GENDER POLITICS

What would a world where women weren’t harassed look like?

By Jen Thorpe

This morning I finished reading Jessica Valenti’s Memoir Sex Object. The book is a collection of personal reflections on topics such as street harassment, abortion, drug use, sex, and child raising. Throughout, it explores the way that the world treats women, casting them as objects for men’s comment, pleasure, and enjoyment. It also explores the very powerful physical, psychological, and political effects this categorisation has. I found the book painful and difficult to read, not because of the writing but because of the content. Despite this difficulty, the book is important in that it raises important questions that we need to consider.

Valenti considers what it means for her to be raising a daughter in this world and the qualities that she would like her daughter to have. She wants her daughter to be brave, to still be the girl who wants the best part in the play when she’s older, and most of all she wants her not to have to endure the constant harassment, abuse, and assault that most women are exposed to on a daily basis. She wonders what it might be like if that was not the world that existed, and what women would believe about their own potential if we had the space to live our lives un-objectified.

It’s a powerful question that bears reflecting on in South Africa, where street harassment, domestic violence, sexual violence, abuse, and gender discrimination remain the norm. Sure, we have the laws that say it’s not allowed, and the Constitution says we all have the right to feel and be safe, but for most of us, those are just pieces of paper with good intentions.

Last year I spent three months out of the country on writing residencies. It was an amazing time, not least because I had uninterrupted time to write, and my meals were mostly cooked for me, which feels like #livingthedream. What I loved most about the residencies, that took place in two small towns, was my ability to walk alone, for long periods, on the road or in the wilderness, without being harassed. This simple pleasure, an hour long walk a day where I didn’t feel like I had to be afraid, where nobody said anything to me about how I looked or what I was doing alone, and where I could be in nature and consume the beauty of the natural world, was something that I treasured. It helped me sleep better. It helped me write better. It made me feel more human.

The first week back in South Africa after the first residency, I was sexually harassed by a man while walking down the street to visit some old work friends. When I ignored him, which is my instinctive reaction (sometimes my instinct is to keep walking with my middle finger in the air), he took the liberty of crossing the road in case it was a matter of his lewd suggestions being unheard rather than deliberately ignored. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was there, looking at me. It was only when a kind male stranger walked next to me and told him to go away that he stopped. But even this didn’t make me feel better – he didn’t stop because he realised it was vicious, destructive, or offensive to shout comments at me. He stopped because he believed I belonged to another man. I was still an object to him.

I’m at the age where I think about what it might mean to raise a little girl in this world and to be frank, it terrifies me. I wonder how I will tell her that she has the rights and power to do anything she puts her mind to, but simultaneously explain that she should also probably be hypervigilant when crossing the street at night or when choosing an intimate partner. I don’t know that this double-think double-living is psychologically tenable.

I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where women could go on a walk every day for the sheer pleasure of it, and what women would be capable of doing if they were really free.

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Athambile Masola
CULTURE, GENDER POLITICS

