A few months ago I made friends with a Nigerian student I had met while waiting for the bus.
Bonding over our shared homesickness as we settled in at the library, my new friend and I proceeded to deride various aspects of American culture, including their nasty habit of paying women less than men.
My new friend took pride in knowing that, despite their pretence of being the human rights champions, Americans did not pay women as much as they did men. This was not the case in Nigeria, he said, and he was sure it was not the case in South Africa. So certain was he, he was scandalised by my insistence that a similar situation probably persisted in Africa.
It took me some time to get a word in, but I tried to explain that there are many ways to keep women from making as much money as men. My new friend listened with increased agitation. When he responded, his voice soaked with contempt, he accused me of the ultimate crime for an African woman:
“Oh … I see … you are a feminist!”
I stumbled to explain that one did not need to be a feminist to make such an argument, but it soon became clear that our conversation was over. Whatever bond we had shared had broken as soon as he perceived a hint of feminism. He launched a torrent of insults on “those things called the feminists”. I moved to another part of the library when he began dropping expletives.
As I made my way home later that afternoon, I mulled over the irony that feminism had made it easy for men to disengage from topics they found challenging.
My now ex-friend dismissed my argument by invoking the idea of the antagonism typical of the feminist who has no interest in protecting Africa and its traditions.
It dawned on me that, in the same way whiteness learns to play the race card to disengage from conversations about race, the feminist card is weaponised to cajole women away from radical positions.
What really confounds Bob is when Sipho the Good Black makes the same argument. When this happens, Bob suddenly has nowhere to go because he knows in his heart of hearts that Sipho would never play the race card.
I think of #izinjaezingondliyo as an example of what happens when women who aren’t “those things called the feminists” take up a position of radical opposition. Sifting through men’s reactions to the decision by young mothers to Facebook-shame errant fathers, I could sense the same kind of discomfort one might associate with a Bob.
Of course, black men are much more enterprising; instead of facing up to the possibility that there may be something rotten in the state of young fatherhood, they went to work to defend their integrity. They turned to the law and appealed to those other powerful words for silencing women: respectability, ordentlikheid, isidima.
In their arguments, not having isidima is tantamount to being a feminist — it is not what our mothers would have done, they said.
In making the case for respectability, the men chose the simplest images of black motherhood, ignoring mothers who defied convention. The mothers who boarded buses to Johannesburg to shame errant husbands in front of their employers. The mother with a towel around her hips, standing in the middle of the street, hurling insults at the mistress’ house until her husband emerged, ashen-faced because the whole neighbourhood would know of his infidelity. The mother whose screams became customary Friday-night fare in the township, her way of alerting neighbours to her husband’s violence.
There was no feminism in these mothers’ rhetoric, no talk of patriarchy, only the realisation that there are times when the only thing left is to scream with a force equal to the violence that holds you hostage. I understood #izinjaezingondliyo on these same terms — young mothers taking a position they inherited.
I imagine these men would say the methods these young mothers inherited are not worth emulating. I imagine they would say the screaming mothers are not the women we ought to look up to.
That we should look further back, to a time when mothers had limitless tolerance for pain. And so on and so forth, each generation of Africa’s daughters living in the shadow of mythical mothers whose only gift is the breadth of shoulders wide enough to carry the pain.
Naledi Yaziyo is on a Fulbright scholarship at Duke University. She is a 2015 Mandela-Rhodes Scholar