Feminism is: South Africans speak their truth, edited by Jen Thorpe: a book review

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Feminism is: South Africans speak their truth
Edited by Jen Thorpe
Kwela, 2018
ISBN: 9780795708275

“Feminism is love, transforming.” – Vuyiseka Dubula

I have been meaning to get this off my chest – literally and figuratively – for many years: They did not burn their bras! At least, not in 1969 when a demonstration against the Miss America beauty pageant took place in Atlantic City. A journalist for the Post, Lindsy Van Gelder, writing about the event, “coined the phrase ‘bra burning’ to describe a feminist protest in which pointy padded bras, restrictive girdles and other symbols of enforced femininity were going to be tossed in a bonfire outside the Miss America pageant. The Atlantic City fire chief later refused to give the demonstrators a permit, and so the Great Undies Immolation never happened ... but the phrase stuck” (states Van Gelder, writing on her homepage: http://lindsyvangelder.com/about). A myth about feminists was born. Even today, many people use the fictitious bra-burning incident of 1969 to patronise and distance themselves from feminism and all who embrace it as a way of life. The misconceptions about feminism abound. Thus it is heartening to read a collection of essays written by South African feminists about what feminism means to them.

The idea for Feminism is: South Africans speak their truth was born at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September 2016. The book’s editor, Jen Thorpe, attended the remarkable event “Talking feminism”, chaired by Mohale Mashigo and featuring Yewande Omotoso, Pumla Dineo Gqola, and Nnedi Okorafor. If you weren’t in the audience, do yourself a favour and watch it here:

Thorpe was encouraged to put out a call for essays. A dialogue began; a process of sharing and understanding followed. “Feminism is about the will to engage,” Anja Venter states in her contribution to the book. The call itself had to be modified when it reached B Camminga, the contributor of one of the most inspiring pieces of the collection. “I am a trans person. I am also a feminist,” Camminga writes, steering us away from the “damaging” and “futile dichotomy” of seeing gender in binary terms. Camminga felt excluded by Thorpe’s initial call for essays, as it addressed only woman feminists, instead of opening up the category of “feminist” to non-binary and trans people. To Thorpe’s credit, she re-examined her position and reworded her intentions as the final introduction to the book shows (apart from the one slip-up I will return to later). Instead of the binary pronouns “he”/“she”, “his”/“her”, etc, Camminga uses “they” and “their” with which to identify. Camminga’s contribution to the collection includes the correspondence they had with the editor about the challenge of being sensitive and inclusive towards people who do not identify as either male or female. They make us aware that the binary way of seeing gender must become a thing of the past, because it is sexist and exploitative. “[W]e are faced with a challenge of how to reshape and reform our social and political worlds so people like me can also write here [in the anthology] … Feminism, for me – and again drawing from bell hooks – is at its core about ending sexism in all forms, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Anything else misses the point.

Feminism is is divided into five parts: “Inspiration”, “Inclusions and exclusions”, “Conversations”, “Power and fury” and “In practice”. Each section includes a myriad of amazing voices: mostly essays, but there are also interviews and poems. The writers speak from the heart, touching every nerve in one’s own personal life. You don’t have to agree to be moved. “There is no cookie-cutter feminism,” says Haji Mohamed Dawjee. I often found myself arguing with the contributors, my anger fuelled by disappointment or misunderstanding. A few times, I was so touched, it was impossible to hold back the tears (for example, while reading Gabeba Baderoon’s poem “The word”, and Dela Gwala’s account of how she turned to feminism in order to survive the trauma and consequences of rape, and Vuyiseka Dubula’s story of how feminism guided her after her HIV diagnosis in 2001, and when encountering these lines in the poems included by Genna Gardini: “intoned a litany of other girls who also found themselves/ at the wrong end of stones thrown by familiar men./ Of other girls who found themselves dead”). But, I also smiled – a lot. There is so much joy in recognising yourself in the reality of others. “We long to see ourselves,” writes Danielle Alyssa Bowler. Or, in the words of Aaisha Dadi Patel: “There is nothing as feminist as a woman’s own voice telling her story.”