Becoming a woman in my black skin

Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

By Athambile Masola

Athambile reflects upon the resistence amongst African-American women in the 1800s and how this influences the struggles of black women today.
I’ve been reading a book by Paula Giddings, Where and When I enter: the impact of Blackwomen on race and sex in America. Reading a book about the history of African-American women led me to consider my own narrative of what it has meant becoming a woman at a time when people are rushing towards a post racist society as though history had no bearing on our present.
I first encountered the narrative of resistance amongst African-American women when I read Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a woman”. It’s a stirring piece from a speech she made in 1851. It was the first evidence I saw that slaves in America didn’t accept their fate at the hands of slave owners. They resisted. Understanding the resistance of black women through a slave narrative has widened my perspective on the importance of being a woman and I how I make the rights I have a real life experience. Once upon a time women were at the bottom of the food chain where they were mere objects that could be bought and sold. The children they bore were not their own but they became part of a system where they were sold before they were even born. The assault on women’s bodies has a history beyond what we see in the form of rape and domestic violence today.
When I read about the resistance of black women in Africa, especially South Africa I was moved when I realised that once upon a time black women in South Africa had the status of minors. Their movements and inheritance were dependent upon the sons and male relatives they had in their lives. Prioritising the education of black women has a brief history in relation to how white women were protected and often benefited from systems that oppressed black women.
Knowing what I know about black women who have challenged the limitations placed on them because of their class, gender and race I realise I am not a renegade, I just happen to have read and met other black women who are comfortable in their own skin and know that I can live my life as though I were dancing to the rhythm of my own music. Beyond my home of many mothers (my mother, my aunts and grandmother) who were working class women, loud, big, crass but economically oppressed in a system of apartheid, it wasn’t until high school that I began to realise that there’s another narrative for being black and female in the world. When I started high school I encountered a group of senior girls who set the standard for what it meant to be a “cool black girl”. They oozed confidence and set the standard for what it meant to be a black girl at a time where Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera became popular or black women who resembled the petite femininity we saw on TV that did not reflect what we saw in the mirror.
The senior girls in my school were not the prototype. They were opinionated, smart (they cared about not only passing academically but forming an opinion about what mattered), they laughed out loud, very loud and didn’t listen when teachers told them they were being loud they didn’t toe the line. They were big girls, tall and they had presence when they walked around the school (I didn’t think of them as bullies, except for maybe Soso who had a stinging sense of humour). I moved aside for them in the passage not out of fear because they were seniors but mostly out of awe. And when they spoke to me as though I mattered I became a star-struck junior. They also had wonderful names that were distinct: Navabe (who was many years ahead of me but became infamous for starting a trend of wearing her socks differently and her girdle on her hips much to the teachers’ chagrin) Zoya, Vangile, Ghana (who had the most eccentric dress sense I’d ever seen), Duda (this was actually her surname), Thulani and many others who gave me a different representation of what it means to be black and female in the new South Africa. They were often in trouble for sneaking out of the hostel and drinking when they should have been. They dared to break the rules.
Zoya had dreadlocks even though the school had colonial rules about how we were supposed to wear our hair. They became my example of what it means not to be the norm and to be comfortable in that category. They were nobody’s darlings. I think about them when I read about the resistance of black women in South Africa and African-American women in America and realise that a different resistance took place in my high school. The representation of black female bodies has always been under siege but I am lucky to live in a time where this is being challenged. It’s okay to be loud, opinionated or not. It’s okay to consider being a wife or not. It’s okay to be who I want to be on what I think of as my terms. And when I think about this reality I am drawn to Anne Julia Cooper‘s words: “Only a black woman can say ‘where and when I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole…race enters with me”. She said these words in 1892 when black women in America for fighting for equal rights and ending slavery. These words remind me of the importance of what it means being a black women and the gains that have been made and are yet to be made. Liberating women, in this case black women who are still oppressed, is not about eliminating anyone else. It’s about liberating the human race from sexist, racist, classist ideas that are dangerous for now and future generations. When we consider the history of black women, it’s not enough to consider it through one lens but multiple eyes and consider the complexity of gender, race, sexual orientation and class and recognise the privileges I have: the privilege of being comfortable in my own skin.
Jen Thorpe
GENDER POLITICS, SEX AND SEXUALITY

Never tired enough to stop

Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

I am tired of rape in South Africa. I am tired of thinking about it, reading about it, hearing about it. I am tired of the fact that last year over sixty thousand women (enough to fill the Greenpoint stadium) reported a rape to the police, and hundreds of thousands more women were raped but did not report.

I am tired of a criminal justice system that is failing women. Of a police system that fails women – traumatizes them, blames them, and rejects their right to bodily integrity. Of a police system that drops cases, fails to investigate or fumbles investigations to the point where the information is not useful in court. I am tired of a court system that doesn’t fund enough support rooms so that many survivors must walk into a court room alone to face the magistrate who is meant to protect them, but often does not. Who would want to report a rape in conditions like this?

I am tired of people asking me if most women become lesbians because they have been raped, and of reading stories where men rape lesbians to make them straight.

I am tired of women leaders in government who spend more time defending male politicians reputations, than acting with integrity in the interests of women.

I am tired of law and policy that doesn’t serve women, isn’t implemented, or is useless against the public opinion that a woman’s body is not her own.

I am tired of violence against women being ignored at key opportunities. I am tired of male political leaders who fail to condemn rape at ever opportunity, or who jump on the women’s day bandwagon as though this is meaningful.

I am tired of the rape of girls and boys and babies and the elderly. I am tired of magistrates who don’t protect these vulnerable people and others by imprisoning rapists because their victims did not show any physical injury. Rape is an injury.

I am tired of knowing that if a male celebrity, sports star, or politician is charged with rape, he will get away with it.

I am tired of bigots who say all feminists believe sex is rape – as though we are so fucking stupid to want rights for women that we must not be able to tell the difference between having pleasurable, stimulating sex and being violated.

I am tired of trying to convince men that rape is not only a woman’s issue. It is men who are raping. Rape is at its core a men’s issue. It is the failure of men to accept that their manhood need not be founded on violence. It is the failure of men to accept a woman’s right to say no, to ask them to stop. It is a failure of good men to bring up rape and sex in discussion – discussion, not jokes – and to talk about what they can do to stop it.

