Claire Martens
CURRENT AFFAIRS, GENDER POLITICS

Coping with violence in a patriarchal world

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

I long for a time when the world will be a safe place for women. But with the way things are, it will never be in my lifetime. The stories just keep on coming. If it’s not 300 young girls kidnapped in Nigeria, it’s a 22-year-old American man seeking “retribution” for being rejected by women and killing 6 people in the process. The international response to both incidents has been different and, in many ways, unrelated, but that is a topic for another blog. Right now I want to speak about one outcome to the Elliot Rodger event which tells us something about the Nigerian kidnapping, almost as much as it does about the killing spree.

The media is inundated with articles about the motivations of Rodger, but for me the most interesting part was the start of the #yesallwomen campaign. While the two incidents, due to their horrific nature and violence, demonstrate the harshest terms of women’s enslavement under the worst conditions, the hashtag #yesallwomen demonstrates the prolific and invasive nature of patriarchy and its evil cousin, misogyny. While I think it may be a little tenuous to believe that misogyny leads to murder, there is a certain level of violence inherent in patriarchy that we cannot ignore.

What the kidnappings and killings tell us is that some men believe that they deserve a woman’s attentions, they have an entitlement to a wife and to sex and whatever else women are expected to give them. Some men may believe that women are expendable, that their lives carry no value. Always, women are only people in relation to men. What #yesallwomen shows is that an undercurrent of violence, fear and intimidation exists in many women’s lives, no matter where they live and what they look like.

#yesallwomen started soon after the Elliot Rodger event. Through it, women are attempting to expose the pervasive nature of patriarchy and misogyny. Their tweets demonstrate the trends in the fear they carry on their shoulders, in the harassment they face every day at the hands of men, in the names they are called and the abuse they endure.

The #yesallwomen campaign is a continuation of many similar protests and campaigns, such as #everydaysexism, so it is not necessarily unique in its approach, but it also came at an odd time for me. I was visiting my doctor recently with a complaint of stomach aches. She asked about my anxiety levels, explaining that many women who visit her are suffering from a kind of general and prolonged stress which they find difficult to deal with. She asked me about my history, my friends and my family. She asked if something had happened to me to make me feel anxious.

Well, no, and also yes. I too live in South Africa, in a state of fear, and even if nothing as horrific as rape has happened to me, it does not mean that I cannot acknowledge the pain it causes. It doesn’t mean that my experiences as a women are insignificant and that I am not affected by the environment I live in. In fact, it was in becoming a feminist that my world was opened to the reality of the situation of women and of myself – an awakening that was both crippling and liberating.

I know enough about the lives that women lead, the statistics on rape and sexual abuse, the incidences of domestic abuse, and the children who are raped, to know that we live in a sick society. I also think that even though I am merely experiencing it second-hand, doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a general low level of anxiety, all day, every day. It’s always there, this fear, and it’s not baseless or silly, but derived from our everyday experiences, the thoughts we have, the stories we hear, the people who are affected.

I was shocked to read about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in women in South Africa, that our levels are so high that they are practically at the level of warzones. What kind of world do we live in where a vast percentage of women show symptoms of PTSD, even though the country itself is at peace?

What is unbearable for me is the knowledge that this is not one, or ten, or even one hundred men who are raping or abusing women, but thousands. That is the nature of patriarchy. Men do not have to be evil or stupid or crazy to be part of it, as long as the culture permits them to practice patriarchy. In a blog posted on the Guardian website, Jessica Valenti writes the following:

The truth is that there is no such thing as a lone misogynist – they are created by our culture, and by communities that tells them that their hatred is both commonplace and justified. So when we say that these things are unstoppable, what we are really saying is that we’re unwilling to do the work to stop them. Violence against women does not have to be inevitable, but it is almost always foreseeable: what matters is what we do about it.

So how can we cope with the violent nature of our society; not just to overcome the abuse of women and children, but to stop all forms of violence directed at all citizens of this country? My doctor said something interesting which I want to share with you in the same form of analogy she used.

She described how, when she first started working at her new practice, she found her colleagues disrespectful. She wasn’t sure what to do about it but she decided to work really hard, stay long hours, and be really good at her job in order to earn their respect through her actions. But after months of doing so, she wasn’t any closer to getting their respect. That was when she realised that she permitted the disrespect in the first place.

