Category Archives: The feminist imagination

The Full text of my 7 minute talk at Wits and Con Hill One Billion Rising

The Full text of my 7 minute talk at Wits and Con Hill One Billion Rising

I am a feminist, a WITS Professor, a member of the African feminist and global feminist movements, and a member of the 1in9 Campaign, a feminist campaign – now organization – started to provide support to the woman we call Khwezi, who laid a charge of rape against the man who is now President Zuma, 1in9, an organization which supports other survivors of sexualized violence.
I believed Khwezi in 2006. I STILL believe her.
I am rising today in rage, and I am dancing today in love, metaphorically holding hands with billions of women rising in all parts of the world today to say ENOUGH.
All gender based violence is brutality. ALL of it. ALL the time. It is always an act of war.
I am rising today to say: ENOUGH.
It is time to render violence against women illegitimate on our campus. It is time to stop these acts of war on women’s bodies and psyches. It is time to STOP giving airplay to the excuses that make gender based violence seem harmless, excuses that allow it to stay normal.
STOP RAPE and other violence against women by stopping with the excuses. Enough excuses!
• excuses keep gender based violence: violence against women, girls, boys, gender non-conforming people, queers of all hues in place;
• excuses allow brutal men to violate others with impunity – on this campus, in this city, in this province and country, and across the world;
• excuses enable rape culture, slut shaming, intimate femicide, sexual harassment, sexual trafficking, the forced marriage of girls to men old enough to be their grandfathers;
• excuses say it is fine to blame and punish a survivor for the short skirt she wears, fine to excuse the male professor who sexually harasses his students and colleagues, overly sexualizing them, making inappropriate comments that the woman student is obliged to think of as compliments to stay alive;
• excuses say the white misogynist institutional culture of South African HE institutions is the excellence we should all aspire to. Excuses provides an alibi for systemic violence epistemically, materially, emotionally, financially;
• excuses say violence against Black women is part of generalized Black violence and that brutal men cannot be called the monsters they are when they rape, beat the crap out of their partners and make excuses. ALL men no matter what class, race or religion have patriarchal power and can choose to brutalise and get away with it.
• excuses say only working class Black men are violent and white women and gender non-conforming people don’t have to deal with this from middle and upper class, educated, white men;
• excuses make violence against women possible – they are part of a complicated network that say women are not human, so our pain is generalized, unimportant;
• excuses are the permission we slowly give for violent men to keep women and gender non-conforming people hostage on this campus, in this city, in this country, across the world
ENOUGH excuses. When we make excuses, we become perpetrators – we become the problem.
I rise today because the day has come for the women of the world to redefine what justice means – it is not politician’s speeches, it is not non-sexism at the bottom of stationery, for many of us, it is not in the legal justice system.
I rise today with my sisters of all classes, sexual orientations and nationalities across the world to say we – the majority of the world’s people – are the face of survivors and victims. There is no mystery. The survivors of gendered violence walk the streets all day everywhere, sit next to you in class, are the people you are busy falling in love with, are your sisters, best friend, lover, mother, daughter, your teacher.
I rise in solidarity with all survivors, victims and those who will be brutalized by gender based violence again. I rise and dance to counter the isolation that gender based violence breeds, to counter the shame, to refuse to shoulder the blame and to put an end to the excuses.
I rise to say our bodies are ours and we matter, whether we survive like most of those wounded and walking the planet, or like Nandi Mbizane, taken from her home, who still cannot be found,
or like Anene Booysen we could not survive, or like Khwezi we cannot come home.
I rise because a billion women rising at WITS and campuses across the world, in Kenya, Bangladesh, Ghana, Malaysia, Venezuela and everywhere else can change the world. I rise because in the 7 minutes I have been speaking to you, 16 women have been raped in SA, and many more women in every country in the world. In SA 1in 2 women will be raped at least once in her lifetime. Both will be sexually harassed on a regular basis and may be beaten on top of that.
I rise because it is time for rage. I rise because it is time for justice.
I rise because it is time for love – for myself, for the many women, gender non-conforming people, children who walk with the silent torment that survivors know too well. I rise because my body is mine, all our bodies belong to us and are not just battlegrounds. I rise because I love women and because I choose women. I rise because feminism is the movement that taught me to dance. And because I know that movement CAN, WILL, MUST end this brutality.
We WILL redefine justice when we continue to rise and rise and rise and dance in our own name, in our self-defense and in self-love. The time has come – for love and rage, love for ourselves and rage at the unmarked monsters that brutalize women everywhere.
WOMANDLA!
* Constitution Hill talk was similar, sans WITS parts. Photo: Wits Communications

