On 28 April, the window for comments on the Civil Union Amendment Act closes. The amendment act, put forward by COPE’s Deirdre Carter, aims to remove a provision allowing government marriage officers to discriminate against same-sex couples. More info on the bill can be found here.
So far, very few positive submission have been received. It is essential that we support this amendment and fix this broken piece of legislation once and for all.
I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not as an abstract idea but as someone who has come face to face with the prospect of marriage. My partner and I have always spoken openly about marriage and after running away from the relationship for five years I’ve decided to consider marriage. While trying to make sense of the women who has taken over my body and having conversations about marriage on my behalf, I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: one of the most groundbreaking texts about the position of women. De Beauvoir articulates the plight of women by looking closely at the historical context making a case for feminism in the 1940s, when the book was first published. Central to de Beauvoir’s treatise is an exploration of marriage and the role it has played as a social practice that is an example of patriarchy.
It’s impossible to write a book about the liberation of women without talking about marriage. And it’s impossible to identify as a feminist and not wonder about the institution of marriage. I realise that there are many feminists who have overcome this angst and decided on marriage in spite of the naysayers who simply denounce marriage as an example of why patriarchy still exists. It’s too easy to say that marriage is absolutely bad for women. When women are no longer property, moving from their fathers to their husbands, the terms and conditions of marriage must change because a woman is choosing to be with someone in spite of the social expectations.
Is marriage fundamentally anti-feminism? My partner and I haven’t answered this question. We think of ourselves as feminists. We are also products of our cultural backgrounds: I’m Xhosa and he is Zulu. In talking about marriage we have come to the following conclusions: I will not change my surname, there will be no lobola, I have decided against having children and we will not have an elaborate wedding (I will not wear a white dress, we will not profess any fancy vows about me submitting to him as his wife). Ours will hopefully be a marriage of two minds who are seeking companionship rather than a slave for a wife and a hunter-gatherer for a husband. And yes, ours will be a monogamous marriage.
My parents got divorced when I was young. As a result of this I was not keen on marriage until recently. My partner and I are constantly contemplating what it means putting our lives together. He doesn’t want a traditional wife and I have no desires of being a traditional wife (whatever that might mean). We’ve spoken openly about our fears given the broken marriages we’ve seen and lived through. There are few examples of marriages or partnerships where two people do not compromise too much of who they are, but can exist in a relationship that is meaningful. Friends have asked me, “Why marry at all? Why not simply live together?”. My sister is surprised that I am seriously contemplating marriage at all given that I’m a feminist. I still can’t fully grasp why I would consider marriage (the legal and the social contract) except that I’m a romantic: I ran out of reasons not to be with him and I want to grow old with him. I’ve had to deal with the voices in my head that have told me I have no place in marriage. Black women who are educated are often seen as a threat to the institution of marriage because we’ve been accused of bringing our politics into the bedroom.
But is it that simple? Is it enough to jettison the performances of marriage but still enter into a marriage with an awareness of the complexities of a marriage? Marriage is both a private and social agreement. For Xhosa and Zulu people it is also a contract between two families. The real questions about equality, fidelity and sharing the responsibilities of housekeeping (cooking, cleaning, paying the bills) are not cast in stone. There are some non-negotiables: fidelity. But it seems everything else in a marriage is about negotiating and learning what it means to love another person without losing yourself in the process. I’ve been surprised at the level of communication my partner and I have had (coupled with a long distance courtship) and thus far we’ve been able to put everything on the table. And perhaps de Beauvoir would be disappointed to know that many decades later feminists such as my boyfriend and I are still contemplating marriage.
We’ll probably go through with it: move in together, get married and hopefully live happily ever after. Choosing to give into a social and legal contract like marriage has heightened my awareness of choice. For centuries, marriage was never about choice but for me it is. I’m choosing monogamy. And the fact that I am choosing monogamy as opposed to having my parents make the choice for me has to count for something rather than make me appear as a bad feminist.
