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Archive for June 13th, 2017

“We make our mark when we defy norms” – read an excerpt from Miss-Behave

Upon encountering historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s quote, ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’, Malebo Sephodi knew that she was tired of everyone else having a say on who and what she should be. Appropriating this quote, Malebo boldly renounces societal expectations placed on her as a black woman and shares her journey towards misbehaviour.

According to Malebo, it is the norm for a black woman to live in a society that prescribes what it means to be a well-behaved woman. Acting like this prescribed woman equals good behaviour. But what happens when a black woman decides to live her own life and becomes her own form of who she wants to be? She is often seen as misbehaving.

Miss-Behave challenges society’s deep-seated beliefs about what it means to be an obedient woman. In this book, Malebo tracks her journey on a path towards achieving total autonomy and self-determinism. Miss-Behave will challenge, rattle and occasionally cause you to scream ‘yassss, yassss, yassss’ at various intervals.

Chapter One: Misbehave:

I am a petrolhead, an engine enthusiast.

I love the smell of petrol, possibly because of an iron deficiency, but I have a passion for engines nonetheless. From cars to fighter jets, with motorbikes topping the list. My machine of choice is the Honda CBR1000RR superbike, otherwise known as the Fireblade.

Although the likes of the BMW S1000RR superbike has won the hearts of many due to its sleek aesthetics, unmatched performance and disruptive power, the Fireblade has always owned the road. This is of course my tested opinion.

My love of motorbikes started at the tender age of 13. I saw one passing by and knew I would one day ride it. I fantasised about riding into the dusk on a silver-maroon Harley Davidson, the only make I knew at the time. In 2003 I had the opportunity to attend a bikers’ church; it was heaven glazed with metal.

In still trying to deal with the idea that bikers have their own church, I was overwhelmed by the number of bikes in the parking lot. I had to blink three times in order for me to believe what I was seeing. I was not conscious of this but I do not remember noticing any black bikers. While the church service was in procession I slipped outside to bask in the metal of my dreams.

I had never seen anything like it. When church was out, I met a couple who offered me a lift. When they pointed to their bike, my heart skipped a beat. There it was in its metallic glory: the fierce iron horse that had always captured my imagination. Everything that I had daydreamed about was parked right before my eyes. Walking towards the bike felt surreal. I was finally doing this. I could not believe it. Tears welled up, camouflaged by a light drizzle. The owner, Manfred, said: ‘Gear up and get on.’ His partner handed me her safety jacket and helmet. ‘First rule of the bike: always protect yourself,’ she said. I put on the jacket first and then the helmet and she pulled the tie under my chin to secure the helmet. I mounted the bike, wrapping my arms around Manfred’s waist, and rested my head against his back. His partner laughed and told me I could sit up straight and hold on to his sides. I grabbed both sides of his jacket and held as tightly as I could. He started the engine and the sound eased through my ears as if it were something natural to me.

The bike started moving, and with the increase of speed all my sorrows disappeared with the wind as the rain before us formed a stage curtain that opened onto the horizon. My dreams were coming true. When we got back, Manfred slowly moved in between other parked bikes and stopped. With his hands on the handlebars and both black boots on the ground he said, ‘Thank you.’

I clung to his waist and squeezed to relate my gratitude.

Nodding his head, he stretched his right arm behind him and tapped twice on my forearm. From that day I was obsessed with the idea of owning one and chasing sunsets. Every time I closed my eyes, I relived how the wind kissed me that day. The experience stayed with me and seeing bikes on the road gave me the hope that I would own a bike one day too. Four and half years later, in 2008, my dreams got closer to becoming a reality. I went out to Maponya Mall in Soweto for drinks with some friends. On leaving, I saw some men gathered around and admiring whatever it was they had enclosed. I walked over to peep a black Kawasaki Ninja with silver linings parked right next to the pavement, with the owner sitting next to it, enjoying the admiration his bike was receiving. I stood around the circle and joined in on the conversation. When my turn came to speak to the owner, I said, ‘Nice wheels.’ He laughed and responded, ‘That’s Fire, not wheels, Fire.’ His bike’s name was Fire. We spent the next 30 minutes talking about bikes. He explained the different bikes you find on the road, the different biker clubs that one could join and all the events that get hosted by bikers.

It was all too much for me to take in, so he promised to take me for a ride and introduce me to other bikers. His name was Zee. He was about 1.8m tall with broad shoulders and arms that looked like he could pick his bike up. We formed a very close friendship and he took me to a bike club launch, where I was introduced to a community of bikers. I felt my dream ignited from within. Seeing black people owning bikes inspired me. Granted most of them were men, but when I looked around I found a few black women, which inspired me even more.