How people treat us is not really about who we are, but who they are and the kind of society they function in. If we want to stop violence and abuse, we should not allow it to be permitted. I am not sure how to do this, how to make our worlds safer, but I think we may start with the little things like rape jokes, belittlement, catcalling and the rest. No one should ever feel powerless. Men should never feel entitled, or that we are ornaments for their own lives.

There are violent individuals who commit horrendous crimes, and we may feel unable to do anything about them, but we can try to change the manifestations of patriarchy, and not necessarily ourselves, so that society can stop breeding the types of people who commit crimes against women. We cannot compromise, the results are fatal.

If you want to read some various takes on the #yesallwomen campaign, the following are a few links I found interesting:

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Claire Martens
CURRENT AFFAIRS, POLITICS

Elections Analysis: The Freedom Front Plus

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens*

The Freedom Front Plus, under the direction of its leader, Pieter Mulder, is a political party with self-inflicted contradictions. When looking at any political party in South Africa, you are bound to find trouble in reconciling a dichotomous stance of anti-this and pro-that, especially when you are looking through a human rights lens. Not surprisingly, there are few aspects of the FF+ that one can appreciate from a distance; especially if your heritage puts you outside of the party’s focus.

Protecting the women – which women?

For example, the FF + calls strongly for the protection of women and children but, while this is not a restrictive call, as a pro-Afrikaner right-wing group, the unsaid premise is that the protection should be afforded to white [Afrikaner] women and children in particular. Taking into account the patriarchal nature of Afrikaner cultural and religious values, where women are expected to adhere to narrowly-defined feminine norms, the cry may not be taken seriously by many of the party’s opponents.

“Protection” becomes meaningless when placed under further scrutiny, especially when you consider it in relation to the ethos of the party. It has not been extended to the right to self-determination of the individual, which is the basis for their latest mission and is a principle they advocated for during the drafting of the Constitution. At that time, the party’s militant exclusivity was even more entrenched, so the fact that they came to the negotiating table in the first place was somewhat of a miracle, even if it was only to preserve their own interests and to push the fast-eroding nationalist agenda.

Until its current redrafting, their mission still utilised the terms “volk” and “volkstaat” (peoples’ state), terms used to imply a separate Afrikaner community. In its newest form it is debatable whether their intentions have changed at all. Their mission states,

“The FF+ is irrevocably committed to the realisation of communities, in particular the Afrikaner’s internationally recognised right to self-determination, territorially and otherwise, the maintaining, protection and development of their rights and interests, as well as to the promotion of the right to self-determination for all communities in South Africa, bound by a common language and cultural heritage.”

It is the little addition of “and otherwise” which got me thinking. Although everyone is aware of separatist communities of Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, who strive for a territory free from [black] government influence, I wonder if they would be willing to create a new identity around self-determination, one which promotes and respects the rights, needs and wants of women (and people in general). The definition of self-determination is linked tenuously, at least, to being able to make choices that affect your life, without being constrained by external influences. Most importantly, self-determination is linked inextricably to equal rights and equality of opportunity.

The FF+ do not deal directly with any particular women’s issues within their policy framework. They do comment on indirect issues which relate to women, but do so without considering the context. For example, their stance on dealing with HIV / AIDS is to acknowledge its severity and prolific nature, but to promote prevention in the form of abstinence, rather than focussing on improving health care facilities and striving for universal anti-retroviral treatment. They do not acknowledge the power-relations which determine whether women will be able to abstain from sex in relationships or request/demand the use of contraceptives, for instance.

The failure to understand and respond to women’s issues, which are numerous and diverse, and the outright rejection of self-determination at the individual level, indicates a failure to move away from the patriarchal and religious underpinnings of their members; which is ironically both a weakness of the party, as well as its strength. That they don’t have specific policies on women’s issues may not matter to their supporters.

But what about the actual rights?

FF+ is anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality. Surely being able to love who you want is part of self-determination and a fundamental aspect of freedom? Being able to decide on your reproductive choices are similarly so. Yet, the FF+ is obstinate in their beliefs. Their pro-life argument came out strongest during the Choice of Termination of Pregnancy Amendment process in Parliament. As was stated about the Bill,

“[t]he FF Plus finds it tragic that the ANC only places emphasis on the right of women to choose, but babies are not given a say or a choice.”