I recently attended a high-level dialogue on the future of development in Africa. The discussions centred on governance and development and were attended by delegates from a number of African countries. Admittedly, I have not travelled through much of Africa, and so my distorted perceptions of gender equality throughout the continent are based on anecdotal evidence and media reports. But I think it is fair to say that gender rights and equality is not equally prolific in every African country, and even where these are supported, the results are far from perfect. I was surprised then to hear a lot of support for gender equality as a development outcome, voiced by both male and female delegates. I guess I must be somewhat naïve…or maybe not.
One discussion, in particular, was about gender representation in parliament. Interestingly, in Kenya a strict gender policy is being implemented which seeks a 50/50 representation, which sounds very noble. But I admit that my definition of gender equality does not encapsulate only one aspect of representation, as important as gender leadership is, but considers more the day-to-day trials and tribulations which exclude women from active participation in every aspect of life – from birth to school and family, to employment and giving birth and death. I always think about development in terms of the reality of the human being and what makes up their existence.
This thinking is strongly influence by Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom”, which sees development of human beings as something quite different to conventional theories of development which miss out on all the good stuff that make us human – our relationships, desires, needs and opportunities. Development as freedom understands and accepts that people are different and that true development of the human self comes from having a range of capabilities.
While I fully support gender representation in Parliament, because there are many useful and positive aspects which come from having female leaders at such a high level of governance, I wonder what these women truly represent in a world which continues to segregate women from the same opportunities as men, constraining their capabilities and confining them to worlds imposed upon them. As my colleague said to me, the changes don’t happen before the woman gets to the top, but only while she is there. Hence, that climb is difficult and I am continually surprised when women “make it”, when though I shouldn’t be.
But, when you really think about the challenges faced by women, you may also start to react like me. Think about China and how many girl children are born, in comparison to boys. Think about how being born into poverty denies you a good education in a country like South Africa. Think about how many girls are taken out of school to support their other siblings, or denied an education from the beginning, like fourteen year-old Malala Yousafza who was shot for wanting to go to school. Think about how many South African girls fall pregnant while they are still at school, or children themselves. Ever heard of the practice of ukuthwala? Well, it happens. I have yet to hear of a child bride who has gone on to be a world leader.
When I think about the world in this way, I see gender equality as equal opportunity in all facets of life and death, from simply the willingness of your parents to allow you to be born, to being able to attend school, finish it without being married or falling pregnant and go on to study anything you want to study or work in an environment where you are respected and valued.
Imagine the life you want and ask yourself how much of that you have achieved, what has set you back, and how is it related to the patriarchal norms and conditions that exist in this country. I am not talking of money, even though wealth can buy you many capabilities, but being able to have relationships with anyone you choose, love whoever you want, think and believe in anything that affirms your life and values and be capable of making real choices. We need to move away from gender representation to true equality, which means breaking down the social and cultural norms which deny people the lives they want.
What value should one place on a name these days? A woman I know recently got married and hers was a story I have seen with many woman. She has her doctorate degree and holds a very powerful position at a major South African company; being in her mid-thirties she will probably go very far. After the wedding, everyone asked her what her new surname was. She was married; it was expected of her to take on her husband’s name.
It seems to be a common story these days; powerful women who have in some way fought for equality, who have power and have the brains and the skills to change the world, change their surnames when they marry.
I suppose marriage itself can be defined as either a sharing of two lives, a growing together of love of two people and a safe and secure place of realness. Marriage can be the ultimate celebration of commitment. Or marriage can be seen as the perpetuation of sexism, of roles that place one individual below another and of a lack of freedom between two people.
Marriage is an ancient patriarchal tradition, and it obviously carries practises and traditions within it that are sexist and need to change. Now the changing of a surname of a woman getting married points to the days when women were little more than property to be traded between their fathers and their future spouse. Thus a woman would move from the household (surname) of her father to continue being submissive under the protection and name of her husband. Her surname was never actually hers; it was an indication of whom she belonged to.
