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.