Pieter Mulder told MPs that the bill was “forced on them by the ANC.”[i] In 2005, they also voted against the Civil Unions Bill which would legalise same-sex marriages. More recently, in 2011 the FF+ showed their anti-homosexual stance in Parliament by joining the ACDP in denying a motion proposed by the DA to congratulate Francois Nel for winning the Mr Gay World Pageant 2011[ii]. Based on the denial by the two parties, amounting to just seven seats, the motion was blocked. While we may not consider the smaller opposition parties as a threat to our freedoms, this incident is a small example of their ability to obstruct and frustrate processes.

Protecting Afrikaner culture

Their position on abortion and homosexuality is bound by a need to protect the cultural and religious underpinnings of Afrikanerhood, and this is worthy of acknowledgement (and respect in terms of the right to practice one’s culture), even if we can dismiss aspects of the culture as unconstitutional. In the tension between human rights and the protection of culture, and the corresponding conflict between the micro and the macro, you cannot help but wonder how many people they have isolated with their rhetoric. I have met people who are both Afrikaans and gay. Are they really to be denied the ability to call themselves both? What does it really mean to be an Afrikaaner? Is “self-determination” rhetoric or is the FF+ simply concerned about the conservative interests of their members?

In recent times, their support has diminished to the point where their demise has been predicted. As reported by Business Day, the FF+ lost nearly 280,000 votes at the national polls since 1994 (from 424,555 (2.2%) in 1994 to 146,796 in 2009, or 0.8%)[iii]. Currently, the FF+ has four members in Parliament and one member in the National Council of Provinces, none of whom are women. In the top echelons (i.e the National Executive Committee), there is one woman, Karin Roodt, heading up women’s issues. Karin is married to pro-Afrikaaner activist, Dan Roodt, and writes for PRAAG, which Dan co-founded. The PRAAG website is dedicated to Afrikaaner issues and features commentary on preserving the Afrikaans culture and people. Within the committee of the youth branch of the FF+ (known as FF+ Youth), there are two women. The youth leader is male. The youth branch is dedicated to advancing the same mission of the FF+ but does not seem to garner as much media attention around its activities, so it is difficult to try an isolate and understand their unique policies.

Scanning their website to understand their policy outlook on a number of issues, it is becomes evident that the FF+ emphasize issues which pertain to, what some may regard as, a persecution complex. They emphasise cultural protection, protection of languages, rejection of Black Economic Empowerment, the retention of land ownership and private property and the protection of minority rights. The focus then is on the Afrikaner community as a whole, rather than the interests of the individuals who make up that whole.

Gender representation

I am not surprised by the gender-representation (or lack thereof) in the party as a whole, given the nature of the Afrikaner culture. Previous statements may not suggest it, but I am hesitant to make sweeping statements about the Afrikaner community and, similarly, do some tasteless Afrikaner-bashing which was a feature of my childhood. Nonetheless, the issue of culture and religion is as important in our country as the political dogma of a party. The FF+ linkages to the trade union, Solidarity, are equally pertinent when one considers the statements made concerning the party’s denouncement of violence against women. Solidarity represents the interests of minority groups and has been central to court cases which target affirmative action policies. In short, they support Afrikaner interests above black ones. Again the question arises: which women and, more pertinently, who are seen as the perpetrators of violence against these women?

The FF+ make no bones about their restrictive human right’s position. They are essentially a blacklash to a perceived reality and, in that, I foresee the demise of the party, unless the current climate of dissatisfaction garners new support. For those that have retracted their support, perhaps they have come to understand that unity, diversity and human rights are not so bad after all.

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Claire Martens
GENDER POLITICS

I’m so fat and that’s ok

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

The other day I heard myself saying, “I am feeling fat.” I wanted to follow it up with, “And I am not just saying that to draw attention to myself, we’re having a real discussion here and I am telling it like it is.” But I didn’t, because no conversation about weight is ever considered a conversation about facts; at least not between girls.

In her book about female aggression and bullying, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons brings up the issue of the “I’m so fat” phrase and the subtext behind its use. She notes that, generally, the phrase is used by girls who are not fat. In the first instance, the phrase is used to seek compliments from friends and thereby reinforce bonds between girls. No true friend would ever agree with you. In another instance, the girl might be trying to draw attention to the girls around her, who might be “inferior” in looks, sometimes because they are not stick-thin. In this way, she is asserting her dominance in the group and actually using subtle aggression to undermine the confidence of others. Girls might also use the phrase to show a general unhappiness about something else in their lives. They use it to reach out to their friends, to start conversations, or reinforce bonds or acknowledge friendships – but never really say what the problem is.