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s contribution comes from her insightful collection of essays Reflecting rogue: inside the mind of a feminist (2017). She writes about being a feminist parent and pays tribute to the people in her life who helped her achieve her goal to “be the best parent I could be: self-reflexive, attentive, and with a full life of my own”. Many of the authors honour those who have been instrumental in their understanding of what feminism is and how to live it in the everyday. “I didn’t learn my feminism out of a textbook. I appreciate Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer,” writes Ferial Haffajee, and continues: “but my feminist models were closer to home. Lilian Ngoyi, Frene Ginwala, Winnie Mandela, Helen Joseph, Charlotte Maxeke, Lydia Kompe, Aninka Claassens, Pregs Govender, Miriam Makeba … the women who helped shape South Africa are my sheroes.” Other influential sheroes from all walks of life mentioned in the collection are Michelle Obama, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, Johanna Ncala, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Mary Wollstonecraft, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Amber Rose, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Eve Ensler and Margaret Mead.

Only one man is referred to throughout the book, but shall remain unnamed here; only negative comments accompany his appearances. Perhaps, the only positive contribution he has ever made to feminism is how, since his election, he has mobilised all of us to fight harder, to be kinder, to remind ourselves of “never again”.

It is important to remember the people who have been paving the way towards a just and kind society. These figures do not have to be famous. In her contribution, Gugulethu Mhlungu acknowledges her close family members: “My grandmother would give birth to and raise a feminist, and my mother – a black girl born to a single mother in a little town called Anneville in rural KZN – would in turn raise a feminist. In so doing, they made feminism an inheritance, one I hope to continue if I decide to have kids” (my italics). I love the way Mhlungu asserts her agency and the right to choose with that seemingly simple “if”, and the way she speaks about feminism as an “inheritance”. In her contribution, Joy Watson reminds us of the concept of “motherline”, which “was developed by Jungian analyst Naomi Lowinsky to describe an invisible thread that links women to each other”. These lines, real and metaphorical, are drawn across the collection.

Often, it is the people we work with who inspire us the most. “Feminism in the twenty-first century is not for the faint of heart: it’s a blood sport, and to survive you need a tribe you’d take a bullet for to have your back,” writes Larissa Klazinga, and continues to emphasise solidarity as “a radical act that confronts patriarchy’s most fundamental tenant – that women are untrustworthy; they lie, they ask for it, and when they get it, they deserve it. Solidarity is love as a political act, and it disrupts and enrages those it opposes precisely because it exposes rape as a systematic tool of oppression.” Klazinga served on the One in Nine Campaign national steering committee, which sought justice for Fezekile Kuzwayo after she accused Jacob Zuma of rape.

While in her contribution Jen Thorpe lists the ground-breaking laws which advanced women’s rights in South Africa, Neoka Naidoo expands feminism to ecocentric feminism, and Kathleen Dey writes about her experiences as counsellor and director at Rape Crisis. Thembe Mahlaba speaks of the work she does with two colleagues (Nwabisa Mda and Bongeka Masango) at Pap Culture: “three black womxn who are trying to contribute to the movement’s narrative through the work, initiatives, and values we hold”. But, she is unsure whether it is vital to claim the term “feminism” for their enterprise: “Feminism is … most days, I don’t know.” She names Rihanna as an inspiration, as “she stands for the complete ownership and control of her body”.

Danielle Alyssa Bowler devotes her essay to the work and influence of Zadie Smith. She breaks with the convention of addressing the author by their last name, creating on the one hand a rather awkward familiarity, on the other emphasising the impact of the British literary icon on her personal life (in the same essay, Toni Morrison is addressed by her last name). Bowler is a self-proclaimed “internet addict” and confers the “‘everything’ status” – “the highest honour that our generation bestows” – on her idol. She is looking for understanding and believes that Smith’s, or Zadie’s, pen renders patriarchy, misogyny and sexism in “absolute clarity”: “‘Trademark Zadie’ might be part fiction, even almost entirely fiction, but her function is certainty in my life. Her function is clarity.”

Dela Gwala, a rape survivor, describes how watching an episode of Oprah’s Master Class with Maya Angelou online “felt like being held, being rocked back and forth – being told that everything was going to be okay and actually believing it”. As she struggled “to see myself in anything” post-trauma, she turned to other survivors and intersectional feminists for solace. Today, she runs UCT Survivors, a student organisation for survivors of sexual violence.

