GENDER POLITICS, Uncategorized

Women’s worth is not in their reproduction – a response to Jay Naidoo

By Jen Thorpe

Jay Naidoo’s recent article I thought I was a feminist – until I heard their stories’ requires a response.

Whilst Naidoo’s article starts out with considered space being given to the stories of the women who shared accounts of their abuse, and is positive in its reflections on what men can do to support women, there is one paragraph in particular that gets under my feminist skin. I’ll unpack it.

August – Month of No Violence Against Women, a government-inspired programme, is a shocking indictment when those in power continue to abuse the trust of women with impunity. I am tired of platitudes. We need every day to be a day of respecting women.”

I am tired of platitudes too. We do need every day to be a day of respecting women.

August, aka ‘women’s month’ makes most South African feminists want to puke. It’s characterised by random events hosted by the Department of Women – a Department that has, since inception, rarely been able to meet its own targets to improve women’s lives, regularly spends irregularly, and is, in my humble opinion, a significant obstacle to gender equality within government programmes and departments.

Departments spend women’s month lauding their own excellence and launching reports, when what they should be doing is sitting down with treasury and allocating some money to implementing services for women. Those in government, we have seen time and time again, continue to abuse women, never mind their trust, with impunity. 

Whilst it’s clear from the general gist of his article that Naidoo is trying to give women the respect that he mentions in the previous sentence, I would like to challenge him on his explanation for the need for this respect.

Women are sacred.

I like the language of ‘women have human rights’ better, but that’s probably just personal preference. It’s the next bit that is problematic.

They give us life.

 Could this be the modern usage of the term, like I’ve seen the young feminists say ‘Zadie Smith gives me life?’ Perhaps. In which case, I agree. Women give me life too. Every damn day. But, the next sentence makes me think this statement is a bit more literal than this.

Where would we be as a human species if women disappeared? Extinct! It is our mothers who carry our children, who give birth to new life, who breastfeed our children and who nurture and raise our children.

 This might be biologically accurate (until scientists grow us in labs), but it is so politically problematic.

Women do perform these tasks, and they are hard and worthy of acknowledgement. But what if, perhaps, we thought about challenging the narrative that this is the only reason that women have value?

Women are not the sum of their reproductive abilities, and they are not just there to raise the kids while the men do all the ‘real work’. This passage also ignores the men who nurture and raise children, and who were part of the reproductive process too.

In addition, it’s clear that we as a society don’t really value these reproductive traits anyway. Whilst we do have maternity leave, it’s not compulsory for the employer to pay a woman during this time. Many mothers are at home on maternity leave stressing about raising human life and about whether they can afford to eat or pay the bills or have the health checks they need post pregnancy to ensure they are healthy.

We don’t have legislated paternity leave, which tells women that not only don’t we value their labour equally to men, but we want them to raise the children all on their own because it is their sacred job and men have real work to do.

This narrative is not helpful. It is harmful and it reinforces an unequal burden of care, and the undervaluing of women’s work and of the many roles that women play in society outside of motherhood. It’s not feminist. Not even a little.

Unfortunately, the rest of the paragraph also lets us down in many ways.

Women are the heart, the love, compassion, generosity and peace that we want in the world.

There are many women I know that are as nice as this makes us sound. But, there is also a problem with socialising and endorsing women as ‘nice’.

First, it means women are afraid to speak up during abusive situations, like those Naidoo describes, because they don’t want to be seen as ‘not nice’. This narrative of women’s niceness is especially harmful for young women, who are told to say yes and be polite and never to say no. Not to unwelcome hugs and kisses from family members. Not to their sexual partner’s advances. Not to sex. Not to harassment. Not to their teacher dismissing them.

Second, too often we teach girls to be peaceful, and kind, and nice and compassionate and those are such valuable characteristics to have in life. But we don’t teach boys the same thing. We teach them to be brave, and fierce, and determined, and never to take no for an answer. We don’t support kind boys and we don’t support fierce girls.

