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 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.