Colleen Higgs, founder and publisher of the South African independent feminist press Modjaji Books, remembers Adrienne Rich, who “articulated so clearly and exquisitely thoughts I barely knew I harboured, feelings I was disturbed by. I began to realise that there was more choice, more agency, and it had to be actively claimed.” Rich was an inspiration for Modjaji Books (http://www.modjajibooks.co.za/), home to courageous feminist writers like Tracey Farren (author of the ground-breaking Whiplash/Tess), Michelle Hattingh (I’m the girl who was raped) and Sindiwe Magona (Please, take photographs), and titles like the recent A to Z of amazing South African women. For Higgs, feminism is “an opportunity … a kind of militant love, a desire to make the world a better place for everyone, in whatever small or big ways that are possible”.

Helen Moffett, who also published Strange fruit (a collection of poetry about infertility) with Modjaji Books, acknowledges the necessity, power and restorative character of feminism, but also its contentious side, and concentrates her piece on “a series of meditations on differences, gaps, silences, assumptions, and omissions arising between feminists separated by age or generation”.

Comparably, Ferial Haffajee speaks of feeling “profoundly uneasy” with the younger generation of feminists: “I’ve landed on their wrong side – when I questioned where the non-racialism was in a #BlackWomenOnly movement, I got scalded by the shade visited on me on social media. Sometimes I find the language of the new feminism alienating in how insider and intellectual it is compared with the more embracing, experiential feminism I grew up in.” Yet, as she also points out, “the baton has been passed, and the new version gives patriarchy the kick it deserves. I watch in awe.”

Haji Mohamed Dawjee also laments the lack of “a degree of empathy and respect when it comes to ALL women” and insists on feminism being “intersectional, and empathetic, or it will leave women behind”. She sees it as her “responsibility to throw other women a buoy” and makes a seminal point: “We need feminist allies, not feminist adversaries.”

While reading Aaisha Dadi Patel, I found myself thinking of a recent tweet (4 March) by the playwright and novelist Nadia Davids, with whom I have the honour to work at PEN South Africa. Davids commented on a scene she witnessed: “Things I love about Cape Town; seeing a family having a meal; mom wearing a scarf, one daughter in a burka, one in a sleeveless tank top, another with a loose scarf. No judgement, no coercion, no pathologising; just a family of individuals making different choices. This is our normal.” Patel writes in a similar vein: “Muslim women are not a homogenous group with a single identity, and do not have a homogenous struggle. Muslim women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and races.” And, she goes on to point out that, unfortunately, “liberal feminism doesn’t always see or realise this, and this is one of the biggest reasons why many Muslim women reject the word ‘feminism’. They see it as an oppressive force … [It] denies Muslim women their agency and stereotypes them as oppressed, ill-informed, and submissive. This is not very feminist at all.” Bongeka Masango also reminds us that “the overreaching theme of the movement is allowing women the freedom to choose the life they want to live, and to go ahead and live it”. Her collaborator at Pap Culture emphasises the need to create “spaces that encourage open, honest and constructive conversations about issues womxn face and, ultimately, that work to overcome these issues to ensure we all thrive and have the ability to empower others”.

Solidarity and collaboration might be wished for and aspired to, but people constantly feel excluded. Owethu Makhathini says: “No one is showing up for black women.” She is justifiably angry and feels let down by mainstream feminism, espousing womanism instead: “Womanism is just for black women. For Us, By Us.” In her essay, Makhatini describes what womanism is to her personally. Being unfamiliar with the exact theoretical and historical background of the term, I was disappointed that the otherwise very useful glossary at the end of the book did not provide some guidance. Google Dictionary defines it as “a form of feminism that acknowledges women’s natural contribution to society (used by some in distinction to the term feminism and its association with white women)”, which was also not particularly helpful. Wikipedia, however, offered a thorough introduction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Womanism.

