The Equality Unit of the University of Stellenbosch has been running Instagram Live sessions in August to highlight issues that affect women in women’s month. On the 12th August, Felicity Harrison from the IJR Sustained Dialogues Programme participated in a discussion facilitated by Yamkela Tyapha on the topic of catcalling – why it is problematic and how it contributes to rape culture – alongside fellow guests Rifqah Barnes of Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and Grace Mngadi from WAQE.

The discussion highlighted how our society has normalised a culture of men owning public spaces and how this creates an unsafe space for women.  Women’s bodies are seen as up for public scrutiny, comment, and shame.  Far from being harmless, catcalling is a way to dehumanise women and objectify their bodies. It is important to see sexual harassment on a continuum: disrespect starts with catcalling and desensitises men to seeing women as human beings with dignity.  This then leads to the escalation of violence because women are not seen as having dignity and worth.

Part of the problem is the normalisation of sexist behaviour and the perpetuation of the lies that catcalling is a “compliment”, that women need to “lighten up”, that the men doing the catcalling are “just being friendly” and that women “over-react” when they say that they are uncomfortable.

The discussion also highlighted the historical underpinnings of the current situation. South Africa is a product of its history: colonialism and apartheid were deeply patriarchal and they entrenched gender discrimination in both laws and society.  It is also important to note that our different cultures and religions have also devalued the humanity and dignity of women which has led to a society in which catcalling is normalised. Male domination is perpetuated through culture and religion, and it gives men a sense of entitlement to act with impunity. Women are encouraged to smile and take the attention as a flattering compliment.

The discussion ended with all three of the organisations present looking at how they are dealing with breaking down patriarchal structures and the need to ensure that public spaces are safe spaces for women.  IJR is very grateful to the University of Stellenbosch for the opportunity to be a part of this important conversation.  A special thanks to Danielle Hoffmeester and Katlego Sepotokele from the Gender Project for their research and input.

Felicity Harrison, Head of Sustained Dialogues Programme at IJR

Image Source: Stellenbosch University Equality Unit