This piece written on August 10, 2016 by Gita Pather.
South Africa: Government and various institutions spent the day “commemorating” and celebrating the heroines and female struggle icons in a number of ways yesterday. On Facebook, I was intrigued by the photographs that people posted about the women who marched for freedom, remembered and obviously deeply revered as examples of courageous women who stood up to tyranny.
I salute them too but even in 1995 when I created that first Women’s Arts Festival in Durban, I was all too aware that women in our country are as oppressed as they ever have been. Their voices, ideas, experiences less important and less deserving than their male counterparts.
Political liberation did not usher in the liberation of women or fundamentally change their status in their homes or society. We cite changes by noting the proliferation of women in parliament, the number of female ministers but the reality is that these women or very few of them have used their positions to advance feminist causes or issues. In fact some of them by virtue of their own prejudices and ingrained sense of inferiority actively perpetuate the oppression of women.
I was all too aware that women in our country are as oppressed as they ever have been.
We live in a country where violence against women is routine, daily mundane events that hardly warrant a headline unless you happen to be “famous”. Chauvinism permeates every structure of our society upholding the status quo. Our education system, religion, the judiciary, the health sector, workplace cultures…all reflect and reinforce female subservience. So it is hard to dismantle, difficult to speak about and confront because it’s not even on the agenda.
We are talking about restructuring universities and what is taught, we are talking about racism and diversity and in all that talking, the role of women, their physical, intellectual and spiritual freedom is ignored by the mainstream. There is no real discourse among ordinary people about the emancipation of women apart from simplistic admonitions that society must “respect their rights”.
True emancipation is a state of mind that begins with parenting, is reinforced by education and the immediate community and then supported by the state. Laws don’t change how people think and sometimes actively work against the very goals they are meant to achieve. The notion of a Ministry charged with uplifting women and children is laughable especially when the people who work within it are unable to extricate their own prejudices and ingrained notions from the task at hand. Its formation typifies our country’s efforts to “uplift” women: lazy, unimaginative, and disinvested.
With education, more women are vocal and exercising greater power in their lives but they are a minority often singled out by their difference, victimized. I find it enormously satisfying to hear young women strident in their clamour for more, more freedom, more justice and more opportunity. But I also hear those same young women struggle with straddling the freedom of their personal lives and the inherent oppressiveness of their cultures.
Until we begin to question, actively work against the oppression within our religions, cultures and traditions; the plight of women will remain unchanged. Education is the first step towards change and that goes for probably everything in life. Yet the very notion of questioning culture is taboo in this country. Even highly educated, erudite, sophisticated women accept some of the most demeaning practices because they are part of the culture they grew up within.
Ceremonies and rituals are a key vehicle for reinforcing gender roles, ones that we participate in without actively questioning its relevance like The reed dance ceremony or the rituals around announcing menstruation and therefore marriage ability.
Changing age-old traditions require courage and thought. It must start with women who are the chief influence in the young impressionable lives. If we are a chauvinistic society, it is because women allow it to be, we grow our sons and daughters into those roles and then wring our hands helplessly when our sons become abusers and our daughters are raped, beaten and murdered.
Society forces compliance and for change to happen, we have to think hard and deeply about everything: our world views, the truth of our reality, relationships and our lives. Everything has to be scrutinized…it’s hard work and requires conscious living. By everyone.