‘Nasty Women Talk Back’, and boy do they give you a flea in your ear
An extract from the book of feminist essays
Nasty Women Talk Back is a collection of feminist essays on what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world. Each story uses a poster associated with the global women’s marches and uses it as a platform to tell a personal story. Beautifully told, they speak about ordinary women who have done extraordinary things.
The 28 contributions are told by “nasty women” who make the personal political, who seek to live their lives in ways that resist and challenge patriarchy. The stories speak to the creation of a different kind of social order, one based on equity, the promotion of human rights, and social justice. Here is an extract from the book:
Pussies Are Not For Grabbing!
by Joy Watson
I was nine years old when I first experienced pussy grabbing. I was feeling unwell, had been vomiting and, with a high fever, was lethargic and out of sorts. My mother took me to see a white doctor in an established part of Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. For a reason that I cannot recall, I went into the doctor’s surgery alone for the examination while my mother waited in the reception area. She was called in afterwards for the diagnosis.
I remember lying on the doctor’s bed, waiting patiently to get back home where I could be sick in peace. After doing the usual sort of thing, such as listening to my heartbeat and looking inside my mouth, the doctor explained that he would need to examine every part of me. He slid my panties aside and inserted his fingers into my vagina, gently probing around for a bit. I remember the sense of blindly trusting in his established authority. I had no reason to believe that anything untoward had happened. I thought that he was just doing his job and looking for viruses. In my childhood innocence, everything was perfectly as it should be.
Ten years later, still wrapped in my cloak of innocence and blind belief that nice white doctors could not possibly engage in acts of sexual violence, I went to see a gynaecologist. I was 18, a student at the University of Cape Town, and in desperate need of resolving the misery of thrush that had established itself in my nether parts.
At the time, I had no idea what thrush was (blame apartheid education … ) and had contorted all sorts of dire explanations for what could possibly be wrong. Suffice it to say, I am adept at conjuring up stories of doom, gloom and imminent death. These were the days before the Internet, when Catholic school “guidance” programmes did very little in the way of preparing you for the practicalities of understanding your body and sexuality. Our sex education classes were crisp and clear and, in a nutshell, amounted to “total abstinence until marriage, at which point you get to wear a white dress and veil”. This, of course, did not provide me with any contextual information to help me understand the intricacies of thrush.
So off I went to the rooms of a gynaecologist in Sea Point, a respected man whose clientele included many affluent women. I know this because he deemed it necessary to tell me. After a somewhat lengthy “chat” at his desk where he asked me many personal questions, he told me to undress in an adjoining room and to get up onto the examination bed while he waited at his desk.
He said he would join me in a bit. I took off my clothes and lay there, worried about the foul business going on in my vagina and hoping that he would not be put off. Luckily, the doctor seemed nonplussed and chatted merrily away while examining my breasts and doing a pap smear. With an approving eye, he told me that I had a nice body and asked how I managed to keep it in such good shape. While I had a sense that there was something about him that I did not like, possibly the fact that he seemed so cocky and self-assured, I trusted him completely, trapped by both of our cognitive views of the skewed power relations between us.
When he was done, he told me to get dressed and to join him at his desk. He left the room and I felt tremendous relief that the business of having a strange man poke around in my vagina was done with. I had not been given a dressing gown, so I took my naked self off the examination bed and walked towards the part of the room where my clothes lay in a heap. I was halfway across the room when the door opened and the doctor came back with a “Sorry, sorry, I forgot to check something.” I stood there, shy and awkward, trying to cover myself with my arms, rendered vulnerable and exposed. He told me to get back onto the examination bed. I clambered back on, feeling mortified. It did not cross my mind that I could query this sudden about-turn of events. Muttering about needing to check something, the doctor stepped towards me and, without gloves, proceeded to probe me with his fingers, looking inside my vagina.
