The notion of being “a woman” vis-à-vis some other type of specimen has been in my mind lately. Blame the great advertising apparatus that kicks in every August. South Africa, unlike any other country I know, celebrates not just a Women’s Day, but a full Women’s Month. One would be forgiven for assuming that women are held in the highest regard here.
Alas, and despite its formidable historical origin, Women’s Day has become just another hallmark occasion. I thought I was being a little over-sensitive this weekend when I walked past a restaurant in Cape Town that indicated they were celebrating us by posting a photo of three young women holding shopping bags in that unmistakable “Sex and the City” fashion. I shared the story with a friend who lives in the area who was far more outraged than I was; within hours that morning a hand-written note was posted on the same window that read: “Please! We are so much than shopping!” Rebecca Davis breaks it down clearly in this week’s M&G by outlining the type of responses women “should not” have to the ridiculous celebratory attempts by many retailers.
It is easy to join the choir of criticism that quickly reaches a crescendo around this public holiday. The commercial world makes it rather easy. Not unlike Donald Trump’s gaffes, one might wonder if ideas such as BiC’s pink pens are simply a deliberate attempt to draw media attention.
The thing is, stereotyping our “identity,” no matter how ill-conceived that idea might be, is an easy way to stir up something inside. Everyone grows up surrounded by a myriad of fallacies that get passed on from generation to generation. I will never forget what my mother, with best intentions, said to me when I was in my mid-20s: “Women are like flowers, they bloom at your age and after 30 they start to wither.” What a way to illustrate a point! My window of opportunity to find a husband before I started to shrivel and die was in her eyes an important lesson to convey as a mother. It was probably what she had heard from her own mother.
I also recall a former partner who once criticised me for not wearing high heels. I remember feeling great indignation. How dare he! Had he not heard my position about high heels and painted nails?! Didn’t he understand that rejecting all “girly” things was a statement about my “independent” way of thinking? Today I recognise I was reacting in the most possible “girly” way in which I had been socialised to do. I was outraged for the wrong reasons. It was a concealed attempt to fit into yet another mould: the “liberated Latin woman.”
I was recently asked what it was like to be a woman working in my environment and I have to confess I could not give a straight answer. I hid myself behind my foreignness and explained that because of it, I did not have a lot of time to think about what role my gender played. Perhaps that was cowardly and lazy; a missed opportunity to highlight the plight of women in the work place and yet I could not honestly think of what to say. A few days later I was at a music performance and one of the singers, the only woman amongst a crowd of men, who happened to be my friend, said something similar about the fact that not many women sing the blues. She said, “but nobody is preventing women from singing.”
What struck me later, is that in both of our little worlds, we were ignoring that as uniquely individual as we’d like to think we are, we are ultimately a social product of the systems we find ourselves growing up in; and as a result, our self-perception is tainted by that context. Whether it is the long history of all-male blues musicians or the typically woman-dominated not-for-profit sector, there are roots to the prejudices and human behaviour that arise as a result.
Today, the adverts offend me as they do many other women (and men), but I am reminded that it is not about what others are saying or how the idea of being a woman is perverted, because it is not a “natural law”, it is a human construct. I am an individual, just like everyone else. This month is about something else. It is about remembering the remarkable human beings who, sixty years ago, spoke truth to power; who in their role as women in society (or perhaps in spite of it); defied norms and expectations and used their position to challenge the system. A bit like those remarkable young women this week who surprised us all, by calling the ‘Number 1’ man in this country to account. Using a simple and very clever tactic, they defied not only a tight security system but our own expectation of the power of women in this society. That event reiterated why, despite the advertising nonsense, Women’s Month has great significance and carries a key historical legacy for South Africa.