Miss Behave

Sephodi defines herself as an African Feminist. She says this book is her “complex journey with self…about navigating life as a black woman and all the encounters that led (her) to espouse feminist ideals.” But she insists that Miss Behave is neither an autobiography nor a memoir. Rather it is a personal story aimed at claiming her voice because, in her view and experience women voices are often “silenced, filtered, erased, misplaced, edited, hidden, ignored”.

Jenni Murray in her A History of the World in 21 Women makes a similar point that women’s voices in history are “marginalised, censored and forgotten.” She goes on further to argue that “Some have raised their heads so high above the parapet that they faced ridicule, torture, and in some cases assassination, for having dared to pursue their beliefs and challenge male authority.”

Sephodi talks about her complex relationship with self as a consequence of sexual abuse by different men between the ages of 6-12. But she kept quite because speaking out about abuse is deemed as misbehaviour. Nobody believes you and so you internalize it as your fault. Also, for some strange reason, it is the family of the victim rather than of the perpetrator that gets shamed. Essentially it is because abuse is always seen as initiated by the victim (the woman) who does something out of the norm (short skirt, flirting, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, etc). So, the family is shamed for bringing up a misbehaving girl or woman. Sephodi blames this on the church and culture who appease patriarchy and, in the process, deem any questioning of the status quo as misbehaviour.

In the book Sephodi relates how she took on biking as a form of claiming her agency. It is not surprising that she soon found out that her “behaviour as a woman is always policed by whichever part of society (she) interacts with, whether as a biker or just a woman who leads her life day to day.” Unlike the rest of the bikers, she was not seen as a biker. She was a woman biker. Her biking was gendered whilst men were just normal bikers. In fact, taking on a sport or hobby like biking was in itself misbehavior, because biking is what men do. But for Sephodi this was more than just riding a bike..

She asserts that “we make our mark when we defy norms. These norms do not have to be changed by moving mountains.” But what she does not stress is the cost of such “misbehaviour”. In her own journey of claiming her own voice, in 2015 she “crumbled to pieces”. In trying to deal with her own pain and to respond to “the many pains people live with”, she formed support groups. I find this interesting because in a sense she was being a
woman yet again. She was making other’s people’s pain hers. She was being a “mother”. In the process she neglected her own healing: “This is what self-neglect did to me: it scorched my soul.”

I found her view on self-help books interesting. She argues that they are mainly penned by men and white women who are devoid of the reality of black women. Although I am not a fan of the genre myself, Sephodi’s comment made me to pause. Indeed, black women do have very specific experiences.

Sephodi has an apt title for her book, Miss Behave. Her central message is that whenever a woman wants to lead an authentic life, she is bound to challenge the status quo. As such she will be deemed as misbehaving and punished as such, both overtly and covertly. That journey is costly and lonely. You will be judged harshly not just by men, but equally by women and (most likely) by your own family.

Miss Behave is an easy read. I recommend it to young women and to gender activists.