Saturday, August 25, 2012

Defining Womanhood

The latest from our beloved president, Mr Jacob Zuma on the role of a woman in society. In light of his daughter, Duduzile Zuma's marriage, he says:
"I was also happy because I wouldn't want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society. I know that people today think being single is nice. It's actually not right. That's a distortion. You've got to have kids. Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother."
Now, I won't go on and reiterate what many feminist women have already said. That's not necessary. They're all out there speaking intense wisdom, the kind that makes you want to say "Lawd! Preach Woman!"
As Morna pointed out, equating womanhood with motherhood is an incredibly narrow view. "Yes many women are mothers and delight in that role – I am one of them – but that doesn't mean if you don't have children and you are single you are any lesser a being."
This reminded me of a Congolese (DRC) woman I know, who like many stay at home mothers, delights herself in raising children and being the kind of woman whose entire existence revolves around ensuring that her children are well taken care of and her husband's needs are met. She does not work, her role is strictly domestic and while I see nothing wrong with that at all - after all, she has a right to choose her own direction as she sees fit - I found it problematic when she chastised me over the fact that I do not seem to know how to cook. Her statements veered along the lines of implying that there is something wrong with the fact that I apparently, in her eyes, cannot cook because one day I would be a mother and wife (her words) and it would be somewhat shameful if I could not carry out this role I suppose I should assume because I am female.
The narrow-minded, singular nature of this view is made clear in the fact that she totally discounted the fact that, a) I may not be interested in having children, b) I may not even be straight, c) education and building a career may be more important to me than raising a family, and d) we're not living in the dark ages anymore. But this is just the way that people try to ascribe their own values onto others without realizing that everyone obviously cannot share your mindset, that is just impossible, and that is the very attitude that our sincerely undiplomatic president has. I'm going to say what I believe, criticize you accordingly, and not give a damn whether you antagonize or not, bish, deal with it!
Lisa Vetten, one of the country's foremost researchers and analysts on gender and violence, took issue with the implications of Zuma's sentiment that there was something wrong with a woman if she was single. "From our experience of counselling women, it increases the likelihood that those women feel pressure to get into relationships and stay in it no matter how abusive, unsatisfying and unfulfilling it may be, because they are well aware of the social stigma attached to those who are single."
My thoughts were immediately directed to street harassment and the nature of it when I heard about what Zuma had said in his interview. I understand that some men catcall, holler and verbally degrade women on the street only when they are alone. This kind of behaviour does not go down when a woman is walking the street with a male companion whether he be a friend, brother, father, uncle, cousin, workmate, schoolmate, boyfriend or husband and I can only conclude from this that the harassment is a direct response to a woman's going about her life alone, single, solitary, by herself. In their eyes, it is wrong wrong wrong, independence is wrong, a little ambition-driven selfishness is wrong because these are all behaviours acceptable for men but absolutely intolerant for women. Street harassment is less about, "I find you attractive and want to talk to you" and more about "How dare you walk this pavement without a man to chaperone you woman, I'll show you" via lewd, disgusting, degrading remarks.

No wonder so many young women find themselves pursuing relationships with men, and continue do so even after abuse has ensued, and why I see so many young women (in their twenties) with babies on their backs or little toddlers holding their hands, by their sides (no father in sight). And these are not middle-income women I'm talking about. These are women struggling to make enough for themselves but because they have not thought critically about the pressure society puts on us to bear children as a rite of passage, they have been tricked into having a baby in order to elevate themselves out of the nothingness of singlehood. The nothingness that their mothers warned them about, and never wanted them to have.

Even in my own family, I have a mother whose major interest in the future of my life is my man, the wedding and the children. Hardly ever do we have a serious conversation about my career and what I will do with my education. I do not blamer her for this, she grew up in an age where that was all a woman was, a mother and wife. That's the most she knows. Second-wave feminism came later and though I am privileged to have come of age in an era where women are more career-driven, many of my older wiser sisters have not and pity them for their subservience but instead try to understand that it was a whole different ball game when they were my age. If a man hit you, you just had to weather the storm, if you were raped, it's just something you had to deal with. These traditionalist patriarchal views are the reason why so many women put up with crap from men and do not attempt to speak out against it. They choose to suffer in silence instead because there is apparently nothing worse than being single. This expectation is so far-reaching, even in my own relationships I have had boys who have expected me to put up with their disrespectful treatment. It's as if crying out to be respected is asking too much. You're just meant to take shit and deal with it as a woman, that's what is expected of you.

I mean I even recall my dad telling me that until I get married I belong to my family. As if marriage is a transaction whereby the father of a household hands over his daughter to some younger male suitor with whom she will begin a family. I have no problem with marriage but the notion of being owned by another human being because I am a woman repulses me so much I would rather be single.

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