So the Mail & Guardian is launching a women’s website. A website I presume that is written, curated and read by women. A website that speaks to the various concerns of “professional women, working and stay-at-home mothers”, I am told. And while this seems like a fairly benign prospect, the beginnings of what sounds like an M&G online version of Huisgenoot is indicative of how we see women in society.
That is not to say women should not be able to articulate their own issues, or create spaces within which to do this. But that all people should be compelled to listen to these grievances, they should be part of a serious and transformative national dialogue, and they should not be relegated to the periphery of mainstream media, or framed as “lifestyle” issues.
Indeed, in an ideal world a women’s website would be grounded in the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women in South Africa, it would speak to the intersection of race and class with womanhood. It would recognise that women’s needs are different depending on where they are situated in a complex (and fucked up) matrix of power and oppression, and that the least of these needs is advice about how to trim your hedges (if you get my meaning). It would see women’s needs closely related to the need for fair wages in the mining and agricultural sectors, for adequate and affordable healthcare, for competent policing and reliable criminal justice processes, and for more present, compassionate and involved male friends, partners and fathers.
It would be an emancipatory feminist project. It would constitute and challenge the mainstream; it would not be confined to the banal, superficial or domestic. In a better, less sexist, misogynistic, patriarchal world, the women’s section would not be ancillary to the news, it would be the news!
By sectioning off ”women’s issues”, we are acknowledging that women have specific concerns and interests that are not adequately represented in the mainstream, but also that we are not prepared to remedy that. Instead of creating a popular media that fosters the work of women journalists and writers, and that takes women’s interests and concerns seriously, women are given their own petty, stereotypically gendered, space. Sounds familiar?
When the Department of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities was formed in 2009 it signalled an admission from the state that its existing apparatus, the criminal justice and health systems among them, were not serving women adequately, and that rather than addressing their shortcomings, they were going to pass the buck.
And if the creation of this department shows us that government knows it is failing women (and children, and persons with disabilities), then appointing the venerable Lulama Xingwana tells us exactly how seriously the state takes its responsibility to rectifying this. I won’t reiterate Xingwana’s baleful record from minster of environmental affairs, to arts and culture, to women, children and persons with disability, save to say that I cannot imagine what ”low priority” undertaking she could be delegated to next.
By creating a women’s website, or women’s ministry, we are bolstering the pernicious stereotypes that foster misogyny. When the department of women, children and persons with disabilities was formed, women across the country were rolling their eyes in unison. The idea that women, and persons with [dis]abilities were automatically lumped with ”children” — small, vulnerable, fickle, inept, little beings — indicates the esteem with which our government, and by proxy we as a country hold these categories of people. It reifies the view that women are helpless, do not know their own needs or desires, and are in need of protection.
Similarly, by listing such topics as ”parenting” and ”green living” in the women’s website, we are confirming traditional gender roles that envision women primarily as mothers and home-makers. Further, by aiming to attend to various interests and concerns in this trite media forum, by putting ”equality” and ”gardening” in the same box, are we not trivialising the real problem of gender inequality everywhere — in relationships, the workplace and religious organisations?
If we have learned anything this year, we have learned, albeit belatedly, that women’s issues are everyone’s issues — they are inherently political. They include class, race and (dis)ability politics. And because gender inequality is by its very nature relative, women’s issues include men. By keeping women’s voices and women’s concerns outside of the mainstream, by not challenging male readers or the monopoly men have on setting the media agenda, we are stalling the discussion, and subsequently forfeiting any potential for transformation.
Recently gender and women’s issues are slowly inching into the media and public discourses in ways that are provocative, political and insightful. Although they are far from being accessible to the majority of media consumers, this is reason to take heart. We are only beginning to understand and develop a feminist ethic in our media. Let’s hope a women’s website will not be two steps backward.