#sexistSA: To the working woman, be strong

“Do I not deserve to be treated as a professional? Does my female form prevent me from being seen as a person who’s just trying to get on with work and life?” asks RA’EESA PATHER.

Raeesa sexistSA

I was 16-years-old when I got my first job. I was a sales assistant in a perfume store, and I was madly excited. My boss was an old French man called Gerard. He was tall and lanky, but stooped over with age. He must have been in his early 70s.

When I began working at the store, I noticed my colleagues were all girls of colour. Gerard’s wife was the only white woman who worked there, and it had nothing to with BEE.  He liked to flirt with his young, brown-skinned staff.

He always unnerved me with his lewd behaviour, but I was too young, naïve, and timid to know better. Back then, I’ve come to realise, I was too weak.

Every day as I left the store, he’d ask me out to dinner. I’d brush him off with a smile, and hurry away to the safety of my father’s car.

On certain mornings, I arrived at work early to help Gerard open shop. I’d walk in, run my eyes over the perfume bottles and make sure everything was in place. During the course of one morning, Gerard and I were alone. He asked me to grab something from the narrow, confined storeroom behind the till.

I went in, checked the boxes, and got what I needed. When I turned around, he was behind me. He stood over me, and he was smiling. I could feel myself start to panic, I knew something was wrong. I was alone, in an enclosed space, and I wanted to get out.

I don’t remember what he said, or how he moved. All I know is that at some point, as he got closer, he stretched an arm above my head and I ducked beneath it. As I moved by him, I brushed against his side, and I felt sick. His smell overtook the hundreds of perfume bottles that were stacked in the room. It choked me.

As I hurried away, my colleagues arrived, and I was 16 and timid and silly, so I stayed, ridiculously reassured by their presence. I had no outrage switch back then, I was too sweet and too quiet. I was bewildered.

Later that day, at closing time, he tried to get me to kiss him on the cheek. I remember it. He had leaned down towards me, and proffered his flaccid cheek to my face. I said “No,” and walked out the door.

I never went back. I never confronted him, I never said I wasn’t returning. I just walked out the door and went home.

A little less timid
I’m 23-years-old, and a little less timid. My outrage switch has become easy to trigger.

As a journalist, I can’t tell you how many times I have been sexually harassed. Ours is an information economy, and unless people talk to us, we cannot write the stories we publish.

“I’ll talk to you if you give me your number” is a line I’ve heard countless times from men I’ve encountered. When I turn them down, I lose a story. Not all the time, but often enough.

I’ve been followed down Long Street – my space and privacy violated – and I’ve had men grab at my hands to kiss them. Their treatment of me, their lewd gazes, and hideous smiles, make me seethe. As a woman, this has become my professional environment, and I know no matter how many times I snap at these men, I will encounter them again tomorrow.

While I was covering the devastating evictions in Lwandle, I spoke to a man who narrated to me what had happened. I felt his anger, and his pain until he whipped out his cellphone and began taking photographs of me. I resented him. His story had touched me, but his actions, in that moment, made me hate him.

The following day, I was back in the settlement. I stood outside a house waiting for a friend I had made to get ready. As I loitered by my car, scribbling in a notebook, a man advanced towards me. He told me I was beautiful, I was pretty, I was this, I was that. He came closer and closer. And I snapped at him.

“I’m working. Leave me alone, please,” I said firmly. My rage was bubbling.

He loitered, knowing he should go, but wanting to stay.

“Leave me alone,” I said, angrily.

He left.

Being called pretty, having men take your photograph, ask for your number, or kiss your hands might seem harmless. Many times, people have told me I should be flattered. I’ve heard women say, “On a bad day it doesn’t hurt, it’s a pick-me-up”, or “Come on Ra’eesa, it happens to everyone”.

When I was 16-years-old, Gerard flirted with every girl in that store. I don’t know how many girls he got in that storeroom, but when I left my colleagues were confused. “He tries that with all of us,” they said, “it’s normal”.

Maybe it’s that sense of normalcy that lets women become idle, lets us question whether what we experience is actually harassment or harmless flirtation.

Men think of it as a joke, a bit of entertainment they can chuckle about.

But, dammit, I am working. Do I not deserve to be treated as a professional? Does my female form prevent me from being seen as a person who’s just trying to get on with work and life?

They may call me pretty, kiss my hands or yell “Hey baby” in the street but I am more than just a mannequin for men to dress in filthy thoughts.

Have you experienced harassment in your daily life? Tell us about it.