Feminist polemic can breed defensiveness. How can we make it more fully inclusive?
In the wake of the rape and murder of Anene Booysens, people lent their Facebook statuses to ambitious forms of online activism. "Stop rape now!" said a poster that was subject to viral repetition in my news feed – the tackiest response to shock.
Generally, we are an apathetic society, but when the media finds a rape with the added gruesome circumstances of mutilation and murder (a rape spectacle like no other), we become suitably outraged. We appease our consciences for a week and move on.
The online activist, however, is merely recycling sensationalism. Booysens's violated body becomes an object for our feelings. And, as Zapiro suggested in the Mail & Guardian of February 8, we are left in the ironic situation of employing, redeploying and apologising in a single gesture to the victim of spectacle.
For activists, the single rape becomes symbolic: Booysens's death is made signficant by using it to express moral outrage and demand justice. Undoubtedly, such campaigns raise awareness but their overall effectiveness – in a country where we are never embarrassed by, let alone ashamed of, our blatant misogyny – remains questionable.
In South Africa, the first challenge facing gender-based activism is that of being taken seriously. There is a perception that prioritising rape stinks of middle-class preciousness. I, too, sometimes imagine fairly affluent women clutching their purses between their legs, projecting a private sense of vulnerability on to social-justice causes. There is also an element of neo-evangelism involved: we push a frustrated need for change on to the disenfranchised female body.
It is necessary to take into consideration the feeling that the lack of basic amenities leaves people unwilling to see rape as a central concern.This feeling permeates our government and our civil society at large – which is not to condone it, but rather to suggest that we seek ways of addressing rather than protesting against it.
The result of protest only is an alienating feminist polemic born of increasing frustration. Often men, in particular, voice an aversion to feminist discourse, meaning that it breeds defensiveness and not receptiveness. The discourse of gender-based activism, through which we inevitably construct enemies within our own society, is only half as effective as educating people about why women's issues are of greater social interest than they think.
But are we to pander to the sometimes sickening attitudes of our men, of the masses, in order to educate them? Unless we are willing to run the risk of becoming entirely superfluous in our context, we must.
The experiences of colonisation and apartheid amounted to a radical "feminisation" for most of our men and hyper-masculinisation for others. We must acknowledge the persistent wound in which the "feminine" was cast in the least favourable light – a thing to be despised, abhorred, eradicated. Discursive violence should be a priority, for misogyny and rape are symptomatic of a much larger malaise. As a society, we are in dire need of a fundamental rebranding of all things we consider feminine or female.
During the apartheid years, gender-based movements attained success under the banner of the liberation struggle. I flag this not as an example of the marginalisation of the gender question, but as one of inclusiveness. It seems plausible to cast feminist agendas within the general struggle for safety, justice, public-health access and education. There is a collective need to redeem the feminine, to acknowledge the prevalence of the vulnerable subject and the victim that resides in every South African. Few feel safe. Almost no one feels respected. This includes men, who sometimes have no platform on which to voice these concerns.
The feminine is a marginalised force that we have only begun to uncover now, as the militancy of the struggle ebbs and democratic engagement ensues. Creating a feminine movement, as opposed to a feminist movement, is probably a very ambitious aim – but it is one worth fighting for.
Admittedly, there is an air of post-modern, post-transitional fatigue to my response – there are as many causes as there are toothpastes nowadays. Instead of lamenting this and pining for unrealistic utopias, however, the African feminist needs a creative approach in order to remain relevant and achieve her aims. Then, we allow ourselves the freedom to witness change, not as we imagined, but as we never thought possible.
Nedine Moonsamy is a doctoral student at the University of the Witwatersrand