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Welcoming batterer Chris Brown condones GBV

Between the 15th and the 20th of December 2012, many South African music lovers will flock to see Chris Brown, the R&B star and the man who assaulted pop superstar Rihanna in 2009. Rihanna was also his girlfriend at the time. Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, you know a few vivid details about that assault. You may have seen pictures of Rihanna’s bruised face, read about blood in her mouth as he continued to beat, strangle and threaten her while driving. Both pictures and details of the charge sheet made their rounds through mainstream media outlets and went viral on social media. For a quick summary, you can read this. Or you can just google the whole ugly saga.

Since then, we have also been subjected to constant suggestions that Rihanna may have taken Chris Brown back as boyfriend/lover/friend after forgiving him. She has recently been on Oprah and there was widely circulated news that even her father feels warmth and sympathy for Brown. We have even been told of how Brown grew up in a violent home himself and, therefore, that his own violence is explained by this past. After all, violated children also sometimes turn into violent people, right?

This means that Brown’s South African fans are supporting him with full knowledge of his record. Indeed, many who are quite vocal about their support of the call to end gender based violence in South Africa will buy tickets to his concerts as part of the general partying that characterises the “festive season”. It will not matter that they have previously expressed concern that the international annual campaign of 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children should really be 365 days. South Africans are not renowned for a healthy sense of irony. Nor do we hold violent men accountable. We simply like to march against violence against women, but we are generally loathe to intervene and condemn it when it actually happens. We don’t really like to denounce men who beat and/or rape women. We do often judge and badmouth abused women. So much commentary has focused on what Rihanna and her family feel or do not feel. If I had a rand for every time I heard “but women are their worst enemies in such cases”, I would be a rich woman.

Feminists, gender activists and people opposed to violence elsewhere in the world have not found this such a complicated issue. In Guyana, several women’s rights activists made it very clear that Brown was not welcome in Georgetown to perform on the 26th of December 2012. The Code Red for Gender Justice website outlined that although there was disagreement over the Guyanese government’s decision to welcome Brown to Guyana in order to boost tourism to the Caribbean country, those critical of Brown’s tour and the Guyanese government’s insensitivity did not mince their words. It quoted Guyanese feminist columnist, Stella Ramsaroop saying that the “decision to bring Chris Brown to entertain Guyana is a slap in the face to every single victim of domestic violence in the country”. Sukree Boodram of the Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (CADVA) said “as the grim situation on domestic violence has become a staple part of Guyana’s everyday life and landscape, I believe that having a known abuser perform, gives credit to him and sends an unspoken message that it is okay to beat up on your wife or girlfriend and still stay popular and famous”.

Vidyaratha Kisson wrote a much publicised letter in which he suggested what what he saw as more useful options to the Brown tour. His solution is similar to that proposed by Nicole Cole from the Guyanese Women and Gender Equality Commission here.

I am not convinced that there is a good way in which a woman beater can be supported. We simply cannot have it both ways: claim we want to end violence against women at the same time that we swoon over men who violate women. We should make Chris Brown unwelcome in South Africa if we are serious about ending the siege under which women live. I share Sukree Boodram’s stance, where she says “The fact that we are allowing a publicly known abuser to enter our country is blatant disregard and disrespect to our people and the cause we claim to want to eradicate. That cause is domestic violence. What kind of signal does this send? It says that ‘bringing wealth into Guyana’ is more important than the safety of the nation’s women. It says that talking out of both sides of your mouth concerning violence against women is justified so long as everyone can dance.” (emphasis added)

And, although there have been suggestions that Brown and his team did not cancel the Guyanese concert because of the outrage from women’s rights activists, there is no convincing alternative explanation. South African feminists would do well to emulate our Caribbean feminist counterparts in telling Chris Brown that he is not welcome here. If we succeed in keeping him from performing, or even cut his trip short, it does not matter who gets the credit.

