It’s August, “Womxn’s Month”, and just like every other August this is the month when it is suddenly necessary to host seminars, workshops and conferences “celebrating” womxn (‘womxn’ is an inclusive, progressive spelling of ‘women’ that sheds light on the institutional barriers womxn have faced and is also used to show that womxn are not the extension of men). It’s in August that womxn become visible and every church service, work event and community engagement is focused on womxn and their plight in the different spaces they find themselves; quite patronizing. August is that month when ‘womxn empowerment’ becomes a buzzword, when we’re continuously told that womxn are “the backbones of society” and the entire month we hear womxn and men chanting “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo” (you strike a womxn, you strike a rock); failing to ask the most critical question, ‘Why are you striking womxn?’…
It’s in August that the duct tape is removed from our mouths only to be re-applied at the end of the month and for the other 11 months of the year, life continues as usual. These observations made me interrogate more critically a space I’m in close proximity to – that of civil society organisations – and to analyse the degree to which gender is mainstreamed in this space.
With the current politics around decolonization, civil society organisations have managed to do their bit to address this issue by prioritizing the voices of black people. However, prioritization of black voices has somehow become a privilege of black males whilst black womxn continue to be at the bottom of the food chain – often being given roles of being programme directors (if they’re lucky), giving a vote of thanks, as facilitators and chairing sessions but rarely as speakers (well at least not enough womxn). This is quite ironic given that such organisations exist for the purpose of advocating for those who experience intersectional marginalization through (i.e race, gender, class etc). Prioritizing black male voices has become so natural that ensuring a gender balance, is always an after-thought. There is never a shortage of womxn when the discourse is womxn-centred but in settings that ought to have an equal gender representation, the womxn can’t be found and it’s often realized only later that “oh we didn’t add womxn”. In some strange way, ‘speaker’ is automatically equated to ‘male’, and in this context ‘black male’.
I attended a conference earlier this year; one that had a heavy male presence of speakers. In one of the sessions the participants were divided into groups of 2 and were required to discuss amongst themselves the issues that continue to affect them in terms of the governance of the country, and then present on one of the issues. One of the groups consisted of a young womxn and man and he presented on behalf of the group stating that one of the issues was how women are still not exposed to equal opportunities as men. I was conflicted because as much as I am of the view that womxn need men as allies in the struggle for gender equality but I also found it ironic that a man was speaking about an issue raised by a womxn; that even in spaces where womxn are enabled to speak, she gave a man the responsibility to speak on her behalf about an issue that she could have possibly articulated better. On the one hand, it is my thinking that perhaps being in a room with predominantly males as speakers, did not give that womxn the assurance and confidence that her voice was also welcome in the space; a wake-up call for civil society organisations to do the work of capacitating womxn. Yet on the other hand, perhaps it has become so normalized and internalized that men speak and womxn keep quiet and that even when given an opportunity to engage, womxn opt for silence; something that they need to be encouraged to unlearn. Such scenarios are indicative of the pervasive nature of patriarchy.
As we reflect on 25 years of democracy and 63 years since the 1956 Womxn’s march, it is important to reflect on the role of womxn and take note of the direction in which the liberation struggle is taking in 2019. It is a shame that 25 years later, womxn continue to fight for their seats at the table. Moreso, the conversation needs to start shifting away from advocating for the inclusion of ONLY cisgender womxn whilst excluding queer womxn and men from the conversation; that we, as cisgender womxn, become mindful that we too do not take on the traits of the patriarchal system we’re fighting against by excluding queer womxn and men from our struggle. ‘Cisgender’ denoting a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex and ‘queer’ denoting an umbrella term for anyone with a marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity. This inclusivity needs to be reflected within civil society organisations, especially the conservative Durban-based organisations who are supposed to be the vanguards of societal transformation. Just as cisgender womxn ought to be visible and not seen and heard only in August, civil society organisations have a duty to make queer womxn and men a priority by making the space one in which they too can be active participants and are equally represented. This will require civil society organisations to really dig deep and reach a point of acknowledgement that their agenda should speak to the gender discourse within the context of South Africa and that they should not merely exist to fulfil the agenda of donors who have no knowledge of our lived experiences.
They say “an injury to one is an injury to all”, therefore South Africans cannot claim to be truly free if their freedom is linked to the silencing of cisgender women AND queer womxn and men. Our voices are valid and they need to be heard.
Thobeka Khubisa is an academic with research interests in Gender Studies. She is a community development practitioner and an African Feminist activist.