African Women And Sexism: Sara Baartman

As I was going through my Facebook Newsfeed earlier in the day, a status update caught my attention. It was something to do with an African woman once upon a time in history, being displayed to curious onlookers as a result of her unusually large derriere. As is my nature, I quickly Googled the story and what I read presented to me the worst form of sexism and racial discrimination that an African woman has ever had to endure.

I have to say that being a Kenyan, I have been very lucky to be spared racial discrimination of any kind during my lifetime. Not that I’m gloating over that fact knowing that there are quite a number of Africans in their own respective African nations, who have unfortunately had to endure being treated as minorities by foreigners in their land. My forefathers did suffer racial discrimination and especially during the colonial times. I’m sure it was a really tough and annoying time for them. Other people from races considered minorities by some backward minded individuals, still continue to suffer racial discrimination in this day and era.

Again, I consider myself very lucky to have been spared most of the harsh sexism that other women have unfortunately had to endure or grapple with on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean that acts of sexism do not elicit any form of reaction from me! As a matter of fact, just the mere thought of a woman being discriminated against because of her sex makes my blood boil with rage!

I consider it an injustice of the highest order for this poor woman called Sara ‘saartjie’ Baartman to be lured from her home country of South Africa under the guise of going overseas to work as a domestic servant and to be exhibited for entertainment purposes. It is said that she did sign a contract for it before leaving which is highly unlikely considering the fact that she definitely was illiterate. For my readers who are getting a bit confused, Sara is the woman I read about today after seeing the status update concerning her.

Born in the 1700s in the current Eastern Cape of South Africa, Sara was a Khoikhoi woman who was sold to London to work as a domestic servant as well as for the entertainment purposes. She was about 20 years old at the time. She would later be nicknamed Hottentot Venus. The reason why she was considered an entertainment of sorts was the fact that due to a medical condition, she had unusually large buttocks.

In addition to that, it was rumored that Khoikhoi women had elongated labias which hang down almost 3 to 4 inches in some women. This was attributed to the fact that since Africans were considered savages then, the body parts that were of normal size in other normal  human beings had to be abnormal in size in the so called “relatives of apes”. Don’t ask me why but I simply do not know what kind of weed the scholars of that age were smoking.

A disturbing picture indeed of onlookers "marveling" at Sara's so called unusual asset. Picture courtesy of www.telegraph.co.uk

A disturbing picture indeed of onlookers “marveling” at Sara’s so called unusual asset. Picture courtesy of http://www.telegraph.co.uk

You see, being from a community that definitely practiced labia elongation in women, Sara could not have been spared from the practice. Labia stretching, also referred to as labia elongation or labia pulling, is the act of elongating the labia minora through manual manipulation (pulling) or physical equipment (such as weights), according to a definition by Wikipedia. The practice happens in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Malawi and some countries in Sub Saharan Africa. The Khoisan were equally known for it.

However, to the onlookers on Piccadilly street in London where Sara was paraded due to her skin coloring and the behind, her elongated labia was equally an oddity attributed to some African sexual stereotype. But Sara refused to expose her private parts considered sacred in her community though many would have liked to gawk at them and always had them covered in a small piece of garment.

Her exploitation caused an uproar among abolitionist circles. However the fact that it was claimed and proven that she had signed a contract, her exploitation was made to appear consensual on her part. Eventually, Sara was sold to a French man who took her to Paris where she continued to be exhibited in a cage together with a baby rhinoceros. She would later end up prostituting and bordering on alcoholism.

After her death at around 26 years of age, naturalist George Cuvier was given custody of her body which he made a plaster cast of, took out her brains and genitalia which he preserved in laboratory bottles.It is said that as late as 1975, Sara’s genitalia and brains were being displayed in a museum in Paris.

When I look at this whole narration of what this woman was put through I can only attribute it to the fact that her naivete was thoroughly taken advantage of. In addition, the racial stereotypes of the time contributed greatly to her exploitation. I find it the worst form of women degradation bordering on the primitive. The fact that a woman’s body part considered out of the ordinary can be put on show for people to amuse themselves is truly sickening. Worst case scenario is the go ahead given to the naturalist to continue making fun of her bodily aspects in death in the name of research.

I am indeed glad that I was born in the 20th century where racial stereotypes of such a magnitude had somehow been completely done away with. It is clear that even in primitive societies, there was objectification of women based on what was considered curious or sexually odd by their onlookers as opposed to sexually enticing in this age. Perhaps the stress of one’s private part being put on display, gawked at, groped, made fun of and  equally the pain of being equated to a wild animal on a daily basis is what drove Sara to a life of prostitution and alcoholism in the end.

It may have been painted to seem like she was a savage without feelings yet this was an African woman who was as normal as the women of other races then. The only difference was her skin color and level of exposure or education! And maybe what was considered an unusually large butt then could just have been an average big butt today! How times change that big butts nowadays are considered a must have by a section of women and men alike!

Seeing how disturbing her story is, I can now understand why a South African chief told off celebrity,  Beyonce, for wanting to write and star in a film based on the life of Sara. South Africans still have a long way to go when it comes to matters healing. This is a country that suffered the extremities of colonial injustices for the longest time possible on the African continent. I can only understand why they would not want to stir up the racial discrimination they have endured in the past, with a film on a fellow country woman who underwent the worst form of it starred by a foreigner.

Perhaps they have a preference to let the past remain in the past if at all it only conjures painful memories. And isn’t it time that Sara was finally allowed to rest in peace?

Additional sources from a couple of articles on the Internet on the life and times of Sara Baartmann.

 

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8 comments

  1. This is outrageous, one of the worst form of degradation to a woman both in life and death. I hate reading about stories like this, they make my blood boil…for many reasons people in the society would still say that we don’t need women empowerment.

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    1. As a matter of fact, we still need a lot of women empowerment Adichie. For some reason, this fascination with large butts carries on till date. The only difference nowadays is that it is no longer a curiosity and oddity but rather, one of the many aspects of oversexualization of women.
      More like “Oh she has a large butt, let’s make her dress in a tiny bikini and have her gyrate in a music video.” Sadly, a section of women actually participate willingly in their own objectification.
      What happened to Sara is really unfortunate. It should not have happened in the first place. My only question is why are we still seeing subtle forms of it in this day and age??

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      1. Data true…ders a lot of modern sexualization nw…I wld say dat illetracy, degredation of some our cultural values in a quest to be civilized, lack of exposure, and even poverty are some reasons why der is still oversexualizing in dz age

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  2. This is a real sad story that still makes me quite angry. Racial prejudice still exists, and if some people had their ways similar exhibitions will be organised and promoted. In regards to Beyonce and the movie, I’d like to know her intention before making judgement. But somewhere inside of me, I got a feeling that it might,maybe, have to do with American celebrities competing for who’s got the largest backside (kim kardashian, j-lo etc). Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I kind of had a feeling that Beyonce wanting to write and act in the movie concerning Sara probably has to do with the fame factor. More recognition perhaps for her for doing a slave related movie. Though it would be wrong for me to jump into conclusions. I think it would be best if she consulted first with South Africans and especially from Sara’s community before doing the whole movie.
    And yeah, you are very right on your racial prejudices take. Many people still engage in it. There was an incident about two years back where a football fan threw a banana to the pitch aimed at a Black footballer. The aim behind it, ‘you are a monkey, so have the banana’ but the footballer picked it up, peeled it and ate it. Who ended up looking foolish between the two?
    There is still a lot that needs to be done to cub racial discrimination. Quite a lot. Thanks for your comment Kongomum.

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