$*%&#! Talking about feminism can feel daunting. For example, the first metaphor that came to mind was a loaded gun. Phallic in nature and symbolic of potential violence, I realised the patriarchy runs deep, so deep that even my literary comparisons are subconsciously laden with violence. And then, soon after, I wondered if it was sexist to assume that guns = violence = men = patriarchy? Yes, probably. Was I scrutinising this too much?
The intended metaphor was to do with potential levels of anxiety felt and the explosive verbal fire that might come with discussing this emotive topic. Potential, because a loaded gun has no agency if not used, and feminism can’t change anything if it remains an academic ‘ism’ confined to institutions and academia. It’s a terrible metaphor, but my analysis of it aptly illustrates how trepidatious I felt in broaching the subject, which stems not out of fear but from the overwhelming sense of not knowing where to begin.
Like the F-word, feminism can mean different things depending on the context. Like the F-word, it’s charged with emotion (often anger). Like the F-word, the term is sometimes casually tossed around in conversation. What does the movement mean for South Africans today? I say ‘South Africans’ because men can be feminists too. How can feminism transform the rage against the patriarchy into actionable change? What does being a feminist truly entail and how does this translate into our daily lives? As part of my ongoing interest and investigation on the topic, I interviewed a group of creative womxn who shed light on what the movement means to them. What follows is a summation of pertinent points and suggestions intended to provide talking points rather than conclusive answers to my pressing questions.
Let’s start with the obvious. Why should we be feminists?
At the heart of feminism is the advocacy of womxn’s rights. Now, ‘womxn’ is a term that extends beyond the narrow 1950s notion of the oppressed housewife. Gender identity is fluid and so the movement should strive to create a society where all people – regardless of race, sexual orientation and gender – are equal and can live freely in the world.
Theoretically, the fight for equality seems simple. However artist, writer and educator Linda Stupart prefers to think of feminism as an “acknowledgement of a need for radical change in how power is divided between genders”. She points out that too much emphasis on ‘equal rights’ and the ‘law’ is idealistic, particularly if we compare South Africa’s constitution with people’s lived experiences. We know we have one of the world’s best constitutions, but we’ve also seen time and time again how it fails to impart justice to those whom violence has been inflicted upon. Let’s face it, Zuma was charged with rape and still holds the highest ranking leadership position in the country.
“Women, feminine, and non-binary people are victimised, silenced and subjugated all over the world. We experience violence daily at the hands of men and the institutions that protect them, and are forced to speak in their language, through their images and in relation always to their law and their ‘genius,'” Linda says.
In a society where patriarchy still rules and rape culture is rampant, feminism might feel like a “default setting in what should be an enlightened world,” as freelance writer, photographer and writer Saaleha Idrees Bamjee remarked. Although she feels she can’t speak for the entire movement, she knows that the consequence of having grown up within a patriarchal society means that her education and understanding of the world was shaped by the lens of an oppressive system.
So, is feminism the only antidote to patriarchy? And how should we define it?
Enter the quagmire. Basically, it’s very problematic, because it means different things to different people – which is what both activist Kim Windvogel and fimmaker Sihle Hlophe highlighted. Attempts at definition can lead to unnecessary accusations, where purists shunt those who they believe aren’t “feminist enough”. What happened to forming a united front? This is where intersectional feminism plays an important role. We can’t ignore that there are many levels of oppression. To be blunt, the degree of oppression experienced by white womxn is different to the oppression experienced by womxn of colour.
Kim tells me that for her, feminism also means that “those with privilege, like white people and our brothers of colour, must accept their privilege in order to aid in the fight against our intersectional oppression. As a womxn of colour I’m not only living under patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy, but also under racism and post-traumatic slavery disorder. It’s definitely not a contest to see who is the most oppressed. It is merely the acknowledgement of these facts so that no voice will be unheard due to ignorance”.
For most, feminism is the acknowledgement that we still live in a white supremacist, capitalist heter cis domineering society with systematic and pervasive violence and oppression. If womxn are to be empowered, this system must change.