Chris Brown, woman batterer, you are not welcome in my town

Guyanese feminists and gender activists told Chris Brown in no uncertain terms that he is not welcome in Georgetown. So he had to cancel his boxing day concert in that city. Irish hiphop group Original Rudeboys turned down the huge cash and publicity benefits of opening for Brown at the O2 arena in Dublin saying they don’t want to be associated with Brown after his assault of Rihanna and did not want to create the slightest impression that they thought beating women up was anything but vile. None of these groups thought what Rihanna may or may not do with him again should colour how we respond to gender based violence. The same Chris Brown is scheduled to perform in three South African cities between the 15th and 20th December. No irony there, South Africa. We will have wrapped up the 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children and will be back to business as usual: glorifying violent men.

Guyanese feminist, Sukree Boodram, captures exactly what I feel when she says: “The fact that we are allowing a publicly known abuser to enter our country is blatant disregard and disrespect to our people and the cause we claim to want to eradicate. That cause is domestic violence. What kind of signal does this send? It says that ‘bringing wealth into Guyana’ is more important than the safety of the nation’s women. It says that talking out of both sides of your mouth concerning violence against women is justified so long as everyone can dance.” (emphasis added)

Entertainment is more important than consistency. Our obsession with all things “international” trumps what we claim to stand for.

The Traditional Courts Bill is a Bantustan Bill

(Originally published as “Respect our rights”, in City Press as a column, 6 May 2012)

 

The Traditional Courts Bill is meant to replace the Black Administration Act of 1927 with a law that is constitutional.

Instead, if passed, it will in effect strip between 17 million and 21 million people living in rural South Africa of many of the rights we enjoy in the rest of the country.

About 59% of these people are women, who, along with other members of their communities, will cease to be citizens and exist only as subjects.

As is stands, the bill creates a separate legal system for rural folk, geographically recreating the old Bantustans with no irony on the eve of the centenary of the 1913 Land Act.

Let me first dispense with the two main problems with the consultation process. The bill results from consultations between the state and traditional leader structures.

It patently ignores input by the Rural Women’s Movement based on consultation with hundreds of rural women pointing to the multitude of ways in which existing tribal hearings deliberately disenfranchise them.

Most rural folk were deliberately kept in the dark about the drafting process.

In the past few weeks, many rural communities expressed outrage when confronted with the bill for the first time.

Once again, the culturalist argument is being made for resisting this bill.

Those who oppose it are hostile to cultural African legal and dispute mechanisms, and we are reprimanded.
Yes, this bill partly recognises what is already operational in many of these spaces.

This includes royal patriarchs who explicitly endorse the kidnapping of girls into marriage – ukuthwala – as Chief Mandla Mandela does, to those who silently endorse it, such as Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana.

Many rural communities organise against repressive patriarchal practices, resisting forced unpaid labour, refusing to pay tribal levies, and in countless ways refusing to be docile subjects of chiefs who are given absolute power by this bill.

Legal researcher Dr Simiso Mnisi reminds us that ordinary rural Africans shape and reshape custom, culture and practice all the time. She calls this living custom.

Living custom enables culture and custom to continue to work in the interest of those who own it.

Academic Mamphela Ramphele has also challenged the false opposition often held up in conservative culturalist arguments between “foreign” legal systems at work in the rest of the country and “indigenous” legal systems that will be protected in the proposed bill.

She points out that our specific legal framework is home-grown.

We created our Constitution and legal framework. We did not import it from anywhere else. This is why it is the most progressive Constitution in the world and is globally recognised as such.

The creation of this document was achieved with the full knowledge of the brutality that laws can enable.

If there is any competition or doubt, it arises from various systems emerging from the same space that laws are meant to regulate.

The bill will bestow the final say on the chief presiding over a dispute.

It is a backlash against innovative applications and manifestations of culture by the majority of communities that are refusing to be held hostage.

Progressive chiefs do not need the bill in its current form to enshrine the chieftaincy of state-recognised royalty, elected leaders or other leaders who may contest the legitimacy of the ruling indunas and chiefs.

