Many women who identify as feminist know that August is the one month they’re always asked how the feminist movement is transforming patriarchy.
This year has been no different. Among the inquiries I received, a student journalist asked me to answer in 80 words whether I thought the feminist movement had succeeded in achieving equality for women? Why I thought it was easier to be sexist than racist? What issues I thought the feminist movement still needed to address? And the most interesting question: Do I think “men are victimised by feminism”? All this in exactly 80 words!
When I look at the young women who form the largest section of my undergraduate and postgraduate classes and the largest portion of our university students, I think our feminist foremothers would be pleased to see that women are present as knowable and knowers of society.
But I’m reminded that even today the doors of the university for many women continues to be a privilege. And one has to agree that something is fundamentally wrong with a society like ours where young women have a greater chance of being raped than being able to read and write.
I’m haunted by a report earlier this year where CNN’s Christiane Amanpour examined, for a global audience, South Africa’s gender-based violence shortly after the gang rape of a disabled 17-year-old girl in Soweto and the rape and mutilation of an 8-year-old by a 15-year-old in KwaZulu-Natal.
There’s enough evidence that a greater proportion of women have control over their destinies. But of course looking at our public sphere, which seems to have locked us in a hyper-masculine haven in the images of Zuma, Nzimande, Malema, Vavi, Mantashe, Mthembu and other Big Men, we are reminded of the significance and relevance of asking about the condition of women.
Instead of asking whether the feminist movement has failed South African women, we should be asking what it is about our society that continues to marginalise the voices of women — relegating them to second-class citizens whose relevance in public life is a reactionary presence to the steps and missteps of the “Big Men”.
Indeed, there are many reasons why we must engage with caution. One of them is the tendency to relegate this kind of meditation to the month of August. But the key problem is the assumption that the problem SA women face is due to the feminist movement failing and not the pervasive and violent nature of patriarchal conditions. The question then that we should be asking is what it is about our society that continues to permit patriarchal ways of thinking that today present themselves in various packages with the most popular being the problematic interpretation of “African tradition”.
An invitation I received recently was to participate in a radio discussion on whether it’s possible for men to co-exist in healthy relationships with women who define themselves as “Miss Independent”. Another question was whether I thought some women were “too independent”. My response to the producer was to ask if they were aware that constructing women’s independence from a negative perspective is problematic.
Instead of asking whether women who label themselves as “Miss Independent” can have healthy relationships with “traditional men”, ask what those men mean by “traditional”.
What does this label of “traditional men” imply for male-female relations? Are we to assume that traditional is the same as patriarchal? In which case does that mean some men continue to believe that women are not equal to men and therefore not fully human?
Most importantly, why is that our celebration of women’s month ends up being reduced to questions that treat women’s independence as a problem?
How are women meant to really experience this “independence” if they have to continue to draw boundaries about how independent they are just to make sure they don’t upset anyone by being “too independent”?