Exploring myths and the awakenings
THERE lies a consistency in the narrative brought across in books exploring the importance of feminism. This robust and deliberate conversation brings itself through the works of authors Pumla Dineo Gqola and Malebo Sephodi.
Gqola is an associate professor of African literary and gender studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and Sephodi is an activist and writer who takes special interest in gender, development, science and economics in Africa.
If you are acquainted with Gqola’s work, you will know she does not mince her words.
In Rape: A South African Nightmare, published in 2016, she unpacks the nuances of rape culture in South Africa. What she brings to light, among other issues, is the narrative of how sex workers are put in the “impossible to rape” category.
“Not all people are seen as possible-to-rape. Sex workers, wives, slave women and men are all categories of people that, at different stages, have been placed in the category of ‘impossible to rape’.
“This does not mean that nobody raped them. It means that when they were sexually violated, it was not recognised as such, legally and socially.
“People who are placed in the category ‘impossible to rape’ are routinely disbelieved when they report rape.”
Furthermore, she explains that “because societal attitudes to rape continue to frame it as a kind of inappropriate sex, sex workers have a harder time convincing people they have been raped. Sex workers belong to group marked as ‘impossible-to-rape’.
This is because of what they do for living and patriarchal attitudes to women who have sex”.
Gqola reiterates that our response to violence matters.
She writes: “How we speak about and respond to violence matters.
‘It happens all the time’ points to the crisis, debunking the myth that it is shocking and expressed in isolated incidents.
That phrasing also suggests that is commonplace, normal: ‘All the time.’ It happens.
The truth is that it does not just ‘happen’. Individuals choose to rape and they make this choice because it is an available one, one that is mostly without consequence to themselves.”
In her collection of autobiographical essays, Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, Gqola challenges us on the beauty of feminist rage.
She writes: “Every August millions of South Africans move collectively in a carefully choreographed dance called ‘Women’s Month’.
For almost five dizzying weeks women are praised, patriarchy decried and women’s gains celebrated.
“We catch our collective breath to catch stock of far we have come, and to reflect on how rocky the ground beneath our feet remains.
“The challenges are different. The enemy is more elusive if we need to think of what we fight as that which resides in a discernible enemy.
“However, there is no dearth of feminist activism, women’s activism, in contemporary South Africa. It is simply that many are asking the wrong questions, looking for the wrong form – a form of feminist activism that will not help us shape the kind of society we need to create.”
Sephodi believes feminism has been robust for many years; different eras play a role in how strongly the conversation is brought forward.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of people talk about the rise of the black feminist movement and I don’t necessarily think so. I think it’s been robust for years, dating back to colonial years.
Women have always organised themselves and have constantly fought and pushed back against patriarchy.
We have different moments in time and experiences in the era that we’re in and because of the scourge of violence that women are experiencing, it has called for the conversation that feminism brings in.”
Sephodi reckons women are speaking out more now because in the past it was costly for women to stand up to patriarchy.
“Our voices are louder as the women of 2017 because a lot of women before us have done so much work to give us access, as opposed to my grandmother’s time when it was really costly to stand up against patriarchy, but the work they’ve done to stand up against oppression has made it a little easier for us and maybe our voices will make it a little easier for the generation to come.”
Talking about her book, Miss Behave, Sephodi says that when she came across historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s quote “well-behaved women seldom make history”, she knew she wanted to create a conversation around how women are conditioned and socialised to be a certain kind of way.
“In my book I talk about feminism without mentioning the word. I only mention the word in the end. I wanted to show what feminism looks like without using the word because a lot of people have a push-back when you mention the word.
“The existing narrative is that feminists are here to break apart black families, feminism is antiAfrican and is a western concept and you don’t know what you’re doing.
“It’s a very academic theory and ideology and sometimes the language around it can be very exclusionary, so let me take this experience and translate it through my experiences for people to see what it looks like.
“The book is about my awakening into feminism and a lot of other things, as well such as blackness and class issues.
“The base of it is about my feminism. I talk about a journey where as a black woman, your life is already planned for you – you’re going to be a wife to someone, you get told how ladies should sit. We learn and we conscientise certain things.”
Sephodi says we unconsciously perpetuate the patriarchy that gets fed to us because we don’t know otherwise.
She believes everyone has a moment of awakening and at that moment one can choose to accept it or question it.
“I wrote the book because I realise that women are at a point where they are awakened and are questioning certain things around them.”
On how far we are with empowering women, she thinks there is much more that needs to be done.
“On a structural level, there’s not much progress made in empowering women. I look at how our country is situated and how we came out of apartheid into democracy.
“One of the things that was on the agenda was women’s empowerment. Racism oppressed blacks, but also patriarchy oppresses women.
“If you look at poverty rates, it’s women who are most affected.”
The book speaks to the myth around women constantly wanting to break each other down.
“I’ve experienced a different thing where I’ve had a lot appreciation, mainly from marginalised circles (women, queer people and people who don’t conform to any gender).”
Sephodi says when she wrote it, she did not mean to be prescriptive, but as a way to start a conversation. @LesegoMakgatho
OUR RIGHTS: Pumla Dineo Gqola’s book, ASouthAfricanNightmare, published in 2016, she unpacks the nuances of rape culture in South Africa.