Women Who Live On The Margin of Society: A Dialogue With Tshepo Jamillah Moyo

Sometimes “The Joy” but always a Poet, Writer and Super Hero; Born 1994, Tshepo Jamillah Moyo (TJ) is an unapologetic black Pan African Inter-sectional Feminist performance artist. Her work centers on the exploration of black African womanhood.

At 18 years, she received her first publication in an online anthology with the University of Nebraska via their Prairie Schooner platform. Her poem “Battleship” was published alongside some of Botswana’s literary legends – namely TJ Dema, Barolong Seboni, Lesego Nchunga and Andreatta Chuma. This was only the beginning and she has since been published in Emergence; An artistic Journal of Women and Gender Non-Conforming People, and  Walking The Tight Rope: Poetry and Prose by LGBTQ Writers from Africa. She was profiled in WAVE WOMEN’s 50 Formidable Women coffee table book along with 49 other Batswana women including such household names as Sheila Tlou, Athalia Molokomme, Mmamasire-Mwamba, Linah Moholho, and Immelda Molokomme. Tshepo is currently working on her first book, a collection of poetry.

In her dedication to literature, Tshepo has experience as a journalist having written for The Tswana Times and multiple online platforms including The Afrolutionist. In 2016, The Echo Newspaper hosted her column 1thirdofawoman which follows her blog of the same title’s theme of engaging socio-economic political dialogue.

Miss Moyo is a regular theatre performer and has appeared in numerous productions aimed mostly at bringing awareness to the issues she holds dear. She spent majority of her teen years volunteering and contributing to life changing causes such as Peace is love, a yearly play to raise funds for organisations working against Gender Based Violence. In her spare time TJ offers mentorship and guidance to young women under her work with The African Women Leadership Academy. However, she also sits on the board of a national NGO Higher Heights for Girls in Botswana which she spearheaded forming at the age of 20. In her work with Higher Heights for Girls Tshepo works towards training adolescents in Sexual Reproductive Health Rights and Responsibilities and Gender Based Violence. She has had the opportunity to use this work with in-school adolescents to inform the 2036 Botswana Vision as she was called on to give her expertise in 2016. Miss Moyo is not only an avid activist, reader, facilitator and present member of society but also a colourful nourished writer and performance artist.

This conversation took place in the charming sweetspot of Fego Cafe in Gaborone, Botswana in person.

Gaamangwe:  Recently, a young woman was sexually harassed and assaulted by a group of men and women at the Bus Rank, here in Botswana. Supposedly, this assault was based on the belief that her dress was too short and inappropriate. On June 3rd, human rights and gender activists, and fellow women marched in the RIGHT TO WEAR WHAT I WANT walk, which aimed to highlight that no one has the right to violate another human being based on what they are wearing. Now post the march, an image of you, taken by Mathiam  Basha-Agha is circulating in the internet. There is an uproar of people who feel that what you wore (Black T-shirt, Unbuttoned shorts pants with a visible Victoria Secret underwear, and fishnet stockings) was inappropriate. Furthermore, there is a huge backlash towards the statement that you wrote in your body; Hoe is Life. How has this experience been like for you?

TJ:  The decision to go to the march was a very simple one for me. After the assault happened, I knew that I wanted to go march. It was my public duty to go. Before the march, I intentionally choose and planned my outfit. The intention was to shock. It was to disturb the idea that I needed somebody’s permission to wear what I was wearing. People are asking if my parents knew, if my father knew, but my parents don’t own my body, so it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t know.

I am not shocked over this backlash. As Batswana, we have a very unhealthy culture with social media. We are very hurtful on social media. Nobody actually thinks about what they are saying and what the impact of what they are saying will have on other people.

I am tired because people think that, that photo happened to me or that day happened to me. The conversation should not really be about me or my body. It shouldn’t be about “Hoe is Life”. I understand why it is, I understand why it needs to happen but the truth of the matter is I feel everyone is deflecting from the issue that really matter.

Right now, everybody feels entitled to my body; they think they can give me their opinions about how I should dress it, what  I write on it and what message I should give,  because they think I owe them dignity, I owe their children dignity. It just goes to show you that we are a sick society and there is so much work that has to be done.

As I walked into the Bus Rank and all those people were so angry at us, even when I left the march, I knew the march was not enough. I knew that there is so much education, learning and unlearning, and work that needs to be done.  I have been doing activism work around issues like this for the longest time. So it should be clear that the march was not the beginning of my work around educating people around this. It’s definitely not the end.