Society has changed greatly, and a lot of heterosexual marriages are between men and women who value and benefit from equality. These woman are often the primary ‘bread-winners’, and more than likely have an equal say in the decision being made in that relationship.
So why do so many women still change their surnames? And why does this practise, which is rooted in a patriarchal control system, continue almost unquestioned? In the movies we still see little girls dreaming of becoming “Mrs Jones” as they take on someone else name. In fact, part of the mythical ideal of a happy marriage seems to be for the women to gladly take on the name and delight in being called “Mrs John Jones” at her wedding ceremony.
When I got married, we were young and only starting our feminist journey. We never questioned this practise. So Candi has my surname. If we had gotten married six months later, she would have kept her name. Currently we are seriously considering whether we spend the time and effort in changing her name back to what it was because we believe in equality. And just because I am the man, it does not mean I am the leader, the head, the one to be identified. But many people think we are being stupid. It just a name they say.
So is there anything to be said for this continuing this tradition? Is it just that; a tradition that makes marriage complete, and makes it easy for your children to have one surname? And how are you challenging those around you to at least consider these aspects before they amrry and accept what has always been done.
I had an interesting morning debate with a friend. And it hit me why I don’t have real genuine regard for what many would like to refer today as “African culture”. That me, a black woman from a dusty village in one of African’s most known monarchies , is not bounded by cultural might sounds extreme. Just hear me out first.
This friend was reprimanding me for dating outside my culture and saying how shameful I have become. Another friend went as far as to say that I have a low self-esteem.
I didn’t argue for it shocked me that I was having such a debate with two men my age group in the year 2012. So I gently asked my friend who has a couple of kids out of wedlock and is not in a relationship with any of the mothers what is an “African thing” to do when a man makes a woman pregnant? The response was to shift to being defensive and say it’s not the same. I was expecting that kind of response, but in this case I was hoping to be wrong. Another thing cultural characteristic I find hard to get my head around is to say a man is right even if his faults can be fatal.
Most African cultural norms that are emphasized are those practices that protect men. In this argument between my friend and me, when my friend couldn’t rely on logic he moved to culturally blackmailing me as a woman, by reminding me that in African culture I shouldn’t be even talking back to him. I should just listen and agree that he will always be right and I should stay ignorant. For men today culture is only good when it suits them. They are the very same African men take to podiums and deliver good speeches about women economic empowerment when they are doing their best to drown women’s voices in their personal capacities.
There are so many South African single mothers raising children alone and not by choice, me being of them. The African culture that my friend was preaching to me about gives women little choices and sometimes none at all. For instance in Sepedi culture when a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock she has to tell her parents and reveal the identity of the father. The girl’s family would then go with her to the father family to report the pregnancy to his family, if he has not taken the first step by telling his parents and making necessary arrangements to reach out to the girl’s family first. Usually this is when the man is willing to take responsibility and if agreed by both parties, marriage arrangement would most likely follow. This is an ideal situation and it rarely happens like that.
On more than one occasion I have witnessed man denying that they have fathered children in front of their parents and the girl parents not even understanding the consequences of their denials. If it doesn’t suit him the man simply denies he’s the father or even knowing the girl. When this happens the man would slip back to his life of no responsibility and woman is left a single parent and an embarrassment to her whole family. Where such stories are rampant like in many rural communities, the women neither have the necessary means to prove paternity or they are left too helpless to do anything about it. What about embracing that aspect of culture where men take responsibility and take care of their children and protect women.
My friend went on to insinuate that he knows for sure that my parents cannot be proud of the choices I make. Quite to the contrary, my own father had defied the rules that barred him from marrying my mother because she was from a different class. And when he made her pregnant, he married and enrolled her to school where she studied teaching.
The only culture that reigned supreme in my house was that of respect. If you have respect, even as an African man you would know better than calling a grown man a boy because it is not his culture to go to the mountains for initiation. The best love I ever experienced was borne out of respect.