The hype of women's empowerment

The anti-apartheid struggle attempted to create a country free of all oppressions based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, language, geographical location and (dis)ability. This is the country of the Constitution. Yet the legacy of apartheid continues to be felt by the black poor, who are written out of capital, most victimised and predominantly women.
For the more affluent, gender, race and class still exert control either in the backlash against affirmative action or the pressure to participate in a culture of rampant materialism and consumerism.

Arguably, public discourse on race and class is complex. Public-sphere South African gender-talk, however, is very conservative: “women’s empowerment” is discussed in ways that are not transformative. The programmes it props up exist comfortably alongside overwhelming evidence that South African women are not empowered. Indicators of disempowerment are the rape and other gender-based violence statistics, rampant sexual harassment, curative rapes, raging homophobia and the relentless circulation of misogynist imagery, metaphors and language.

I wonder, what would Ruth First—communist, anti-racist, journalist and historian—make of the South Africa she fought for? She did not shy away from difficult questions even within the left. I think she would have found our “gender talk” in need of much critique.

The “women’s empowerment” discourse rests on the flawed assumption that limited women’s access to wealth transforms society meaningfully. It ignores that women’s access to wealth and high office is mediated by class, homophobia, race and xenophobia, and can only empower a small minority of women.

Second, the dominant talk of “empowerment of women” expects women to conform and become “honorary men”, as Mamphela Ramphele might say, rather than altering the formal workplace into a space that is more receptive to women.

The hijacked “women’s empowerment” talk is also flawed in a linked, third sense. As Shireen Hassim reminds us, real transformation cannot leave out poor women and it requires a strong feminist movement in civil society.

The fourth most immediately dangerous flaw emerges when we recognise that this conservative “women’s empowerment” only applies to women while they are in the official “public space”: in the workplace. A completely different set of rules governs the “private” world of the home, public transport, the streets, clubs, restaurants and shebeens. Outside of work, the dominant gender-talk forces women to adhere to very limiting notions of femininity. The recycling of the “cult of femininity” takes place across sectors, and is so pervasive that it retains high visibility among the ranks of ostensibly highly empowered women. In interview after media interview, the question is posed to economically powerful women: Who are you really? Thus, pressure is applied to prove that they exhibit traditionally feminine traits.

This highly circulated cult of femininity is linked to the ways in which most women live our lives: with the haunting fear of rape, sexual harassment, smash-and-grabs and other violent intrusions into our spaces, bodies and psyches.

The hijacked “women’s empowerment” hype is a smokescreen and assumes that women are the only ones who need empowerment, as limited as routes to such empowerment are. It leaves the cult of femininity intact and violent masculinities untouched.

Gender transformative work requires that masculinities—black, white, straight or queer—be radically revisited and transformed. It demands honesty in dealing with the siege under which all South African women continue to live. Thenjiwe Mtintso once remarked: “You find there are comrades who bow to the question of gender equality, but in terms of their own behaviour are quite different.”

Until we are able to address these double standards as well as the long histories we come from, we are trapped in gender-based violence. Our denial will not protect us. We should recognise that this continuum contains much that we call “normal”: the twist of the arms of teenage girls, the assumption that girls “play hard to get” and should not be listened to, the oppressive claims that women cannot say what we mean and mean what we say. Consequently, a man can decide that a known lesbian is aroused and that he is meant to have sex with her. In the same continuum, women are so stupid, passive and beaten down that we can only wear short skirts, revealing or tight clothes, get drunk, wear kangas, smoke cigarettes or do drugs, anything to signal to men that we are aroused except to say it.

Every man in this country has a responsibility to transformation. Men need to think about how they speak to and about women and girls, question what they were taught and what they are teaching to boys and younger men.

Just like Steve Biko and his comrades in the Black Consciousness Movement left us a legacy of psychological liberation from self-hate and harmful beliefs about ourselves as black people. As South Africans, we need psychological liberation from patriarchy—to learn to engage as partners across genders, to respect women’s bodily autonomy and entitlement to sexual and other pleasures.

But no gender-progressive country, psychological liberation or national freed zone will be accessible without an honest look at our society, our language and our everyday practice. We can learn how to value ours and others’ freedom and pay attention to the histories that have brought us here.

When we talk about the revolutionary 1980s, we also need to deal with what else young black women were experiencing in addition to sexist and racist state brutality. Whatever we may want to use as a lens to explain jackrolling in Transvaal townships, which was pervasive, or the rise of iintsara (gangs made up of mostly Nyanga east youths) as part of the gendered gang violence of the Cape Flats, these cannot continue to be moments we evade. We make these women disposable citizens when we pretend this era away.

“What happens to that collective trauma?” Ingrid Masondo asks. And how do we deal with the incessant communication to us in our formative years that we do not have freedom of movement, a communication reinforced by the statistics and the incredibly damaging masculinist posturing around the Jacob Zuma rape trial?

An accompanying question needs to be asked: What happened to all those young men who were jackrollers or iintsara? In what ways did getting away with mass rape solidify violent masculine patterns and what kind of socialisation did it have on other black men and boys watching? How does another history of sanctioned women’s kidnapping—known as ukuthwala—contribute to the possibility of jackrolling being normal? At which point do we take responsibility for unlearning harmful behaviour regardless of which part of our complicated history it comes from? At which point do violent men in this country, and the women who are their cronies, women Desiree Lewis has called “phallic women”, stop using “culture” as a way to justify violating us?

South African women are saying we cannot escape gender-based violence in the classrooms of urban and rural South Africa, in the streets of our cities and towns as well as in the fields and homes of our rural areas, in buses, taxis, trains and private cars, in shopping malls, cafés, factories, police stations and hospitals. The statistics support us and the criminal justice system either re-violates or ignores us. And all the while gender-conservative men threaten and violently silence women who speak out in self-defence against a former vice-president that women’s votes helped elect when he dares speak misogyny about what women want when we dress a certain way, act a certain way and choose to love women.

There is a clear and urgent need to change South Africa’s public and private gender-talk. As part of this we need to rid ourselves of the “passwords” that Sibongile Ndashe speaks about, which refer to the disclaimers and qualifiers that silence real debate. So, those black and white feminists who defied the passwords by contesting the gender-talk around the Zuma trial were dismissed as “elites”, “irresponsible”, “disingenuous”, “apolitical” and out of touch with most poor women, who are coyly called “real women on the ground”. It is an incredible statement coming from elite men, and amazingly condescending, since these men, we are to assume, know better what women want.

Gender-conservative South African men would do well to choose another battleground from now onwards—not our bodies—because claiming that women who call them on their misogyny do not speak as “real” South African women is direct complicity with the scourge of gender-based violence. It is not enough for leaders of political formations of various sorts to mouth commitment to gender equity when they excuse misogyny spoken in their midst.

The current situation makes a mockery of the values of the Constitution. But choosing different behaviour can bring us closer to a society in which the gender values of the Constitution are entrenched. Would it not be a wonderful thing to live in a country in which a thing such as the Zuma rape trial is impossible? It would be an amazing thing, if waking up in 2056, South African girls and women really had freedom of movement.

This is an edited extract of the fifth annual Ruth First Lecture presented by Pumla Dineo Gqola at Constitution Hill in Braamfontein on 15 November. The full text of the lecture will be available at www.pumladineo.co.za at the end of November

Client Media Releases

Survey rejects one-sided views on e-tolls
Huawei forms partnerships to boost ICT skills development
North-West University Faculty of Law has a firm foundation
Humanities lecturer wins Young Linguist Award
Is your organisation ready for the cloud (r)evolution?