(Un)Happy Womens Day?

In South Africa, we celebrated Women’s Day yesterday, we sent each other messages about the strength of women, we wished other women a happy women’s day, we decorated our messages with flowers. But what did it all mean? Did we stop to have conversations about how gender bias still exists in our homes, in our thoughts and actions? Did we stop to talk about what it truly means to be female in our country and in the world we live in? I’m not sure. Part of me feels like we’ve cheapened Women’s Day somehow, like we’ve missed the plot on what we should (or rather should not) be celebrating.

When I woke up this morning post our public holiday my initial thoughts were that I was grateful for a day off but that I didn’t really understand the what the point of Women’s Day was. Sure I understand the history and the significance of the day in our country and sure I’m moved by the strength and determination of those women who marched all those years ago but if I consider my actions on Women’s Day, I’m really not sure I gave enough thought to where we are as women in our country or even beyond that. Stats SA helped to paint a fairly grim picture this morning as I read about how we’ve achieved gender parity in terms of access to education but that women are still getting left behind in terms of pay, promotions and benefits. I had to stop for minute and breathe deeply before I could accept that one in five women in South Africa have been subjected to physical violence by a partner. I remember attending a Women’s Day event and one of the speakers telling the audience that she had seen first-hand that domestic violence increased when a woman moved up the ranks in her career, threatening the traditional power dynamics that serve a patriarchal home.

So where does that leave us as South Africans? It leaves us applauding and cheering the man who talks of how “women are better/stronger/more intelligent” than men are, all the while knowing that he reigns over a home and a position that patriarchy has prepared him for.  Personally, if I never have a conversation about how “women are better” than men again, it would be too soon. That isn’t the point. The point of talking through these issues shouldn’t be some placitude about the power of a woman or how we compare against men. The concepts of “being better than”, to me, just serve the narrative of “women’s work” and “men’s work” instead of challenging the assumptions in the first place and it is immeasurably frustrating and juvenile. We celebrate and cheer, yet we’re unwilling to look deeper, into our own homes where we know that the burden of unpaid work still falls on women, a fact that will continue to stifle women until we are willing to acknowledge it and take steps towards shifting it. We want to claim progress (or maybe just the public holiday) but we don’t genuinely want to have the difficult conversations that will help us move forward. We laugh and celebrate a day off from work, yet women in our communities are being raped, more often by someone close to them and I wonder just what it is that we are celebrating. We read the stats, we are exposed to the reality almost daily and we face this reality with a sort of jaded indifference.

Last week I came across the stat that over 130 million girls were not in school worldwide and I thought of Amartya Sen’s paper, written in 1990 titled “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”. My first taste of Sen’s writing moved me because it brought to light the severity of gender bias and unequal access to basic resources. I would read, and reread Sen’s work many times over after that. Sure, this statistic of girls not being in school wasn’t as severe as the mortality of girls in Sen’s paper, but I wondered if my assumption was valid. I wondered if it wasn’t just as severe. I wondered if robbing girls the opportunity to be educated, if that “unfreedom”, was not the same as robbing them of their lives. I think about how, closer to home, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and subsequent careers are still dominated by men, serving to validate the myth that men are simply naturally inclined or better at these subjects than women are, and I wonder about the lost potential. I wonder about the “missing women” in our country, those missing in male dominated industries, those missing a seat at the table where real decisions are made. Those “missing women” who carry an unequal burden in their homes, those “missing women” who have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition that a man would.

It’s enough to break your heart. Not just because women should be given the platform, not just because it is “right” to level the access to opportunity, but because it makes sense. It makes sense that we capitalise on the opportunity that an inclusive society can bring. It makes sense that every member of our community has the opportunity to live a life they chose to value. It makes sense that our women can live in a country where they are not afraid, it makes sense that the men in our country respect women enough to also be part of breaking the cycle. It also makes sense that we stop pretending this isn’t an issue, it makes sense that we are part of the solution.  If I had one ardent hope on this day post our celebration of Women’s Day, it would be that today, you start a conversation. That you start now. That you look to your friends, you look to yourself and ask how you can be part of the solution. You ask what your ideas are about what it means to be a man or women in today’s world, you ask what messages we give to young boys and girls, you ask how in your homes you chose to serve the gender biases you were raised with. It may not be a solution, but it sure will be a step towards understanding, and in that understanding there might be a hope of knowing what the answer is.

