretending not to enjoy the attentions of a man. They would say she wanted it. She enjoyed it.

This experience made me see how sometimes consent is not always a meaningful marker between autonomy and coercion. According to Robin West “consent (touch, sex, money, economy et al) when it is unwanted and unwelcome, often carries harms to the personhood, autonomy, integrity and identity of the person who consents. The harms are often unreckoned by law and remain more or less unnoticed by the rest of us, even in the #Metoo era.

I think it’s time we took another look.


Consent:

Noun: Permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something.

Verb: Give permission (allow) something to happen.

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There is No War on Women

Perhaps this is the title that many men who commented on a book I’ve been reading this week by the late BBC TV Journalist, Sue Lloyd- Roberts would have preferred.

The books’ actual title “The War on Women” (2016) seems to rub them all up the wrong way. What book are you reading? They would ask sweetly. As soon as I show them the title they would clam up and shake their heads “ there’s no war on women”. I have chosen not to entertain their denialism by choosing a nonchalant response, “I didn’t write the book, I’m reading it”.

But now that I have finished the breathtaking account of “the war on women” on all fronts from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Gambia, Egypt and Afghanistan, to honour and dowry killings in India and Pakistan, to rape committed by UN and International  peace-keepers in Bosnia and Sierra Leone, to rampant rapes of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the slavery of Catholic-run women only laundries in Ireland to the a lack of equal pay between the sexes in  Britain.

Perhaps I am naïve to expect the men around me to say something different, perhaps even ask a question: Where? Or perhaps a more encouraging response would have been “ I need to read this book when you finish”

I am not going to delve into great detail about the books accounts of brutal sexism and gruesome misogyny in every continent – I think we’ve heard enough harrowing stories already.

I am reading this book during the sixteen days of activism to end violence against women and children, in a climate where even I as a woman am beginning to grow tired of women talking to women about men abusing them.

Perhaps we need to have a different conversation in this #metoo and #hearmetoo period. More especially now that there is a huge backlash on women who choose to speak out about their experiences of sexual and gender-based violence.

During these 16 days of Activism to end violence against women and children I have been having conversations with otherwise normal, well-meaning men about their understanding of equality. And just like the men who committed untold atrocities against women they often use culture, tradition and religion as the basis to justify why men are inherently superior to women and why women should in all intense and purposes submit to their men.

I tried to challenge their notions of culture by offering that culture evolves and is dynamic. In the African context, we have for the most part adopted “western” cultures; we wear clothes, we use computers, watches to tell time, and cell phones to communicate instead of drums.

On traditions – African nations were mostly matriarchal and women were often given a pride of place in the family or communities. A man could not make life-changing decisions including how to run a home, what to do with the children, whether to take a new wife or even when to have sex without the consent of a woman.

These traditions have also since been discarded – just like my male counterparts who dismissed my views on equity adding that I could not expect a man who has paid a dowry for his wife to treat her as an equal. She might clean the house, do the laundry, cook and look after the children, but the men were ultimately responsible for providing money for food, housing and electricity which means the wives should be grateful.

On the second day of having these conversations without any breakthrough, we came to the issue of religion and a verse that men often like to quote to women when discussion about equality within marriage come up. “ The bible says a woman must submit to her husband”

A submissive wife according to them is a woman who, even after working a full eight hour shift in an office just like men has to rush home to cook, feed the children, clean the house, make sure that everyone’s clothes are ready and clean for the next day and provide her husband with conjugal services at night, while men are allowed to “ rest” and relax after a long day at the office. It’s all part of the package they said. If I marry you, you must know that these are part of your duties as my wife – they insist.

But times, as with culture and traditions have changed, and what used to be expected of women and men a hundred years ago is not only no longer relevant but not even applicable to the lives we’re living today so  why would they insist on maintaining archaic traditions on women when they, on the other hand, are afforded the opportunity to be and do whatever they want and move with the times irrespective of their marital status.

That’s how we do things here, don’t come with your European ideas in Africa they said.

I thought about my life as a 37-year-old unmarried woman who has gotten an education and travelled the world and lived a life which for the most part is autonomous and independent. A life in which I have had agency over what happens to my body and my time. I am grateful that my parents, country and more especially my father have given the freedom to live life in my own terms. I am happy I have not tied my wagon to a controlling patriarchal husband.

While my own life is by no means perfect, it does set a high bar for most women around the world who still live in oppressive patriarchal and sometimes war-torn societies.  In this context, I must seem to them like someone who comes from out of space to expect men to treat me equally.

And the men I was in conversation with agreed.”Your husband will have to come from outer space”, they told me, “no man will accept your terms”.

I thought about it for a moment and realized that even in the religious texts men love to quote about God ordering women to submit to their husband they have missed a very important part of that verse in the bible. After he orders women to submit to their husbands he also gives men a very clear and straightforward order:

Ephesians 5:25 says “So husbands love your wife, even as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”

There are more verses on love in the bible such as:

1 Peter 3:7 “ husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as a delicate vessel and with honour as fellow heirs of the gracious gift of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

Colossians 3:9 “ Husbands love your wives and do not be harsh with them

Ephesians 5:33 “ Nevertheless each one of you also much loves his wife as he loves himself and wife must respect her husband”

It’s an important missing ingredient in the conversation about submission. Love. Which means God intended for women to submit to men who love them.

Any conversation outside of Love is mute.

