By Masingita Masunga

Here I was on a date when my date looked me in the eye and said: “I have never been with a woman with a disability and I don’t know how to treat you. Please teach me to treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

I bet you would like to know my response and what happened to us. Askies, I am not going to share my response. That is not the subject of this article. 

I welcome and appreciate those honest questions and generally welcome the sometimes-uncomfortableconversations.  Especially when such are about how people should interact with me. Do I get upset, hurt, disappointed, offended and cry sometimes? Definitely yes. If you may wonder, why? 

Emotions are what makes us human hence it is very dehumanising when people think they have a right to micromanage my feelings and infantilise me. This is often coupled with them insulting my intelligence by making it look like they are doing me a favour. This kind of attitude is betrayal to my full sense of humanity. I don’t take kindly to betrayal. Even if it is done in the name of protecting me. You can’t protect me from being human. 

Except for the typical conflict which is bound to happen because Yo Mhaneee!/Oh mommy! (Exclamation transliterallymeaning “oh my God”) the other gender is definitely from a completely different planet, as a heterosexual black woman with a disability, I am yet to experience gender-based violence (which we know is rife in our nation) in an intimate relationship. I am mostly at the receiving end of the brutality of micro – aggression. This tops the list of the types of violence I experience and comes in many forms and shapes from women. This includes leaders and those who are in decision-making positions. This violence presents in various ways:  Where another woman is condescending and patronising and I am treated as if I am invisible or like a naughty child and this occurs in my presence.

I own, produce and host a leadership TV show, “Vantage Point”. In the first season which was on national TV, out of the 13 episodes I only featured women leaders interviewed in 4 episodes. Not because I didn’t approach women leaders or because there is still a challenge of gender representation in leadership positions. I interviewed almost double the number of men because the women in leadership who were approached didn’t honour my invitation. I am led to believe that some don’t think I am good enough or don’t believe that I qualify to interview someone at their level. They express this in a subtle and indirect manner and this is one of the challenging aspects of micro aggression. It is subtle and masquerades as consideration. As this oppression comes in disguise, it makes it easy for even those who claim to be gender activists and fighting GBV to get away with their violence that they are subjecting others to. 

Two experiences stand out. A minister in cabinet (still is) gave me this smug little laugh when I asked to interview her. She got rid of me by giving me her email address to send the request (a procedure which is supposedly followed) but I never got a response to my email request that I had subsequently sent. She didn’t take my calls afterwards when I tried to follow up.

Another high-profile woman leader from a different sector, gave me a whole lecture about the process I should have followed instead of contacting her directly when I contacted her telephonically. She then gave me the “relevant” person to contact which I did. I also sent the email correspondence as advised but I never got any response. I have seen and heard both these women being interviewed by other people subsequent to my request. 

I can write a few best-selling big volume books about the disrespect and demeaning interaction that I continue to encounter from personal assistants (I mention this because most of them are women), which affects access to leaders and delivery of service in the case of government. I address this more in depth when I do lectures for MBA classes at the Wits Business School (WBS) on the challenges of African leadership. 

Validation of our self-worth comes from within, therefore if we expect others to respect our human rights, we then have to respect others’ human rights. Affirmation should start from within the sector or community – we have to affirm ourselves before we could expect others to affirm us. If we expect to be treated as equals by others, let’s treat others as equal human beings because everyone has as much of a right to exist as we do – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you…”

If you doubt any part of what I am saying, go to the CCMA and other bargaining councils and see the many cases of women who are oppressed by other women. Visit psychiatric wards and doctors’ consultation rooms. They are filled with women who are depressed because of how other women treat them. 

Who can forget the story of the 15-year-old Lufuno Mavhunga, who tragically ended her own life because she no longer had the capacity to handle the bullying that she had endured at the hands of other young women. As some of her last words say, “My soul is not resting in peace. I was sent to an early grave by those that believed that they are better than me. May my tears not be in vain.” 

I really resonate with Lufuno’s reference to dealing with people who think they are better than you. It is a regularoccurence in my life. 

We can protect and save girls like Lufuno and women in general (young and older), by honouring Lufuno’s last wish that her tears should not be in vain. Only if, as women we stop perceiving wrong only when it is done to us and reflect on our own actions towards other women who may be different from us. As we commemorate Women’s Day and month, to highlight the challenges still faced by all women, we need to do self-introspection about our own “unconscious biases”. As we rise together to heal this wounded nation, we need to have these uncomfortable conversations and acknowledge the other truth about the cause of suffering of women because we cannot overcome what we won’t confront. We can’t stop bleeding from one wound by opening another. We cannot continue seeking transformation that is exclusive and self-serving while disguising violence. 

If we want to achieve gender equality and honour the women of 1956 (who marched in unison with their struggle as an equaliser), we need to echo the words of Audre Lorde that say: I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.

Wishing all women a fit and abOVEnormal Women’s Day and month. 

*** 

Masingita Masunga is an award-winning media personality, speaker and founder of abOVEnormal holistic fitness, wellness and sportswear brand. This article also appeared in the weekend edition of the Sunday World.