We teach girls to accept and boys to keep trying until they make it. Can you see how this links to a culture of violence against women?

By violating women, we as men violate ourselves.

I agree that violence involves dehumanisation both of the victim and the perpetrator. Gender inequality is bad for both men and women. If I’m reading this right, Naidoo is trying to speak to men here, and tell them that respecting women allows a healthier and more equal reality. But any essence of this potential reading is diminished by the next sentence.

And we crush our real role – of being protectors of what is sacred.

 What this sentence does to the previous one is important. It says that men violating women are doing the wrong thing, not because violating another human is wrong in and of itself, but because they aren’t sticking to their gendered responsibilities of protection.

Women as the protected, men as the protectors. A million theses written in a million gender studies courses worldwide have already dealt with the harm that this narrative causes in rendering women the weaker category of person, requiring men’s help and protection in order to live their lives.

This is patronising and sexist. If you yearn to protect then spend time talking to men about sexism and patriarchy and get them to stop being so violent. Protection doesn’t change the status quo, it maintains it.

Naidoo adds later in his piece,

We men have to learn to listen, with empathy. We have to respect sacred spaces where women can tell their stories. Just listen. Feel. Understand. Not to drown out the voices of our Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Daughters. Just shut up and change

Agree. And as someone who is not a mother, wife, sister, or daughter to Jay Naidoo, I’d like to ask, as the current president might, listen properly.

If women deserve respect, then we deserve that respect for our humanity, our abilities, and our resilience, not simply for our biology or our importance or relationship to men. We are so much more, we always have been.

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GENDER POLITICS, LAW, Uncategorized

Bad law is dangerous, not sex work

By Jen Thorpe

Today I learnt that the South African Law Reform Commissions (SALRC) is going to publish its report regarding sex work. Late last year, the SALRC and the Deputy Minister of Justice presented in Parliament, after several consecutive Women’s Parliament reports have demanded the decriminalisation of sex work.

This report released today is a result of a process that started 20 years ago. Twenty years ago our law reflected a fledgeling democracy, finding its feet and trying to redress past discrimination. During these twenty years the SALRC research team on the project has changed, and so has our legal framework.

Many laws have been passed advancing human rights, respecting women’s rights to make choices about their bodies and reproduction, and providing for the protection of LGBTIQ+ people.

But, the SALRC report does not reflect these advancements. The presentation in Parliament months ago reflected sexism in the state’s analysis if issues, and cast women as victims. The bottom line is that a law is not going to stop sex work from happening, but a law can decriminalise sex work, making it safer for sex workers to report abuses against them, and safer for sex workers to seek the healthcare they need so that they and their clients can remain healthy.

It was clear at that time that the SALRC was leaning towards remaining with full criminalisation, or partial decriminalisation. This is despite many presentations from sex workers and sex workers organisations saying that the law in its current form:

  • legitimises harassment of sex workers by police,
  • restricts their access to make choices about their careers and bodies,
  • restricts sex workers access to healthcare,
  • makes it more dangerous to practice sex work and thus increases the vulnerability of sex workers to gender based violence, and
  • serves as an arbitrary form of labour discrimination.

Our democracy is supposed to hear the voices of those affected by law, and to take those voices into account when making and amending legislation. Our government claims it wants to protect women from violence, and prevent the norms that encourage violence.

But it appears that the Department of Justice and the SALRC are deaf to the voices of sex workers. It appears that they are fine with the abuses that sex workers continue to endure because of bad law. There seems to be no other explanation for the decision of the SALRC to ignore research that shows the evidence that decriminalisation is the right choice for South Africa.

I support law that protects women and vulnerable groups from abuse, promotes their right to access basic services and human rights. A law that does not advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work does not do this. The duty of our law is to guide us towards the values of the Constitution – respect for dignity, respect for women, respect for LGBTIQ+ people, respect for choice. The duty of our law is not to make judgements about people’s choices, unless those choices cause direct harm to others.