He told me that he thought that I was possibly anaemic and that it worried him, because I was a “waif of a water nymph”. Something about it felt wrong, but I was far too trusting to think that he had any ulterior motives. Also, I had no idea what a water nymph was, which was the main dilemma that I chose to focus on. I dismissed the inkling of suspicion that threatened to rear its cautious little head. He was the white doctor who would do what he thought best, and I was the inexperienced young girl who had to believe and trust in the process. Yet, I left his office with a niggling, underlying sense that I had been violated in some way, without having the terms of reference to structure these thoughts or articulate them. These thoughts lurked in the depths of my consciousness where they lay dormant for reemergence when the time was ripe.
A few years later, lured by the call of all that was subversive, I dabbled with witchcraft and feminism. The witchcraft was not really for me. It was only remotely interesting when I thought it was about drinking your period blood, casting spells to draw nice stuff into your life and running around naked under a full moon. In addition, the drinking period blood bit was losing me friends. But the feminism … Oh the feminism … The feminism kick-started a deep introspection, one where I retracted to a place deep within my core to engage with everything that I thought I knew. I went on a fantastical journey inside myself to discover who I was, what my values were and who I wanted to be. And confronted some deep-seated trauma in the process.
My journey into feminism was not only an intellectual one; it was quasi-spiritual in nature too. I catapulted myself outwards to look at the world around me, my surrounding contextual environment, and asked difficult questions about how we as people, as communities and societies, forge relationships, how we engage with each other and how the notion of power comes into play in all of this. I realised, with a sense of shock, that I had never claimed agency. I had never felt entitled to. My background and the sociopolitical context within which I had been raised in apartheid South Africa geared me towards being respectful, silent and a follower. It was both frightening and liberating to discover that my views mattered, that they need not conform and that I had a responsibility for staking claim, for speaking out and taking up space in the world – very different from my attempts to shy away, hide and silence my voice.
I could diverge from the orthodox pathway and create new routes of my own. I need not follow, but instead, could dare to think about leading the way.This was a period of the lights dawning for me. Suddenly, I was re-conceptualising my experiences through the prism of a gendered social order, with gendered interactions and power dynamics at play that determined how I was able to fit into the world and claim space in it. Even more mind-blowing, was the fact that these gendered interactions were taking place not just at an individual level, but at a societal level. They impacted on every social and public institution that I engaged with – my family, church, community, relationships, university, the state itself … the list was endless. And even more illuminating was the intersection between my gender, sexuality and other social variables such as being black in a country where apartheid was being dismantled, being a young person at the dawn of democracy and living in my demarcated community as designated by the Group Areas Act.
All these aspects of identity crisscrossed in very significant ways. And finally, I was able to view the interactions with my childhood doctor and the gynaecologist through the lens of sexual violence, and its underlying power dynamics of established, affluent white men of the patriarchy doing what they did simply because they could.
It has been almost 30 years since I began my journey as a feminist. And here we are, at a juncture where arguably the most powerful nation in the world has elected to its highest office, a man who endorses pussy grabbing as a legitimate means of exercising control over women. President Trump was in office for a heartbeat, barely time to warm up his chair, and he had already shown signs of how his administration would affect the lives of women all over the world. The politics of accentuating differences and a sense of “otherness” among people is a normalised aspect of his leadership. The ban on the entry of certain Muslim nationals to the US stands out as the single biggest overt act of discrimination, fuelling outcry among all of us who worry about living in a world that is not appreciative and tolerant of racial and cultural diversity. The political rhetoric of building walls and refusing entry into the US is an important feature of PresidentTrump’s foreign relations agenda. It has fueled a problematic narrative that America can isolate itself and thrive as a self-sufficient nation state that is amputated from the rest of the world. It has encouraged and slapped prejudice on the back, and created an environment where closet fascists can creep out of the woodwork and preach their gospel of a perceived shared sense of identity in ways that incite tension and conflict.
We have come to expect the worst of the Trump administration, and rightfully so. With a sense of anxious inevitably, we know that he is bad news for human rights and social justice from all perspectives and intersections – nationality, race, class, gender and sexual orientation. We have resigned ourselves to waiting with bated breath and watching the horror of this drama play itself out. We worry that we are in some sort of bizarre time warp where, against our will, we have been catapulted backwards into a quasi-Neanderthal world, fuelled by a President who ranks women’s looks and bodies in a 10-point system and sexualises his daughter and muses about dating her.