Gaamangwe: I think that your image and the dialogue it has created is so powerful because we really discovered how people actually think. People still don’t understand that everyone has the right to choose what they wear, and no one has the right to persecute, violate, attack or harm them in anyway, under no circumstance or space. A lot of the narrative was about how that was not what a girl child is supposed to wear in public. The concept of dignity which claims that a woman is supposed to be a certain way in certain spaces.

TJ: Yes, and the woman who is not that way then deserves disrespect and violence, and doesn’t deserve the dignity of life.

During the march, I was very upset because there was a woman who was speaking over the mike who kept saying “Assault and rape are done by people who are not educated”, but we all know that is not the case. People who are educated and smart enough to understand the concept of autonomy, which is really a simple concept, also do assault and rape.  Assault and rape is not an uneducated woman or man’s problem. It’s something that cuts across race, gender and class. It’s everybody’s problem.

That is why we need intersectional feminism. Intersectional Feminism thinks about every single woman, and all the intersections of her life  where those oppressions comes  from. There are women who we believe because they are poor deserve to be raped. Some people say “this woman is someone’s sister, someone’s daughter” but what if I don’t have a family? What if I am an orphan? Then I deserve to be abused and raped because I don’t belong to anybody? The idea that there are certain people who deserve dignity and there are people who don’t, is exactly why I wrote “Hoe is Life” in my body. Because there are women who are considered hoes, and they are rejected from society, and treated as if they don’t deserve the right and dignity of life.

A lot of these discussions tend to be based on ideas that we claim are our cultures and ways of life as a society. But clearly we have a lot of learning and unlearning to do if we fail to understand the importance of autonomy, rights and dignity that every human being is entitled to. The question now is; as this is clearly not a degree or university issue, what kind of education do we need to implement here, and what kind of education are we talking about?

Gaamangwe. This is a very important question because people who are supposedly educated also seem to not get the very basic concept of human right and dignity of life for all humans. There are so many aspects at play here. We are dealing with interconnected systems of oppressions, and so we have to understand that we need to ensure accessibility to holistic education to all the various oppressive systems, their toxicity and how we maintain them as a society. What is clear is that more women seem to understand the toxicity of patriarchy while men really struggle to actually understand it.

TJ: Yes, that’s also another thing. But how are we expecting men to step out of their privilege?  This is the same way that we have some politician who are refusing to let go of their seats, because of the power they have. Patriarchy puts men in a position of power. And we can’t exactly expect them to easily say “Whoa! I think this might be too much power”. They like and enjoy it. They benefit from it. But I do have hope that there are men out there who realize that life is ten times easier for them than it is for any woman, because once you begin to see your privileges the less you step into the spaces of others.

Gaamangwe:  Yes. But a lot of men don’t actually understand the daily war zones women navigate on a daily basis.  How terrifying and uncomfortable it is for a woman to walk in the streets in broad daylight. Men fail to understand the daily undertones of potential violence layered in every single encounter with a male body.

TJ: And then you have the good men who say; I defend women, I don’t abuse and violate women.  I don’t treat women like that. But you don’t call out your brothers, male friends and fathers that treat women like that.

Gaamangwe: But can we also assess this idea of good men. Because I think a lot of men actually think that there are these wholesome all around good men. Just because a man has not done something violent towards the women in their lives, it doesn’t mean that they are not some women from all the people they have interacted with in their lifetime, who have not felt unsafe, violated and harassed in some way by the same man.

TJ: Whenever I say men are trash, the first question that I get is; is your dad trash? And I am like; not to me! My dad is amazing. My day has been showing up for me for the past 22 years. He is literally the most embarrassed man right now, and he could have gone on the internet and said I don’t know that girl, and he hasn’t done that. My dad has been affirming me and making sure that he plays a huge role in the feminist that I am today. But I will tell you something, I am sure there is some woman out there in the world who will say “Your dad once did something that really made me feel unsafe”.

And that’s the problem of respectability politics. You cannot pick which women you are going to be nice to, based on who they are related to, how much money they make and what they wear. It’s not going to cut it. Consistency or nothing. All women or no women.

I am sure there are men who are saying TJ did the right thing. I received a phone call from a rapper who told me he is so happy and proud of me, and that this is such an important conversation that I am making with the world. My first thought when he called was; what rubbish is he going to say? After he said that to me, the second thing that came to my mind was; why isn’t he saying this on a public platform? Because he can’t afford for his rapper friends and male friends to know that he supports what I am doing, and their behaviour is wrong. Because then he will then have to admit that him and his friends and the way they treat women is wrong. Men have this thing I call the Boy’s Club, which is the most toxic and disgusting thing ever. Basically, even when men are not friends, they will defend each other. You will be in the club with a man, and you will say to a man, you can’t ask me out because I have a man, and that man will respect the idea of you having a boyfriend, more than the idea of you saying no, I am not interested. He respects a man that he’s never ever met in his life more than he respects you the woman he likes.

