jedi preggiesIn my 20’s I was a vociferous advocate for women’s rights. I let it be known to any man who dared challenge women’s  right to equal opportunities to men  in my presence exactly where to get off. I wrote about some of that noise in my head extensively in a recent post on misogyny here.   A case in point was a heated exchange with a male colleague who had been watching a female colleague eat a rather large burger at her desk in the office. After she finished swallowing he said salivating “Wow you look so sexy when you eat, do you want to take a bite of that burger again? That was simply beautiful” I turned to the man and told him what he said was not only sexist it was tantamount to sexual harassment. Would he say the same thing to his male colleague? How was she supposed to eat her burger now? Under the table,  in shame? He pointed out to me that the woman in question didn’t seem bothered by his remarks and that I should in fact just mind my own business.  I didn’t. But one day everything changed. Just before the national elections that year, a new staff member joined our team. Her name was Candice,  a small quiet woman who kept to herself. During an election coverage planning meeting the boss announced that Candice would not be going out to the field. She would remain in office to field our calls as she was ill.  After the meeting I asked why she was staying in the office if she was ill instead of staying at home. He told me that she was not actually ill but pregnant. Then I shouted at him for labelling pregnancy – a natural function of being a woman – as an ailment. Why couldn’t he have just said that and we’d all understand? I asked incredulous. He responded that they had not discussed the issue with her and that it was in any case Candice’s call to make if she wanted the office to know that she was expecting.   The elections came and we all called Candice to file our daily stories. When the elections were over Candice was no longer in the office. She was in hospital. In a coma, which lasted for weeks if not months.  Doctors were at a loss. They didn’t know who to save or who would make it alive, the unborn baby or the mother.  Concerned, colleagues organized trips to visit her at the hospital and show support to her family. I couldn’t face her. So I avoided going and kept on postponing the visit until she died. Then I had nothing to say. Zero. I had been wrong on so many levels. For a long time I was overcome with enormous guilt. I was guilty of jumping to conclusions and poking my nose in other people’s affairs. Didn’t I, the feminist and advocate for women’s rights, know that pregnancy even in the healthiest of women can be very dangerous? Didn’t I, the feminist, know that pregnancy can make any pre-existing condition worse? Didn’t I, the loud feminist know that no matter what state of health they’re in, it is advisable for pregnant women to avoid additional stress as their bodies are already under enormous pressure? Didn’t I the feminist respect a woman’s’ right to privacy? To choose and decide what she wants to do with her body, her health even if that went against my feminist convictions? Where were my feminist theories now? Would it comfort Candice’s’ mom to know that I had “fought” on her behalf? That I had asked for her to be treated equally and not as a fragile person? No. She would want her daughter back. Not a feminist placard shouting empty slogans about something I had zero experience in. MARIE-CLAIRES-IN-HER-SHOES-CAMPAIGN-001   I thought of this story as I watched commentary on Marie Claire Magazines’ controversial #MCInhershoes Campaign featuring prominent South African male celebrities wearing high heels in a stand against gender-based violence. The campaign received heated criticism from people against women abuse. This due mainly but not only to the fact that media personality Bonang Matheba had suffered alleged abuse at the hands of ex-boyfriend DJ Euphonik who was also featured in the campaign. A vociferous social media outcry led Marie Claire’s South Africa editor Aspasia Karras who initially defended the magazine’s right to include DJ Euphonik in the campaign to apologize, conceding that the campaign was an ill thought out effort to raise awareness of the high rate of gender based violence in the country.  What seemed like a legitimately good idea at first, quickly turned to mud. So what’s wrong with this picture?Marie-Claire-In-Her-Shoes--220x150 Without going into details with the numbers it is worth noting that  a  gender-based violence poll conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC)  published in 2009 revealed that at least one in four men in the country admitted to forcing themselves on women  (rape) at some point in their lives and this includes married men and men in committed, steady relationships. Add to this the high rate of femicide, physical and emotional abuse against women, then it becomes easy to imagine that one of the men chosen for the campaign will have at some point in their lives abused or forced themselves on a woman, in this case the woman in question happens to be a well-known media personality.  In her letter of apology  Karras mentioned that they wanted to put the spot light on men (who are after all the perpetrators) instead of preaching to the converted. A valid argument considering that for many years campaigns against gender based violence have been directed largely at  women so that they can be empowered to walk away from abusive relationships and seek help.  However this was often done without addressing the source of the problem– men. men in heels Efforts by one former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara to improve women’s rights in this West African country were prominent in my mind. In a similar vein to the #MCInhershoes campaign, Sankara ordered men in Burkina Faso to assume duties traditionally assigned to women for a day in order for them to experience some of the challenges women face in making a home, such as going to the market to shop for groceries, cooking, baby rearing or sitting, doing laundry, cleaning the house etc. Many of the men who participated in the campaign spoke glowingly of its impact, one of them quipped “now I know and understand how much food actually costs in the market place’ I thought it was a novel idea – a great way to begin a dialogue and create understanding while addressing imbalances between men and women. The fact that Marie Claire’s choice of prominent men included “abusers” speaks volumes and is perhaps a missed opportunity to address the obvious concerns:  why did you do it (abuse)? Have you stopped? What changed? How have you changed? We all know that gender-based violence (all violence) is wrong and should be stopped but this knowledge has not resulted in a corresponding decrease in the incidents of violence against women in the country. Whether we like it or not we do need to speak to men about the root of the problem as a preventative measure. Dj Euphonik Even if men may never know what it’s like to be a woman, a mother, a daughter, a girl, even if they can baby sit for weeks and days, pay their child support on time, clean the house, drop the kids off at school, go to work, come back, clean the house, cook dinner, do homework with the kids, do laundry, get  answer work emails, put the kids to bed, do the dishes, make sure the spouse is fed, sexed and happy and wake up the next morning to do it all over again without a single thank you. It is still worth a try.  Just like I was not the cause of Candice’s death, her death never the less revealed just how bigoted and self-righteous I had become about doing “good for women” even at the risk of causing harm to the very person for whom I claimed to be advocate. Candice’s death showed me that we should not seek easy answers nor come to convenient conclusions about any situation.  But this should never the less stop us from trying to bridge existing gaps from as many angles  and avenues as possible. This should not cause us to shy away from having real conversations about what truly hurts. Yes, wearing high heels and posing for the camera may never give men a true picture of what it’s like to be a woman but maybe for just a moment they might be encouraged, convinced to become a little bit more supportive, a little bit more considerate, a little bit more helpful, a little bit more present, a little bit more compassionate and empathetic. Because sometimes a little kindness can be the difference between life and death. “Sometimes a man can meet  his destiny on the road he took to avoid it” — Unknown.

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