“Bella woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough”. So began Helen Zahavi’s 1991 utterly liberating novel, “Dirty Weekend”, about one woman and the violent revenge she takes on a world filled with rapists, peeping toms, obscene phone-callers and cat-callers.
The story of Bella, “a victim-turned-avenger” who, in the end, kills seven men, in one weekend, all of whom have entered her space uninvited, unleashed a storm of protest when it was first published.
That a woman could dare to write a book about a perfectly sane and reasonable female protagonist who kills predatory men, touched a nerve. So much so that the London Sunday Times published a poll of psychiatrists debating whether Zahavi was mentally ill.
Reading Zahavi’s book back then, when the slaughter and rape of women and children were – as it is, today – an everyday occurrence in South Africa, the narrative provided an exhilarating sense of agency, even if it was only a fantasy.
The only way to stop this brutality is for predatory men to begin to fear us, all of us.
We cannot step into a violent patriarchal world which threatens our very existence almost every waking or sleeping moment armed with political platitudes or insipid “months” to “celebrate” us.
We must rage, we must give voice to our rage, we must make visible our rage until men fear us enough to stop the terror.
I had fleetingly thought of adapting Zahavi’s book into a one-woman show set in South Africa. The story would begin with a radio announcement warning men in Cape Town to be careful as another trussed-up victim had been found in the veld.
The police spokesperson would urge men not to speak to or approach strange women, particularly ordinary women, in any public space, as the serial killer was suspected to be living among us, someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s wife. She could be anyone.
And what made it an even more difficult case for the police to crack was that the avenger did not seek out her victims, it was they who either cornered her, tried to break into her home, followed her in an ill-lit street, tried to bundle her into a car to abduct her.
Just thinking about it brought relief. That Bella’s rampage would deter men from invading our space in any way for fear of death.
But the real world remains life-threatening to women and children.
Approaching the end of yet another Women’s Month filled with nothings and with the soil of the country still drenched in blood, I watched a thread unfurl on Facebook by women responding to a question by Tracy Going, a former broadcaster who penned “Brutal Legacy” a searing memoir about surviving an abusive, violent relationship.
“I’m busy writing a talk and am looking for some examples of the things we as women do on a daily basis to keep safe. I sleep on the side of the bed that is furthest from the door so that I can try to escape if needed. What do you do?” asked Going.
Here is a selection of the replies with the identities of the women withheld for obvious reasons;
“If there are only men in the lift I pretend I forgot something and take the stairs. If I’m the only one on my floor I alert campus protection services. I always greet so that they don’t think that I think I’m better than them (they rape you in order to humble you). The scariest thought is boarding a taxi only to find that there are only men in it.”
“Every single day, the most trivial things need a second thought. Crossing the street because men are approaching. Clutching your bag or walking faster/slower because a man is walking behind you.
“Holding your breath (and sometimes tears) in a lift filled with men. Smiling awkwardly at cat-calling cos any sort of recognised scorn is met with violence and hostility. Waiting in a more lit area at the station or for more people to arrive if the platform is empty (even the security guard is a threat). Pretending to call someone who is supposedly expecting you when alone with the Uber driver. It’s a fucking mess!!!! Every goddamn day!!!”
“I am scared to even walk alone in the street. I think of a car that will approach, stop next to me and then boom, two men drag me inside the car and drive off.”
“What terrifies me, having started to research this in 2001? How many women are polite to completely strange men so that they are not raped to ‘teach them their place’ (when asked how he and his gang picked their victims a rapist said ‘We go for the cheeky ones’. But then it gets worse: men all over the world assume that a polite greeting and a smile construes ‘flirting’. And then they’re all over you. (It’s been observed that the reason many men can’t distinguish between courtesy and a come-on is because they can’t ever be bothered to be polite to a woman they don’t fancy.)”
“I use politeness, and I am incredibly observant. It can be during the day or the evening if I go to a place once, I never forget the route that took us there. When I fill up my car, I usually fill it up in one petrol station all the time in my area and tip often. This creates a familiarity that will help the attendants notice if something is wrong on a particular day”
“When driving, I’m continually checking if any car is following me. If I suspect something, I change the route. I also change routes leaving and going home. Maybe it’s the Crime channel shows causing me to be paranoid, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
“If I am walking I always have my keys in my hand. Both as a potential weapon and so I don’t have to stand at the gate getting keys out my bag.”
“I also park in reverse in all public parking spaces. I heard that CIA agents Park their cars like that, ready to take off.”
“Always greet so they don’t think I’m ‘better than them’ and attack me just to humble me
2. Put alarm beams on even during the day
3. Slow at traffic lights so that I don’t come to a complete stop
4. Keep handbag out of sight and always loop strap around the gear
5. Alaways lock car doors as soon as I get in the car
6. Don’t park next to a big van so they can’t kidnap me
7. Safe following distance so I can swerve from danger
8. No cellphone while I drive for extra vigilance
9. Look at my rear view mirror 60-million times to be on the lookout for follow vehicles.
10. Stay home unless absolutely necessary to leave.”
“I only wear pants. No dresses or skirts. And flat doc marten type shoes so I can run and kick.”
“Karate. I have a black belt (second dan) and my daughter has a red belt. Christ knows what I’d do if a gun was involved though. I walk or run with my best friend a couple of times a week. She also has a second Dan black belt in karate. I have a large dog, who runs with us. We used to run through the botanical gardens in Makhanda and up through the top but there are too many muggings and attacks going on. We could risk walking or running the whole route, but we don’t anymore. Why expose ourselves to the risk when it’s our downtime?”
“I have a really sharp sword under the bed positioned just so. And a knobkierie. And a full-on fight reflex.”
“I dabble in martial arts, I’m 67 so I just go gently but it keeps me fit and I’ve learned some great techniques to defend myself, plus Muay Thai boxing for ladies is great. I’m getting a punching bag for my bedroom.”
The intellectual energy that is consumed by women in this country just trying to stay alive is a national crisis and a national shame.
That our lives are rendered so small, so inward-looking, so circumscribed is enraging. Which is why Bella, for me, holds, if only for a moment, a feeling of triumph.
Until we can trust the men who are not predatory to be aware and conscious of the daily hell, we are on our own, dear sisters.
In the meantime, we must march, we must burn things, we must express our collective rage.
Men do all the time.
We must demand a dedicated sexual offences unit, run by women for women, we must demand safe spaces on public transport – like women-only carriages on trains – we must demand that the sexual offences courts become functional and that the rapists, the murderers and the sadists who seek to obliterate our bodies and our very presence are held accountable.
There are women already who protest daily at court appearances of the rapists, the sadists, the murderers….They must be supported.
We must demand that the women who have political power and who we have elected in this country stop kowtowing to male leadership and demand that this sustained and relentless attack on more than half of the population must stop.
Otherwise, one day, we will become Bella.