I have explained before that I support sex work decriminalisation in order to respect the right to dignity of sex workers in South Africa. I support it from an informed perspective from sex work led organisations, and also from the evidence of research, and a commitment to human rights.

There is no evidence to suggest that partial criminalisation works. What is known is that it endangers women further by driving sex work underground, enables violence against women and girls and decreased access to health care.

Hundreds of sex workers have died whilst the SALRC and the Department of Justice have taken their time preparing this report. These deaths occur because the law does not protect sex workers.

I along with many organisations and sex workers across the country, call on the Department of Justice to review this decision and to listen to South African sex workers requests for the decriminalisation of sex work.

#decrimsexwork #sexworkiswork

 

 

GENDER POLITICS, LAW

Combine the Chapter 9s? How about some time?

By Jen Thorpe

Yesterday I noticed a call from Parliament’s website to comment on the Feasibility of Establishing a Single Human Rights Body. The call notes that in 2006, Parliament appointed an Ad Hoc Committee to undertake a Review of Chapter Nine and Associated Institutions.

One of the key recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee was the establishment of a “Single Human Rights Body”, amalgamating the following institutions:

  • The National Youth Development Agency,
  • The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities,
  • The Commission for Gender Equality,
  • The Pan South African Language Board, and
  • The South African Human Rights Commission.

The aim of doing this would be to avoid duplicated effort, use resources (human and financial) efficiently, and improve public access by having a coordinated approach. Parliament then invited submissions by the 25th of May 2017, just ten days after the announcement appeared online.

Now, surely the matter of doing away with some of our critical democratic institutions is not a matter to be easily decided. There doesn’t seem to be any merit in rushing a submission or comment on this.

It’s true that the Chapter 9 Institutions have become increasingly weakened over the past decade by poor allocation of financial resources (with the exception of the NYDA that is just rolling in dosh), the requirements of sticking to reporting on international treaties sometimes at the expense of pursuing local interests, the decreasing respect / value accorded to these institutions in political spaces, and the lack of follow up on the recommendations they make.

But, these institutions are Constitutionally created and protected.

The Constitution, Chapter 9, Section 181 (2) provides for the independence and impartiality of of Institutions Strengthening Constitutional Democracy, and states that they must “exercise their powers and perform their functions without fear, favour or prejudice.” Section 181 (3) states that “Other organs of state, through legislative and other measures, must assist and protect these institutions to ensure the independence, impartiality, dignity, and effectiveness of these institutions.” Section 181 (4) states that “No person or organ of state may interfere with the functioning of these institutions.” Finally, Section 181 (5) states that “These institutions are accountable to the National Assembly, and must report on their activities and the performance of their functions to the Assembly at least once a year.”

To me then, this sudden call for a review of the powers functioning of some of these organisations raises a number of questions:

1. Has the State assisted and protected these institutions as it is Constitutionally required to do?

2. When these institutions have reported to the National Assembly annually, has Parliament taken up its own role in making sure that any inefficiencies, duplications, or uncertainties around their functions, are addressed?

3. Given that these institutions play an important role in promoting equality and protecting the human rights of South Africans, particularly vulnerable groups, why is there a ten day deadline in which to comment?

To me, the first and second questions have easy answers – No.  A quick budgetary analysis will show that under-resourcing of these institutions is significant. Each year, for example, the CGE reports to Parliament quarterly through the Portfolio Committee on Women. And each year that Committee reflects on the smaller and smaller budget, and recommends that this is addressed to improve the functions, and each year…nothing happens. So Parliament is failing to ensure that its recommendations to Treasury and to the CGE are enforced.

But the answer to the third question is less clear. Why not allow more time for meaningful engagement both from the Chapter 9s themselves and from civil society? Why try to rush a process that could have significant effects on the lives of South Africans, and that would affect the nature of the Constitution, Section 189? The answer can’t be because a parliamentary report in 2006 recommended it, because there are hundreds of reports that go through Parliament each year that make recommendations and aren’t upheld (cough, cough, um electoral reform?)