Gaamangwe: True. There are so many dialogues on social media right now, particularly on your image and the statement “Hoe is Life”.  Clearly people don’t actually understand what it means, what it represents and what it stands for. Although, that is still not a reason to attack you.  What does this statement mean to you, and why was it important for you to write it in your body?

TJ: So first of all, let’s starts here and make this clear; Hoe is Life. This statement actually started as a hashtag on twitter (as all good things start on twitter). The idea behind this is about sexual liberation for women. When you claim your sexuality, and people calling your hoe for it, that is fine because that is your body and you are allowed to do with it whatever and however you please. But of course it’s advisable to always be safe.

Hoe is Life is important because when women claim themselves, even when you are not claiming your sexuality as a woman, but you are assertive, you own yourself, your body and your choices, you will be called names like a hoe or bitch, and most of the times these words are created to exclude women from womanhood.

The good women, don’t get called hoes. The women who don’t conform, the bad women, get called hoes. Those were the women that I was walking for. The women who live in the margin of womanhood. The women whobecause you have decided that you are going to take your brother to court for refusing to give a piece of the landare excluded in the family. Because you are approached by a man who is ridiculously rich and you told him, his money doesn’t matter you are now a bad woman. Because you are approached by a man and his money did matter (because they can’t make their minds up, about which one is bad and which is good; it’s you must get a rich husband so he can take care of you but if there is a man taking care of you, then you are a bad woman. Huh?).

The women who are lesbians, the women who are trans women, (because when we are asked, where were the trans women in the movement we say  we didn’t invite them because we didn’t want them to derail and talk about those things), the sex workers (women who live in the margins of darkness and have to spend their lives running because of criminalization of their jobs, and who can’t afford to come out and march because they can’t afford to because that’s time that could be making them money). Those are the women I was marching for. The women who nobody finds socially acceptable. The women nobody wants to identify with. Nobody wants to be friends with and wants to be known to support.

Because those are the women who are called hoes and bitches. They are constantly excluded from our society and I was simply saying these women matter. I will never be okay with the reality that I have access to certain rights and another woman doesn’t have access to the same rights. For example, in Botswana everyone has access to basic free health care, but a lot of the times, there are women who when they go to the hospital they don’t get that access. Trans women don’t get access to that. There is a little girl in Maitengwe who really doesn’t want to wear a skirt to school, and she keeps being forced to wear it. That was the girl I was walking for. The one who say; I am not allowed but I still exist.

Gaamangwe: And who often most of the time society is comfortable with not bearing witness to their violation.

TJ: Yes, for example the woman who was walking in the Bus Rank, people say she was drunk, so deserved it. Aren’t men sometimes drunk at the bus rank? Do they get abused and violated when that happens? Some people say she was insulting others. But when a child is insulting others, don’t we take them to kgotla? When did it become our culture to address people when they are misbehaving, ourselves?

Even our religious systems don’t support assaulting people. It’s not written anyway in any of the religious texts that you can assault people if they are not wearing what you deem right. Even if a woman is naked, you don’t assault her. In case of wrong doing, you hold a trial. I don’t understand how people can just decide that there are the court/ judge/police office/executioner and the person’s lawyer.  It is so uncivilized. Our culture has systems in place, most of which don’t work but to say violence is our culture? Is a blatant lie.

Gaamangwe: Actually it doesn’t matter what state she was in; whether she was drunk, whether she was insulting others, or whether she was mentally unstable. It doesn’t matter. No one had the right to violate her.

One other upsetting aspect of the assault at the Bus rank is that there were some women who sat through the abuse, and even participated in the abuse. And in your case, some women were at the forefront of attacking your photo.

TJ: Even at the march, there were women marching besides me, who were attacking me. They thought and felt like I was being inappropriate and I was derailing their movement. These women are gatekeepers of patriarchy, also known as Patriarchy Princesses.

But here is the thing: it’s all women or there is no movement.  Don’t ever in your life think you are safe for as long as another woman is not safe. Don’t make that mistake.

Women who attack other women are the same women who will go out with their male friends, watch them get other women drunk and take them home, knowing very well that’s rape, and still think it will never happen to them because their male friends care about them.

The Gender Ministry published a study, and it showed that 67% of women in Botswana have been sexually assaulted and admit to having experienced gender based violence. Almost half of those women say that they have experienced gender based violence at the hands of someone they knew. Meaning the men in their circle. The men some women are defending are the same people who are abusing women, as a matter of fact abusing them.

