I am not the most meticulous person, but I do believe in the power and efficiency of lists. Most mornings I create a to-so list for the day and relish the rush of crossing off action items throughout the day. Extra thrill points if I’m able to accomplish these items on their designated hour. Two Saturdays ago, I had an ambitious to-do list.
9:00 am: Take Nadjah for a mani-pedi (She was going to the matric ball)
10:30 am: Pick Nadjah up from the mall
10:30 – 11:00: Drive home
11:00 am – 1:30pm: Prepare side dishes for a small BBQ (We had friends coming by)
1:45 pm: Drop Aya off to do her hair
2:00 pm: Welcome guests
5:30 pm: Drop Nadjah off at the ball
6:15 pm: Return home to entertain my guests
6:30 pm: Let the evening unfurl as it may
At 10:31 am – to my great pleasure – everything was going according to schedule. I had Nadjah by my side and we were heading towards the car. Just before we got to the exit doors of the mall, I received a call from my friend, Lydia. And even though the call wasn’t on the agenda, it wouldn’t interrupt my plans. She wanted to shoot the breeze and show me a graphic she’d been working on. It was the week before Black Friday and while the mall wasn’t teeming with humanity, it was busy enough. I weaved my way around fellow holiday shoppers, trying my best to avoid a collision. (You see, I’m a Black woman in the Western Cape and therefore invisible to the denizens who often go out of their way to walk into my path.)
Had I seen the graphic yet, Lydia wanted to know.
“Give me a second. The data is super slow,” I replied, glancing back at the phone. A man and his comrade walked into my path. Reflexively, I side-stepped to avoid a collision.
That’s when I felt it.
A hand brushing the underside of my right breast as its owner walked skillfully past me.
At 10:36 am, I was groped in broad daylight with my daughter to the left of me while on the phone with one of my best friends, 5000 miles away.
Overcome and unsure what to do, I froze in my tracks, astounded by the contact. And then rage hot and bubbling overflowed from my core.
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” I screamed. When he didn’t answer, I bellowed his offense. “DON’T TOUCH ME. DON’T YOU EVER FUCKING TOUCH ME!!”
The strange man and I stared at each other for a moment, eyes locked over our masks – his in shock, mine in disgust – before I spun around and stomped off towards the car.
Mom, are you okay?
Malaka, what’s wrong?
I hastily explained what happened to Lydia and Nadjah, replaying the brief, awful moment. I could still feel the man’s hand on my breast. Two weeks later, my skin still crawls from the phantom touch.
“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” said Lydia. “No one deserves to be sexually assaulted.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who said anything about a sexual assault? I said a man groped me at the mall. I never said I was sexually assaulted! I bristled at the descriptor.
“Thank you,” I said through clenched teeth. There were so many thoughts swirling in my head at once, until I remembered I had not been alone. Somehow, between 10:36 and 10:40, I had forgotten my daughter was in the car with me. I felt the need to apologize to her.
“I’m so sorry I yelled a curse word,” I said remorsefully.
She shrugged. “I’m not the one whose boobs got grabbed in public.”
Lydia wanted to talk some more, but my heart simply wasn’t ready for any kind of frivolous conversation. Would she mind if we caught up later? No, of course not, she replied. I could call and talk whenever I was ready. I thanked her, my ears still ringing from the sorrow she expressed.
No one deserves to be sexually assaulted…
And that’s the truth of the matter. Despite my protestations to the contrary, I was sexually assaulted, and very slyly at that. RAINN defines sexual assault as, “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include: Attempted rape; Fondling or unwanted sexual touching; Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body; Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape.
And while the move was so swift (and no doubt practiced) that I began to doubt its occurrence, there is no doubt that I was fondled and subjected to unwanted sexual contact. I took to Twitter to announce what had happened, hoping to take some of the sting out of it. Everyone was apologetic and kind, as strangers usually are. Closer to home, some reactions were mixed.
“Maybe the man accidentally bumped into you?” said one doubter.
“And that’s ALL you said to him,” was an incredulous response to my story. “I guess we’re really different. Because if it was me, I would have…”
I stopped listening, so I can’t report what this person would’ve done. In those moments, I was reminded again why victims often don’t speak out about their abuse. The skepticism (maybe you imagined it); dissatisfaction with the real time response (you should’ve said/done this, not that); and worst of all, the helplessness your partner/parent/friends feel for not being able to protect you in the moment are a potent silencing spell.
I have been assaulted before. There’s hardly a girl who’s grown up in African who has either been touched inappropriately or knows someone in their close circle who has as well. I’ve written about my father’s brother who demanded a kiss from me at age 8 and stuck his tongue down my throat. 35 years later, I still recall its slimy bitterness. The trotro driver’s mate who cornered me in my house at 12 put his hands down my pants. At any given jam in Accra, some area boy will find a way to press his crotch into your backside, unbidden and unproved. When I was 23 at Frankie’s in Osu, minding my business and cheerfully on my way to get a taxi when a man put his hand under my ass. I responded by grabbing his crotch and staring deeply in his eyes. He seemed bewildered – his friends laughing and cheering while my fist gripped his balls, my cold eyes boring into his dilated pupils. That was the last time a strange man ever touched me… until 10:36 am two Saturdays ago.
I wrestled with whether or not to tell this story. Was it important? After all, I wasn’t harmed. I decided to tell it because while I wasn’t harmed, I have been changed. It’s a law of physics and the universe. Force and friction change the shape and/or direction of an object. I experienced this when my carefully written to-do list was thrown off the rails. For the rest of the day and night (and for the days that followed) I second guessed many of my moves, refused to leave the house unless it was absolutely necessary and withdrew from my family.
What had I done to attract that kind of contact, I wondered. Was the baggy Walmart brand ‘Purple Rain’ shirt and baggy black pants I was wearing so enticing that this strange man felt compelled to put his hands on my body? And most of all, hadn’t I aged out of this sort of harassment? No, it would seem I had not. Whether I, a woman, am aged 8 or 43, there will always be a man who feels he has the right to have unfettered access to my body.
Then there was the realization of my own limits: As a mother, I spend a lot of time thinking about how and in what ways I can and must protect my children. However, at 10:36am two Saturdays ago, I couldn’t even protect my damn self with my daughter standing right next to me. This is humbling, to say the least.
We have just entered 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, and in the nine days since my assault, I have seen a terrifying video of a police officer assaulting a woman in Ghana (which I will not share) and a major Ghanaian media house asking people to justify the assault they have experienced.
The cavalier, callous and casual attitudes towards sexual assault are by no means a local problem, nor does one gender solely own fault. We are all trapped in this toxic cauldron of patriarchy – striving to unlearn and undo the lessons we’ve spent a lifetime stewing in – but every day I see glimmers of hope. I believe that in time, we will blow the lid off of this fetid pot and set ourselves free.