Gen­der is com­pli­cated by race and class

Few of fem­i­nism’s ideals have been reached, writes He­len Grange

Cape Argus - - LIFE -

FEM­I­NISM is a loaded word, and for women of my gen­er­a­tion, it con­jures up a cob­web of emo­tions linked to the many calls to ac­tion that have been acted on, but just as many that have not. Stretch­ing back to women’s rights to vote for re­pro­duc­tive rights through to the call for equal op­por­tu­nity and pay in the work­place, fem­i­nism for me is ref­er­enced in West­ern so­cial his­tory, but ex­pe­ri­enced in a coun­try where very few of its ideals have been reached, far less so for women less priv­i­leged than me.

So this book is im­por­tant, not only to get an un­der­stand­ing of what fem­i­nism ac­tu­ally means in the mod­ern con­text (and be­lieve me, your eyes will be opened), but also to ap­pre­ci­ate, as vet­eran jour­nal­ist-edi­tor Fe­rial Haf­fa­jee ob­serves in her con­tri­bu­tion, “there is a long road to free­dom, given that one in two South Africans lives in poverty, and that most of those com­pa­tri­ots are black women.”

That said, I found a big chunk of this book quite in­ac­ces­si­ble to the reader, fall­ing into that old fem­i­nism trap of navel gaz­ing and be­ing overly in­tel­lec­tual, with some of the con­tri­bu­tions mak­ing no head­way at all on the all im­por­tant ques­tion: what is the path for­ward for women liv­ing in a pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety?

The anec­do­tal sto­ries of grow­ing up in a South Africa that is chang­ing shape slowly to con­form to global gen­der stan­dards are the most valu­able and com­pelling reads, and that’s where my in­ter­est was nat­u­rally en­gaged. Pre­dictably, these tend to be the con­tri­bu­tions of pro­fes­sional sto­ry­tellers (jour­nal­ists) rather than those with an aca­demic bent, and there are enough of them to make this book a good buy.

Haf­fa­jee, for one, talks about the “triple bur­den” of be­ing born black, a woman, and work­ing class in apartheid South Africa, re­lat­ing it to her own mother Aye­sha, who raised her fam­ily in Bos­mont, west of Jo­han­nes­burg.

“It refers to the un­end­ing day of the work­ing-class woman, caught in the bind of apartheid cap­i­tal­ism’s cruel struc­ture of low wages, apartheid group ar­eas that re­quired ex­tended com­mutes to work and back, and pa­tri­archy ... She had dreamed of be­ing an ac­coun­tant or a doc­tor, and had the acu­men to do ei­ther, but the three sys­tems as ex­pe­ri­enced by our fam­ily did not al­low it.”

Haf­fa­jee learnt her fem­i­nism from icons like Lil­ian Ngoyi, Frene Gin­wala, Win­nie Man­dela, He­len Joseph, Char­lotte Max­eke, Ly­dia Kompe, Aninka Claassens, Pregs Goven­der, Miriam Makeba.

To­day, fem­i­nism is ex­pressed and shaped by a younger gen­er­a­tion, who she ad­mits, “some­times make me pro­foundly un­easy.”

“I’ve landed on their wrong side – when I ques­tioned where the non-racial­ism was in a #Black­WomenOnly move­ment, I got scalded by the shade vis­ited on me on so­cial me­dia.

“Some­times I find the lan­guage of the new fem­i­nism alien­at­ing in how in­sider and in­tel­lec­tual it is com­pared with the more em­brac­ing, ex­pe­ri­en­tial fem­i­nism I grew up in.”

Well said. This prob­lem is re­it­er­ated in a dif­fer­ent way by No­ma­langa Mkhize, a his­tory lec­turer in the Eastern Cape. “I have a sus­pi­cion that ‘fem­i­nism’, as a political term and as a frame­work for the­o­ris­ing, has largely be­come a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of the con­tem­po­rary global literati scene, with very lit­tle political value and prac­ti­cal pur­chase be­yond the literati publics,” she writes.

Thus the real­i­ties of ev­ery­day women are not grap­pled with, and I get the sense that in most of these writ­ers is a yearn­ing for some­thing that re­places ‘fem­i­nism’ and ex­cises its less rel­e­vant think­ing. This is par­tic­u­larly the case among black women, who are jus­ti­fi­ably an­gry, much an­grier than their white coun­ter­parts.

For Owethu Makha­tini, busi­ness­woman, writer and speaker, the ve­hi­cle that best ex­presses her fem­i­nism is “wom­an­ism”, which she ex­plains is just for black women.

“Black women face the dou­ble whammy of racism and sex­ism on a daily ba­sis. This makes it nec­es­sary to ques­tion tra­di­tion­ally white fem­i­nism as a de­fault, and to de­fine what black­ness and wom­an­hood mean out­side of this,” she writes, adding that “wom­an­ism as a lived prac­tice means a con­stant, al­most daily un­learn­ing of in­ter­nalised misog­yny, racism, sex­ism and re­spectabil­ity pol­i­tics.”

Heart­en­ingly, white fem­i­nist and jour­nal­ist Re­becca Davis is on the same page. As Davis notes, it’s now broadly ac­cepted that one can­not ad­dress gen­der in South Africa with­out also ad­dress­ing race and class. Which of course “dras­ti­cally com­pli­cates” fem­i­nism as a political move­ment in South Africa.

“I have long won­dered whether it is pos­si­ble, or even de­sir­able, to talk of a co­her­ent fem­i­nist move­ment in a coun­try like South Africa. When my prospects as a white woman are still so much more favourable than those of a black man, what does fem­i­nism mean?” she says, mak­ing ex­am­ple of the gen­der pay gap which in South Africa tends to be more about pay dis­par­ity based on racial lines than a “gen­der gap” per se.

So again, where to from here? You’ll find the con­ver­sa­tions and mus­ings in this book food for deep thought, and if noth­ing else, they will show you how im­por­tant it is to con­sider this ques­tion.

In most of these writ­ings is a yearn­ing for some­thing that re­places ‘fem­i­nism’ and ex­cises its less rel­e­vant think­ing.

Fem­i­nism: South Africans Speak their Truth Edited by Jen Thorpe (Kwela Books)

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