It is indeed terrifying to realise this is a dream from which we are not waking, one that goes on in a wave of astonishing new onslaughts each day. We know that President Trump is not alone in espousing sexist values, many men and women subscribe to them, but as a high profile public figure, he becomes the mouthpiece of an entrenched ideological stance of misogyny. We know that we have our own local leaders who espouse similar values. Yet, President Trump has the platform upon which to amplify these views on a world stage in ways that easily germinate and grow. Of particular concern is the opportunity for translating toxicity into public policy. We saw this with the reinstatement of the global “gag rule”, otherwise known as the Mexico City Policy. The gag rule was instated by the Reagan administration in 1984, and sought to block federal international funding to non-governmental organisations that provided any sort of abortion counselling or service, even if these services are not directly funded by the US. The rule had a widespread impact on the lives and health of women and girls, particularly in the Global South. It negatively affected a wide range of critical services provided to women, such as those that address gender-based violence. The first few weeks of the Trump administration reinforced the reality that men will take life-altering decisions about women’s sexual and reproductive rights without any pretence to hold public consultations. The Trump administration has the potential to significantly affect the global political agenda. It has, for example, become clear that President Trump has a negative view of the role of Africa on the global stage.
His musings on “Nambia” and his views on African states as being “shithole” countries are indicative of stereotypical, racist views of the continent, which are likely to impact on policy stances. By 2018, President Trump still had not bothered to fill the vacant African Affairs senior leadership positions in the State Department, and there is no zeal to fill the position of Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and key ambassadorships on the continent, such as to South Africa, Somalia and Tanzania. With this lack of policy priority accorded to Africa, we have seen and will continue to see a negative impact on foreign aid allocated to the continent.
And yet … President Trump’s first week in office also gave me tremendous hope. In the face of deep-seated fears that the administration was working fast to institutionalise values of white supremacy and misogyny, women across the globe decided, “Hell no, not under our watch!” And what followed is the stuff that miracles are made of. With a mission of challenging institutionalised patriarchy, hundreds of thousands of women took to streets in a surge of unprecedented social mobilisation. Cities around the world were alight with women fighting back and speaking out. A sea of clever, visceral posters attested to this dormant rage ignited by views that “pussies are for grabbing” and “women are young and beautiful pieces of ass”. Little pink pussy ears bobbed around worldwide, signifiers not of “cuteness”, but of defiance, agency and pushing back. And the message is abundantly clear – there is place for being a Nasty Woman when we need to be. “Not as nasty as a swastika painted on a pride flag … not as nasty as racism, fraud, conflict of interests, homophobia, sexual assault, transphobia, white supremacy, misogyny, ignorance, white privilege …” but nasty as in “the battles my grandmothers fought to get me into that voting booth”. And while the marches were not without some serious shortcomings – they brought to the fore, for example, the fact that black women continue to be marginalised in social mobilisation campaigns, yet they still marked an important milestone in building international activism. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that we will not take misogyny lying down.
As women, in our intersectionalism, we have agency and we will continue to find ways of claiming this and taking a stand – all in the name of making the world a more peaceful, tolerant and non-nasty place for everyone. To bring about social change, we need to be radical, we need to be angry, we need threats. We need revolutionary thought and action. Significant social transformation such as the right to vote, the right to choose abortion,the right to engage in same-sex relationships, are all aspects of social change that came about as a result of radical thought and action.
Contemporary popular feminism’s approach of sticking as closely as possible to the status quo is not bringing about fundamental change. The drive to sell feminism and render it universally acceptable, has resulted in a disavowal of the radical ideas that underpin it. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves, what has this really achieved? Donald Trump was still elected to power notwithstanding the popularisation of feminism. Sandra Bartky describes the process of becoming feminist as a profound personal transformation involving both changes in behaviour and in consciousness. The process of becoming feminist is not an end state, but an ongoing journey. It entails the developmentof a multiplicity of feminist consciousness, derived from involvement and interpretation of different situated experiences.