The University of Cape Town has a stern anti-sexual harassment policy, but is it enforced? RA’EESA PATHER spoke to female students at the university about sexism in the classroom and the way their male counterparts treat women on campus.
Kayla Clarke*, 22, postgraduate certificate in education, Rondebosch
When I was in the engineering department, I had a sense of not belonging because I’m a woman. I was identified as being different, where certain tasks were seen to be a woman’s task. Even the lecturers would ask the women to go get something from the office because she would be seen as the one who would have the responsibility to do it. It’s inadvertent, naturalised sexism. In my class, 8% of the students were women. It was very male dominated. I was the one female in my group of guy friends, and we’d sit on Jammie Stairs in summer and the guys would be like: “The shorts are coming out again.” They would women-watch, watch their bums, and comment on their figures. It made me feel uncomfortable, but they would never say anything sexual about me, it would basically be a comment like: “You’re looking really scruffy today, you could’ve put a bit more effort into your hair.” There’s a pressure and a weird sense to conform to what they think is okay. I wouldn’t wear things that were too short because I was worried about how they would look at me, and not take me seriously as an engineering student.
Nhlalala Rikhotso, 22, fourth-year BCom, Liesbeeck
Guys on campus are more about objectifying women – they talk about their bums and bodies. My guy friends are part of the guys who do this, and it makes me feel objectified because if they can speak like that about another girl, then surely they can say the same thing about me. I don’t feel respected in the same way as our male counterparts. With white guys, they think they’re smarter than you because you’re a black female. When we have projects, some of them will say we don’t have to worry to do this or that, because they’ll take care of it. I’ve internalised that as a black woman my ideas and my voice is less than a white man’s voice. We are at the bottom of the food chain, because already when you’re black, you get discriminated against and now when you’re female, black men also discriminate against you. What irritates me the most is that they know as black people what it feels like to be discriminated against and they still do the same thing. There should be a mechanism on campus for us to talk about it. A lot of guys don’t want to talk about it, because it means they will have to realise their privilege and when you realise your privilege it means that you have to deal with it.
Amy Johnson*, 21, third-year business science, Constantia
I do a lot of group work, because my major is marketing. The guys will designate a lot of the admin or the putting together of the project to me – the girl – and then the guys will do all the content. I’m capable of doing the content myself. I was also the only girl in my professional communication group, and everyone wanted to wear tuxedos, but I didn’t have one. They literally made me dress up as a man. They always gave me the easy tasks, and there were all these thoughts, like girls are so good at admin and keeping everyone in contact. But when it comes to content they’re just like: “Don’t stress, we’ve got it.” It makes me feel crappy. A lot of the times they were surprised I had good ideas, but just because I’m female doesn’t mean I’m stupid – I’m capable of having good ideas. Guys make comments about what I wear and my body all the time, but sometimes I think that’s just friendly banter. They have tried to touch me; again, I don’t if that’s friendly banter – but surely, it’s not okay. There are boundaries. A lot of the time I think girls can’t say anything back because then they see her as “that” kind of girl, like she’s stuck up. I don’t if we can report anything like that … Can we take it to the Discrimination and Harassment Office (Discho)? I wouldn’t file a report. Wow, it just hit me: I’ve never thought about why I wouldn’t send a complaint or even that I can report it.
Khensani de Klerk, 20, second-year architecture, Rondebosch
As architecture students we kind of stay in this building, so we develop good relationships with the people around us. There isn’t that weird nature of strangers making comments. I haven’t really experienced sexism, but outside of the department, talking to friends who study commerce and whatnot, they overhear what guys say about girls. When guys talk like that, girls just become chicks that they get with – it’s almost like girls are sex objects. It sounds like a cliché, but that’s what it is. For example, a guy might make a stupid little joke about putting his car keys in the hole, and their friend will say: “That’s what she said last night.” It’s not funny to girls, but it’s funny to them. Sometimes, I overlook it, which is a shame, but most of the time I’ll tell them, “Do you hear what you’re saying?” People tend to romanticise UCT, but you come across comments like “Oh, she’s quite hot for a black girl” – it’s more difficult to be taken seriously as a black woman rather than a black male, let alone a white male.
Neo Tlatsi, 22, fourth-year BCom, Mowbray
I have the problem of being objectified a lot of the time. I have a big behind, so it’s always about that. I can’t wear high-waisted jeans and walk around campus the way other girls can – I always need to consider wearing a jacket, so it doesn’t show. It’s something I’m not comfortable with, but I don’t know what to do about it. Even if I address it and say that I don’t like it, I’m a female so no-one’s going to take what I say into consideration. The guys do a combination of everything that comes to mind: if he feels like he wants to spank it, he’s going to spank it. If he has a comment to make, he’ll make it; and if he wants to stare, then he’ll stare. What can I do? I’m expected to be okay. They’ll say, “It’s not that serious, just calm down.” He feels like he’s entitled to make a comment on my body or the way I look or to spank me. I don’t feel safe, especially if it’s a guy I’m friends with, because it might turn into rape. You are very capable of rape in my opinion if you can just walk up to a female and spank her and think it’s okay. Obviously, I’m not comfortable here, but I have to study, so I have to come to school and deal with it. I haven’t tried to report it because what do I report? We would need to find evidence and charge someone if we go to Discho. I know people here on campus who reported rape charges and their rapists are still walking on campus.
* Names have been changed.
– Voxes have been edited for brevity and clarity; featured image via Wikimedia Commons, all other images by Ra’eesa Pather.
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