This Women’s Month as we celebrate the anniversary of the historic march by 20 000 women to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956, to protest against legislation aimed at further restricting the movement of black women in urban areas, I reflect on what it means to be a feminist in Africa and why so many women shun the term.
As part of a mid-term evaluation of the Women’s Voice and Leadership project, a fund which supports women’s organisations and movements in South Africa, grantees were asked how they described their organisation: women’s rights organisation, feminist organisation, organisation that promotes gender equality, or a human rights organisation. Just four of 28 organisations (14%) chose feminist organisation. The majority (62%) referred to themselves as “organisations that promote gender equality”.
One respondent said: “I struggle with the insistence on using the term feminist. It means something else to everyone. The word means nothing to my mother, grandmother or aunt. It means nothing to most of the women we are supporting and sometimes it is an alienating word. It would be better to use words that people understand.”
To describe the word feminist as alienating is interesting. Alienating to who, and why? Feminism in Africa in general and South Africa in particular is a contentious term as it is seen as a Western import and against African culture and tradition.
Feminism has a reputation for being radical. There was the largely mythical bra-burning incident at a protest in the late 1960s where women hurled mops, lipsticks, high heels and a bra into a “Freedom Trash Can” to symbolically throw away things that oppressed women.
Since then feminists have often been portrayed as angry, bra-burning, man-hating, (mostly white) women rather than being recognised for what they have done for women’s rights. We have feminist movements to thank for our right to vote, our right to bodily autonomy and so many more rights and opportunities we would not have if women had not agitated for them.
Throughout history feminists have been derided for daring to speak out against the grave injustices that took place against womxn. This spelling aims to avoid perceived sexism in the standard spelling, which contains the word “man”. The term “womxn” gained ground in the 2010s as more inclusive than the standard “women”.
Yes, feminists are angry, but womxn are allowed to be angry, and if we make conservative men and women uncomfortable then we are succeeding. Everyone should feel uncomfortable and angry at the violations of womxn’s bodies and rights that have been sanctioned in the name of tradition, religion and culture.
While the term feminism is Western in origin, does that mean it is un-African? Is there such a thing as African feminism? Can this term be appropriated to the struggles of African womxn?
African feminism is rooted in African contexts and value systems and the fight against colonialism. All feminists are united in opposing harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage and pregnancy, and in challenging traditional notions of marriage and family, because they should be stopped. What purpose do these harmful practices and traditions serve, other than to harm womxn and keep them oppressed? Is that a culture we should really be subscribing to?
In her TEDTalk titled “We should all be feminists”, the author Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie said: “Culture doesn’t make people; people make culture.” She talks about her experiences of blatant sexism in her home country Nigeria, where culture and patriarchy remain deeply entrenched. Adichie talks about how norms are socially constructed and have been entrenched over time, but which can also change if we start doing things differently. “If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.” We have the opportunity to make a new normal.
Some people — women and men — may ask, “do we still need feminism?” The answer is a resounding YES! In 2022, we need the movement more than ever. We are living in a time when the hard-won rights of women and girls are being rolled back. Covid-19 is one reason, but more worrying is the backlash against women’s rights by conservative actors and governments, and the shrinking of democratic space in many countries around the world. The recent overturning of the 1973 court case Roe v Wade, which gave women the right to terminate their pregnancies in the United States, is just one stark example of this.
In South Africa women have fought for and gained many rights over the last five decades. On paper we look good. We have the highest representation of women in parliament in the Southern African Development Community region; abortion is available on demand; everyone has the right to love and marry who they wish; and there are many laws and policies that advance and protect women’s rights and gender equality in the country.
However, in practice, South Africa still has exceptionally high levels of sexual and gender-based violence; maternal deaths are high, many because of unsafe abortions; women remain the poorest, most likely to be unemployed, or employed in precarious work; we have seen women’s representation in local government rolling back and women are still underrepresented in most spheres of business and society. These are just some of reasons that we still need feminism.
As we celebrate Women’s Month we remember the iconic South African women Albertina Sisulu, Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn who led the women’s march in 1956. They may not have called themselves feminists at the time, but to me they embody the very best of that word. It’s time to reclaim this particular F-word, and boldly and unashamedly declare ourselves feminist, because we believe in a fair and just world. It’s as simple as that.
Happy Women’s Month!
Read out more about the Gender Links feminism women’s month dialogue series here
Susan Tolmay is gender and governance associate at Gender Links, a leading Southern African women’s rights organisation