It takes power away from most rural folk and enshrines a feudal order that has no support.

I grew up in a part of the country that suddenly became a homeland at the end of one school year. Homelands benefit only those in power and their cronies.

In a democracy, all of us should have the same rights. Those who are rushing this homeland bill through require our complicity, our averted gaze.

But we can stop this bill from going through by ending the secrecy, publicly challenging it and holding our government accountable. We need to remember that the state works for all of us, not just the urban folk.

 

No, the women’s movement is not dead

(originally published in City Press as a column, on 12 August 2012)

Whenever I am asked about whether the women’s movement is dead in South Africa, I usually respond with a confident “no”.

But this answer is not as straightforward as it initially seems.

The fact that the question gets asked, and how often it is asked, tells us something about an existing anxiety for the women’s movement.

Clearly, enough people worry about the state of the women’s movement enough to keep asking the question.

Questions reveal more than a mere desire for a resolution.

The South African women’s movement is dead or dying if we anticipate the large number of women taking to the streets as well as the visible formation of mass-based organisations.

This is a reasonable expectation since claiming public space is a strategy much loved by such movements, whether we are thinking about
members of the West African women’s movement ­stripping in public, the South African women’s marches that culminated in the 1956 anti-pass laws, or anti-gender-based violence marches across the world.

Yes, there are fewer actions of this kind in South Africa than there once were. And where they exist, they tend to be smaller on average than Cosatu marches, for example.

Nor are there attempts to come up with something of the character of the now-romanticised Women’s National Coalition SA.

When this argument is made, people forget why the women’s coalition worked and how hard it was to ensure that it achieved its successes, choosing to focus in their nostalgia on the power of women from ­different political homes.

There are many reasons why we do not see thousands of women taking to the streets on a regular basis.

Organising thousands of women to march in this way, and to do so regularly, continues to be a challenge in a context where the efficacy of such marches is under scrutiny.

Feminist poet Audre Lorde is often quoted as having cautioned against using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Marching against the state using tools that those now in power have intimate knowledge of can be as ironic as it is ineffective.

Many of the older forms of women’s movement organising were premised on a very clear relationship to the state, whether as an enemy or a
potential partner.

Such an orientation does not work in the current dispensation.

This is not to say that there are no women’s organisations that think of the state as the enemy, given the free reign of violent masculinities in the political leadership of the nation as well as the ongoing brutalisation of sexual violence survivors within the legal justice system.

At the same time, many in the women’s movement are part of the state, or invest in models of patient collaboration with the state.

Linked to this taming of subversive political language is the manner in which the successes of the current democracy have also been premised on directly weakening an autonomous women’s movement.

They have led to a more fractured women’s movement than we have ­ever seen before.

While there are various organisations and formations of women who organise for varied ends, they often do so separately, rather than in ­alliance.

There is no question that the Rural Women’s Movement or the One in Nine Campaign do important work.

Yet, many discussions of the South African women’s movement often become obsessive reflections on the ANC Women’s League or ­expectations from women within the larger governing party’s ranks.

While this may be well-intentioned, it also renders other spaces within the women’s movement less visible.

It ­also reveals a hankering after a ­certain historic model of women’s ­organising that has worked well to get us the legislative framework we boast.

However, I am not convinced that these are tools that can get us further than we are.

It is clear that we need a re-energised women’s movement.

Such revitalisation is only possible with the crafting of radically new kinds of tools to deal with women’s realities today.

We will have to take a significant leap of the imagination, including questioning many of the tools that are as dear to activists in the women’s movement as they are to other members of the left in South Africa.

The challenges are different. The enemy is more elusive, if indeed we think of what we fight as that which resides in a discernible enemy.

Wanting Wambui Otieno back

The news of Wambui Otieno came at the end of August 2011, as South Africans wrapped up Women’s Month, and a particularly horrid women’s month it had been too, with backlash and misogyny in public spaces like we had not seen in a long time.

I have loved Wambui Otieno, Mau Mau, feminist, unbowed woman ever since I have known about her. Although I never met her personally, I followed her life – backwards and forwards – first, as the African feminist universe buzzed when she lost the legal battle to bury her husband where she wanted, then reading a borrowed copy of her memoir, and afterwards “stalking” her online.