And as Simmons acknowledges, it is neither respectful to people who are overweight and further, it is not directly acknowledging the reasons for your unhappiness.

I can honestly say that none of those scenarios were taking place in my mind. The conversation actually started off with me describing my exercise routine and mentioning that I am sticking to it quite rigidly for various reasons, including the fact that I feel fat these days. And compared to what I looked like a year ago, I have every right to say that. However, the women around me all came out in solidarity with me saying that, of course, I am not fat. It made me feel very frustrated.

I am not in high school anymore, but it seems that the phrase has stuck around into my late twenties, with all the negative connotations. I really just wanted to have a healthy, factual conversation about my weight and not feel guilty about its immature pretext. It seems we cannot escape our socialisation.

Talking of socialisation, Odd Girl Out was a huge eye-opener for me. It made me think about my days in high school and how girls treated one another. I know many women who say they prefer the company of men, because men are more honest and open about their feelings. Women, on the other hand, are underhanded, malicious and untruthful. According to the book, this is the way we have been raised and it is very harmful to all of us. Girls are brought up to believe that they need to embody those feminine traits of fragility and quietness, they must be well-mannered and considerate of others, they must not show aggression or anger. But what this means is that our anger and aggression, normal human feelings, are expressed in other ways – in sly, underhand and hurtful gossip for instance, or through phrases like “I am so fat”.

This has also resulted in the subversion of normal, healthy conversations, whether they are about weight or anything else (and I think conversations about sex also suffer). We carry the pretext into our adulthood and it disrupts our ability to be truthful to one another and to talk freely of ourselves with being seen as arrogant, masculine or “not playing within the rules of the game”. It also makes us look like we cannot be mature and truthful about our weight – and that we still harbour those insecurities about how we look. What a sad reality.

Odd Girl Out encourages parents to socialise their girls in such a way that they are encouraged to express anger in a direct way which is not harmful. We should not dismiss their real concerns about how they feel and how they look. Let’s start talking and let’s start channelling our normal human emotions into healthy activities, one adult to another.

Claire Martens
CULTURE

I need feminism…

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

The Oxford University Student Union’s Women’s Campaign recently took photos of students on the Oxford University campus holding up sign boards which demonstrated why the particular student thought that they needed feminism. I absolutely loved the responses. Go to the campaign’s Facebook to check them out(http://www.facebook.com/womcam). Below are my favourite. Please note that I sometimes placed the sex of the person next to the response in order to give clarity, and not to cast judgement on the person or their sex.

I need feminism…

…because I cannot be trusted to regulate myself any more than the press, the police and financial services can (from a man)

…because I am still scared of dropping feminist as a dirty F-BOMB

Note: this can also be in reference to the idea that the difference between feminism and misandry is still misunderstood.

…because I don’t want to live in a society that trivialises violence against women

…because I was assigned “female at birth” but never completed the required reading (from a transgender)

…because I love my sister, mother, grandmother, aunts, friends, teachersetc

…so I can live in a society where I can be the breadwinner and he can be the primary child-care; if we want (from a woman)

…because it is not okay that my privileges as a man come at everyone else’s expense

…because it shouldn’t be a struggle for equal respect

…so I can be an active participant in my own sex life (from a woman)

…because I knew what was happening and I did nothing (from a man)

…because I will not tolerate subjugation based on the lies about gender differences (from a man)

…because a woman’s place is in the revolution (from a man)

…because it saves lives

…because I have enough on my plate without a side order of patriarchal bullshit (from a woman)

…because I have more to offer than my femininity

…because, growing up, I heard a lot about “safety” and “modesty” and nothing about consent (from a woman)

…because I know people who think that being drunk is an excuse for committing rape

…to help me stand TALL when I feel small (from a woman)

…to change the way men think, not to change the way women act

…because my male friends laughed when I said that I was doing this (from a woman)

…because double standards are no standards at all

…because I shouldn’t see myself as breaking stereotypes when I am only doing what comes naturally to me (from a woman)

…because it is easy to ignore sexism when it works in your favour (from a man)

…because my liberation is bound up with yours, and sometimes I like to be the small spoon (from a man)

…because men are still determining MY productive rights (from a woman)

…because No means No and, sometimes,Yes doesn’t mean Yes

…because when I was assaulted, no one believed me (from a woman)

…because the first time a man in a car called me sexy, I was 12 and I didn’t have the confidence to tell him to,“Fuck off”

…because society teaches us “Don’t get raped”, instead of, “Don’t rape”

