Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: having a daughter changes things.
Not in the way previously misogynistic artists mean. You know, how the moment their female children are born they are filled with the wondrous realisation that women are, in fact, also people. I’m a woman and a feminist one at that, so I’ve always proceeded from the assumption of the basic humanity of girls and womxn, and anyone else, for that matter.
A year ago, my daughter came home. A few months after that, I held her and sobbed as I read the details of the unbearable final minutes of someone else’s daughter, 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana, raped and murdered at our local post office. Hers is not the first grim sacrifice on the altar of unrepentant toxic South African masculinity. There is a steady stream of girls who are paraded through our news and social media, first as missing persons, then as victims, and finally, as martyrs in this never-ending cycle. For me, Uyinene Mrwetyana’s story was different. For one thing, it happened just down the road from my home. I cannot get over that one sunny Saturday afternoon, as I wrangled my children and definitely did not appreciate them or the beautiful day as much as I should have, someone else’s child was brutally killed, a few hundred metres away. For another, when she was murdered, I was a new mother to our baby girl, our only daughter.
In those weeks when the news of what happened to Uyinene Mrwetyana trickled through, I held my daughter and wondered how to explain this sorry state of affairs to her. I wondered what kind of conversations are in our future, when she is old enough to understand these stories. Am I going to have to explain it to her as it was explained to me? Keys like a weapon, clutched through a fist. Never walk alone, never at night. Always look behind you. If they catcall, don’t respond, but don’t look angry. If they tell you to smile and seem disproportionately pissed off when you don’t, offer a small smile – it doesn’t have to be real, but it has to be enough to diffuse the strange rage. Stay here with me. Stay safe. Be careful. When I was younger and new to the evils of the world, I swore I would never tell my daughter to Be Careful. I would tell my son to be careful of the easy traps of his gender, stay wary of anyone who assumes anything about you because of your sex.
I am older now, and I have a daughter whose bright future I want to preserve. So I practice the speech. I curl my tongue around the bitter words that threaten to choke me: Be Careful. I trace the steps she will one day take through our neighbourhood, noting potential danger zones. I offer these small things as prayers to gods who seem indifferent to whether womxn live or die: please keep her safe, don’t take her away from me.
Even as I do that, I know it’s pointless. This past week, there was some kind of massive police operation on the road on which Uyinene was murdered. The police were handing out puce flyers with the message STOP GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE emblazoned on them. I made a joke to someone that one way to make womxn feel unsafe really quickly is to randomly hand out flyers about stopping gender-based violence in their neighbourhood on a sunny weekday afternoon. Why are they giving this to me? I wondered, angered again. On top of everything I have to stop gender-based violence too. Ugh. Talk about the mental load. Then I remembered. The anniversary. The warnings I’ve internalised and bookmarked for my daughter. My futile prayers against violent masculinity. Holding her close, keeping her safe with those words: Be Careful.
The cops handed out those flyers to womxn as we travelled by the site of Uyinene’s murder because, frankly, it’s assumed that we have equal power to stop gender-based violence. As womxn, we exist as potential victims. We share space and breath. We cannot be expected to do it without limits and fear. So, ladies, take the self-defense classes. Don’t stay out alone too late. Drive don’t walk. If you’re being driven by someone else, make sure someone is tracking the vehicle. Dress conservatively. Smile when it’s suggested by a stranger on the street. Text your friend when you arrive safely. Be Careful. STOP GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE.
A few days after the police’s show of (too little, too late) ‘awareness-raising’, I drive past the site of the murder again. As always, I force myself to look and remember. I force myself to spend a few seconds of my day trying to inhabit the horror this young woman endured as she died, and the horror her mother has endured since. I don’t look away. In a country that is so determined to convince me that the ongoing brutalisation of womxn can somehow be stopped by womxn, that murder site is a reminder. Nothing I do will save me, or keep my daughter safe. We can be killed in broad daylight, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a few hundred metres from scenes of domestic mundanity.
Ahead of the grim anniversary, someone – or a group of someones – has put up memorial ribbons. To remember and remind and mourn out loud. I’ll say it again: it’s disgraceful that building still stands. It’s disgraceful any part of this country in which womxn are violated and violently ended still stands.
It should burn to the ground. Womxn should burn it to the ground.
We put up ribbons in lieu of lighting it up. We hold our daughters close and we whisper to the wind: Be Careful.
Featured image by lucia on Unsplash