‘Ugly fem­i­nist’ or nec­es­sary scream?

CityPress - - Voices -


Fees Must Fall – Stu­dent Re­volt, De­coloni­sa­tion and Gover­nance in South Africa, edited by Su­san Booy­sen

this ad­vanc­ing move­ment, and many pa­tri­archs – sweet pa­tri­archs, bul­ly­ing pa­tri­archs (or both, as is of­ten the case) – are shocked by such temer­ity. My per­sonal favourite is the black woman stu­dent leader who wears high-fash­ion suits, has nat­u­ral hair dyed a blonde-or­ange in a gor­geous fish plait and wears green or blue con­tact lenses, de­pend­ing on her mood. I call her the stu­dent move­ment’s avatar be­cause of her changeling styles.

Older African women give dis­ap­prov­ing looks, and older fem­i­nists brought up in the jeans and scruffy union T-shirt tra­di­tions of ear­lier ac­tivist move­ments are bewil­dered by fash­ion state­ments. Ac­tivism is as much about im­age as it is about protest marches for the #FeesMustFall woman and those who iden­tify as Les­bian, Gay, Bi­sex­ual, Trans­sex­ual, Queer, In­ter­sex or Asex­ual (LGBTQIA).

The young black women smash­ing through the bar­ri­cades of pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety are not alone in Africa. They form part of a ris­ing tide of women ac­tivists who are ques­tion­ing African pa­tri­ar­chal lead­er­ship in South Africa and be­yond.

While ev­i­dence of the women de­mo­graphic in Africa in the 21st cen­tury is still lim­ited, a num­ber of anec­do­tal ob­ser­va­tions about var­i­ous kinds of strug­gles can be made. The di­ver­sity of the women sub­jects on the #FeesMustFall bar­ri­cades de­fies stereo­types. The women and LGBTQIA de­mo­graphic in the #FeesMustFall move­ment are not yet em­pir­i­cally es­tab­lished ei­ther. How­ever, in mul­ti­ple con­texts the pres­ence of women and LGBTQIA ac­tivists is vis­ually in ev­i­dence (at vig­ils, at marches, in pub­lic me­dia state­ments, in meet­ings). The at­tire of the young, pre­dom­i­nantly black ac­tivist women (when they have their clothes on) makes loud state­ments that sym­bol­i­cally scream at so­ci­ety: ‘We are here and we have been in­vis­i­ble for too long!’ Their choices of cloth­ing are a con­scious and as­sertive part of their ac­tivist iden­tity, ev­i­dent in their pub­lic ap­pear­ances: big African head­gear and ear­rings; Black Pan­thers-style (the US 1960s African-Amer­i­can lib­er­a­tion move­ment) black pants and T-shirts; bold African prints and, im­por­tantly, free black hair. In a so­ci­ety that up­holds straight and smooth hair as dis­ci­plined cit­i­zen­ship, they have claimed free­dom for their hair along­side their rights to ac­tivism and ac­tivist lead­er­ship.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tional democ­racy and ‘tea-party’ ne­go­ti­a­tions à la those at the 1991 Con­ven­tion for a Demo­cratic SA (Codesa) are de­cried by the #FeesMustFall stu­dents as weak in­stru­ments for so­cial change, as the stu­dents in­sist when they say that ‘tea­party’ change is not part of their agenda. In fact, the stu­dents es­chew the mod­i­fied fem­i­nisms that have adapted to pa­tri­archy in South African so­ci­ety in which fem­i­nists as­sume con­ven­tional roles of moth­ers, wives, sex(y) ob­jects (one char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of the woman who com­pro­mises her fem­i­nism in this way is that of the ‘sexy fem­i­nist’, who ap­par­ently claims her body while she/it si­mul­ta­ne­ously feeds the ‘male gaze’ – as was said dur­ing the Luh­laza Lead­er­ship Ini­tia­tive Fo­cus Group in Septem­ber last year) and var­i­ous forms of docile labour (Fou­cault, 1995). In this sense, then, they of­ten ‘dis­re­spect’ African elders by re­fus­ing to lis­ten to the cau­tions of univer­sity lead­ers such as vice-chan­cel­lors.

Their bod­ily stance when they do this is of­ten not de­mure, but re­bel­lious, ag­gres­sive, an­gry, re­sis­tant.

For many in South African so­ci­ety, this kind of mil­i­tant ir­rev­er­ence may be seen as of­fen­sive, even ugly. Fem­i­nist ac­tivism thus chal­lenges ex­ist­ing gen­dered hi­er­ar­chies in so­ci­ety.

The wom­an­ist ac­tivism of the #FeesMustFall stu­dents em­bod­ies this kind of ‘ugly fem­i­nism’: a rad­i­cal so­cial chal­lenge that be­gins with the scream. YOU ARE IN­VITED

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