I am tired of media reports that say things like ‘forcibly raped’. One in three women across the globe has been a victim of rape. Some have survived, others have not. Some spend their lives in fear, waiting for their turn. In all cases force was used – psychological, economic, physical – the force of a system that will not listen to them.

I am tired of rape jokes. There is nothing funny about rape. I am tired of advertising that portrays rape as glamorous, or woman as sex objects. Rape is unwanted, violent, soul destroying. It is not sexy. Women are not objects.

I am tired of having to plead for changes. Of having to frame woman as mothers, sisters, daughters or as in relation to men – ‘what about if it was your girlfriend’. I am tired of having to make it seem as though you shouldn’t rape women because they are nice too.

So on the 14th of February I’ll be supporting One Billion Rising – a movement that will voice its frustration with all of these things. Because I am tired, but I will never be tired enough to stop fighting for women’s right to sexual pleasure, sexual freedom and sexual equality.

Join the discussion. Tell us why you’re tired of rape here.

*Inspired by this piece.

GENDER POLITICS

Do women leaders necessarily mean better things for women?

Jen Thorpe
Jen Thorpe

By Jen Thorpe

This week at the Mangaung conference the new ANC top six leaders were elected. Despite the ANC’s own 50/50 gender quota policy, only two of the six were women – Jessie Duarte, who will fulfil the role of Deputy Secretary General, and Baleka Mbete who will fulfil the role of National Chairperson. No women contested the position of President, Deputy President, or Secretary General. Are we to be critical of the ANC for a lack of women leaders? Does the high number of women leaders in the DA mean better things for women?

At a recent public dialogue hosted by the CGE Monitor[1] to assess the efficacy of the Commission for Gender Equality over a period of 100 days, Lisa Vetten[2] expressed concern that there were many women in government, as well as many gender focussed structures, yet these did not always have feminist aims. She continued that there was a lack of clarity around what the term ‘gender equality’ actually means. These statements make clear two questions we must ask ourselves:

  • do we know what we want from gender equality and what it actually means in practical terms, and
  • do we do enough to empower the women leaders we do have in government to further feminist aims?

These questions are relevant to the ANC, as well as all other political parties. They essentially force us to ask ourselves whether women leaders necessarily mean better policy, legislation, and livelihoods for the women of South Africa.

Without a doubt, ‘gender equality’ has a nice ring to it. But what does it mean? There is more than one type of equality[3], and in a South Africa where women face multiple and varied forms of oppression (race, class, sexuality, age, disabilities, health status etc), it’s possible to use the term gender equality as a rubber stamp, or a marker that the issue of ‘women’ has been dealt with in government.

What we have seen a lot of is ‘formal equality’ or the right to be equal to men, for example by occupying political office. This is valuable in itself, because the very fact that women occupy office makes it theoretically easier for other women to envisage themselves in roles similar to this. This is particularly important for young women in South Africa, who need powerful female role models to assure them that they can break the barriers and glass ceilings that still exist. Yet, often female parliamentary representatives feel compelled to vote according to their political party’s requirements, and not necessarily in the interest of furthering women’s rights. Gender equality should not be limited to this narrow definition.

Real and meaningful gender equality requires something more of our political representatives across all parties – it requires that we aim for substantive or lived equality. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[4] recognised that formal equality structures, whilst important, are not always enough to ensure that women can actually enjoy the same rights as men. For example, if I have the right to freedom of movement, but I am constantly threatened by the risk of sexual violence when I do move about, then it cannot be said that I enjoy the full expression of my rights. Unless women political figures are able to vote against the male-orientated policies and legal preferences of their parties, for example the traditional courts bill, they cannot be said to enjoy the full expression of their right to hold political office.

Feminism thus becomes incredibly important. If we look at feminism in an extremely broad way, as a “movement to end sexist oppression”[5] we must ensure not only that women occupy meaningful political positions that have clout, but also that they occupy them with the intention of improving the lives of women. Women in politics should not be tokens.

Thus, we shouldn’t then be looking at simple numbers, or only to criticise political parties based on these, though those numbers are certainly a start. Without the freedom to make decisions that impact law and policy, or its implementation, in a way that truly improves the status of women, our women MPs, members of the executive, or judiciary, will not make a difference for women. What we need therefore is feminists in office who are going to take this risk, and push the interests of women, even at the expense of their party.


[1] A group made up of women’s rights, gender equality, and human rights organisations across the country.

[2] For more on what happened in this discussion, follow the twitter hashtag #CGE100

[3] For more on the various forms of equality, follow this link http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/equality/

[4] For an interesting discussion of equality in relation to this convention, follow this link http://www.iwraw-ap.org/convention/equality.htm

[5] From bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody.