Saccharine rhetoric and pink pampering offers for the ladies? It must be August! This year my brain started bubbling like lava before Women’s Month even started, what with the Marie Claire #InHerShoes debacle (the silver lining: these fab takedowns by Pearl Boshomane and Louise Ferreira) and a myriad other WTF moments, including the Department of Women’s high-heeled-foot-in-mouth Tweet “What is to be done with women who withdraw charges [against men who assault them]?”
What’s changed since I first lost my cool about Women’s Day in 2012? Way too little. The Department of Women no longer bundles together vaginas, minors and people with disabilities, but it’s moved under the sheltering wing of the Presidency. Whahahaaaa! WAIT, THAT’S FOR REAL? SERIAAS?
In 2012, I raged “Our rape stats are a global disgrace, black lesbians have ‘carve me up and smash my brains in’ signs stamped on their backs, rural women and children live in relentless, grinding misery and poverty…. We are failing, no, betraying, no, ABUSING children by callously pissing away their only shot at an education, a form of abuse that will affect girls worse than boys; we’re losing ground in terms of infant and maternal mortality; women without cash are being denied C-sections at state hospitals and giving birth to stillborn babies on the floor.”
There’s no doubt that to solve systemic problems like these, WE NEED STATE SUPPORT. Instead what we get is the same old system of patriarchal patronage, the same cynical gauging which side of the gender divide the icing is spread. Lulu the Useless has been replaced by Susan the Shameless, whose main contributions so far have involved buttering up traditional leaders with gender attitudes apparently dating from the 1700s, and the novel idea of reinventing the wheel AGAIN: “We will be going on a nationwide campaign to understand the society we are living in and find out what makes men become so brutal and evil.”
It would be so easy to rant about this kind of GIBBERWITTERY. For starters, men are NOT brutal and evil. I could publish an entire essay on how this “monster” narrative of rapists demonises black and poor men and exculpates white and middle-class men, while masking a rape culture reinforced by a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal society, in which most of us are complicit. OH WAIT, I ALREADY DID. BACK IN 2001. Yes, FOURTEEN FUCKING YEARS AGO.
As for the “nationwide campaign to understand the society we’re living in”, THIS WORK HAS BEEN DONE. By a brace of tireless scholars, researchers, writers, activists and journalists: not only veterans like Nomboniso Gasa, Lisa Vetten, Mmatshilo Motsei (who paid a high price for telling home truths in her book The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court), Carol Bower, Sam Waterhouse, Elaine Salo, Jane Bennett, Makhosazana Xaba, Sindiwe Magona, Mary Hames, Farieda Khan, Pregs Govender, Desiree Lewis, Kopano Ratele and many more; but also a new generation of brilliant, social-media-savvy voices such as Karabo Kgoleng, Danai Mupotsa, Milisuthando Bongela, Sisonke Msimang, Michelle Solomon, T.O. Molefe, Zethu Matebeni and all the voices I’ve linked in this piece.
Meanwhile, there’s enough noodle-brained patriarchal bullshit in headlines and everyday life to dislocate my jaw. I expect to keel over with a rage-induced thrombosis around 2019, by which time the renamed Department of Ladies, Girl-Children and Self-Congratulation will probably be marking Women’s Day with free virginity testing and apron-stitching competitions. (See Rebecca Davis’s very funny and razor-sharp account of our Women’s Month as explained to a Martian here; also this poignant blog by Jen Thorpe for an account of how for too many women, the workplace is still a sexist timewarp.)
But I give up – for now. It’s no good trying to shame or swear the state into action. As sincere efforts at structural change seem about as likely as the rapture, let’s look at ways we can support the sheroes and heroes who battle the odds to provide practical support to those ravaged by patriarchal violence, whether the kind administered by fists and penises, or the socio-economic kind.
Which means I’d like a little word with South African businesses. WHAT THE FLYING FUCK ARE YOU DOING, OFFERING US DISCOUNTED TEA PARTIES AND SPA DAYS? You already get Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day to patronise us girlies and sell us crap chocolate and plastic shit from China.
I understand that there’s a recession and you need to make a living. I get that marketing is crass by definition. I realise advertising companies hitch their bandwagons to all our public holidays – I keep expecting to see “Come dressed as Hector Pieterson and get a free burger!” offers on Youth Day.
It’s the sickly sentimentality, the reverent hush as you grab at the coattails of that brave march by 20 000 women in 1956 that makes me nauseous. If you’re going to reference that iconic moment in South African history, could you not at least support the organizations which seem to be the ONLY structures trying to improve the lives of SA women?
Instead of offering us a discount, a free glass of plonk, a pink cupcake, ask us if we’d like to add R10 to our bill for Rape Crisis – and THEN MATCH IT. Instead of a half-price facial, ask us to donate sanitary pads for girls for whom menstruation means missing 20% of their schooling. And don’t even think of offering us some sort of fluffy pink deal unless you (a) employ women (b) pay them exactly the same as your male workers and (c) treat them all as human beings.
Finally, is there good news? Yes. Read the fresh voices I’ve listed here (there are many others), look at the multiple ways they suggest we tackle gender oppression (which affects everybody), and you’ll feel flickers of hope. Plus I hear an increasing clamour from men, both straight and gay: what can we do, how can we change this horribly broken system?
So this month, I’m going to focus on the practical stuff. For starters, I’d like for Rape Crisis to get enough funding donated this month to cover their operational costs for a year. Please give generously here. And go pounce on every business you see offering “Women’s Month Specials” and encourage them to donate, if not to Rape Crisis, to a local NGO/NPO offering support to women and/or gender-based violence survivors. In fact, to form ongoing funding relationships with them.
For my part, I’m going to give a fundraising party for Rape Crisis (I’d MUCH rather take the mega-mountains of cash sloshing shadily around the nuclear and fracking deals, and spend them on things like, oh I dunno, functional schools and libraries and decent reproductive health care and poverty alleviation, but I have to start somewhere).
And once a week this month, I’m going to write a blog about practical things we can all do to rid this country of the scourge of gender-based violence. Coming up next: what men can actually do about rape, and a shout-out to Pumla Dineo Gqola for writing one of the most important books you’ll ever read (and you ARE all going to read it, right?): Rape: A South African Nightmare.
Do you have good gender news? Ideas for practical, positive change? Please share them (but no harking back to patriarchal “utopias” or conservative religious and traditional frameworks). Let’s all roll up our sleeves and get stuck in.