Talia Meer
Talia Meer

The new M&G website: Putting women in their place?

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.

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    • The Creator

      Newspapers used to have “women’s pages” dealing with the issues which affected the feeble little minds of the oestrogen-afflicted. Michael Frayn once wrote a rather nice newspaper article about the kind of thing which would appear in the “men’s pages” once women took over.

    • Tanya Charles

      Talia, your writing is clear and insightful. I am thoroughly enjoying all your pieces. More more more!!!

    • Sean

      I assume that some women do need advice on how to trim their hedges… and of course this is not something a man needs to know about.

    • possum

      I so agree with you, Talia, because there is just no other way to find out what Kim Kardashian is wearing today and what Kate Middleton had for breakfast.

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/gillianschutte Gillian Schutte

      I agree. Great article.

    • pongoland

      Well said Talia.

      I can’t believe the M&G has sunk so low. Whose idea was this? What does Nic Dawes think?

      Unbelievably patronising.

    • Momma Cyndi

      That Department of Everything Except Healthy Men is a complete embarrassment and a disgraceful waste of funds. Don’t even get me started on Lula!

      The problem is that too many sisters have bought into the 1950’s role model. A section on real women’s issues wouldn’t be read by them as ignorance is bliss. You’d simply be preaching to the choir. For some, a correct hedge trimming or a well cooked supper are the difference between a swift slap or a bit of peace.

      If we are going to change the male dominated society of SA then the issues have to be on the front page, not hidden away like some kind of dirty secret.

    • Siphokazi Magadla

      Excellently argued article Talia. The mention of that ministry of second class citizens pains me to the core. One can’t help but ask, how the hell did we get here?!

    • Kobe Candido

      An artice with insight into the modern world and the needs of society…NOT only females …, MEN must be included !..Why do we always want to separate the women?….as if we live on an Island of our own?….

      The world consists of males and females…mothers and fathers…grand-mothers and grand-fathers….There is already too much separation in the media…..we need to HOLD HANDS with our male counterparts!!…. in society..at home, socially, in the work-place!!…as parents , as friends, as human beings!….
      Males need us and our input as much as we need theirs..Please let us hold hands….living in this world… we are made MEN and WO–MEN…..

    • http://noekvanbiljon.co.za Noek vanBiljon

      Recently I heard a women say: “Because she is a woman does not necessarily mean that she is good” This remark troubled me because it involves gender equality strictly on the basis of merit. In calling for gender equality on the basis of merit feminism has set the bar too low. Nothing less than numerical parity will achieve the goal of feminism.
      Feminism assumes that the human female and the human male is of the same specie. I question that assumption. Because of their endocrinological difference they are not of the same specie and that difference reveals it self, not only in their visible physical characteristics, but more importantly, by the difference in the way the female brain and male brain works and this has nothing to do with merit. Marie Curie matched her husband on intellectual level but the chemistry and the electricity in their brains ran along different routes and this difference may prove vital for the survival of this specie.
      Patriarchy is no longer essential for human survival. It has reached its evolutionary sell by date and combined with the advent of nuclear capability may cause the human specie to self destruct. Testosterone plus radio activity will eradicate this specie. Testosterone may perform with a loud bang but the gamma ray caries a silencer. The male has a predilection to attack and assert; the female has a predilection to run and hide. Balance will only be achieved by numerical parity between male and female in all walks of life.