Castrating Casanova

When I was a child my wily mother would seek a few moments of peace by allowing my sister and I to have a bubble bath. There was nothing I loved more even though the time spent in said bubble bath would almost always be filled with strange and elaborate games sprung from the fertile mind of my sister. Looking back, all those games had but one common thread, that I was the slave girl to a beautiful princess who would demand an endless supply of “tea” (the top of a shampoo bottle filled with bath water and topped up with bubbles). I always wanted to be old enough so that I could be the one shaping the storylines of those games, never realising that when you have an older sister, you’d reach the end of your days before you’d ever be “old enough”. Even though I didn’t shape those stories, I most certainly knew how they would unfold. I too would be a princess and like in every fairy-tale, I would be rescued by a handsome prince. My stories were as dreadfully unimaginative as they were unyieldingly Caucasian, it would be easier to spot an alien than brown skin in any of the fairy tales I’d read as a child. Those were childish games, dreamt of in a childish mind, where men were heroes and women were sweet virgins waiting to be rescued. Except of course, I wonder when it was that we stopped asking men to be the heroes of the story. I wonder when it was that we started raising boys to be men instead.

This has been a difficult blog for me to write, I’ve mulled over the idea for a while, constantly picking it up and then dismissing it because the words I put together don’t fully shape the thoughts hurtling around in my mind. But the idea, I suppose, is a simple one. What happens to the boys raised to be heroes when they have no one to rescue anymore? What happens when those boys raised full of bravado find their masculinity threatened? What happens to the boys who grew up and were unprepared for the world they find themselves in now? The answer isn’t only the increased violence that seems to befall women as they progress in their careers. I heard a female executive speak, with quiet disbelief and horror in her voice, that she was observing a disturbing trend; the higher up women seemed to rise in the corporate world, the angrier their spouses became. To gain one form of power was to lose another. It is a harsh reality that for some men, a more successful partner is emasculating.

The answer isn’t only in the fact that women still downplay their smarts, their abilities so as not to threaten, so as to be accepted, to be liked. My sister (Princess of the Bubble Bath) tells me the other night that she read about a study that showed women of all ages uniformly downplaying their intellect when they were around men. Thoughts of the sheer waste of that capacity, that potential, are heavy and suffocating, to understand the constraint is to imagine a world without it. How could it be true that we’re still playing to the gender stereotypes of our parent’s generation? Is it because we never stopped creating the male hero, the Casanova, the strong yet gentle breadwinner, the provider? Part of me believes that. Part of me believes that we are still raising boys who will grow up and find their place in this world threatened. Those boys will grow up to see powerful women wielding invisible machetes and clutch their nether regions with despair.

Rightly or wrongly, I look to the mother here. I look to the women here, not because men are stupid and incapable of seeing logic. Not because the power struggles that we face daily are our fault or because no man on earth wants to see an end to patriarchy. I look to the women because I am one. I look to women because no one will understand this better than we do. I look to women and I ask, what is it we expect of our boys? Of our men? Do we expect a toxic, old fashioned version of strength? Do we expect to be taken care of? Do we expect to be rescued? Because if we do, we are part of the problem as well. We cannot to continue to propagate the power myth with our words and actions, to our sons, our brothers and our partners, if this is a myth we are seeking to dispel. I write this, and I know full well what happens to some women who challenge the power norms, and by no means do I ever want to trivialise violence or suggest that the one who survives it is somehow responsible for it in any form or way. But for me, there has to be something more here, we have to be able to look deeper and beyond the overt cases of sexism in our society. We have to start thinking deeply about what kind of messages live in our words, said or unsaid, and what clues lie in our everyday actions, conscious or not. Because if we are willing to do so, we continue to grow boys who will struggle and who will fight for significance and power in a world that would seem to take it away from them.

The Curious Case of the Detachable Penis

Do you know what’s weird about me? I like thinking deeply about things, things I don’t understand, things I want to explore, things that interest me. I swear, inside my brain there is a senile old man pushing a wheelbarrow, traversing through my experiences and collecting stray ideas and thoughts before arriving at my front door and upending his discoveries at my feet. Of course, faced with “gifts” from W-Man (he’s also kind of a plaid wearing hipster), I have no choice but to devote an unending supply of energy into figuring out my strays so that they can be rehomed elsewhere. One such gem that W-Man presented to me in my teenage years was the idea of “penis envy”. I had never heard of a more ludicrous thought, I mean “pen envy” I definitely get, in fact, as someone who loves the old school guide of pen over paper, I often am guilty of pen envy. Big time. But to envy a penis of all things? Nope, teenage brain and W-Man laughed that one straight out. It’s only years later that I start to wonder about Freud and if I haven’t misunderstood his theory.

