Feminism- the time is now!

Feminism- the time is now!

Date: August 10, 2017
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By Colleen Lowe Morna

Mbabane, 19 July: It is wonderful to be back at Waterford/ Kamhlaba, my alma mater, forty years later. The fact that we are having a debate here today on African feminism, during Waterford’s third Africa Week, held under the banner “Unscrambling Africa” speaks volumes on how far we have come on this subject.

In my final year at Waterford (1977), I served as Chair of the WK Current Club. I am ashamed to say that in all those weekly discussions, we never had one session on sexism. We were the children of the Soweto uprisings. We were unscrambling the white settler colonialism raging around us in various guises – from Angola, to Mozambique, to Zimbabwe, to Namibia, to South Africa. That was our preoccupation. Even now, sexism is so normalised in our society that we barely notice it. It’s like the wall paper in the background of other struggles.

My awakening on feminism happened here at WK, ironically through the experiences of my male history teacher, Gunvant Govindjee, with whom I worked closely on Current Club. Gunvant woke up one morning to find that his family in Durban had brought him a wife. He proceeded to give the young woman a lecture on why she needed to claim her rights. I remember Gunvant saying that gender equality would be the next big revolution in Southern Africa. How right he was!

Picture this: an African man of Indian descent, and an African woman of European descent, having a conversation on this very campus on African feminism forty years ago! That already tells us how incredibly complex and diverse this continent is. It is a warning to avoid simple and tired stereotypes in navigating this topic.

So what is feminism, what are the contradictions, and what are the possibilities in this moment of Africa Rising?

Wikipedia defines feminism as “a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to such opportunities for men.”  As Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau points out, if this is what feminism means, what is there to disagree with!

The issue is not the definition, but the connotation that has been given to this term, in the West, in Africa, and the world over. Backlash has been especially pronounced when women have dared to go beyond claiming the right to education, or even economic and political power, to asserting their right to bodily integrity: dare we say it, the right to sexual choice and freedom.

Globally we are witnessing the tension between the resurgence of “strong men” in politics like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin with their blatant brands of sexism and misogyny, and male leaders in Canada, Sweden, and (most recently France) proudly declaring themselves to be feminist presidents.

In this room, in a school with over 50 nationalities, about 30% of you indicated that you are not quite decided whether you are feminists or not when I did a quick “show of hands” straw poll on the subject. We would have to probe further to find out the source of the hesitance. But clearly some of these negative connotations persist.

Fifteen years ago, while conducting research on women’s political participation, Gender Links asked a broad cross section of women and men in the region if they identified as feminists. We disaggregated the results by education level. Interestingly, at the primary school level, where respondents were hearing the word for the first time, a high proportion of women and men said they were feminists. This was also true of the tiny, highly educated, intellectual elite. But by and large, the broad mass of women and men in the middle did not identify as feminists.

The Gender Attitude Survey in the 2016 Southern Africa Gender Protocol Barometer gets to the heart of the prevailing schizophrenia on gender equality in the region. In a survey of over 46,000 people, 75% women and 76% men said “people should be treated the same, whether they are women or men.” Yet 78% men and 73% women also said that a woman should obey her husband! We are talking the talk. But we are not walking the walk!

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the mainstream media. In 2001, GL hit the headlines when we challenged the media to “strip the back pages” of super slim blonde Hollywood pin ups, and replace them with content that celebrated South African women in all their diversity for just one week. Callers to radio talk shows accused us of being lesbians and failing to find husbands.

I have the dubious distinction of being named the “Mampara of the week” by the Sunday Times for daring to suggest that media might be getting it wrong. I had to trundle out my personal CV to show that I was happily married, had two daughters, and went to Columbia Journalism School, to claim my right and authority to speak on these matters.

Fast forwarding to the present, one glimmer of hope is the new media, and the space it has created for feminists, especially young women, to organise. One woman’s facebook post urging women to march the day after Trump’s inauguration sparked the historic Women’s March in over 50 cities around the world on 20 January this year.

In Africa, a Ghanaian woman has started a blog – Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women! From Kenya to Botswana, the “My dress, My Choice” movement has been propelled forward by new media. In South Africa, the brutal murder of Karabo Mokoena sparked the #menaretrash movement, but also the #notinmyname response by progressive men.

Harnessing these trends requires that a closer partnership be forged between online and offline communities, especially in the rural areas. It also requires that women’s rights organisations and the mushrooming “men for change” organisations work together to advance African feminism, rather than compete for limited resources. These are pre-requisites for Africa rising. And this is indeed the most exciting revolution of our time!

(Colleen Lowe Morna is CEO of Gender Links and an alumnus of Waterford/ Kamhlaba ’77. This speech was delivered as part of a panel on Unscrambling Perspectives on African Feminism – Defying the Cultural Narrative during WK’s Africa Week 2017).  

One thought on “Feminism- the time is now!”

Runyararo says:

I absolutely agree that the definition of feminism is not sufficient, it’s a politically safe statement that does not address the real issues. How can we redefine? Body integrity is, in my opinion, the greatest challenge for African women. Whether it’s our sexual rights being transferred via lobola payment or it’s being called names after how we choose to dress worse being denied opportunities by how we look. Sadly Christianity further confuses our desire for equality, if I want to be equal to my husband, am I less Christian than biblically prescribed?

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