In an attempt to break the monotony of my unemployment, I visited Johannesburg to spend a few weeks with my grandmother. It was the middle of winter; and the city had firmly settled into its characteristic and unforgiving frigidity.
My grandmother lives with my aunt and cousins. During my stay the eldest of my cousins (Ntsabo*), at seventeen years old, experienced severe problems with her heart. My cousins are acclimatised to Johannesburg winters, so crop tops and short shorts are not a thing of summer for them, they’re a thing of fashion—something they wear because there’s a dance competition and they want to look their best, or simply because they want to. Naturally, when Ntsabo collapsed she was wearing a top that barely covered her breasts.
There were frightening moments when she couldn’t breathe, then fleeting moments when she regained consciousness and tears teemed from her eyes. While this was happening, the elder women who surrounded her lamented my cousin’s scantily clad nature. One woman, who I later learnt was a nurse, repeatedly complained: “Young girls don’t dress properly anymore, even in winter. Are we shocked this is happening?”
The women then turned to me and praised my ensemble of that day. I was wearing track pants and a hoodie. That, as concluded by my elders, indicated my unquestionable sense of morality since I was unlikely to provoke sexual attention from anyone. I remembered watching a myriad of sitcoms in which a teenage girl was reprimanded (by her father) for leaving the house in a mini-skirt, a revealing top and heavy make-up. Most notably, I remembered one in which that quintessential teenage daughter was told by her mother: “This is how young girls die.”
It shook me that the sitcom mother and Ntsabo’s caretaker, whether for laughs or diagnosis, credited the victimisation of young girls to one thing—clothes. With regard to my choice that day, it was not to conceal my thighs, my cleavage, or any part of my body that might lead me into depravity; I dressed that way because the trousers were easy to slip on, because I was living out of a suitcase and they happened to be at the top, because the hoodie enabled me to go through the day without a bra or t-shirt, but more importantly, because I chose to. And that was the issue.
To ascribe Ntsabo’s choice of clothing to feminism is a tricky thing in the South African context. Upon colonialism, Southern Africans were, by European standards, too scantily clad a people. One of the missions of European settlers was therefore to ‘civilise’ natives into a culture that was, by European and biblical standards, morally commendable.
Slowly, through indoctrination into Christianity and Eurocentric values, it became morally reprehensible for women to go around in (traditional) skimpy leather skirts and their breasts uncovered. The long-term result of that is this: today it is acceptable for a woman to wear skimpy clothes only in the context of a cultural celebration, and those clothes must be traditional.
Moreover, Ntsabo did not identify with feminism. It was introduced to her as a movement of angry women who hate men and burn bras. Earlier in the week I had defended a fictional TV character’s polyandrous marriage, and the women had taken my defence to mean I was ascribing the identity of feminism to the character and storyline; thus, I was further assigning it to the writers, and therefore misinterpreting their intentions for the sake of my misguided agenda.
It’s difficult to defend a non-feminist woman using distinctly feminist arguments, especially if the defence is likely to result in the other woman being perceived negatively. Because of all these factors, and because I had never uselessly stood by while someone I loved perpetually slipped in and out of lifelessness, I eventually concluded that perhaps the issue of feminism was not important in that moment.
The irony was not lost on me that this—the practiced silence I often adopt in the name of choosing my battles, the same silence that upholds the oppressive ideas shushing women’s voices, leaving them more vulnerable to domestic and sexual crimes yet at the same time, least likely to be taken seriously in instances of medical emergencies—this is how young girls die. This is how, at the age of sixteen years, my cousin died.
Rešoketšwe Manenzhe is a recent graduand for the Degree of Master of Science in Chemical Engineering (with distinction). Her poems and short stories have appeared in several online magazines and journals, and in 2017, two of her poems (’The Flight at Signal Hill' and 'Down by the Nelson Bridge’) were shortlisted for the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology, and subsequently published in the anthology of selected poems. She is South African, and currently lives in Cape Town, but has been known to occasionally wander to the Arctic region. She can be reached on Twitter at @avatar_reso