I’m not saying that I have penis envy or that I believe the theory holds true, but I have been thinking lately that maybe having a penis would be useful. I mean imagine this, instead of me getting angry the other day, not the screaming-throwing-chairs-around angry, but the cross-your-arms-and-lean-back-in-your-chair kind of angry, I could have just whipped out my penis and broken the tension with the resounding slap of it on the table. Instead of me having to yet again defend my right to exist as Patron of Patriarchy’s peer, we could have just laughed of our “misunderstanding”. Oh, how we would have laughed- Patron of Patriarchy and I. How we would have laughed and laughed. Because instead of Patron of Patriarchy feeling insecure, threatened and a deep desire to see me fail, he would have seen me as one of his own. He would have wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes and slapped me on the back and joked of how just moments ago he had asked me to prove myself to him. It would not have been my education, years of experience, capability or that I was good at my job that would have changed his mind about me, it would have been the penis that I literally brought to the table. I’m no psychologist, but if that’s how Freud had described “penis envy”, then I would have been the first one to raise my hand and say “I’m broken” because the inconvenient truth from an inconvenient woman is that life is easier as a man. Patriarchy is absolutely amazing, if you have a penis that is, for the rest of us, let’s just say it’s not that grand. So yes, I am envious of those who have had an easier time than I have, I envious of those who don’t feel like they need to run twice as hard just to stay in the same spot. I’m envious of those who get a chance to fail and who are applauded for it, I’m envious of those who are naturally heard and who don’t have to fight for it. You bet I’m envious.

I am not, however, so envious that I want a penis permanently attached to me, that’s so old school I almost fell asleep thinking about it. No, I want a detachable penis to use as and when I see fit. In fact, since I’m on this path, how about having a wide variety of these penises? A handbag sized one or an emergency one that you could attach to your car keys. A business penis for those important meetings where your tiny female voice doesn’t exist. A home penis for the days when you want to claim that you’re “just not as good at washing the dishes”. A family penis when someone wants to ask why you haven’t had children yet and prescribes some home remedy for a quick pregnancy. A disco penis (I am picturing glitter) for the guy who thinks buying you a drink means you’ve consented to having sex with him. Sign me up, I’ll take one of each in every colour you have.

The feminist who did not know her name

“So, you’re some kind of feminist then?” He makes a face like he’s just taken a drink of milk that’s gone sour before he recovers and smirks at me. He knows that his position commands authority, he knows that “feminism” is an ugly, dirty word and that what he really wants is my obeisance. There is something about me, something about my demeanour that challenges him, that challenges his view of how women should behave. He is eager to show me that there is no place for my attitude here. He smirks like he knows he’s won. Hush now little girl and remember your place. Emotions rage within me. Fear: please don’t dislike me or think badly of me. Shame: did I really have to be that outspoken? Finally, anger: my voice will not be silenced to soothe your ego. I am surprised at the quickness and clarity of my response. My answer is short, containing one word, yet it is long enough to carry the challenge and conviction of my thoughts. It is one word to seal my fate and to claim my title, I look him dead in the eye and say, “Unashamedly”.

When I used to talk of feminism I always felt the need to clarify what I meant, to somehow clear the air just in case you mistook me for a radical.  When the topic was broached I’d um and ah my way through a mandatory explanation, it was almost as if I was trying to grasp something that my fingers could not close around. I’d offer strained, empty words that were never sufficient. I’d often say, “Yeah, I’m a feminist, but it doesn’t mean I’m about to burn my bra in the streets” to soothe, to placate, to let others know that I was not contagious. In a way, I was not explaining anything, I was apologising.  What I was actually saying was “I’m sorry that I believe something that upsets you Mr Man, please don’t hate me”. This is me; I’m arrogant, unapologetic and a woman who is, more often than not, sure of her voice, yet there I was, time and again, explaining my way, apologising for wanting something that is so basic. That bothered me, it bothered me deeply. Why did I even care?   Maybe it’s rooted in a desire to fit in and to be liked (two things I’ve never excelled at, but that, are only human to desire). Maybe I knew that in this complex world, women must still tread carefully not to hurt the fragile male ego. Maybe I was cognisant of the fact that I had seen the face of leadership in our country and that it was male and I knew that no one likes the girl who causes trouble. Maybe it went beyond that. Maybe, beneath it all, I had some sort of a qualm with the very notion of feminism itself. Maybe I wore my title of feminist like a poor man wears an ill-fitting coat in winter; without true choice, in an attempt to protect myself from the elements because I had nothing else. Did I want equal access to opportunity across the gender barrier? Did I question the roles that we are taught to be “natural” for men and women? Did I believe that no one gender had the monopoly over logic, reason, intelligence or being nurturing? Of course, I did, but still the word “feminist” caught in my throat. How did the very notion of feminism become so ugly? Men and women alike have more than accepted the notion that feminism is about man hating, that feminists are a bunch of unhappy, angry females who are, deep down inside, very unfilled (no doubt because no self-respecting man would marry them). We have seen the “feminist” and we do not like her; she’s fat, unmarried and ugly. She has warts and stray hair grows from her chin. She spews vile comments with breath so terrible we cannot pay attention to her words. We look at her and feel sorry that she lives such an unfulfilled life. It is the beautiful, docile, well put together wife and mother who epitomizes the female ideal, we’d listen to her, we’d want our daughters to be just like her. Who wants to be a man hating, (god forbid unmarried) feminist?

