What an astounding book! I am thrilled by it and the depth of thinking of the people whose essays comprise it. The majority of the essays are by people who identify as women. A really interesting dialogue and exchange is also captured in the book, where one of the contributors turns things upside down, so to speak, and forces the reader to think deeply about the usefulness of gender and gendering and the attendant power structures. Through their essay, we are compelled to question whether feminism applies outside of the bounds of gender binarism and if so on what grounds? Altogether, this collection of essays really does stretch the dominant or prevailing conception of what feminism is and the social constructs and orders it can apply to.
I have to say that in terms of its structure, the book is excellently edited. It consists of 5 parts, each comprised of 4 or 5 essays that explore a broad theme relating to the understanding, practice and implications thereof of contemporary feminism. The first section explores different women’s introduction to feminism and we are taken on a journey of what that looks like for each of them. Feminist writer and professor, Pumla Dineo Gqola writes poignant essays on the friendships whose essence, to her, communicate feminism: a special and unique world in each instance, each holding its own idiosyncratic breed of power, love and magic, and allowing her the space to be completely vulnerable, her truest self, without any judgement. In these relationships, she flourishes and is heard, held, supported, guided and discovers the beauty of sisterhood. As women, a lot of our true (and contested) self is often only explored in friendship. These relationships are often where we have been nurtured and lovingly counselled, sometimes over many years, in order to help us reach and become our better selves. When we fall down, our friends are always there to pick us up. And when it’s time to step it up, friends are there with that dose of “hard truth” we would much rather not hear (because sisterhood is honesty and helping each other journey towards the best version of ourselves, all the while holding this ideal up as a real possibility even when a friend does not yet see it for herself), to get us out of bad spaces and places. Friendship and sisterhood is solidarity. To stand with a friend through terminal illness, divorce, difficult parenting phases, co-parenting, and even single parent parenting. And that is what feminism among women is: solidarity. And this applies even further than the bounds of friendship. We stand for and with each other until all women have freedom of choice and incontrovertible liberties and rights.
FEMINISM AND MOTHERHOOD
As a mother, and particularly a mother of a boy, I am acutely aware of the need to parent consciously and actively. I firmly believe that a big part of the solution in terms of addressing socially entrenched and endorsed sexism lies in how we raise boys. I am always aware of how I speak about gender with him, making a conscious effort to not instill in him or reinforce certain inherently sexist role-casting. I have also actively taken steps to create separate identities. He is himself and I, myself. I do not own him and he doesn’t own me. The love I give him is a choice and I have agency and room to manoeuvre within that space. I do this to try and teach him that a woman is not to be possessed, controlled or owned. I travel frequently and am happy to leave him with family members or our trusted helper whom I know is a capable and responsible adult. In this way, I hope he will grow up knowing that women CAN come and go as they please and that they are not in servitude of men. Now, when I leave and it upsets him, he has learnt to quickly self-regulate and as an almost 9 year old, has learned to cope well in my absence such that my heart aches a little when we video-call and he’s full of energy and almost unbothered by the fact that I am not home. So then, Gqola’s words in one of her essays rang true for me:
As feminists raising boys…they need to grow up knowing the value of a full life for all genders, to take this as the norm, to understand that love and work are human endeavours that are chosen and negotiated every day. Mothering is a site of contradictions. [H]owever, the lines between responsible parenting and the self-sacrifice that our dominant culture expects from women on the one hand, and between belonging to yourself and harming your child through inattentiveness on the other, are sometimes marked on sandy, not rocky, shore.
In another reflection, she recalls the words of her friend Xoliswa, who then had just had a baby and went on to say:
My baby has a life, and will have a bigger life. I have a life. We are building our life together. She is not my life and I am not hers. I have a great life that I have worked quite hard to design just as it is. I have no intention of giving it up. It’s a relationship of love and nurturing and guidance and responsibility, and yes, there will be sacrifice, as there should be. But I will not sacrifice myself to motherhood. It would be a horrible thing to do to myself, and an injustice to my child.
When I read this passage, my heart leapt and my internal voice screamed and shouted so many YAAAAASSSes that you would have sworn I had stumbled upon a completely revolutionary idea. You see, it is that thing of “seeing yourself” in other women. Of course many women have this balanced and rational stance towards mothering, taking advantage of the fact that we as women in curreent times can now do so much more other than just mothering (choices, choices). But often in today’s society, where people seem to be vying for the title of “Most Self-Sacrificial Mommy”, these other women’s voices and experiences are being drowned out. I cannot tell you what it meant to me to read of South African feminist women who espouse similar ideas about mothering as I do.
FEMINISM AS SENSE-MAKING
Danielle Bowler uses her “standom” for Zadie Smith as a way of exploring what feminism means to her. It is the way in which she makes sense of, in an effort to break free of, the oppressive classifications and categorisations that we find imposed on us in society, the world. In a way and in the struggle for this liberation, feminism then becomes a necessity.
It has become clear how feminism has functioned in my life and why I (and so many others) require it like air, in a world where our breathing can be free or restricted according to the categories into which we have been filed: the narrow spaces constructed for ourselves, and our response to this clandestine configuration of power and privilege.
I have heard a lot of people refer to feminism as a cult and religion of sorts. I don’t know. But if that is what it appears to be to those people, then perhaps an appropriate question would be to ask why so many others seem to need and depend on the idea to just make it through life. However, dismissive indictments of zealotry will not do it for me. Please come with a well-developed and articulated critical think piece on why feminism is indeed a cultish overdone obsession and not a necessary lens, tool and means by which people can either imagine and even push towards a freer life for themselves and others.
An interesting dynamic of Bowler’s essay is that she uses and calls upon public figures as major players in the forming and informing of her feminism, in an almost allegorical sense. Solange Knowles and Smith are some of her “muses”. In contemporary times, the thought, perception (public and private) and image(s) of well-known feminist activists can often mean more than or have separate meaning in our minds to their art or works. Indeed, younger feminists’ feminism has largely been influenced by the works and words and the manner in which these artists choose to visually present themselves – think of what Beyoncé’s overt display and embrace of her sexuality has done for how we understand the bounds of female choice: I can even choose to make myself an object of sexual admiration; that too is part of owning and utilising my power. Interestingly, this is in contrast to the feminism of the older generation of South African women whose feminism was formed out of the socio-political environment of apartheid South Africa. This reality reminds me of my “favourite” (or rather most conflicting and thought-provoking) statement by Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela wherein she says “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.” It has always struck me as odd to have your whole life and persona be defined by such cruel and adversorial life conditions. It’s almost as though one is admitting that the enemy has indeed captured your soul. They have managed to rob you of independence and choice to be anything you would like and instead turned you into an an unwitting revolutionary. But you never had a choice. In the very literal struggle for your life, it was only automatic that one became a revolutionary. This difference in times and its impact on how feminism was ‘acquired’ is crystallized by well-known journalist Ferial Haffajee in her essay. In apartheid South Africa, the system forced women to become feminists, knowingly or unknowingly. For young women at that time, women such as Winnie Mandela, Lillian Ngoyi, Frene Ginwala, Jessie Duarte, Miriam Makeba and Helen Joseph among many others, were the symbols and examples of feminism in action. And so, just as much as it is good to read and have our definitions and understandings of feminism expanded, it is also necessary and all important to be able to, when push comes to shove, do. Activism, no matter the size and scale of the action, is always at the centre of feminism. And through this perspective, one, as a reader, realises that so many unlikely women out there practice feminism on a daily basis as a means of fighting back against the various oppressions they’re faced with. Feminism isn’t only a theoretical framework. It is a lived form of resistance and revolution. Nwabisa Mda, in her piece Understanding the Rules of Engagement writes:
The women in my life weren’t labelling themselves feminists or showcasing some sort of verification to validate that they qualified or belong…[I]nstead, they single-handedly own[ed] their ability to be successful in all aspects of their lives, while challenging societal barriers and perceptions of what it means to be a womxn.’
And so, women living under the repressive apartheid regime, simply went on and did what needed to be done in order to live and survive and lead and inspire not only whole communities and the nation, but families. Domestic workers somehow managed to generationally break the violent cycle of poverty, often in the absence of the financial muscle or assistance of a male figure, through sheer diligence to the concept of work and the need to feed, clothe, house and educate their children. These are feminists – women who in the most oppressive conditions, redefined the power, roles and abilities of a woman – from subjugation, to leaders of society and determiners of the future, destiny and fortunes of a nation.
I also enjoyed reading Haji Mohamed Dawjee’s piece. It highlights an all too often ignored and disparaged form of feminist resistance: that which takes place in the home, where patriarchal norms are often most pervasive. Because new age feminism seems to have very little empathy for women in spaces where patriarchy still reigns supreme (because we mistakenly and condescendingly label women in these circumstances as, in this day, being there by “choice”), not much credit is being given to the women who are rebelling against certain patriarchal expectations, traditions and religious practices, one day at a time. It may be as simple as refusing to wash the dishes, as symbolic as giving up cooking or as significant as refusing to participate in an arranged marriage. All these struggles matter. They matter. Every woman’s struggle should be my struggle. Every person’s struggle should be their neighbor’s struggle. And so feminism, again, is solidarity. Feminism is empathy. Feminism is fighting with and for the underdog; the voiceless; the powerless. Dawjee notes that ‘Feminism must be intersectional and empathetic or it will leave women behind.’
Using Celie from The Color Purple as an example to make the point, she shows that our journeys to liberation look different but that just because they do, this is no reason to diminish women’s journeys that take longer or involve more ‘long-suffering’ than others’ because the circumstances that lead to them being in those situations in the first place are often complex and as a result of having few choices to begin with. We don’t all start from the same place. Feminism threatens to be exclusionary and almost elitist if it fails to recognise that many women DO NOT have the choices many of us can today speak of as almost a given.
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