TRIGGER WARNING: sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexism, objectification of women.
In her first year in 2012, a girl I know was pushed against a wall by a then Centenary House Committee member as he tried to come onto her even as she said “no”. In 2013, she was sexually assaulted in Jan Smuts House.
In 2014, a then Graham House sub-warden told her she should have texted him when she was drunk because he would have “loved to take advantage of a girl like [her]”. And in 2015, the first person she spoke to about it, a former SRC member, over-stepped her personal space boundaries and made her feel physically uncomfortable and vulnerable. Four incidents of harassment and assault. Four strokes of pure bad luck. Four different leaders.
During my time at Rhodes, and more particularly, my time in various leadership structures at this institution, I have been appalled by some of the things I have borne witness to. From head students, to sub-wardens, to society chairs, to members of the SRC – there are sexist statements callously being thrown around and incorrigible behaviour being displayed.
This is supposed to be the institution “where leaders learn” and yet these are some of the leaders coming through the system. We are getting something very wrong. I use the word ‘we’ very inclusively because, despite the fact that there are many commendable students in leadership positions, it is our collective responsibility to reshape the ideals of the bad ones. When we fail to do this, we fail each other and we fail this community that we lead.
There is something very wrong with the fact that the scenarios described above are neither uncommon nor isolated. What is even worse is the fact that many of these students never face any kind of consequence for their actions, be it through peer reprimanding or through a formal university procedure.
There is something wrong with the fact that a university-appointed sub-warden can poke fun at the Bring Back Our Girls campaign on Facebook, asking, “What if the girls don’t want to come back?” There is something wrong with the fact that a peer-elected head student can publicly state that “women cannot handle the equality they ask for”. Somehow both of these people are still allowed to retain their leadership positions. There is something wrong with the fact that when I, and countless others, call this behaviour out, we are dismissed as “angry feminists”. Yes, maybe I am an angry feminist, but I am not angry at nothing.
I am angry at the fact that I have come across so-called student ‘leaders’, inside and outside this university, that speak of and treat women in the most abominable ways. I am angry at the fact that there are men that will look at women’s bodies longer than they look at their faces, that my intelligence is sometimes questioned because I am female, and that every person I have told this to does not believe that being female has anything to do with it.
I am angry at the fact that I, and countless other women, are objectified and harassed so frequently. I am angry at the fact that I have people roll their eyes at me when I call a man out for saying something sexist. I am angry at inequality. I am angry at injustice. But perhaps I am most angry about the fact that there are people that refuse to even acknowledge that these things exist.
This behaviour is deplorable in general, but even more so when it is being exhibited by people who are selected and elected to lead this institution. When you consider that power dynamics, first year impressionability and a culture of apathy are also active factors, you have a toxic environment that is detrimental to us all.
At some point we need to call our leaders to task. We need to stop shying away from the difficult conversations and unpopular statements. We need to find our agency and put an end to the pervasive behaviour and way of thinking that is destroying the lives of far too many young women in our immediate environment.
We need to do all this because, until we proactively seek to eliminate the bad fruit, we are allowing mediocrity to be our standard and chauvinistic bigotry to lead us.
Words by Grace Moyo