These are the lyrics of the song, Hear My Voice, by Celeste.
The voice is that of a woman and it has been speaking since the beginning of time, before history was born. Today, a day during what is called Women’s Month in this country, this ancient voice continues to speak, plaintive and mournful, echoing the pain and strength as well as, the pain and joy of ancient mothers. To be a woman in South Africa, and every where else in the world, is to be a goddess who is reviled by worshippers. To be born in the body of a woman is to be born into a mould shaped by the hands of a history in which her own history, her story, is mimed by shadows against the bold background of the phallic powerlessness of patriarchy in its incarnation as delusions of power that, for too long, have broken the mind, body and spirit of this sacred being. This is the context in which, every year, on the 9th of August, we celebrate Woman’s Day.
May I, at this point, invite you to look at the number 9. Turn it upside down. What do you see? The nine becomes 6. What do you see?
Let me tell you what I see.
If you imagine the number 9 to be the human body, what is pronounced is the head in which the brain is located. Furthermore, each year during the 20th century had the number 9. To the Romans, the number 9, like the planet Mars – named after the Roman god of war, represented war. In some numerological traditions,, the number 9 represents ambition, responsibility and idealism. During the 20th century, humanity (mankind to be precise) was obsessed with ambition for power and money. It is this obsession that was one of the primary causes of wars and other conflicts in the world. The sense of idealism became subsumed under the cold logocentricism, as well as, the insatiable appetite and greed for political, economic and other forms of power. Idealism became a quality associated with being a woman which was, itself, associated with weakness. To be weak and lacking in ambition for power is to be feminine. To eschew the accumulation of this power by means ignoble is to be woman. In the play Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth – a woman – utters the following words:
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold
For those among us who, unlike me, are not Anglophiles and have, therefore, not experienced the pleasure of reading Shakespeare, in the play, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and her husband, Macbeth, have decided that they are going to kill the king, Duncan, so that Macbeth can ascend to the throne. They are going to kill Duncan, Macbeth’s cousin. Lady Macbeth summons the dark spirits and the dark ministers of hell. She calls on them to ‘unsex’ her and make her a man. She asks them change the milk in her breasts to bitter gall. For her to participate in the killing of Duncan so that her husband can become king and she the queen, she must be transformed into a man – ambitious and hungry for power. This play was written more than four hundred years ago and today Celeste must sing, Hear My Voice, not because she is mute, but must do so because the world, mankind, as well as, patriarchy in a skirt – women who mimic the masculine in their business suits – remain deaf and still do not see her. What they see is the number 6 – the womb – and that is the only reason women must exist because it is through the womb that the masculine, the oppressor will be born. And, because we are born with a sense of amnesia, we have forgotten that, where we come from, there is no gender. Before we are born, we are invited to put our hands into a bowl containing all the qualities that should make being human a beautiful fusion of qualities that, to us, post-birth, become masculine and feminine, separated from who we truly are – human – neither man nor woman because this is who we were before we were born. We have forgotten that, as they say in the townships, “6 no 9, kuyafana (6 and 9 are the same thing)”. Therefore, we – ‘men’ and ‘women’ – must not reduce ourselves to socially constructed and unhealthy conceptions of masculinity and femininity. We are much more than that. In us, women and men, reside all the beauty and splendour of what to be human should mean. The alternative, as is the case today, is the construction of narrow and gendered identities on the basis of which we (men) distance the other (women) from social, political, economic and cultural resources. The alternative is the social conditioning out which the oppression of women limits our own capacity to be human and, by extension, arrests the human potential of both men and women. Our salvation as humankind will flow out of the realisation that, as long as women are oppressed and discriminated against, humanity will never realise its full potential. In fact, if we limit our understanding to social constructs that distort the meaning of that which is between our legs, patriarchy will be replaced by another socially constructed system of oppression. Because patriarchy – not a post-patriarchal order – is the social reality that is dominant today, let me talk to us men.
I am of the very firm belief that the womb is a sacred space. Therefore, the woman, in whom the womb resides, is a sacred being. To look at women in this way must impel us to the appreciation that men, myself included, have caused a lot of pain to women. This is pain that we have caused to that which, if not sacred, should be sacred. It is this realisation that must lend meaning to gender based violence as an assault on the body, mind and spirit of a woman. In part, we must, as men, look deep into our own spirits because the pain we cause to women is an assault on our own spirits and therefore robs both the man and the woman of his and her humanity. Because to heal a woman and to wash her wounds is to heal the world, we men must cede our delusions of power to something more powerful – humility. We must kneel at the feet of these sacred beings and ask them to forgive us and commit to them that we will be better and do better. But this doing better has social, cultural, economic and policy implications. It cannot be a mere promise, a ritual we perform once a year on the 9th day of every August.
This means we must not only revisit our idea of a democratic society, but must also re-imagine what it means to live in such a democratic society. Doing this will, to a certain degree, entail doing a different reading of the Constitution. The question we must ask is whether what the Constitution says about women is enough to re-instate the dignity of women as sacred beings. Then we must look at the configuration of the state to the extent that the state itself is afflicted by patriarchal impulses. These impulses find expression not only in what the state is called upon to do but, as we have seen, also lend influence and power to tendencies and social forces that have caused the feminisation of socio-economic ills such as inequality, poverty and joblessness. In fact, the Covid-19 crisis has, like never before since the advent of democracy, exposed the fact that, to be a woman in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, is to be truly the wretched of the earth. What is clear is that the beautiful words of the Constitution, legislation and government policy have not delivered substantive and substantial change to women. Social, political, cultural and economic exclusion has the face of a woman, particularly that of a black woman. The hungry stomachs are those of a black woman and her children. What are we going to do next year in August? Are we going to make more promises of change, or are we going to start bridging the gap between what is promised and delivered to women?
Aubrey Matshiqi is a seasoned independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity