By Bekumuze Abdul Shabalala
The original version of this article first appeared here
A couple of weeks, I found myself idly passing time at the Kitchener’s Carvery Bar in Braamfontein soaking in all the sensory detail around me. I was sitting on a stool in the bar area facing the dance floor, feeling a bit tipsy from the bottle of Heineken clutched between my hands.
‘I’m a feminist!’ declared a nasal female accent just behind me with gay abandon. She was talking to a chap I knew from my Criminal Law class. I decided to move over to their table. After exchanging pleasantries, their conversation about feminism resumed. I have much interest in the topic, but I resolved to simply listen and try to understand what it is about the subject, as before that evening, I had an undefined attitude towards and only vaguely understood some of the claims it makes.
Occasionally sipping from the large Styrofoam cup she had with her, she related the everyday personal struggles that she has to go through – demeaning experiences with men, the frustration of being dismissed by her mother and other female relatives because their idea of how a woman should carry herself is not compatible with hers, the annoying experience of constantly having to explain herself because of the heteronormative assumptions that people around her make – all because she is a black woman in a patriarchal society!
At this point I want to digress. I was brought up in a typical Zulu home and although my mother wields the most influence in the household, such chores as washing the dishes or doing laundry have always been assigned to my female siblings while I did other things traditionally ‘reserved’ for men – doing the garden once in a blue moon or climbing up the house to apply a silicone caulk whenever our iron-sheet roof was leaky, among other things.
Without realising it, the defined gender roles I grew up around and subsequently internalised as ‘normal’ had a bearing on my attitude towards women. Against this backdrop, I was not quite sympathetic towards feminism. As a man for whom it was convenient that society is arranged on a patriarchal basis, it always made me feel a sense of unease whenever I heard someone make remarks that sought to challenge the status quo – at least to the extent that it benefited me.
However, as a second-year Law student who has read fairly widely and is keenly aware about the swing of the pendulum towards liberalism from the late 1940s onwards, I knew just the sort of ‘progressive, pro-women’ remarks I had to make in public and the chivalry I had to treat women with just to keep face. Moreover, I was okay with the idea of women assuming important positions in politics, the judiciary, business and elsewhere. Better yet, I tolerated the feminist cause and sometimes made remarks that I’m sure made me out as someone who cast in my lot with them.
But my traditionalist views towards the position of women relative to their male counterparts remained largely unevolved and I always felt the need to restrict the extent of the claims that feminists around me made. Picking and choosing what I felt they should fight against and what they should never challenge.
After that encounter, I feel that my attitude towards feminism before then was strikingly similar to the attitude white people have towards black radical politics that seeks to locate itself outside the perimeters of liberal thought.
South Africa has a history of racial oppression, perhaps this is universal, but I want to narrow down my focus for contemporary circumstances in which the rights of black people are routinely encroached on and their aspirations frustrated at every turn. With this in mind and partly because of the popularity of the liberal tradition and its influence on social institutions like the positive law, morality, politics and to some extent religion, white people in public spaces or some other structured environment often speak in a way that is closely calculated to make them seem ‘progressive’ and non-racial.
However, in conversations around the dinner table or the braai when they stand with no black person in sight to challenge them about their racism, they probably make unfavourable remarks that lean towards bigotry. Like a Freudian slip, sometimes their honest feelings unintentionally jump out in public spaces. Likewise, most men have wrapped their head around the rhetoric and cultural nuances that liberal society finds desirable and act accordingly in public or around women, but attitudes that smack of sexism in the privacy of our own company are quite intact.
As a result of policies like affirmative action and the engineered attempt to stuff in more black people in important positions for purposes of demographic representation, there is no denying that more and more of our people occupy positions of influence in society and most white people seem alright with this. However, despite the fact that black people can now take up positions of perceived influence, anyone who has gone beyond the official narrative of a rainbow nation in which race does not matter and interacted with some white people knows that racism is very much alive and sometimes rears its ugly in the most unlikely circumstances.
Similarly, although more women have been able to swell the ranks of the leadership of important institutions in our society, attitudes among men that have patriarchal undertones persist. Unless you are a stranger to the ways of this world, you are probably familiar with the situation of a judge or politician or businesswoman who exercises power and makes important decisions in her professional capacity but takes off her power cap and yields to her husband’s authority in the domestic environment. Men, like white people towards their black counterparts, are willing to accept cosmetic changes in society but this willingness does not often coincide with internalised attitudes that are personal and therefore impossible for any piece of legislation to regulate.
There is a growing consensus among black people that the compromises that were made at the negotiating tables in the early 1990s were misplaced against the backdrop of structural inequality, unemployment, skewed spatial arrangements as well as other material contradictions of a post-apartheid society. However, whenever a black person raises this point or advocates for policy initiatives that are tuned towards substantive redress, white people are typically defensive because of a paternalistic attitude that they have towards, and an inclination to put a cap on the aspirations of, black people.
When you are a black person and attempt to challenge the status quo, either you are simply frowned on or there is serious backlash to that from the powers that be. I feel that as men, often we have the same attitude towards women. Granted, we might tolerate or sometimes even actively encourage the feminist cause.
However, we dismiss those variations of feminism that are irreconcilable with our sense of how relations between the different sexes should be structured. Our paternalistic attitude towards women make us want to define the rules of engagement or prescribe the limits over which feminist aspirations cannot go, and that defeats the very concept of feminism – an effort towards unrestrained self-assertion in a world that is least favourable to women in general and black women in particular.
In view of the considerations discussed above, this is at least what I got from that encounter. As especially black men, we ought to be genuinely empathetic towards the struggles of women, in part because of the parallels in our struggles.
The next time we come across someone expressing feminist sentiments, instead of just staging an act in public or seeking to put a cap on the shape and form that feminism ought to take, we should try to genuinely understand the lived experiences of women at worst and, at best, start to think around just how complicit we have been in their oppression and if there are any ways we could make things better.