On Tuesday evening, a rare thing happened on South African radio, especially considering that it is woman’s month (August) in SA. I tuned into Metro FM, a nationwide Black radio station, and the studio guests were three feminists, and what dazzling feminsts they were: City Pulse magazine editor, recovering academic, writer, Gail Smith; Commision on Gender Equality chairperson, activist, photographer, writer, Nomboniso Gasa; and StreetNet International co-ordinator, unionist, widely published socialist, Pat Horn.
The show was hosted by Sakina Kamwendo, who did not always ask the most insightful questions and did giggle here and there. Overall, though, she was not too bad on this topic if you consider that she used words like “lesbianism” and asked “is feminism still relevant” or something to that effect.
Horn reminded the audience that there were various feminisms. She stressed that feminism enables us to deal with issues and systems which are hard to contest as individuals; as a feminist collective, we are able to make inroads. I don’t really think the value of this was completely explored in the discussion, but radio always has time limits. Kamwendo wanted to know the uses of feminism, and I suppose if we have to think in such instrumentalist ways, this was one of them.
Smith and Gasa were their usual brilliant selves. Gasa spoke about how women’s labour and contributions to society are taken for granted, and dealt with the ways in which ‘culture’ is often used as a way to silence women. It is interesting, Gasa, reminded us, that although self-appointed cultural custodians are very eager to use ‘culture’ against us, especially on the African continent, there are as many liberatory practices as there are oppressive one. This is important both for those misgogynist cultural custodians and for the anti-African critics who often argue that African culture is more oppressive, more backward, etc than other cultures. Yes, mostly such discussion speaks of culture as though it is singular, static and fully-knowable. Gasa used the conflicting examples relevant to the presence of wife abuse. One relates to the pressure for women to persevere in marriage (kuyanyamezelwa emendweni). The other relates to the ability of a married woman’s family to claim her back when she is abused or unhappy in marriage (ukutheleka). Now these two appear at odds, but they are from the same cultural sphere. The former is often evoked as though the second does not exit, and conveniently too. Gasa has this incredibly ability to cite very knowingly from very diverse worlds. I value her work, mind and presence for this and deeply envy her that head on her shoulders.
Smith spoke about the intersections between sexuality, feminist expression, and violence in SA. She argued that feminism is demonised in the media and other sites of ideas. Sometimes this is done through the ascription of lesbian status to all feminists as a way to scare young women, who may be complicit with homophobic institutions. The lesson here is that women who prioritise women, care for women politically, erotically, psychically, etc are threatening. In this schema, it is important for women to be repeatedly taught not to prioritise other women, but to compete with them for men, who are seen as the ultimate reward. At the same time, men need not rethink how they give expression to violent masculinity.
Smith insists that as feminists we have much to be angry about as response to dismissive comments by two callers, Alfie and Eddie who ranted and raved about angry women isolating men with talk of feminism and did not quite get what the show was about. Their attempts to put this particular feminst in her place backfired considerably as both Smith and Gasa reasserted the need for vigilance. Smith asked, “Why is an angry woman so deligitimated in this society? I have good reason to be angry. What is wrong with anger?”, having just spoken about the need to embrace and support creative, subversive masculinities. Subversive to patriarchy and enforced heterosexuality, that is. An anonymous gay man had asked a question about solidarity with feminists. Smith had underscored the need to constantly refashion masculinity and embrace masculinities that are not “life threatening to women” forcing us to be “hypervigilant to violence … which has material effects on our lives”. I am sure looking forward to her column in this Sunday’s City Press main body.
There were other questions and comments from callers. Percy, Lindiwe and Lucas were quite interesting, rasing various ways in which it is in our interest to question dominant masculinities and docile femininities always. They talked about specific sites of oppresion, ways to counter these, and the importance of coalitions among progressive (‘the anti-establishment’ types to use Percy’s formulation).
This was a highlight for me because August is so exhausting for those of us who are feminists in South Africa. Not only are we in ‘fashion’ suddenly, and therefore expected to agree to speak at all manner of stupid glitzy functions, but we are also bombarded as women, generally, with invitations to the most patriarchal nonsense throughout. I wish for more intelligent feminist voices on television, newspaper pages, radio and everywhere this August and every month of the year.