Lady Zee, real name Zanele McMurray, was a goddess. When I saw her, I knew I needed to speak to her. I gave myself a pep talk to go chat to her. She was standing around a group of bikers. I approached her and all I could think of was how she represented a divine deity. I tapped her on her left shoulder, but I couldn’t say anything past: ‘I also want to ride a bike like you one day.’

Her eyelids closed and she broke into the most beautiful warm smile and said, ‘I can’t wait to ride with you one day.’ I looked up to her and venerated her existence.

She has been riding forever and supports many initiatives through her biking. One initiative is a yearly campaign called Cancervive, where she and a few other bikers ride for cancer awareness. The first day I learned of Cancervive, I also learned that Lillian Dube, whom I grew up watching on TV, was a biker as well. She survived cancer and lives to tell the tale. The cause is very close to Lady Zee’s heart and she uses biking as a way to champion it and create more awareness. It was important to see other black women riding, because as much as I believed dreams do come true, this dream seemed impossible, and witnessing Lady Zee on her bike made me realise the endless possibility in achieving my dream. She became the key in unlocking my first steps towards being a biker. My dream did come true – I got to ride with her.

When I became part of the biker community I was first known as Eagle Rose and later as Lady Gripen. Bikers often have aliases to describe the type of personality they show in the sport. Most are earned, but some are chosen. I called myself Eagle Rose because, at the time, I loved eagles and roses.

I went on to name my bike Gripen, and it is because of this that everyone called me Lady Gripen. It’s a fitting name for my bike because a Gripen is a Saab fighter jet that can break the sound barrier – an amazing phenomenon to watch. Unlike the jet, I have never broken the sound barrier and this has become a goal to achieve in life.

Riding back then as a black woman came with wide-eyed stares and required frequent explanation. This was a fascination to many but it did not come without its fair share of judgement.

There are many stereotypes nurtured and protected. On one occasion at a petrol station, when I was getting ready to mount my bike, two gentlemen in a red SUV approached me. I was putting my helmet on when they started making small talk about my motorbike, going on about how beautiful it was. I thanked them, but you could see they were not really talking to me. I ignored them and continued to put on my gloves until they looked in my direction.

One of them asked if I was not afraid of the bike and if I trusted my boyfriend enough to ride with him. He looked around, scanning for this boyfriend of mine. I had already become used to such questions, so with a sarcastic tone I responded: ‘My boyfriend is afraid of speed.’

I mounted the bike, spun my back wheel hard enough to leave them confused and then sped off. They often say your bike is like a shy boyfriend: do not try to show off with it because it might embarrass you. That day proved what rubbish those gendered aphorisms are, because my bike was such a team player in causing discomfort to gendered perceptions – not that my skills on a bike could change people’s sexist assumptions.

Even though I rode on the same road and hit the same curves, I found that I was viewed differently from fellow bikers, the men. Many assumed I couldn’t perform basic bike maintenance, such as greasing my chain, taking care of my tyres or any other simple duty every bike owner should be able to do.

My mere existence as a biker disrupted so many deep-seated gender beliefs.

Being the cause of disruption comes at a heavy price, but it is a price I have always been willing to pay from the minute I chose to make history. Historically, biking is a sport that has been dominated by white men. Not because whites are braver and more excitable, but because motorcycling is an expensive sport to which black people have had little or no access. For a long time the only bike associated with blacks was the delivery bike, which I grew up calling Velaphi.

Although by 1986 there were black men who rode bikes for leisure under the Eagles Bikers Club, one of the first black motorcycle clubs in South Africa. When black men started invading the sport in numbers, white society was dealt a shock. And now both the white and black men have to deal with black women.

Most of the time I rode alone because I could not stand how I was viewed as a biker. I hated being referred to as a ‘female biker’ while men were referred to as ‘bikers’. Gendering my position as a rider inevitably erased me when one started to talk about bikers. When a person said, ‘A group of bikers came around the corner,’ it was translated as ‘men coming around the corner’. This automatically obliterated my participation, even if I were riding with them. Whenever anyone engaged me on my riding capabilities, the questions would revolve around my femaleness as a biker and not just my ability and skill on the bike.

This gives you no choice but to seek those who will make you feel comfortable in such environments. Because biking is a sport I love, I want to do it knowing that I ride it within safe spaces and that I do not feel exhausted from trying to defend my right and will to participate in the sport. That is why I found solace with other black women who’d started riding before me, with me and after me.

Lady Zee, in particular, is a force in her own right. She continuously gives me the affirmation to shake up a field dominated by men without fear. Another fellow biker always reminds me of a quote that kept her on her two wheels whenever she felt the weight of sexism. I can’t quite remember it verbatim but paraphrasing it sounds something like: ‘When our great-grandchildren speak of us, they will remember that we were bikers.’

And snapping her fingers she adds: ‘And fast ones at that.’

And that’s the thing: we will not be remembered for all the ‘normal’ things we’re expected to do, unless we do them exceptionally well. We make our mark when we defy norms.

