Days after revelations that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually preyed on dozens of women, actress Alyssa Milano invited women to respond with “me too” if they had ever experienced sexual harassment or assault. Respond they certainly did. According to The Guardian, #metoo was shared nearly a million times in 48 hours on Twitter, while there were more than 12-million comments and reactions to the hashtag on Facebook in 24 hours.
The viral campaign not only highlighted the devastating ubiquity of inappropriate — and in many cases downright predatory — behaviour towards women. It also illustrated how social media can be a powerful platform to share stories, giving oxygen to previously hidden narratives, and becoming a catalyst for listening and support among those affected, as well as their friends, families, and colleagues.
The sharing of these stories has emboldened many women who — fearing indifference, recrimination, or retribution — had remained silent until now. New allegations of sexual misconduct have been levelled against a number of MPs and ministers in the UK, for example.
As I followed the aftershocks of #metoo reverberating around the world, I started thinking about home. South Africa has a long, inglorious history of silencing and marginalising women. Sexual violence remains rampant, with many perpetrators going unpunished.
While fiction, memoir, and poetry don’t have the power to stop the violence or destroy a patriarchy that cuts across race, class, and culture, these modes of storytelling can, however, inspire change and connection, and facilitate catharsis, healing, and solidarity.
Recognising this, in 2015 radio presenter Nancy Richards established a dedicated Women’s Library in Cape Town through the non-governmental organisation she founded, Women’s Zone. The space at Artscape hosts panels, launches, and workshops, as well as more than 1 000 books (everything from self-help to fiction).
Richards says: “Not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many women as possible to share their story, through workshops or just by listening — for their own benefit, or the benefit of others, who may relate, learn, and grow from it. If it gets written, we will celebrate it. If it gets published, we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.”
A decade ago, Colleen Higgs bravely launched a woman-focused publishing press. Since then, Modjaji Books has published 16 short story collections, 21 novels, and 41 books of poetry — ushering in new voices to the public consciousness — often books that mainstream publishers have deemed too risky to take on.
Encouragingly, those mainstream publishers appear to have increasingly diverse lists. Some of the most buzzed-about books of the year were by women writers of colour — and dealt with gender issues head-on. I’m thinking of the memoirs by writer-activist Sisonke Msimang (Always Another Country) and outspoken feminist academic Pumla Dineo Gqola (Reflecting Rogue). I’m thinking of Khwezi, Redi Tlhabi’s heartbreaking account of the woman who accused our president of raping her. And I’m thinking of Business Day journalist Rehana Rossouw’s second novel, New Times.
We need constant reminding of what we might know but choose to ignore: misogyny is alive and well
New Times is about a female journalist in Cape Town at the dawn of our democracy. When Rossouw was asked at her recent launch why she had chosen fiction to explore this epoch instead of memoir (after all, she was a journalist in the same place at the same time) she said: “The stories we don’t write are always more interesting than the ones we do.” She explained that — paradoxically — writing fiction gave her the freedom to write the truth.
The risks of speaking out remain too great for some women, particularly when their abusers marshal considerable power and influence (as they often tend to). I was reminded of this when I discovered that a friend of mine had walked out of her high-powered job at a major brand because she could no longer bear being sexually harassed by her boss. She was advised to sign the non-disclosure agreement and accept the hush money she was offered, because her lawyer assured her that the company’s all-powerful legal department would crush her if she didn’t. She could see what lay ahead — an exhausting and lengthy legal battle, her reputation shattered, with scant support from those in her industry with whom a relationship with this brand is more important than sticking up for what is right.
One day I hope she writes a novel about it. Because we need constant reminding of what we might know but choose to ignore: that in the age of equal rights, misogyny is alive and well. It might be more sophisticated and less obvious but — through bullying, manipulation, cover-ups and collusion — it is rife. Shining a light on it won’t make it disappear, but it will contribute to the groundswell of desperately needed change, as we work towards building a truly non-sexist society.
Visit womanzonect.com to find out more about the Women’s Library Cape Town.