…because gender equality is a basic human right

…because no one should need to say that they need feminism

…because I am SICK of victim blaming

…because neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim

…because, when you give people opportunities, they exceed your expectations

…because my masculinity is oppressive and restrictive too (from a man)

…because I want the world to be kind to my girlfriend (from a woman)

…because “lesbian”, “slut” and “fat” are still seen as insults

…because I am tired of feeling unmanly for enjoying my girlfriend’s strap-on (from a man)

…because no ONE thing defines me

…because I want to be ANOTHER rather than OTHER

…because too much of history was written by white, bourgeois, heterosexual, cisgender men like me (from a man)

Cisgendered/cissexual people (from Wikipedia): Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity.” According to Julia Serano, cissexual is an adjective used in the context of gender issues to describe “people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their mental and physical sexes as being aligned

…because the Patriarchy is not going to fuck itself.

Claire Martens
HEALTH

Is the pill ‘all that’?

Claire Martens
Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

No one can deny that a substantial amount of sexual freedom came with the development of the contraceptive pill (and condoms, of course). But today I am feeling free because of the opposite; because I am no longer on the pill. Yes, for the first time in 12 years I am considering the fact that my body may start to synchronise my period with the women I work and live with, in the natural way in which this happens.

Admittedly, my “freedom” is limited, because I have rediscovered the meaning of “flow”, of period pains, acne and relative uncertainty. These were side effects which I had to consider in my choice, but I was worried it would be much worse. From the beginning of 2012 I have been afraid of what would happen when I went off the pill, whether I would not have a period for months, whether I would get really bad facial acne, whether I would get crippling period pains like I did in high school. It was only when I read a blog called “Sweetening the Pill” (http://sweeteningthepill.blogspot.com), which offers a guide on coming off the pill, that I finally took the plunge.

Getting my first properly flowing period, with pains for two days, was actually a wonderful feeling. It felt natural, it made me feel fertile and it made me feel like I was “me” again. There aren’t really any good reasons for me to feel like this, but I think it was simply a reaction to having put something foreign (and maybe even “unnatural”) into my body every day for 12 years. These feelings may be unwarranted, and possibly harmful to women who rely on the pill to give them control over their cycle. At the end of the day, taking the pill is an individual choice and the reasons for that choice differ.

And, of course, the important part is also that I have relied on the pill for safe sex. The thing is, not all the sex I was having was “safe”. Being on the pill gave me (and others) licence to do things that I possibly would not have done before. Having sex without condoms, for instance, even before having an HIV test, because the boy seemed “reliable”; sex with boyfriends before I may have been emotionally ready and before I had established trust with them; “bullied” into sex because the guy believes that being on the pill means the girl is willing to have sex. The person I went onto the pill for cheated on me countless times. You can only guess how I felt when I went for my first HIV test. In some ways then, being on the pill allowed the men in my life to stop acting responsibly, either in the prevention of STDs and HIV or for ensuring my emotional wellbeing.

There are more good reasons for not going on the pill in the first place, or like me, going off it. In my own circumstances, I was constantly on probiotics for two reasons; because I thought that the pill was contributing to candida outbreaks and because I assumed it was also contributing to digestive problems. Truthfully, I may be wrong about this because I seem to get different information from every doctor or nurse I have asked, so don’t quote me on that. However, friends have told me stories of their own problems with the pill; mostly to do with mood swings and their ability to be turned on. That the pill dampens your sexual desire is something I can relate to. Perhaps it is because I am nearing the age where I am at the height of my sexual appetite (bring on 30!), but I have never felt more “sexual” since going off the pill. Also, I am counting on my pill-free self to sniff out better boyfriends (because the pill apparently clouds your natural ability to smell, and therefore choose, your best mate).

Just before I finally stopped taking the pill, I e-mailed my friends. I wanted their support but I also wanted to hear their stories. One of my friends offered the alternative of the Mirena, which I had already heard about. Apparently it is safer than the pill because it has a much lower dose of progesterone. It also helps to prevent uterine cancer and it can help to stop migraines. My friend was also excited about the fact that, eventually, many women stop menstruating. While I see this as the alternative (if you can afford it), I am not so sure about how exciting it is to stop menstruating all together. Getting my period makes me feel normal – nature’s little way of telling me that all is happening as it should.

Do you think that the pill is liberating, or have you also experienced issues with it, both emotional and physical, which you think takes away some of that freedom?