GENDER POLITICS, POLITICS

Dear John

The following letter was submitted anonymously to FeministsSA

Dear John,

It is with sadness that I write this letter to you today following your comments in the Parliamentary debate this week. In case you are uncertain which comments I’m referring to, it’s this one in particular:

 “…while the Hon Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable”.

Your comment says so little and yet so much, so I’d like to point a few things out. But first let me say, Dear John, that it’s your stature that is questionable.

Point 1: Attacks of this kind are a very weak form of argument. I’m sure with your justice training that you will be familiar with latin, and understand the term ‘Ad Hominem’  when used in the context of an ‘ad hominem fallacy’. For the uninitiated it goes like this. Person A makes an argument, Person B makes an attack on person A (unrelated to the argument but related to their character, or in this case, body), Person A’s argument is thought false. The reason why an Ad Hominem is a fallacy, and a really bad form of argument, is that the character, circumstance, or actions mentioned don’t have a bearing on the truth/falsity of the original argument. What this indicates, John, is that the best you could do to challenge Ms Mazibuko was to comment on her looks. It says way more about you and your argument, than it does about hers.

Point 2: Verbal attacks of this kind assume, if intended to be insulting  (if you had another intention John, by all means, share it), rest on the assumption that there is an acceptable body type for parliamentarians that would lend them credibility. It assumes that somehow if your body type doesn’t match this ideal, you should be embarrassed, and thus that commenting on someone’s body would be a legitimate criticism of their occupation of a seat in Parliament. I think a quick camera pan around the room would reveal that parliamentarians come in all shapes and sizes, and that a particular body type is thus not relevant to a parliamentary debate, especially not one as critical as the budget debate of Parliament itself.

Point 3: Verbal attacks of this kind are targeted primarily at women. Whilst male MPs are hardly a source of visual splendour it is rare to hear anything about their beer boeps, long hairy ears, or receding hairlines. If comments like this were made, they would immediately be seen as irrelevant. Yet, there are frequent comments about women’s weight, wrinkles, botox, hair styles and voice pitches. These comments are routinely accepted, and indeed in this case, the Deputy Speaker did not rule on whether these comments were un-parliamentary saying she needed to study the record.

This is indicative of a political culture that on the surface invites women to participate (in fact South Africa has incredibly high numbers of women in Parliament) but at the same time rejects women and is a culture that promotes a patriarchal value system where women are valued according to defined standards of beauty, and where these standards are thought to have bearing on their work performance. If a similar attack was made on the credibility of a disabled person, or an attack based on an MPs race, would be immediately identified as un-parliamentary. Yet, when this and other comments are made about women, they are accepted. This was a profoundly gendered comment to make. In fact it was chauvinist. The fact that your party colleagues did not call you out indicates that this type of patriarchal swing at women is accepted. The fact that a broad outcry was not heard in the house is equally worrying.

So in short John, I’m sure you now realise that your comment was profoundly offensive and made you appear as though you are weak and sexist.

If you’re not sexist,

if you’re not a weak man who believes that insulting women based on their bodies is ok in the political arena,

if you recognise that politicians of all shapes and sizes are equally capable of representing the diversity of South Africans out there (including women who make up more than half of the population),

then I hope you apologise not only by saying sorry, but by calling for a debate within the house about the persistence of sexism, and the need to eradicate public support for a patriarchal value system that does so much to harm women and men in South Africa.

If not, well John, as I said, it says more about you than it will ever say about Ms Mazibuko.

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