I can only submit to a man who loves me. Anything less than that is simply unacceptable. I am not a domestic worker, a chef, nanny or sex-worker. If my husband expects me to perform all these duties over and above my paying job as a working woman, they must also be prepared to do the same.  This is fair.

In ” The War on Women” there are many stories in which women colluded with men to perpetrate atrocities against women and children. Women are also complicit in the rape, sex-trafficking, FGM, honour and dowry killings of other women with men.

So maybe it is true that there is no war on women per se; there is a  war, but it’s against humanity. Because women’s rights are human rights. 

ON: THE LOVE DIARY OF A ZULU BOY

A memoir by Bhikisisa Mncube

A few months ago I was part of a social gathering in which the Master of Ceremonies suggested we play a game to break the ice. The game consisted of passing the bottle to each other around a circle to the beat of the music, and when the music stops whoever has the bottle in their hands will have to answer a very personal question from the MC.

As the game progressed around a circle which was 99 per cent male, the MC then asked a question to one of the bottle holders and it went something like this:

“When did you have your first sexual encounter and who was it with?” The respondent dilly-dallied around trying to recall the exact moment in question to roaring laughter and cajoling from his friends around the circle.

He then proceeded to describe the event and then ended with a statement which surprised everyone around the circle, “In fact, I think she raped me, it felt like I was raped” he said.

After a moment of silence, everyone began to roar with laughter. Seeing a gap created by the jovial atmosphere an elderly member of the group saw an opportunity for a quick disclosure of his own. He went and stood in the middle of the circle and pronounced his secret.

“In fact,” he said raising his hand in the air “I also think I was raped by the girl I had sex with for the first time.”  At the point at which his voice began to break preparing, as it were, to explain in greater detail the events which unfolded on the day he lost his virginity the group silenced him in unison, “sit down” they said, “It’s not your turn now” the old man was forced  back to his seat under the tree and forever remained silent.

I am reminded of this story on reading Bhekisisa Mncube’s memoir, The Love Diary of A Zulu Boy  in which he recounts his first sexual experience which was, incidentally, forced upon him by his elder brother in the very first chapter of his book about his philandering past which is littered with “ love spells, toxic masculinity, infidelity, sexually transmitted diseases, a phantom pregnancy, sexless relationships, threesomes and prostitution to name but a few.”

In the retelling of this dark secret of his sexual molestation as a small boy, a fact he kept to himself until adulthood,  Mcube keeps emphasising that he is, in fact, a bona fide heterosexual man who is “pre-programmed” and who had already developed a “crush on a (female) classmate Zodwa”

This reader can sense from the onset the writer’s discomfort in disclosing such an event by the way he races through it in just two pages in which he confesses that he will never forgive his elder brother whom he hates with a passion.  He concludes this sad chapter with a quote from psychologist Dr Susan Forward which says “ If I forgive you, we can pretend that what happened wasn’t so terrible”

Boys Do Cry

I feel such compassion and empathy for Mncube ( who is my former “classmate”). As demonstrated in my earlier anecdote it is not easy for men to share stories of sexual abuse at the hands of trusted family members, girlfriends and or partners and any attempt at a revelation is met with stonewalled eyes. If the disclosure is acknowledged at all they are told to shut up with the erroneous belief that “a man can’t be raped by a woman.”

For this reason, I commend him for breaking the silence as a “pre-programmed,  delinquent Zulu Boy” to speak about this violation which sadly led to him violating other women’s sexual rights throughout puberty and adulthood.  He did not consider mutual consent as an important factor in sexual relationships when “the only thing on his mind was having sex”  because his elder brother never considered him when he used him for sexual pleasure, events which laid the only foundation for sexual education Mcube received as a child.

As we mark the proverbial end of women’s month this August and as we reflect upon the #metoo testimonies of  Sexual and Gender-Based Violence primarily against women, we will be remiss and do ourselves no favours  if we to block, silence or overlook the voices of men who seek to atone for crimes they committed against women as a result of violations they also suffered as boys. Because it is, in some cases, the silencing  of such experiences which propagates and normalises sexual and gender violence in our communities

It may not be comforting to hear that the person who violated you – was also once a victim just like you.  But it’s important, lest we all arrive at the same conclusion Mncube reached that “to forgive is to pretend that what happened wasn’t so terrible”

When we all know that it is not. Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a “conscious deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness …. forgiveness does not mean forgetting nor does it mean condoning or excusing offences”

There are numerous controversial issues Mcube touches  in “ The Love Diary of A Zulu Boy” about love, relationships, identity and racial politics which I will not delve into because I think the first chapter  provides the premise for Mcube’s subsequent sexual and relational delinquency in adult life where he remains, despite his vociferous statements to the contrary throughout the book mitigated by therapy and personal reform, a victim of sexual and gender-based violence.

This book highlights the vital need to introduce sexual education for young children of all genders (boys, girls and gender non-conforming people) about what is acceptable behaviour in intimate and or sexual relationships.

If we all agree that men are the primary and main propagators of sexual and gender-based violence against women, then we must acknowledge that they are also part of the solution.

I commend Mncube for his courageous stand in the circle and pronouncing #metoo. I hope that this book will contribute towards helping men and boys including women and girls to understand that love does not equal violent force.  Because what is not rectified will be repeated.

Bhekisisa Mcube is a South African writer, columnist and the current director of speechwriting in the ministry of basic education.