If it were not such a phallic metaphor, I would speak of Wambui as a tower, like a lighthouse of sorts, casting her light all around her at a dazzling world-changing pace, standing unbowed no matter the waves, weather, standing steadfast as volcanoes and earthquakes shook the world beneath her feet.

That might well be someone else’s Wambui Otieno. But I imagine she would have frowned at the limits of my imagination.

So, I think of her more like a galaxy of possibilities. As she lived her life through increasingly unpredictable, but powerful choices, Wambui changed not just the world, but who we are in it too. When she joined Mau Mau as a teenager, and in later writing about this in ways that challenge expectations, she drove home the importance of living our convictions. Although she could have settled into a life cushioned by class in colonial Kenya, she chose radical politics rather than complicity or “safer” forms of resistance.

After independence, her principles often brought her into a collision path with her former comrades. Wambui spoke her truth regardless of the consequences. She stared danger in the face and not only spoke truth to power, but retained her revolutionary subjectivity in action. Consistently.

She epitomised the personal is political and loved who she wanted to, shamelessly and irregardless. Bless her. Ethnicity, class, age are all boundaries used to police who we may love on this continent, repeatedly. They are often ways of reminding women what our place is. These tools are sjamboks (whips) used to remind our spirits when we dare transgress the narrow limits of who society says we are.

Wambui loved in independent Kenya as freely as she had scouted, spied, negotiated and carried arms for Mau Mau in colonial Kenya. She stood by her decisions and refused to be intimidated, no matter who stood against her. She survived her fiance’s betrayal and the imprisonment, attempted to sue her rapist as a way of holding him accountable in a world that said colonisers mattered and African women did not, loved her comrade and husband even though he was the “wrong” ethnicity, fought his family in the legal and public courts to bury him where the couple had decided, and married a man she loved even though he was from a lower class and more than four decades younger.

And in video clips, Wambui looks not only defiant, but joyful. She lived her life on her own terms. And she inspired many of us to do the same: to live our truth, be unapologetic, and defend our revolutionary selves irregardless.

I still need her to be alive in the world. I want her back. I am not ready to “get over it”.

And so it is that in the week since Wambui Otieno died, I have been struck by an overwhelming sense of grief. Although I have thought about her daily, revisited why she was so important to me as an African, feminist, Pan-Africanist, stubborn woman, etc, I have been paralysed and able to articulate my grief only in short, brief bursts.
Until now.

For someone who feels and thinks deeply through words, their reading and their writing, this is quite startling. I do not know what to make of myself when I am being like this.

For, while people often mourn and feel closer to their heroes than makes sense, I have always observed such stated loss at a figure admired from a distance with some skepticism. Although fascinated by the world’s responses to Michael Jackson or Princess Diana before him, or even more recently Amy Winehouse, etc, I took it to mean that the loss was part recognition of the genius and part marking of the passing as necessary ritual.

As I battled to make sense of it all, I realised I was looking at the “wrong” places for explanation. Perhaps, looking at the meanings and experiences of loss closer to Wambui’s politics would help me out. I had remarked that the death of Albertina Sisulu marked the end of an era, so too Fatima Meer, Albertina Sisulu’s comrade and life partner, Walter Sisulu before that. The death of beloved revolutionaries is a bizarre experience. Watching them remembered afterwards, in ways that do not quite seem enough, just reinforces this feeling.

Then it hit me in the pit of my stomach. News of Wambui Otieno’s death felt like hearing news of Chris Hani’s death. While I had someone to direct my anger at – a system, and a series of faces – when Hani was brutally murdered, a similar rage was unleashed at the universe when Wambui died. But, without a clear target, for she died in hospital.

I am angry at her loss. It is too soon, for I still needed her in the world, and I am not ready to “get over it”. But, it has helped me enormously to have a community that loved and mourned her with me. See Kenne Mwikya’s beautiful blog post here: http://kennemwikya.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/wambui-otieno-circling-and-scrutinising/#comment-273 as well as Keguro Macharia’s poignant and powerfully political reflection on Gukira (here: http://gukira.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/welcome-mourning/#comment-2458).

My links are acting up, so I have posted the full URLs above.