[intro]”You strike a woman, you strike a rock!” has passed into South African legend, the women’s march to the Union Buildings in 1956 drew together 20,000 followers, led by Lillian Ngoyi, Amina Cachalia, Helen Joseph and Sophie Williams de Bruyn. At no time has this country lacked women leaders and women’s pressure groups: from the United Women’s Organisation (UWO) to the ANC Women’s League, the Black Sash and the Women’s Movement for Peace (WMP) to name a few. But what are the issues surrounding the “women’s question” today? And how is it that women still have to battle so hard to achieve recognition in society?[/intro]

The immediate basic concerns are known to all; the struggle for equal pay; maternity leave and benefits; childcare; laws relating to inheritance; training and skills development; getting a mortgage; signing contracts.

Across Africa, one of the chief problems is the common practice of girl child marriage, just recently outlawed in Tanzania and Gambia, though continuing to be enacted in Niger. Premature marriage denies the young girl the opportunity of an education, and of growing up free of what should be adult responsibilities. A huge breakthrough has occurred with the Masai in Kenya, who have agreed to halt the tradition of female genital mutilation.

Inevitably, rearing of the young cannot be separated from the women’s question, so the provision of child care facilities emerges as a major concern.

In our country, violence against women and children have reached epidemic proportions, requiring massive input from women’s NGO’s to help and support the afflicted parties. In some cases, such as at the Saartjie Baartman Centre in Athlone, the problem is addressed by providing women with temporary alternative accommodation from violent domestic situations.

Men must cooperate

Clearly, we cannot solve any of these problems without the  help and cooperation of the menfolk in our society.  We live in a male constructed world, where men make most of the decisions, and exercise most of the control, a world into which most women are obliged to try and fit themselves. This overall framework of patriarchy, whereby women are rendered subordinate to men in almost every sphere of life, has made it necessary for women to organise and agitate for their rights.

What is more, patriarchy seems to be a universal. While there have been matriarchal societies in existence, such as a number found in West Africa, it seems that no society has managed ultimately to escape male control.  One researcher attributes this to the “overthrow of mother right”, when men in early societies wrested control  of the group’s property, leaving the women propertyless.  This is only one theory.  What we do know is that women have frequently been part of property exchanges between units of society, families or dynasties, whether in 19th century Europe, or under the lobola and other dowry systems in Africa.

Another common feature of women’s lives is not only that she is underpaid, but that her work and contribution to society is trivialised, and made to seem inconsequential. This, even while females carry the double burden of working in the home and rearing children and at the same time holding down a paying job, which is the usual circumstance in the industrialised world. Another view is that men function in the public sphere of work and business, acknowledged and validated, while women are caught up in the private world of home and children, which is endowed with little status.

Even in modern societies which in the 20th century experimented with Marxist-communist/socialist ideology, such as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), China, or Cuba, the problem of male-dominating patriarchy has persisted. In these countries we still find women bearing the dual burden of carrying the responsibility for the home and children and at the same time holding down jobs. Where these societies succeeded, however, was to provide early care of young children, as was done so admirably in Cuba immediately after their revolution. South Africa would have done well to replicate this example at the advent of our own democratic era in 1994, and take care of the millions of young children from the lower socio-economic sector, setting them on course for a healthy and wholesome childhood.

An amusing anecdote, depending on how we look at it, is the case of the revered communist leader, Vladimir Lenin.  He apparently hauled over the coals one of his deputies, Clara Zetlin, when he discovered that she was discussing marriage and sex in her women’s groups, which was, he thought, a waste of time. Everywhere we look we find this trivialisation and demeaning of “womanly matters”.

Scholars have provided an ample body of theory around feminist issues, which can be researched in any university course. Here we are attempting to highlight pertinent issues about which every woman should have an opinion.  Poverty, lack of education and skills training, lack of economic empowerment – these can be addressed when women are able to stand up for themselves. In order to do that, they require the support of other women in their organised groupings.  Perhaps the Trade Unions should all have a dedicated women’s desk, so that problems can be dealt with, with appropriate respect and seriousness.

The Second Sex

During the Struggle period, before 1994, it was often suggested the real battle was against the apartheid state, and that feminism had no place in our liberation movement.  But we know that female writers, scholars and activists have been advocating for women for centuries, bringing greater understanding to the male/female conundrum. In our own country, the white novelist and philosopher, Olive Schreiner, author of the renowned “Story of an African Farm”, was already militating for the franchise for black people in the early 1900s, presciently recognising the inhumanity of the authorities at that time.

One eminent French writer, Simone de Beauvoir, named women “The Second Sex”, the title of her great feminist study. She said this was because we are the “other”, to the foundational identity of the human being, the male.  It is up to womenfolk to reclaim a central position, with all the womanly characteristics, which we know are not absent in the male of the species.

Women may not constitute a “unified class” in the classic sense. But issues of patriarchy fan out across race and class boundaries, calling for solidarity and mutual respect amongst all females from all classes.  In this country we would also want to consider the race dimension, and factor that matter into our deliberations.

And any reluctance to use the terms “women’s liberation”or “feminism” should be abandoned. These are names we give ourselves. “Femininity” may describe an aspect of looking nice or dressing in an attractive way, but feminism is about economic empowerment, self realisation, self-worth and self-actualisation. Yet we always need to move towards balance in both domestic as well as public life, so we definitely require male energies and male thinking to help steer the ship.

All over the world, and unfortunately throughout African countries, we find the most brutal violence being perpetrated against women. Our Anene Booysen of Bredasdorp, left to die with her inner organs spilling out from her young body, calls forth our outrage. On the Indian subcontinent, honour killings and the burning of womenfolk are a daily occurrence, while male legislators leisurely procrastinate over bringing about change.

Child marriage must be stopped forthwith, wherever it is practised.  There is no room for complacency.  We have to place the needs and concerns of women at the heart of our communities and our society, for the general wellbeing of all.  In every community there should be a women’s centre where women can find support and succour. The Black Sash advice offices may be the perfect model for this.  Women’s oppression is the most widespread and deepest form of oppression.  And we require the understanding and support of the male gender to help transform this appalling situation.

Illustration courtesy of Sarah Rose de Villiers.