Essays explore how perceptions of black female bodies are shaped
• Academic Gqola reflects on what feminism means in her various roles
In her debut book, What is Slavery to Me?, Wits academic Pumla Dineo Gqola reflected on the impact slavery had on the modern black female body and self.
After writing A Renegade called Simphiwe (monographs on the musician Simphiwe Dana), she secured her place as a public intellectual.
Her third book, Rape, a South African Nightmare, won the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. It is a collection of intense and timely essays on the pervasive rape culture that has a firm hold across the spectrum of South African society.
Gqola’s fourth and latest book, Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist, is a composition of musings about what feminism means to her.
She does this in 14 chapters, sharing snippets of her personal and professional experiences from childhood through to her maturity in her various roles as a feminist academic daughter, mother, sister, lover and friend.
The book contains overlapping themes that are intimately intertwined with the female experience — from the politics of the body, race, rage, learning and relationships to the contestation of ideas surrounding the functions and representations of women in society.
Gqola introduces readers to her mind through her body, with the visualisation of three slides that represent body language, body image and body layering.
The first slide questions the language that is used when qualifying black and female bodies. At the age of seven, a teacher made her aware of herself in reference to a world in which to be male is to be closer to God and to be fair-skinned is to be “better”.
The second slide speaks to how black children find out about the notions of the idealised image of the black person by eavesdropping on adult conversations. A prominent image is centred on black hair and the complexities of the politics of it, as well as other issues regarding the black aesthetic.
In the third slide, on body layering, she recalls how, at boarding school, she had to have a washing cloth for her body and a separate one for her face — and explains what this means about the way in which black women grow into their bodies through societal influences.
“As teenagers are wont to be, we are acutely aware of similarities and differences within our midst.
“Regardless of our varied regions of origin we all take certain things for granted about the processes and the art of hygiene,” she writes.
“Everybody has two washing cloths. One, preferably white, is to be used only on the face; the second, usually a deeper, richer colour, is allocated to washing ‘the body’.
“The colours ensure that there is never confusion, never accidental contamination of the face by the dirty body.
“The dirtiness of the female body is ‘clear’.
“We not only buy into this ideology of the dirty girl’s body, we imagine that keeping the face, and sometimes torso, safe
from the dirty of the bum, vagina and sometimes soiled feet is quite clever,” Gqola writes.
“We never wonder about how dirty our socked and shoed feet are. We are quite clever, by extension, for absorbing this discipline which we know somehow requires mastering a part of our entry into ladyhood. Cleverness and hygiene seem to merge into some uncanny union, even [in] those labelled as ‘tomboys’.”
Gqola says the slides act as subtitles because she didn’t want her book to be a “preachy collection of academic essays”
about how women learn about their bodies.
“I wanted it to be about me and some of the lessons that I learnt about my body. By using the imagery of slides, I was trying to think about how to insert my personal stories but not pretending that they are the full stories. I also wanted them to be stories about learning difficult lessons about the body and resisting them.
“Even if people don’t relate, I still want them to be able to see a sense of themselves.”
She recalls how her grandmother (using the Sesotho word Nkhono) would police her body by insisting on how she should sit. She reflects on how she used to resent it but how, in recent years, she has let go of those resentments. She realised that Ngono was a woman who broke many conventions of her time by moving countries to be with the man she loved, raising eccentric children and standing up to abuse.
Gqola writes about how her experiences as a black child, girl and woman filtered into aspects of her mothering. “How do I
check myself regarding bodies as I’m raising my son?
“How do I navigate around touch and boundaries and the language of assertiveness, questioning and opining? I want to raise a critical person but not a man who falls in with patriarchal masculinity,” she writes.
Patriarchal masculinity is a default setting in society and the challenge of raising a boy who will constantly check himself if he wanders down that path is a challenge for a feminist mother.
In the popular imagination, feminist rage is represented by
faces filled with disgust, and loud and angry protest. In SA, every August sees the parading of various tropes of women as strong, celebrated mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters, much to the chagrin of many feminists.
In the chapter On the Beauty of Feminist Rage, Gqola reflects on the commemorative activities for the 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings to protest against the extension of passes to African women.
She reminds readers of the painful “legacy of intergenerational, bold, women’s activism and power to galvanise against a powerful apartheid state in ways not easy to explain or coopt into a masculine narrative of heroic nationalism that would usher in a new dispensation”.
On the common question of why feminists are so angry, she responds, “Patriarchy is brutal! It is unjust and it terrorises us, and rage as a response to injustice is completely legitimate.
“But I think rage often gets a bad rap and I can see why — especially political rage. It’s chaotic and destructive, and sometimes appears pointless and aimless for its own sake.
“It is about Black and feminist rage as deliberate justified, creative, smart, imaginative and joyful. We need to affirm it. I don’t think that it is possible to do a wide range of feminist work without the rage.
“Feminist love is as important as feminist rage because rage is how you break things, it is how you free yourself and it is how you discover what is out there. I think that feminist rage is demonised because it works.”
The workplace continues to be a space in which women are marginalised and this is made especially clear in the “baby penalty” phenomenon .
Women are expected to produce at the same pace as men even though they do not have the support that they require.
Gqola provides an example of how men on paternity leave are able to produce more work because they tend to not be the primary caregivers.
Employers also do not consider the fact that most families in SA are single-parent headed households with most of the family responsibilities resting on the women.
One of the most compelling essays in Reflecting Rogue is on “difficult women” and Gqola’s favourites are struggle icon Winnie Mandela; Wambui Otieno, the first woman to run for public office in Kenya; and Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Nobel peace laureate and founder of the Greenbelt Movement.
This collection of essays covers a wide spectrum of topics. It has a rather academic tone, but it is worth the journey.