We also have the Pick me women. The “I am better than the other woman.” Women who think that society works like this, and it must work like this, and that they are safe because they fit in and work according to the rules. But the reality is that good women who keep by the rules and do everything right are still raped and assaulted by men. As long as you are a woman, you are not safe.

I understand the Pick me as people who want to be part of the Boy’s Club. But you are not. You will be with a man who you have known your whole life and you will walk up to him and say that man harassed me, and he will go to that man who harassed you and say “Ao my man, why did you touch her?” and he will say “Ao hardy my man”, and that will be the end of the conversation. Because of the Boy’s Club. Men will always pick men over women.

Gaamangwe: I do think that these women sometime choose a single view at that particular point in time, and neglect the other view at that same point. I refuse to believe that they are women who confidently feel safe when they have long dresses on. Every single woman who exists as a woman has felt unsafe at one point in their life. Every woman feels unsafe everyday of their life, regardless of whether they are well-mannered, have social appropriate clothing and live by the rules.

I asked a male relative; if you were put in a city and you were told some of the men here might rape you, would you leave your house? Of course, he said he wouldn’t leave the house at all. Yet that is our reality every single day.

TJ: The other day I was at the cinema with my mom, and I was texting on my phone, and these two little boys (they must have been fourteen) walked up to me. I was concentrating on my phone that I didn’t notice them until they were in front of me. My first instinct was to hide my phone in my chest, and these kids were so hurt because they were like we are not thieves. And I was like; I am so sorry boys, it has nothing to do with you. But it does have something to do with them. It is nothing individual but the collective meaning of the image of a man, which they are part of. Seeing and interacting with a man means possible danger. Even at fourteen years old, when I see two of them, I really don’t feel safe. I don’t know if I can actually manage to fight two boys.  Our reality, walking on the streets, is you are always assessing your environment, looking for things you can use to hit a man should he come out of the blue and attack you.

Gaamangwe:  Another dangerous belief is that men are naturally unable to control themselves. That you as a woman, you must do everything that you can, to make sure that men are not tempted to violate you.

This narrative says; “a woman must wear clothing that fully cover their body parts, so that a man doesn’t get excited, as we know men are easily excited, and can consequently fail to control themselves and will be forced to attack you. It is your responsibility  to ensure that you are not raped!”.

TJ: It’s confusing because we say men are trash and they get upset, yet here they clearly don’t believing in themselves. Who really cannot control their sexuality? If you want a burger and it is not yours, do you ever just eat the burger. No, you control your hunger. But, you can’t control your libido? Come on, just grow up. Men don’t even believe in themselves. They don’t believe in themselves and they want us to believe in them? No. Men need to believe in themselves, they need to hold themselves accountable, otherwise they will forever be trash.

Gaamangwe: So what  is the way forward?

TJ: Educating, changing the world’s view and behavioral change, is going to take a very, very long time.  When I first started my activism I started with blogging.  I wrote this blog-post about abuse and I remember a young woman inboxed me and told me that, that blog-post had been the reason that she got out of her abusive relationship. I shared that conversation with a friend of mine and I remember him saying; this is so important because this girl is going to have this conversation with five other girls, who are going to have it with five other girls and so on, and maybe out of all those girls at least three of the five will get out of their abusive relationships. Maybe they will start holding the men in their lives accountable because half of the time nobody holds men accountable. Mothers coddle a lot of the men, and the rest of society is left to deal with them.

So we need to start holding each other accountable. When you see your friend commenting on Facebook and being out of line, don’t just stand there. It’s your responsibility to comment because it affects you as the end of the day.

But it is not my responsibility to educate everyone. I am doing my fair to educate the people in my life that are around me and the people I have access to. There are also spaces that I go into that are not in my direct personal life. I have always been a supporter of the statement that the personal is political. So if you politically agree with me, you need to hold the people in your lives accountable. If your father is sitting there in the car and he is saying “whoa, this girl is such a problem”, you need to say “but that’s my friend”. I support her, I agree with her because of this and this.

You need to challenge patriarchy every day in your life. So that everybody in society can start growing, our cultures can evolve and we can move forward and beyond what is currently happening in our personal and collective spheres. The thing is once society starts shifting its mind-sets around one thing, then you make everybody else evolve, you make our activists jobs easy. We don’t get much resistance. So if we can start in our homes, schools, offices, churches and any other spaces we all access, then it will make a huge difference. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can do some much together.

My title has always been Poet, Writer and Superhero, which is very ironic because everyone is calling me a hero right now, but I have always identified as a Superhero because I think the work that I do as an activist saves lives.

Gaamangwe: Thank you TJ for your powerful work, and for joining me in this space.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.


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