So, this is my truth, I am a feminist, warts and all. I am unapologetically a feminist. The fact that it has taken me this long to say that is something I shall berate myself for later, but the important thing is that I am here now. I am here, and I am part of what we have started seeing feminists as, as men and women who share common beliefs about the empowerment of women, as people who believe in equal rights and that we need to see an end to patriarchy. Chimamanda Adichie was not just right when she said, “We should all be feminists”, she was making a call to action and it is one that we cannot ignore. I am a feminist, unashamedly and unapologetically, and I ask you my brothers and sisters, are you?

Who died at my wedding?

Am I the only person who is more than just a little perturbed by how weird most wedding speeches are? I’ve attended wedding after wedding where speeches consist of a strange but predictable formula; a list of previous accomplishments (academic, climbing the corporate ladder, being great at taking selfies or whatever the kids are doing these days) and of course an embarrassing story thrown in for some wholesome humour at the bride/groom’s expense. At one wedding I sat there, trying not to pick at the shiny poky things on my sari, and wondered “Why does this speech sound like a eulogy?”. Could it be that the bride’s friends and family were actually paying tribute to a part of the bride that was now dead? Was this newly married woman shedding her old “singledom” skin to expose the new marital one? No in fact, a more accurate question would be something along the line of “Does a caterpillar die when it turns into a butterfly?” Now, it’s not entirely gender based, but it got me thinking. It got me thinking about who I was before I got married and it got me wondering who people see me as now. Sadly, I know that in the eyes of many I had gone from being someone’s daughter to being someone’s wife.

Backtrack to a couple of months ago to when I had been asked to introduce myself in a work setting. Naturally I state my name and talk about the project I’m working on before making a characteristically unfunny self-depreciating joke and taking my seat again. Nothing out of the blue there, just Denira being an idiot. Anyway, as I sit someone mentions that I haven’t provided nearly enough information and I quickly think of some of salient points about the project I’m current working on. I’m busy preparing my “serious work voice” when the question “So are you married and do you have kids?” is directed towards me. Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know someone socially, it’s great when you feel that the people you work with see you as more than just a worker bee and actually understand that you’re human. So why did this question throw me? I guess more than anything, I never grew up dreaming that one day I’d have the title “Wife”. Sure, I thought I’d be married (to MacGuyver of course- a girl never forgets her first love) but I never assumed that this title would be the one that would overwrite every other one. Every other one that I had fought for, that I had worked hard for, that I had earned. My “wifedome” was not something I had earned, my husband’s love for sure, but I didn’t feel like I had earned the weight of the all-powerful slate cleaning title of “Wife”. I was stupid enough to assume that whether I was a wife or mother would have no bearing on other’s perception of me. But I guess as a woman in my thirties, there are certain moulds that I must fit into. And this is what gets me, it’s not like I don’t like being someone’s wife (the fact that that someone is the best human on earth is a strong plus), but that’s not all I am for goodness sake! I surely don’t go up to men I’ve just met and ask about their marital status’s or about how many offspring they’ve spawned. And it’s not because I don’t care or because I’m not curious, it’s just a far more acceptable opening line for a man than it is for a woman. And of course, an unmarried, childless woman over thirty has a far greater societal price to pay than a man does.

So, I can rant and rave and stop wearing my ring (although it’s so shinny!), I can create a few more enemies and blatantly tell people that it’s none of their business but I have a more sinister plan. I chose instead to talk to every young woman I know about “becoming a wife”, to tell them that I’m surprised that we still need to have these conversations. To tell them that they don’t need to change who they are once they’re married, to tell them not to buy into the antiquated thinking that becoming a wife is the pinnacle of a young woman’s life. To beg them to have better speeches written about them at their weddings, speeches that talk of all the great things they’re still to do, speeches that talk about how their husbands will be there supporting them in their path to glory. I plan to talk to every young man I know and urge them not to make the mistakes their fathers did. To tell them that we are all born to be more than our parents were, that we can only do that by breaking the shackles of bias and perceptions. It frustrates me that this should even be a conversation topic, that here I am in the year 2017, writing about the fact that women should be defined by more than their marital status or motherhood.