I have been holding this sign since the 1980s, when I became a feminist activist, while studying in the United States for my PhD in political science and gender studies. There are many slogans on my sign — “women’s liberation”, “the personal is political”, “pro-choice”, “I have the right to control my own body”, “stop gender-based violence”, “women are not door mats”, “we need a child care facility”, “women’s rights are human rights”, “we need sanitary pads”, “biology is not destiny”, “our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”.
The list goes on and my arms are tired. And yet, here I am. Thirty years later, we women are still holding up the same signs. With gravity pulling down our arms and our breasts, the past speaking to the present, while the present renders itself as crude, boorish, misogynist, dishonest, lying and populist presidents, in the US, Brazil, the Philippines and (until last year, in South Africa), and elsewhere.
It did not escape us that US President Donald Trump’s first executive order seriously eroded women’s reproductive rights. An executive order signed by a man who thinks that pussies are only there to be grabbed, while we, the women, give birth, through that same vaginal channel, we bleed, we are violated through that very same vagina. What better display of male political power is there than to limit and deny women reproductive rights? It goes right to the heart of difference, to the heart of control over our bodies and our lives, to the heart of our desire, our pleasure, and our autonomy.
In South Africa, the ugly display of sexual violence reared up on its hind legs in the third week of May 2017, while I was writing this essay, as it does most weeks. Beautiful Karabo Mokoena was killed by her intimate partner, her body burnt beyond recognition, just because she wanted out of an abusive relationship.
The week before that, four girls under the age of six disappeared and one was found raped and killed. We can recite incidents ad nauseam. The violations are, again, on the front pages of South African newspapers, as they always are when the stories are gruesome enough. Anene Booysen, raped and disembowled. Reeva Steenkamp, shot and killed by feted paralymphic athlete Oscar Pistorius. They all become mere statistics. Women’s outrage about sexual violence withimpunity continues unabated, while the government goes about business as usual.
But it is not only the politics of spectacle on the front pages of our newspapers or in the chambers of the legislatures that make our arms tired, it is also what academic and author Rob Nixon conceptualises as “slow violence”.
He uses this concept to describe and analyse the environmental degradation that affects us all, but the poor most significantly. “Slow violence” can also be applied to the erosion of gains that women have made over the past two to three decades and the depoliticisation of feminist activism, as a result of the invisible processes of neoliberal globalisation and neoliberal capitalism’s consumer culture.
In a digital era of soundbite solutions, women are made to believe that they can achieve everything if only they concentrate on cultivating an image, buy the “right” clothes, the “right” make-up, the “right” underwear, and subscribe to a new age dietary regime to improve appearance and reduce weight. It makes us believe that women can be everything a man can be, we can be sexy and even predatory in our sexual behaviour. We only need to “lean in”. This is the type of “equality” that focuses entirely on the individual, and on individualised solutions for collective social problems. It makes invisible the very real global systemic inequalities and oppressions that neoliberal capital creates for all people and denies the feminisation of poverty globally.
George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian about neoliberalism: “… the result is first disempowerment then disenfranchisement. If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics become irrelevant to people’s lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation.”
Globally, we now see anti-politics when political leaders are asked to account for their misreading of voters’ needs, of which at least 50% are women. The populist politics a la Trump and then president Jacob Zuma have made it acceptable to lie or fabricate facts. Fake news. It is the slow violence of the neglect of women’s needs. It is the slow violence of the denial of our common humanity. It is the slow violence of the erasure of our voices, that brings us back to the streets.
It was the Women’s March the day after Trump was inaugurated that put feminist activism visibly back on the political agenda in the US, and globally. It was the millions of pink “pussy” hats showing that women will not stand by to be grabbed and groped and silenced. The pussies and our male allies were out in the streets to show our collective power. In South Africa, it was young women students, calling themselves radical intersectional African feminists, that took to the streets topless in 2016, to end rape culture and reinvigorate feminist activism here. Protests spread around the country and forced universities to look into the traditions, practices and perceptions that normalise sexual violence. It was their visible angry presence, carrying sjamboks that shouted “enough is enough!”
For the sake of a new generation of women, for the sake of our daughters (the daughters of the witches that were not burnt — as another poster declared), we cannot give up the struggle against women’s oppression now or ever. We must expose unaccountable leadership, expose the limits of the quota system that put unaccountable women in legislatures, expose the limits of gender mainstreaming that gives us technocratic governance and the problem that if everyone has to take responsibility for gender then nobody will. We must expose the pussy grabbing by men who boast about sexual violence.
We cannot let go of the signs now.How long will we have to hold up these signs? As long as it takes!
This is an edited version of My Arms are Tired of Holding This Sign by Amanda Gouws from Nasty Women Talk Back: A Collection of Feminist Essays Inspired by the Global Women’s Marches, edited by Gouws and Joy Watson. Gouws is professor of political science at Stellenbosch University and holds the South African Research Chair Initiative chair in gender politics