There does not seem to be any clear reason for the limited time frame. A more reasonable time frame would be to allow at least one month, ideally two for civil society organisations supporting democracy to prepare their submissions on the matter. Anything less, in my view, casts a question on whether Parliament wants to uphold Section 189 (3) (4) of the Constitution.

If you agree, write to the Office of the Institutions Supporting Democracy, here oisd@parliament.gov.za, asking for an extension to at least mid-July.

EDITORIAL

We need feminism more than ever – write for us!

It’s 2017.

This year we have seen the forces of feminism and patriarchal political power collide in America. We saw millions of people march against discrimination, hatred, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and inequality. They used their voices and bodies and refused to be silent.

We’ve seen the debates arise over the female candidate to take over the reigns of the ANC, and how often the first female and former Chairperson of the African Union, anti-apartheid activist, former minister of health, former minister of home affairs, has been described as ‘Zuma’s Ex’, rather than a political figure in her own right.

Whether you like her or not is irrelevant – likeability isn’t a criteria for male leaders. Whether she’s perfect or not is irrelevant – perfection is certainly not a criteria for male leaders. Does that mean we should accept low standards for women’s leadership – hell no. It means that we should subject all our political candidates to the same level of scrutiny, and that shouldn’t have anything to do with their gender or genitals. It should be about their capabilities.

We’ll all know that political leadership is not the only gender issue to consider in South Africa. We have drastically high levels of sexual and domestic violence, sexual and gender minorities continue to face abuse from their communities and the political system that won’t let them access their rights in terms of the law, we have municipalities that award bursaries to girls based on their virginity, we still have child marriage, we still face an academy that remains predominantly white and male … I could go on.

It seems as though the struggle for gender equality is not anywhere near over. But, take a moment to think about those marchers we watched in the USA just weeks ago.

They weren’t just marching against – they were marching for. They were marching for equality, for freedom, for safety, for love, for power to mean something other than power over another. They were marching for themselves and for others.

In our own ways this year, let’s begin to consider what we need to be fighting for now, so that we don’t sit with a situation where we’re fighting against something later. All is not lost, but we can’t be complacent. We need to work together.

This doesn’t mean we all have to agree. There isn’t one feminism that is right for everyone. Feminism may, at times, feel exclusionary, hard, wrong, and uncomfortable. Challenging privilege and power often does. Diversity should be celebrated not feared.We need to promote gender equality, and recognise intersectionality. We need to know that our personal struggles may not be the same, but that each person’s struggle is valid.

The point is, things are not right in this crazy world, and we need solidarity towards the end goal – making this a free, equal, and safe South Africa for all people.

Feminists South Africa is back, and we need your writing to make us aware of issues of importance in your heart, in your homes, and in our country. Send it all through to feministssa@gmail.com 

Let’s hear those voices, even if they shake.

Jen

EDUCATION, GENDER POLITICS

Lean Back, Please

Natasha Skoryk
Natasha Skoryk

by Natasha Skoryk

First off, I’d like to say that I read Lean In last year, and I liked it. I liked it so much that I took photos of certain paragraphs and messaged them to my best friend. I particularly loved the sections on not feeling the need to be ‘unemotional’ in a workplace environment, Sandberg’s telling women to stop expecting more senior females to mentor them purely on account of their shared gender and her trepidation about women setting unattainable standards of perfection for themselves, which then prohibit them from feeling successful. I did not find the book particularly revolutionary in how it dealt with gender issues. I didn’t really get a sense of it being any sort of concrete manifesto. I read Lean In as a memoir of a very successful career woman, whom I admire, and a self-empowerment book. And I felt pretty self-empowered by the end, so I recommended the book to others, because I figured it did what it set out to do pretty well.