These norms do not have to be changed by moving mountains; we just have to step out of the box that has been constructed for us – even though we stand to be labelled as ‘not well behaved’.

To misbehave is to resist

It has always been interesting how my behaviour as a woman is policed by whichever part of society I interact with, whether as a biker or just a woman who leads her life day by day.

So when I first saw the quote ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’, I knew that it was something that I would hold on to for a long time. I did not know who wrote it at the time but it was often attributed to Marilyn Monroe, which was very fitting.

Monroe’s legacy has never been defined by any sort of good behaviour in the ways the world would expect good behaviour to manifest. If anything, she crossed boundaries and till this day remains a mystery to me. Monroe was a worldwide star who lived with a troubled past and battled with a life full of personal darkness. She always made the gossip column, mainly due to her sexuality.

In an era that was underpinned by sexual anxiety, she had posed nude and expressed no regret for her actions. For many who tried to box her in the stereotype of a ‘blonde’ woman, assuming that because of her sexual appeal she could never have any intellectual prowess, she proved the assumptions wrong, showing that the two can coexist. She ran her own production company in a feat to be able to do whatever it was that she wanted, whenever she wanted.

I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that this slogan was coined by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a historian at Harvard University. I discovered that it first appeared in a 1976 academic article written about the pious women who were celebrated in funeral sermons.

It was only in 1996 that it found its way into popular culture and was soon printed on mugs, bumper stickers, T-shirts, magnets and websites. As with anything in the public domain, it opened itself up to different interpretation.

Some interpreted it to mean that if you are going to make any significant change in the world, then it matters not what people think of you. To others it meant that ‘good girls’ never receive credit for anything or that being a ‘bad girl’ is more rewarding.

Some found it empowering while others expressed concern that it was encouraging ‘bad’ behaviour among women. To me, it meant not being satisfied with the ‘normal’ behaviour assigned to women, and living a life worthy to be remembered.

Remembered for the truth that you stood up for no matter how unpopular the costs.

Due to all the feedback, with the issue of misbehaviour emerging as the most common, Ulrich went on to publish Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History in 2007.

In it she explains how the slogan evolved from what she had originally written to achieving widespread fame, but also what her objectives had been from the very start. Her 1976 article had observed how historians of colonial America had little or nothing to write about women. Her response was to write about the daily lives of those women who would not otherwise make it into history books.

It was important for her that she didn’t write about these women as subjects with no agency, but that their daily actions mattered enough to make history. As a scholar, her form of misbehaviour was to take an interest in things that others would easily dismiss as boring, studying in depth lives not considered newsworthy, and exploring the small actions women took that went against the norm.

Although these women were not big-shot influencers, they rejected invisibility.

History is made by all of us, but some are less likely to have their contributions recorded than others. For me, these ‘some’ are the many black women who silently and loudly ride their bikes, using them to shift societal perspectives. Because I looked upon many black women who ride bikes as a way to believe that my dreams could come true. Being able to ride a bike and overcome judgement and opinions from society has allowed me to further build up confidence within myself to challenge any norm that seeks to silence and filter me.

Most times when I encounter someone sharing this slogan, I find they have no prior knowledge of Ulrich’s article and interpret it according to their own context and view of history.

‘The ambiguity of the slogan surely accounts for its appeal,’ Ulrich suggests. ‘To the public-spirited, it is a provocation to action, a less pedantic way of saying that if you want to make a difference in the world, you can’t worry too much about what people think’ (2007:xv). In Ulrich’s analysis about how different women interpret the slogan, she found that the ‘pervasive theme is rebellion’ (2007:xx).

To me, the quote is about so much more than a person’s behaviour, whether they are considered loud or quiet, calm or irrational, oversexed or demure, humble or arrogant. I read it every morning until I memorised it. It gave me a rush. Mostly, the words ‘history’ and ‘well-behaved’ caught my attention.

I shared it with my long-time friend Khosi and suggested we go for a drink to discuss it. Khosi is an excitable companion and knows how to hype up discoveries we stumble across.

We have always explored ways in which we could be part of change by exploring new ideas and actually doing something. In the past we came up with African Literature book clubs, mentorship and investment groups, and we are never short of ideas on how we could make an impact on our nation.

She is the kind of friend one needs because no matter how many ideas we fail at, she is there to remind me that for as long as we are still alive, we have no excuse not to try again. And we fail many times, but we learn valuable lessons each time. We met at a restaurant, and after hours of musing over its symbolism, we established that misbehaviour is our rebellion against the idea of the ‘wellbehaved’ woman that society demands of us.

It meant that we would challenge societal norms that outline a certain decorum for women. We would, at all times, insist that we belong to ourselves and have the agency to make decisions about our own lives. Our voices, whether loud or soft, matter. Our behaviour, whether seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, remains our choice.

Miss Behave

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