The art of teaching daddy’s girls

The Suspension of Disbelief by artist Doreen Southwood.

The Suspension of Disbelief by artist Doreen Southwood.

As a teacher privileged to work in what is considered to be a somewhat prestigious former model-C girls- only school, imagine my surprise last week when one of our administrative staff asked me: “What is feminism?” and then followed that up with another question: “And what is patriarchy?”

These questions prompted me to consider some of the discussions I have enjoyed in my grade 11 and 12 classrooms on those topics.

Feminism and patriarchy can be hotly debated before a certain kind of consensus is reached, but what has come through in many of our class discussions has been the issue of “white” patriarchy.

Okay, patriarchy is patriarchy, whether it’s black or white. In both cases it is a “system of society ruled by men’’, as well as “a form of social organisation in which the father or oldest male is the head of the family”.

As with feminism, however, it’s just not that simple, is it?

From a point of ignorance, I would suggest that black patriarchy is based largely on traditional and cultural values passed down, generation by generation, through different tribal systems (though I’m warned that I should not be too free with the use of the word “tribal” because it can be construed as something negative – I do not use it in that context).

One of the 2016 matric girls recently remarked: “I think black patriarchy is more oppressive.’’

Hmm? Aren’t black patriarchy and white patriarchy both similar to and different from each other?

To me, white patriarchy in this country is based on the values passed on from colonialist males who came here “to conquer the wilderness and tame the savages’’, which entailed, at all costs, the protection of the family, often in times of physical danger, from both people and wild animals.

These men were considered to be great adventurers, brave warriors, heroes, who put their lives on the line in that search for a “better life’’ in a foreign country.

This “better life’’ also involved the acquisition and establishment of wealth and financial security, both of which were assisted and prioritised by colonial governments, the economic “masters’’ of capitalism (to give them their due, many of the “settlers’’ were heroic – they were escaping different types of oppression in their home countries).

Add to this the white Dutch/Afrikaner concept of the Voortrekker leading his family away from the overbearing control of England (die rooinekke) into the “freedom’’ of the hinterland, but, throughout, the leading figures in this ‘’history’’ are the men: husbands, fathers, sons, brothers – presented almost as invincible – strong, good, able to lead and provide, to dominate, but also to subjugate and oppress; to subjugate not only the “black hordes’’, but also to subjugate family members, and particularly women and girls, who were perceived as, and taught to be, submissive and subservient at all costs.

White patriarchy then also has a divide: the patriarchy experienced in a generally English language environment, and that experienced in Afrikaner families.

People of my generation (I’m 75) may well remember, in relation to a white Afrikaner family, certainly in many farming (Boer) households, the symbol of the sjambok – used on both “servants” and family members, often with Biblical threats and injunctions.

Included in all of this is the word “baas”, loaded as it is with paternalistic baggage – the baas was the man who ruled over his family, his property, his servants/workers/slaves. The process that established baaskap was both insidious and blatant, reminding us of the paradox that is South Africa.

White patriarchy perpetuates the myth of male superiority, whether in an English or Afrikaner home, and, implicit in this myth, is the idea of obedience – of what behaviour is acceptable and what is not; and, with that, what boys may do and what girls should do – and the obvious follow-on, the application of punishment for certain misdemeanours.

Thus, the lines were drawn around issues of disagreement: a child, and perhaps a wife, may not disagree with a father’s commands. Commands and instructions must be obeyed and followed.

Why? Because the father is the “head of the house”, and holds the power of insistence and dominance.

Often in class discussions, a girl, usually white, will contribute with: “We never talk about these things in our house. If I want to contribute to the conversation, I can only do so discreetly. I cannot assert myself or my opinion because then I’m deemed ‘cheeky’. I am told, ‘You’re still a child … you’re just a girl’.

“Usually my mother will agree with my father and maybe warn me privately, or in a whisper, ‘Don’t upset Dad; don’t make him angry’.’’

This white patriarchy often uses subtle intimidation to control its women and female children.

Possibly we are unaware of how strongly white patriarchy is entrenched in many homes in our country – and so young, vibrant women’s voices are consistently silenced and, largely, white girls are trained not to question authority or to challenge the status quo. They are taught that certain matters are “none of your business’’. They learn this from their mothers who learned it from theirs.

Generally white women are accustomed to being invisible. This starts in the home and, during apartheid years, it was normative.

In our democracy, and in some classrooms in this country, young people are starting to speak out – but most of those (and these are generalisations) who have found their voice, are black, and female.

In our studies of literature at high school level, issues of authority, of feminism, of patriarchy and of racism are often the subjects of discussion, and usually not with the blessings of authority.

It has happened, though not often, that I, as “the teacher’’, have received a phone call from an irate father, telling me: “I don’t like this feminist rubbish you’re teaching my daughter.”

Only one of these phone calls was from a black father. Why, I wonder?

Three of these calls have been from men who chose to remain anonymous. (How brave is that?)

So what will happen to these bright young minds, these young girls who wish to establish their independence, who wish to walk a different path, who want freedom from patriarchy – which begins in babyhood, with “blue for boys and pink for girls, guns for boys and dolls for girls’’?

If opinions and ideas are so firmly fortified against a change in mind-set, how can women become self-governing? How can we establish ourselves beyond male control, male oppression?

Girls also, obviously, are often their own worst enemy, because so many believe in the male superiority myth and will undermine women who think differently – because ‘‘it’s always been like this, so it must be right’’. Wrong!

Carol Fitz-Patrick is an English teacher and writer. She is based in the Eastern Cape and has been teaching for 50 years

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