What value does feminism have in South Africa, and what role might it play in our everyday life?
Feminism is invaluable in a country where violence against womxn is shrugged upon as the norm. Take Oscar Pistorious, who was labelled a “fallen hero”, and Zwelethu Mthethwa, who after murdering Nokuphula Kumalo prompted a media discussion as to whether this increased the value of his artworks – nevermind that he had just killed a womxn. Oscar was painted as a tragic Greek hero and Reeva a sweet bombshell model. Similarly, the Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) seemed to be the only ones concerned about the fate of Nokuphula. All eyes were on the Zwelethu Mthethwa and how being a murderer might tarnish or boost his artistic intrigue.
This is not okay nor is it acceptable. While many womxn in South Africa are woke, it’s still “of utmost importance to conscientise people about feminism and gender equality…we’re a very progressive country when it comes to the empowerment of womxn in the work place, the only problem is shifting paradigms on a grassroots level,” Sihle points out.
This idea is shared by Kim, who has spent a lot of time talking to womxn from various communities around the Western Cape. She realised that the ideology of feminism begins to take shape when womxn speak openly with one another and acknowledge the similarity of their issues.
Practically speaking, the fact the we live in a country where we “have no black womxn presidential candidates and where large numbers of womxn students and pupils are missing school every month because they’re menstruating and can’t afford sanitary pads” is another indicator that we obviously still need feminism, according to Jabu Newman.
“I think the feminist lens is integral to every context in which womxn and non-binary gender identity individuals live and work and breathe. Like I said: I’m working towards a world when feminism puts itself out of business,” adds theatre-maker Penny Youngleson.
As long as we keep having to explain why a joke isn’t funny, why we’re angry and why there isn’t equality, and until men acknowledge their privilege, feminism will persist.
If we know this, what are the challenges preventing us from living in an Egalitarian society?
You know that outdated stereotype where feminists are thought to be ferociously fierce – burning their bras, growing their armpit hair, and driving movements like #FreeTheNipple on social media? Yeah, that. Besides the flashing red light of patriarchal oppression, our perceptions of how a so-called “true feminist” should behave and look divide us.
Actress and theatre-maker Ameera Conrad notes that being a feminist doesn’t mean “you have to disregard womxn who care about their appearance, womxn who want to be housewives, womxn who want to wear conservative clothing… As long as a womxn is choosing for herself how she exists in the world, and as long as her existence isn’t oppressing another person’s existence, then she should be allowed to continue. My favourite ideal within feminism is the “you do you, boo” line of thought; let womxn flourish in the way that they choose to”.
Sihle and Kim also mentioned the alienating effect of the movement’s elitist language. In addition, it’s often labelled ‘un-African’. This is untrue because Africa has a large number of matriarchal societies. However, the movement doesn’t always accommodate ethnicity, hence the importance of intersectional feminism.
In a country where there are 11 official languages, what is being done for those who are overwhelmed by the language of academia or whose mother tongue isn’t English? “I am a firm believer that terms like patriarchy, feminism, cishet, cisgender and all of these academic terms must be broken down for people who are not English and do not use these terms on a daily basis. I have to remind myself of this fact every day, because being around people who casually throw these terms around can make you believe that everyone is on that level of understanding. This is dangerous because we know that education is elitist in this country. We need to break down terms and ideologies for people everywhere so that we can ensure that no one will be left behind when the revolution comes,” says Kim.
Stigma, exclusivity and fatigue (because it doesn’t mean fighting the patriarchy isn’t tiring) – these all need to be addressed.
What do we hope the movement will achieve in South Africa and the world?
In short, we want to get a point where “womxn’s issues aren’t womxn’s issues,” as Ameera says. We want to reach a space where feminism is obsolete. We want to sleep soundly and walk safely without fear. We want to be an inclusive society where everyone is heard and equal. We want to live in a space where all womxn can reach their true potential and live their best lives.
Illustrations by Lauren Mitchell.