The legitimacy to speak

Date: January 1, 1970
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Women of all ages who label themselves feminist, and who are privileged by class and education, must create spaces in which all women are able to ?speak? and represent their own lives.

The unique experiences of young women are often subsumed within the all-consuming category of ‘women’. The consequence of this is that there have been historically not many spaces that young women could claim as their own – spaces in which their experiences of the world were not mediated through the experience of older women, spaces in which they could claim the right to speak for themselves, without fear of seeming too arrogant or disrespectful, spaces in which their sense of self could be validated.

In fact, at events where I listen to older women speaking about their experiences, whether in the movement, the liberation struggle, as survivors of experiences I have not and may never have as a woman, I find myself wondering where it is that I as a young woman ‘fit’ in the contemporary project of women’s liberation. Will my actions ever measure up to those of the women who’ve come before me, and does my status as a ‘young woman’ exclude me from making a meaningful contribution? As a young feminist I sometimes question my legitimacy to speak.

Platforms specifically for young women to share their experiences and raise their particular concerns have also become more popular. However, it is essential that these feed back into the overall project of women’s advancement. Also important is to acknowledge that young women themselves are not a homogenous group, and that they may have different priorities.

Many women, despite age, are able to speak with ease and passion about the structural causes of violence, analyse the race, class and environmental dimensions of gender inequality and argue for gender-aware approaches to development. Our ability to do this is intricately linked to our privilege – the privilege of our education, of being able to communicate in the English language, our location in urban centres, our knowledge and belief that we have the right to speak.

But we must be constantly reminded that with this comes the responsibility to ensure that when we are required to speak on behalf of or about those less privileged, we do so with care, acknowledging that we are not ‘authorities’ on the experience of, for example, rural women, or refugee women, but rather that our role is that of mediator.

It is essential that our work create spaces in which all women are able to ‘speak’ and represent their own lives. We must do more than merely ‘record’ or research their experiences, and share findings at international gatherings and conferences. We need to interrogate how it is that our roles as mediators serve either to perpetuate marginalised women’s silence, or challenge it.

This will require that we face the discomfort and unease that will surely come with introspection and reflexivity. It will require that we look critically at our own class positions, shifting our focus from policy and institutional driven development processes to the personal. It means that we have to go beyond the ‘development speak’, which we have become accustomed to and go back to the language of feminism and what it means for us as feminists from the global South.

We need to return to issues of the personal and reflect on issues of identity, culture, class and how these contribute towards our work. As a generation of young women we need to, whether or not we choose to label ourselves feminist, chart a way forward that is built on solidarity, honesty and commitment to creating a future that benefits all women.

Janine Moolman is the editor of Amalungelo, a bi-monthly gender justice barometer published by Gender Links.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information. 

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