Glimpses of hope

Women’s month always makes me feel ambivalent. On the one hand, it stands as public recognition of women’s historic action and activism. It is a reminder that we matter and our movement is our business.

On the other hand, everywhere we look, there is policing of women’s bodies: how we dress, where we walk, when to take to the streets. Women’s political, intellectual, material, creative and physical labour is routinely trivialised. Our historical actions are erased and minimised and when we choose to prioritise ourselves as feminists and/or lesbians, we are demonised.

Through all this I still believe in the importance of marking Women’s Day and month and weaving my way through the contradictions.

At a recent seminar reflecting on gender in the nation, a colleague asked whether the situation in the country is “all doom and gloom”. This was a difficult question to answer because all panellists had treated contemporary gender-talk as a problem at the same time as highlighting some successes. It invited pause to reflect on the language we use to talk about women’s rights and varied masculinities in our country and world.

The situation leaves much to be desired, I answered, because the remarkable work that has been done to secure our gender-progressive legislation, due attention to women’s lives in much policy and a vibrant public discourse are all legacies that need defending. They are threatened by masculinist pronouncements of powerful men in the South African political sphere. In their words, such men show disregard for the humanity of those who disagree with them, a reflection of how violence works at a smaller scale across the land. It is used to silence dissent and drive many freeing expressions of gender and sexuality underground.

Yet these men do not own South Africa’s public sphere. Paying attention to our media and popular culture suggests that there is ongoing contestation about the meanings of gender in the nation.

Some would have us believe that feminine wisdom resides in our pelvises, as a midwife said on Noleen Maholwana Sangqu’s 3Talk on SABC3 two weeks ago, claiming she had seen women at their most powerful when they give birth. She said that women’s power could most clearly be gleaned when women had water and home births. Such narratives are worrying because they privilege giving birth as the site of women’s authority. What are we to do with the rest of who we are and choose to be, and the contributions we make to the world?

On the same day, on Melting Pot on Metro FM, we could listen to a panel of unapologetic feminist thinkers: a trade unionist, a head of a Chapter Nine institution and a magazine editor. They offered an invigorating discussion of culture, violence, pleasure, work, spirituality and anger. Such programmes give me a reason to hope and makes “doom and gloom” not a real option for me. I find such spaces often, even if not often enough.

Popular culture is a fascinating index of what is really going on in a society. In a country such as ours, with a very young population, this is particularly so. It is here that we find ideologies that suggest that young women can only assert themselves through gyrating hips and the sexualisation of the public sphere. South African feminist Dominique Rizos calls this the “pornification of everyday life”. In many music videos, we witness women’s bodies used like an expensive car, designer attire, the right address or a swimming pool.

Here these women’s bodies are more than just commodities; they are a resource and a language. They are used to demonstrate the hyper-masculinity of the leading man. They are evidence of his success and conquest. Outside kwaito and rap, this was known as the “women, wine and song” phenomenon. Yet, even as we denounce such tendencies within popular culture, we know there are other spaces that imagine gender very differently.

We have television programmes like Society, Tsha Tsha and After Nine that offer refreshing views on gender, intimacy and sexuality. Such programmes invite us to imagine more exciting possibilities, alongside popular shows like L’Atitude and Zola 7 that have long offered wonderful visions of how to be generous men and women who refuse violence.

Where does that leave us? What does it mean for such disparate philosophies to be present everywhere we look?

It is important to remember that South Africa is both these countries: that violent misogyny and homophobia are real. At the same time, in creative forms, kwaito sometimes among them, we catch glimpses of hope. Increasingly, I am convinced that we need to expand these freed zones. We need to draw on such energies to make patriarchal and homophobic violence untenable, unworkable and uncool.

Pumla Dineo Gqola is a feminist and associate professor of literary, cultural and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand

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