Women's Day: The rock has been struck. Now what?

United front: It is possible for women to mobilise now as they did in 1956. (Robben Island Mayibuye Archive)

United front: It is possible for women to mobilise now as they did in 1956. (Robben Island Mayibuye Archive)

Among a particular circle of activist friends and allies, a certain weariness sets in around national days: 67 minutes for Madiba on July 18, discussions of freedom on April 27 ("we have freedom" versus "very little around here looks like freedom to us") and, on August 9, wa'thint'abafazi, wa'thint'imbokodo (you strike the  women, you strike a rock).

Perhaps, mutter my activist allies, National Women's Day is the one day on which those of us committed to confronting gender injustice cannot concentrate on the politics of gender and its manifest inequities? Perhaps this is the one day in the year when there will be no domestic abuse against women, women will not have to fight for access to land rights and land usage, there will be no rape (24 hours without rape!) and no woman or girl will face humiliation because she is seen to defy conventional norms of gender and sexuality?

Unless National Women's Day is to offer more than a rhetorical gesture towards the magnificence of South African women at large, should we even bother to do more than take the opportunity to do the work we do when we are not "at work"?

The weariness is not personal. The reality is that although the child support grant has kept millions of women on the survival side of near-destitution and South African legal frameworks take gender equality seriously at many levels, 2012 presents us with shocking statistical profiles.

Released late last year, the health department's figures for maternal mortality show us that more women are dying in childbirth now than were in 1994. Most black women remain dependent on domestic service (often casual), agricultural labour and informal trading for paid labour. Education systems, already challenged as they are, have become spaces in which girls' safety is the focus of international Human Rights Watch reports. Women and girls who are lesbian face public assault and often worse, as do any women, especially young ones, who openly defy what is expected of them "as women".

Social inequality
Class stalks the ways in which being gendered as a woman shapes social inequality, unequal access to resources, wellbeing and authority so much that, in the end, there is no such thing as "women". South Africans gendered as women experience their lives so differently from one another that "social inequality" itself becomes impossible to imagine.

It is lived as individual pain, occasional collective fury, hard-won solidarity against a particular challenge – such as the closing of a shelter for abused women, or the proposed Traditional Courts Bill – and ultimately as an extraordinary tolerance for inhumanity among us and in our daily lives.

The idea that a day to celebrate women, even if you were inclined to do such a thing, makes sense in the face of all this could feel in a good moment like a wonderful state-based joke and in a bad one more like an invitation to sadistic spectacle.

Wa'thint'abafazi, wa'thint'imboko. The famous warning travels to us from the shouts of the 20000 women who marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Thursday August 9 1956 to protest against the proposed extension of the pass laws to black women. The protest was, at the time, an extraordinary achievement of defiance. The state made several attempts to block black women's access to public transport and to disrupt organisation of the march.

To refuse to carry a pass is to refuse to have your body owned, tracked, labelled and deployed to the advantage of an economic and political system that recognises you simply as (at best) a unit of labour. If it was possible in 1956 to organise against those who sought to label and deploy the body, it is possible now.

It takes place in a myriad zones: FreeGender's conference in Khayelitsha this weekend to strengthen solidarity in the fight against homophobic murder, the work of non-profit organisation Masimanyane on reproductive justice and the passionate writing of leading South African voices who understand that to take the politics of gender and sexuality seriously is barely to begin the conversation of what a nation could be.

It is probably not necessary to try to imbue August 9 with a spirit of unqualified celebration about the ways in which women matter to equality and of justice. Maybe it is more valuable to suggest that it is, ultimately, not a day offered by the state now as recognition of what it took to defy the state then: a day to laugh at, ignore, rail against, or with which to attempt a celebratory collusion.

August 9, National Women's Day, is the only day the new state notices what it might mean to see women as politically formidable opponents to coercion, bullying and systemic efforts to limit access to resources and equality. That is an achievement.

Jane Bennett is the director of the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town



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