Discussing the pitfalls of white feminism – “a term now redolent of unexplored privilege; an unwillingness to grapple with the imperative of intersectional politics; of a particular oblivious, elite form of social consciousness” – Rebecca Davis reminds us of the “blind spots” which have to be taken into consideration in any political movement. She hankers for engagement: “I yearn … for a way to have sincere conversations about these issues without being shouted down by more ‘radical’ voices,” she says, and, “I long for a renewed focus on what used to be one of the most essential fundamentals of left-wing thinking: solidarity. And, the key to solidarity is empathy: the imaginative generosity to see matters from the perspective of another” (my emphasis). Two other words stick out in the latter statement: solidarity and empathy. The two cannot be emphasised enough as they echo in the book. The older I get, the more I am beginning to grasp that empathy is key to any meaningful existence, and there is no empathy without imagination. Incidentally, there is no other space that exposes the damaging effects of our lack of empathy as much as social media. Many of the contributors to Feminism is note the hostility they encounter online, how challenging they find the diverse platforms to navigate. We have to be able to discuss, counter, overthrow our opinions, at the same time allowing for all of those participating to leave with their “dignity intact”, as Davis says. She is aware how tiring it can be to solve the ignorance of strangers, and thus resolves for herself to exercise more “patience”. She points out that “[r]esearch has repeatedly shown that shouting someone down, or reflexively labelling them as a bigot, simply causes people to double down on existing prejudices because they feel embarrassed and insulted”. She calls for “civil, open conversation”.

In order for that kind of conversation to be possible, we need to listen, too – and often, and “never stop listening”, in Michelle Hattingh’s words. Even if I find myself alienated by some of the comments Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng makes in her essay, I am aware that she is making one of the most valid points when stating that “[i]t is mandatory for us in the activist/feminist space to continuously check ourselves so as not to silence certain voices and elevate others”. How pervasive and entrenched our conflicted ways of seeing the world are is reflected in the only use of the word “women” being in the introduction, on page eight; after the exchange with Camminga, everywhere else in the text, Thorpe has evidently exchanged the non-inclusive word “women” with “feminists”. Only a few lines down, Thorpe writes that “the desire to understand is there, and that is the very first step to building a feminism that is more inclusive, accommodating, and powerful”. Indeed, but much has to be unlearned. We need to be aware that women (or womxn) do not need “to be given a voice”, as one contributor proposes; we have a voice, but not everybody recognises it. It is the recognition that we strive for. Also, while we address human rights, we have to be careful with statements about issues concerning our complex relationships with the only other sentient beings on the planet, animals, and how we talk about their rights and their violations. We need to understand that the languages we use to speak about feelings and ideas and the theories they encompass do not always feel adequate to others, as Gogo Ngoatjakumba reveals in her conversation with Nomalanga Mkhize: “I have stopped reading theory because I am so tired of English,” she says, adding later on: “So, we understand Black life, but tend to apply too much of a white neurotic lens to really understand it.” For some, the word “feminism” itself does not feel adequate, as Nancy Richards explains in her contribution, wishing that “we could think of a culturally all-embracing word”. We need a “doing word”, a “being word” (Sarah Koopman). These, among so many others, are the challenges we are facing.

I recognise how much work I, personally, need to do in order to live a kinder, more conscious life. While reading the essays in this collection, I found myself repeatedly rethinking my own attitudes. To start with, I wanted to be as sensitive and as aware as I could be while writing my review of the book. Change of attitude often begins with language. I hope that each of the words I have chosen for this review is respectful towards the contributors, their views and their sterling work. I would like to follow in Kagure Mugo’s footsteps when she says, “I want to be the type of person who practises what she preaches, and who is open about her worldviews in a way that is as honest and vulnerable as possible.”

As we continue with our work, we cannot forget that, as the PEN International Women’s Manifesto states: “For many women in the world – and for almost all women until relatively recently – the first, and the last, and perhaps the most powerful frontier was the door of the house she lived in: her parents’ or her husband’s home. For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself … PEN believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It is a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge” (http://pensouthafrica.co.za/defending-freedom-of-expression/womens-manifesto/). This reality cannot be taken for granted as we search for new ways of being in the world, and a new language to describe them.

I stand with Camminga, who has the following wish: “I want a world where gender is not oppressive or enforced; where gender says nothing about your capabilities, your value, your meaning, your desires, and your life expectancy … Until feminism becomes about more than just women (though we can and indeed must still theorise from that space); until feminism is inclusive of the genderqueers, the freaks, the femmes, trans women, trans men, and all the myriad names to come; until it’s about all of us, and we are all free, everyone loses.”

Let us roam.

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  • Survivors of sexual violence. It is hard to survive. It keeps coming back. And no place in the religion to truly address it. When I broke my ties with the patriarchal religion (the terrible chains of religion), started telling my stories to friends and family, I became at last ... a feminist. The right to tell. The right to speak. And then at last the right to write.

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