[intro]A conference that focused on patriarchy and gender conformity was held at the University of the Free State (UFS) last month titled ‘Unshackled Chains’. TSHOLOFELO MOTSWENYANE, reflects on how the topics unpacked at the conference encouraged her to look at the world differently.[/intro]

“You don’t own me!”

These were the words from one of the panelists at the conference recently held at the UFS. The conference, Unshackled Chains, is an annual event hosted by a student association called Embrace A Sister. The organisation focuses on all issues pertaining to black womxn and other minority groups. Their core mission is to challenge the status quo womxn are subjected to daily.

Several panelists shared their stories with the audience including Gretchen Sudenie (a candidate attorney and lecturer, feminist and a social justice activist), Mandisa Khanyile (co-founder of DotAfro, feminist and social commentator), Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile (founder of Black Womxn Healing Garden, journalist and columnist), Namhla Thupana (a social activist and a feminist). Phalaetsile spoke honestly about her experience of emotional and psychological violence at the hands of men in her life. But there was one experience she shared that really resonated with me. She told the story of one time when a man who she was dating believed that he could tell her how to live her life. Her response: “You don’t own me!” got me thinking.

Prior to the day of the conference, I did not know that I was “shackled”. I didn’t know that I too was held captive by the patriarchal system that is still so predominant in many communities. I subconsciously believed that men had control over me, and women as a whole. I realised that our society teaches us that the older you get, the more submissive you have to become. These are the gender stereotypes that follow women around all over the country and the world.

For instance, men still tend to avoid housekeeping duties and/or taking on child-rearing responsibilities as they are traditionally classified as female roles.

I, on the other hand, only started to learn how to cook a meal when I was 18 approaching 19. My female peers were so shocked when they found out. Most of them were taught to cook as early as the age of nine years old. Most of them would cook for their family on a daily basis before they were even teenagers. Furthermore, many are of the belief that cooking and cleaning made a woman ‘marriage material’.

Over the past few years at university my understanding of patriarchy has change. I was moved from an all-woman’s residence to a co-ed residence in my second year and it was there I really came face to face with the levels of patriarchy women had to endure. Some female students cooked, cleaned and did laundry for their boyfriends – even though they were full time students.

I was shocked and so puzzled. A comment was once passed by a male student I knew. He said he was hungry and he hoped that “I already cook”. The blatant disrespect shown by him in that moment; I felt like he was putting pressure on me to make him something.

A few months went by and I start noticing a change in my own attitude. Slowly but surely, I started to think that I needed to be able to prepare a meal, a delicious meal at that, so that one day when a guy cames to visit, he will leave satisfied (ie with a full stomach) and liking you more than before. That I needed to know how to do certain things as a woman, according to gender expectations and roles, in order to be liked by a guy, whether it was those from outside or from res, I had put pressure on myself.

My motives for wanting to learn how to cook, for wanting learn how to “host” a guest and even the way I would address males, had all changed. I cannot recall when but it did and it progressed. I wanted to be seen as a woman who could clean a room and house and keep it tidy. I wanted to be a woman who was submissive and a woman who was good at cooking.

I allowed myself to morph into a woman defined by the predominant values, principles and expectations of society. I let boys make my head a playground, where they could mess with my mind and I ended up getting hurt. They felt like it was right to exert their power on women. We see it in rape, corrective rape, domestic violence and in many other cases and its effects are negative and severe not only for women (including the LGBTIQ community), but for heterosexual men too.

After this conference I realised that I had to change. I had to take a stand for myself. I need to redefine me, myself and I according to what I wanted to be. To be freed from the chains and limitations that were put on me by society.

I plan to move forward by taking on and doing things that were classified to be tasks done by men. I will learn how to change the light bulbs, I tend to learn how to change a tire and to learn the inside parts of a car, that if a problem with the engine or the car arises, I will know the necessary steps to take to get the problem fixed myself. I will also teach myself how to be independent, I will work so hard that I will not have to rely on a man to “bring home the bacon”.

As cliché as it may sound, it is time for us to be the change that we want to see in the world.