But I was wrong. Because Lean In had actually set out to become a practical movement. Lean In, a book about one middle class white woman’s success in the corporate world and her (genuinely good) advice for others like her, is now being framed as seminal doctrine. Which is where my confusion starts. The book is all about self-empowerment, so I struggle to see how it can form the basis of a grassroots movement that seeks to bring about meaningful transformation. I struggle to see how personal advice about things women can do to better themselves in corporate environments can be institutionalised to bring about mass change. But apparently, there is now a Lean In Circle at the University of Cape Town, trying to do just that. I quite like that name, I fancy the idea of women seated around a table, leaning the fuck in and grabbing opportunities. I just don’t really see how this Lean In Circle is doing that.

Lean In at UCT has fringed my life – I have several friends involved. This is unsurprising – most of my friends, both male and female, self-identify as feminists. However, this week the organisation made its way onto my social media radar with ‘The Man Campaign’ that they have now implemented. The idea, I’ve been told, is to ensure men are not sidelined from the feminist movement. The idea, as I understand it, is to get men’s ‘buy in’ to support gender equality. And, well. I fundamentally disagree with the premises that led to those two ideas.

Men have never been sidelined from feminist discourse. Men have never been excluded from the conversation. In fact, men have been, and still are, shaping the conversation. Lawmakers continue to predominantly be men. Most of current female-centric media is being produced by men. This is a problem. This needs to change. While we undoubtedly need support from men, we don’t need the conversation focusing around how men view gender inequality. We need men listening to the conversation, and participating in it to a degree, but the conversation needs to be shaped by women. This is not a radical notion. The idea of allies to the oppressed is present in most equality movements – yet for some reason, the idea of ‘allies’ to feminists continues to appear problematic to a lot of people. For some reason, ‘allies’ to feminists are expected to ‘buy in’. They are allowed to purchase a part of our conversation, a part of our experience, in order to validate it to society at large. They are expected to own a part of the discourse for their ‘mothers, sisters, wives and daughters’.

The reduction of women to their relationships to men has already permeated ‘The Man Campaign’. The first image shown depicted a young man saying that women are the most powerful people in the world (this is a well-meaning lie, women are not the most powerful people, women continue to take up but a small percentage of leadership roles in both the public and civil sectors and there remains a pervasive pay gap between genders – all issues, interestingly, that Sandberg highlights in her book), and that he really loves and respects his mother. I have no problem with the latter claim, except where it ties into feminism.

Please, men. Stop being feminist for the exceptional women in your life. I don’t like the insinuation that because certain women are phenomenal, all women must be. I don’t like women being reduced to one homogenous group based on preconceived ideas of femininity gleaned from the other women in men’s lives – regardless of whether those ideas are positive or negative. This takes away women’s individualism and agency. Some women are horrible. I simply don’t love all women. I also don’t love all men. But I believe they must be treated equally, because I believe in fundamental human rights. And I know that women are currently oppressed, whereas men are not. Which is why I am a feminist and not broadly egalitarian.

Another thing that needs to stop is the idea that men ought to support feminism because they stand to benefit from gender equality. They do. Feminism supports stay-at-home fathers, paternal rights and men being sensitive and creative. Patriarchy is harmful for men and women alike, the gender binary is devastating for us all. If ‘The Man Campaign’ had focused on the ways men are harmed by patriarchy, I would have possibly resented it less. That is a worthwhile conversation. Still, let’s not focus our attention on the benefits to the oppressor. Men should be supporting feminism because they believe in principles of equality. Not for certain special women. Not for themselves. But for us all, as a society.

Honestly, I really don’t need men validating my feminism. ‘The Man Campaign’s’ insinuation that I do, that by having men talk about my issues they somehow gain credibility in broader society, is abhorrent to me. I want men supporting and engaging with feminist discourse. But no, I’d rather they not Lean In with us. Why? Because they’ve already been leaning in for centuries. Let’s have men lean back for once, and let women shape this one conversation.

_______

Natasha is a third year humanities student at the University of Cape Town. She is passionate about societal transformation, and is actively involved in student life, currently serving as Deputy Chair Internal of Ubunye. Ubunye is one of UCT’s development agencies, committed to meaningful change amongst the student population and the communities at large.